Ranking the Big Ten linebackers

Earlier, we took a look at the Big Ten linebackers by position groups. Now it's time to rank the individual players at that spot.

The first and second team All-Big Ten linebackers from both the coaches and media selections last season are all gone. The league isn't flush with established stars at the position, and it's time for a crop of new standouts to emerge. In fact, the top player on our board didn't even play in the Big Ten last season.

Here are how we see them right now:

1. Lavonte David, Nebraska, Sr.: The league might be light on returning Big Ten award-winners, but David racked up the recognition in the Big 12 in 2010. And with good reason. A junior-college transfer, he had to take on a large role with Will Compton and Sean Fisher injured, sometimes playing as the only linebacker on the field. He responded with a school record 152 tackles. David has gotten stronger in the offseason and will hope his added muscle plus his speed and instincts help him against the more run-oriented Big Ten offenses.

2. Michael Mauti, Penn State, Sr: If Mauti can just stay healthy, he should challenge for All-Big Ten and perhaps All-America honors. But he missed all of 2009 with a torn ACL and was only able to finish nine games last season because of ankle and shoulder problems. He has been highly productive when not hampered by injuries and should be the leader of a deep and talented bunch for the Nittany Lions.

3. Chris Borland, Wisconsin, Soph.: Much like Mauti, Borland just needs to stay on the field. He was the 2009 Big Ten freshman of the year after recording 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks as a rookie. But he missed most of last season and this spring with shoulder problems. The Badgers need him at full strength to live up to their considerable promise this season.

4. James Morris, Iowa, Soph.: As a true freshman in 2010, Morris had 70 tackles and started six games at middle linebacker. He starred in the Insight Bowl victory against Missouri with seven tackles. Morris looks like a rising star in this league.

5. Gary Tinsley, Minnesota, Sr.: Tinsley led the Gophers and finished ninth in the Big Ten with 90 stops a year ago in his first season as a starter. He's experienced and productive and should be a leader for a Minnesota defense that's looking to become tougher.

6. Andrew Sweat, Ohio State, Sr.: Overshadowed by Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, Sweat is now the veteran in the Buckeyes' linebacker corps. He had 41 tackles a year ago, and that number should only rise this season as he takes on more of a leadership role.

7. Ian Thomas, Illinois, Sr: With Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey moving on to the pro ranks, Thomas needs to hold down the fort. He's got the tools to do so. A starter for the past 25 games, he led the Illini with 95 tackles in 2009 before dipping down to 67 a year ago. He'll have plenty of opportunities to make stops this season.

8. Gerald Hodges, Penn State, Jr.: We're at the point in this list where it's time to make some projections. Hodges, a converted safety, has shown glimpses of serious potential in limited time. He had a good spring and could be primed to really take off this season. Also watch out for Khairi Fortt among the Nittany Lions linebackers.

9. Jeff Thomas, Indiana, Sr: Thomas was second on the Hoosiers with 82 tackles a year ago and will be counted on to lead the defense this season. A 100-tackle season is well within reach.

10. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin, Jr.: Like Borland, Taylor emerged as a star his freshman year in 2009. He has started all 19 games he has played in his career and finished second on the team last season with eight tackles for loss and two interceptions. Getting him and Borland healthy and on the field together would be big for the Badgers.

Just missed: Iowa's Tyler Nielsen, Michigan State's Chris Norman and Max Bullough, Nebraska's Sean Fisher, Michigan's Kenny Demens, Minnesota's Mike Rallis and Ohio State's Etienne Sabino.