The top returning linebackers in college football for 2017 make for an impressive crop of field generals along the second level.
The linebacker, often the most versatile and well-rounded athlete on a college football defense. In a best-case scenario, he possesses the size and the speed to positively impact the pass rush, run D and pass defense. With the likes of Reuben Foster, Jabrill Peppers and Zach Cunningham headed to the NFL, there’s no consensus star ready to take the baton. In other words, the race to determine this year’s top returning linebackers will be hotly contested throughout the 2017 season.
Top Returning Linebackers
10. Tremaine Edwards, Virginia Tech
Without heaping undue pressure on Edwards, the Hokies quietly feel they might have a modern day Xavier Adibi at the second level. At 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds, Edwards has the long stride and the speed to cover ground in a hurry. He’s an outstanding athlete, with a full season of success to now back it up. In his starting debut last year, Edwards earned Second Team All-ACC for making 106 tackles, 18.5 stops for loss and 4.5 sacks. He’ll be even better once he improves his angles and open-field tackling.
9. Jerome Baker, Ohio State
After Dante Booker was injured early last September, Baker didn’t skip a beat coming off the bench. In fact, he performed as if he’d been in the lineup for years. An explosive all-around athlete, he finished second on the Buckeyes with 83 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks and two picks. Baker is undersized at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, but his penchant for closing fast and hitting hard will allow the staff to really turn him loose in 2017.
8. Jack Cichy, Wisconsin
When Cichy injured his left shoulder last October, the Badgers lost a physical and emotional leader on defense. A former walk-on who plays with boundless energy and purpose, he’s sort of a microcosm of the Wisconsin D. The 6-foot-2, 233-pound Cichy has the requisite athleticism and quickness to thrive in the Big Ten, but it’s his motor and sharp instincts that helped produce 60 tackles and seven stops behind the line in only half a season.
7. Shaun Dion Hamilton, Alabama
Hamilton was wrapping up a breakout junior season, when an ACL tear in the SEC Championship Game prematurely ended it. It was a tough blow for both he and a Tide D that was enjoying the physicality, leadership and smarts he brought to middle linebacker. Provided there are no rehab setbacks, Hamilton is set to build on his 64-tackle campaign by spearheading a corps trying to replace Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson.
6. Cameron Smith, USC
Smith is the quintessential inside linebacker, rugged, instinctive and stout against the run. He rebounded from a knee injury suffered in 2015 by leading the Trojans in tackles and earning a spot on the All-Pac-12 Second Team last fall. Smith limits his mistakes and misses very few tackles, the result of preparation and advanced read-and-react skills. Since he’s such a natural at the position, he’s rarely out of position or far from the ball.
5. Anthony Walker, Northwestern
Sans a lot of national attention, Walker just keeps producing, year-in and year-out. He’s been a starter since midway through his redshirt freshman season, when he led the Cats in tackles for loss. And he’s continued to improve, especially at blowing up plays in the opposing backfield. Walker, who’ll begin his senior season with 39.5 career tackles behind the line, plays the game fast, ferociously and without much wasted movement. He gets from point A to point B in a hurry.
4. Tegray Scales, Indiana
Scales’ career has been building to a crescendo from the moment he arrived out of Cincinnati. He’s a fleet-footed playmaker from the second level, making 126 stops, an FBS-leading 23.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks as a junior. Scales roams the field with reckless abandon, prowling for someone to pummel. Plus, his straight-line speed and timing on blitzes are the key reasons why he racks up so many solo stops and tackles behind the line.
3. Josey Jewell, Iowa
Jewell will be the quarterback of the Hawkeye defense for one final year. He’s been one of the anchors of the D since earning MVP of the TaxSlayer Bowl as a redshirt freshman. Jewell has led the team in tackles in each of the last two seasons, while being named a captain for his unwavering hustle and leadership. While he won’t contribute much to the pass rush, his old-school toughness is a consistent asset to the Iowa run defense.
2. Azeem Victor, Washington
When Victor was lost to the Huskies last Nov. 12 with right leg fracture, he was leading the team with 67 tackles. It was an unfortunate interruption of a breakthrough season that’ll continue in earnest this fall. Still, Victor was named First Team All-Pac-12 for the ferocity and production he brought to the squad. If he can better channel his energy as a senior and improve in coverage, the 6-3, 230-pounder will have a shot to vie for All-American honors.
1. Micah Kiser, Virginia
Kiser is back in C’ville for one final year, and Bronco Mendenhall and the Cavaliers couldn’t be happier. Kiser flirted with turning pro early, but will anchor the Virginia defense instead. In two seasons as a starter, he’s notched 251 tackles, 23 stops for loss, 14 sacks and eight forced fumbles. In 2016, he had more tackles than any other Power Five player to attract All-America recognition. Kiser harbors the desired mix of brains and brawn, with just enough blue-collar want-to to surpass 100 tackles for a third year in a row.