The Enemy, Ranked: Linebackers Comment Count

Ace August 29th, 2017 at 10:39 AM

Previously: QuarterbacksRunning BacksWide Receivers & Tight EndsOffensive Line, Defensive Line

Chris Worley moves from spacebacker to MIKE this year. [Eric Upchurch]

[If you haven't seen Seth's post from this morning, please check it out for both a great explainer on the power spread evolution and links to several ways you can help those affected by Hurricane Harvey.]

I hate to say it but I'm starting to get the sense Ohio State could be pretty good.

You've read half a gazillion words this week and have several gazillion to go, so let's get right to it. Explanations for the stats used in this post can be found here.

1. Ohio State

Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
2 120.2 (15) 35.3% (9) 1.08 (66) 4.4% (54)

This Buckeye unit is led by outside linebacker Jerome Baker, a great player in space who grades out well in every phase. He boasts the second-highest grade of any returning linebacker in the country, per Pro Football Focus. He's an All-American candidate with a shot at the first round of the NFL Draft if he improves at shedding blocks.

OSU loses star middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan. They've chosen an unusual way to replace him, shifting spacebacker Chris Worley—who was basically a LB/S hybrid last year—to the middle. While Worley was excellent in his role last year, that won't be an easy transition. Even if that doesn't work out, though, OSU should be fine. Senior Dante Booker moves into the starting lineup after missing 2016 to injury, and five-star freshman MIKE Baron Browning may be too talented to keep off the field—he's already taken McMillan's old #5 jersey.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the list.]

2. Wisconsin

TJ Edwards came off the Wisconsin LB assembly line ready to play. [Upchurch]

Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
1 119.1 (18) 39.3% (35) 0.86 (2) 9.0% (3)

Every time it seemed like Wisconsin had suffered a major loss in the linebacker corps over the last couple years, an all-conference player popped up as a replacement. After losing outside linebackers Vince Biegel and TJ Watt to the NFL, another expected OLB contributor in Zach Baun to injury, and all-around badass Jack Cichy to yet another injury, I'm not sure that trend can continue.

Then again, the Badgers still return plenty of talent, even if depth could be an issue. Inside linebackers TJ Edwards and Ryan Connelly combined for 15.5 TFLs last year, and they gain an experienced backup with Chris Orr's return from injury. While it's hard not to expect a dip in play at OLB, Garrett Dooley tallied 3.5 sacks and 6.5 TFLs as a rotation player last year, and fellow starter Leon Jacobs saw action in every game, albeit while moving between LB and FB. Keep an eye on OLB Andrew Van Ginkel, a coveted transfer who worked his way up from South Dakota to Iowa Western CC to Wisconsin; that just sounds like a guy who'll end up recording double-digit TFLs for the Badgers.

3. Indiana

[Bryan Fuller]

Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
2 115.8 (22) 37.7% (23) 1.06 (57) 5.9% (20)

Indiana ranks this high on the strength of Tegray Scales, who was not better than Jabrill Peppers no matter how high Indiana bloggers can count but was still damn good—his 93 solo tackles, 23.5 TFLs, and seven sacks are monster numbers. Scales makes an impact from sideline to sideline, and he was the biggest reason outside of defensive coordinator (now head coach) Tom Allen for IU's defensive renaissance.

Departed starter Marcus Oliver was nearly as productive as Scales, and hopes that 2015 starter TJ Simmons could fill his place were dashed in the offseason when he took a medical retirement. Senior Chris Covington should be an acceptable, if not as impactful, replacement after faring well as a backup last year. Indiana runs a full-time 4-2-5, so they only need one or two players to emerge next to Scales for this to be an excellent unit again.

4. Minnesota

Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
2 117.3 (19) 38.1% (28) 1.00 (28) 6.1% (15)

The Gophers quietly boasted a quality defense last year, especially against the run. While some of that was DT Steven Richardson's doing, the rest of the line wasn't nearly as strong, and the linebackers did yeoman's work behind them. I really like the duo of Jonathan Celestin and Blake Cashman; the former is a reliable run-stuffer, the latter an extremely disruptive presence. Celestin had just under 10% of the team's tackles last year, while Cashman broke out with 7.5 sacks.

The steady Jack Lynn is gone from this group but four other contributors from last year return, including senior Cody Poock, who had 3.5 TFLs in only seven games.

5. Penn State


Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
2 113.6 (26) 38.4% (30) 1.09 (69) 5.4% (29)

When Penn State visited Ann Arbor last year, almost literally their entire linebacker corps was sidelined due to injury. While that had a severely negative impact on PSU in the short term, it helped several players get much-needed experience for this season.

Jason Cabinda stepped in at the MIKE and didn't miss a beat from his predecessors, nearly leading the team in tackles despite missing five games. He was rock-solid against the run, as was SAM Manny Bowen, who had 8.5 TFLs in his first season seeing significant time. Converted safety Koa Farmer also showed potential as a hybrid spacebacker, and former walk-on Brandon Smith did well in coverage while filling in as an injury replacement. The starters should be solid, but there may not be a playmaker on par with Brandon Bell, and any injury situation similar to last year will be a major problem.

6. Florida

Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
0 122.8 (11) 39.2% (32) 1.07 (60) 3.6% (82)

While zero returning starters looks bad, Florida dealt with late-season injuries to NFL-bound starters Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone that allowed this year's replacements to get a head start.

You'll be rather familiar with the MIKE. David Reese was a member of Michigan's 2016 class until the coaches essentially backed off in favor of Devin Bush, not allowing Reese to enroll early and leaving open the possibility that he'd play fullback. Reese didn't look like a freshman when he was called into action. Neither did WLB Kylan Johnson, who tallied five TFLs. Those two should only get better with a year of added experience. Things are a little dicier at SLB, where sophomore Vosean Joseph didn't get as many snaps as his ILB counterparts, but Florida runs enough nickel that the position isn't of great importance.

7. Michigan State

Chris Frey (#23) probably didn't deserve this photo choice. [Fuller]

Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
2 103.7 (49) 41.9% (56) 1.05 (55) 3.8% (71)

This was easily MSU's best position group on defense last year, and while that isn't a high bar to clear, that should remain the case this season. While MIKE Riley Bullough is off to the NFL, Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell are both solid starters at outside linebacker, and they both return. Bullough's spot will be occupied by Joe Bachie, a who-dat 2016 recruit who exceeded expectations as a backup last year, and yet another Bullough (Byron) will also see playing time.

8. Air Force

Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
1 124.3 (9) 35.3% (11) 1.11 (73) 8.3% (6)

I still don't really know what to do with Air Force's defense, which returns practically nothing and plays such an unusual scheme I'm not sure that matters. Productive ILB Grant Ross is the only returner among the top five linebackers from 2016, but you can bet the Falcons have some upperclassmen replacements lined up, and they'll go hell-for-leather at the backfield while daring opponents to try to hit big plays over the top.

9. Maryland


Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
3 76.2 (127) 49.3% (115) 1.09 (67) 3.0% (107)

This group was awful last year to the point that it seemingly broke Jermaine Carter Jr., who was excellent as a sophomore and fell off a cliff as a run-defender last year. The operating theory here is Carter short-circuited while trying to cover for the myriad mistakes of ILB counterpart Shane Cockerille, a converted quarterback who looked flat-out lost out there. Despite a passable D-line, Maryland put up some of the worst rush defense numbers in the country. They need Cockerille, or a replacement, to take some huge strides; if they get even below-average play from that spot, Carter should bounce back to his previous all-conference form.

10. Purdue

Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
3 83.0 (123) 46.1% (94) 1.23 (117) 3.0% (105)

The good news: all three starters return.

The bad news: Purdue was terrible at both preventing consistent gains and preventing big plays against the run, and their linebackers didn't make many plays.

11. Rutgers

RU LBs had a tough task. They couldn't do it. [Barron}

Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
3 92.4 (95) 46.1% (93) 1.22 (113) 2.4% (117)

Purdue, yet somehow with even less individual playmaking.

12. Cincinnati

Returning Starters Rushing S&P+ (Rank) Rushing Success Rate (Rank) Rushing IsoPPP (Rank) LB Havoc Rate (Rank)
0 100.7 (61) 42.7% (66) 0.94 (12) 3.8% (74)

A coaching staff turnover plus zero returning starters is not a good combination for a group that was already middling given the competition.

Where Would Michigan Rank?

Second, especially after the injuries to Wisconsin. Mike McCray is up there with any inside linebacker in the conference, Devin Bush should have a major impact in his first year, and you all know how this site feels about Khaleke Hudson.



August 29th, 2017 at 11:25 AM ^

Most years they seem to be somewhat less than the sum of their parts.  Meyer is second to none at recruiting, and the position groups are individually excellent, which leads to an absurd W-L record.  But it seems he's better at the CEO qualities of head coach than putting together a cohesive entity that gets the most out of its talent.


August 29th, 2017 at 12:02 PM ^

You're right, his players definitely develop well, for the most part. But with top 3 classes year over year, you should expect a record not too far off from 61-6.

I think he's hired coordinators/assistants really well, between Charlie Strong, Larry Johnson and Tom Herman. Those are some top talents in the game for their group/side of the ball.

It does seem that his team doesn't add up to the sum of its parts, though, and dominate as often as you'd expect. But then when everything is rolling you're hamblasting Wisconsin by 60 and sticking it to Bama with your 3rd string QB and doing things really no other team does, period.

The 61-6 record doesn't show the hot and cold of his team as much as it could.



August 29th, 2017 at 2:56 PM ^

The last two years Ohio State did not play as well as they should have, given the talent they had.

This is directly attributable to a criminally incompetent Offensive Coordinator and Quarterback coach.  

Meyer deserves blame for waiting one year too long to fire them both.  The regression from 2014 to 2015 was so painful and so obvious that it merited an immediate change.

The current coach that probably should have been shown the door by now is Zach Smith, the WR coach.  For the lofty ratings and absurd physical traits of the WRs they have, it is absolutely unacceptable how much problem they all have getting separation.

With the Offensive Coordinator and QB coach problems taken care of, I do not see anything short of a massive injury bug that would keep Ohio State from performing at a level consistent with their talent, i.e. a National Championship once every 3 or 4 years.  The annualy early departures for the NFL are going to be a perpetual issue, but every team that recruits near Ohio State's level has to deal with that.

I think most people outside of Columbus are going to be shocked when they see what a difference moving from one of the worst Offensive Coordinators in all of college football to a well-above average one makes.  


August 29th, 2017 at 1:12 PM ^

This is a bit harsh.  I'm not saying he's Hoke/Borges levels of putting square pegs in round holes.  To reiterate, the individual groups are usually excellent, statistically and technically.  But there are certainly baked-in limitations that show up on the field; it's just a question of whether you have the talent & coaching to exploit them.  Not many do, but their units aren't unassailable, and frankly I'm not saying something too dissimilar to what's been said by MGoBlog staff in the past.

I mean, OK, if you're Maryland it's not like you can do much, or even anything, about OSU's limited passing game when they can just run right at you.  But for all the talent they have they sure seem to sputter along at times.  Running the table is never easy, but Michigan State always seems to give them fits for some reason, people forget Northwestern gave them a fight last season, Clemson absolutely thrashed them, and it didn't look like they belonged in the CFP when they played Michigan either.  They're indisputably good, but they're not Football Ivan Drago, at least not since that terrifying finish to 2014.

They get a lot out of their talent.  But they don't get the most out of their talent; since 2014 they've been considerably less scary on the field than on paper.