SQ's College Football Top Five: Linebackers
As winter turns to spring, college football starts a new chapter. A new season approaches, but it is still too far off for our liking. Therefore, we will fill these agonizing weeks with our position-by-position rankings of the top five players entering the 2015 season; this week we will name our top five running backs. The only thing we are certain of about next season is that these rankings are sure to be wrong, so let us know why we are full of it in the comments below. Enjoy!
No. 5: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
2014 Stats: 70 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
Jenkins, who contemplated entering the 2015 NFL Draft, has opted to return for his senior season at UGA. After sacking the quarterback five times his freshman season with limited playing time, Jenkins was expected to become a feared pass-rusher off of the edge. Instead, he replicated those five sacks in each of his sophomore and junior seasons. While his sack total has remained constant, Jenkins has developed into a three-down linebacker. His 70 tackles last season were the highest total in his career, and he has a nose for getting to the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage. Now a senior, Jenkins should provide leadership for a rapidly improving defense.
William McFadden - Following his freshman season, many believed that Jenkins could become an absolutely lethal weapon for Georgia, in the mold of Jarvis Jones. Instead, Jenkins failed to make a significant leap in 2013, and registered only 45 tackles in his first season as a starter. Although the Bulldog's defense was considered a liability before last season began, the linebacker corps was undoubtedly a strength. Alongside players like Amarlo Herrera, Ramik Wilson, and Leonard Floyd, Jenkins became a much more sound overall player. Wilson and Herrera are gone, leaving plenty of tackles up for grabs. If ever there was a year for Jordan Jenkins to take the next step, it is 2015.
Sean Berger - Georgia has one of the most talented defensive units in the SEC, and there are a lot of guys on it that deserve recognition but, the top ‘Dawg on this defense is Jordan Jenkins. Pegged to replace Jarvis Jones his sophomore season, Jenkins finally lived up to the hype last season thanks to some help from defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Totaling 70 tackles (9.5 of those for a loss), five sacks, and two fumble recoveries, Jenkins really came into his own in 2014. He’s improved his overall game and is a real threat coming off the edge. If he can put up similar numbers to what he did last season, he could in fact be in line to be the next SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Erik Weiss - After a questionable performance in 2013, Jenkins was able to find a bigger role in 2014. Much like what Sean said, Jenkins is at his best when rushing off the edge as he recorded 9.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks (both of those were second best on the team). He finished the year as one of the semifinalists for the Butkus award and was also awarded UGA’s Most Improved Player of the Year. Jenkins should be able to build off of a stellar 2014 season and look to become one of the Bulldogs’ top defenders in 2015.
No. 4: Antonio Morrison, Florida
2014 Stats: 101 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 1 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
After a meniscus tear ended his 2013 season, Morrison rebounded in a big way for the Gators last year, en route to earning All-SEC Second Team honors. Like Jenkins, Morrison has opted to return for his senior season and give new head coach Jim McElwain an experienced leader in the middle of Florida's defense. Morrison's presence will be key as part of a young linebacker corps. His junior season was extremely productive, and now that he is a year removed from his meniscus injury, Morrison has the potential to be even better. However, it remains to be seen what type of impact Will Muschamp's departure will have on Morrison and the rest of the Gator defense.
Erik Weiss - The reason that Antonio Morrison is on this list is because he is a tackling machine. He was one of only 6 SEC defenders to generate over 100 tackles, and he will more than likely be in that list again next season. Along with that, Morrison is not shy about filling up the stat sheet, as he forced two turnovers as well. If the former second team All-SEC performer can stay out of trouble off the field, he should be able to claim a spot on the first team next year.
William McFadden - Morrison is undoubtedly one of the best in the country against the run. He delivers punishing hits on opposing running backs, and plays with the kind of controlled rage that teams covet. Although he can be a liability in pass coverage, the Gators have been talented enough on defense to hide this weakness. Morrison is not the type of player to post double digit sacks or worry quarterbacks in the passing game, but if he can remain healthy, a 100-tackle season is to be expected.
Sean Berger - Florida may have lost its head coach, Will Muschamp, but the Gators were able to retain one of their most valuable defensive pieces in linebacker Antonio Morrison. Morrison became the first Gator to eclipse 100 tackles in a single season since 2010. Off-field issues aside, when Morrison is on the field he makes an impact that changes the game. One of the best at defending the run, Morrison will be counted on heavily as the Gators enter transition mode under the new coaching staff.
No. 3: Reggie Ragland, Alabama
2014 Stats: 93 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception
Another returning senior, Reggie Ragland will return as part of another loaded Alabama defense. Entering last season, Alabama's defense was talented but untested. The same cannot be said in 2015, and Ragland is an integral piece for the Crimson Tide. In his first season as a st arter, Ragland played from sideline to sideline for the 2015 SEC Champions. His 93 tackles trailed only Landon Collins' 103, and are the most among returning players. C.J. Mosley dominated at the Will linebacker spot for Alabama, and Ragland is following in Mosley's footsteps. 2015 will be his second season as a starter; the senior is a breakout player to keep an eye on.
Erik Weiss - By now, everybody should know who Reggie Ragland is. He is well known for his annihilation of OSU’s Jalin Marshall when he delivered a bone-jarring hit during the Sugar Bowl. To accompany his brute physicality, Ragland is a very reliable inside linebacker. He finished second on the team in tackles (behind Landon Collins) with 93. Being that he was one of the Tide’s best defenders in 2014, he could’ve easily gone pro. Instead, Ragland returns for a final year as he looks to establish himself as the SEC’s best linebacker.
Sean Berger - As Erik mentioned, Ragland could’ve easily gone pro with the type of numbers he put up. Him choosing to return to the Tide speaks miles for his maturity and drive--he has to become the best he can be before playing on Sundays. Many lists already have him as the number one inside threat, and deservedly so. Hard-hitting and bone-crushing hits are what he can deliver, and this 6’3,” 260-pound linebacker could be pining for the Butkus Award by season’s end.
William McFadden - In his only season as a starter, Ragland more than lived up to what we have come to expect from Crimson Tide linebackers. I completely agree with Sean, opting to return for his senior season speaks to Ragland's character. It also leads me to believe that he feels like his game has not yet been fully developed. A player of Ragland's caliber does not often skip a paycheck for more college reps, but this will allow him to grow in an environment in which he is comfortable. If Ragland dedicates himself to improving every day over the off-season, he could become one of the best linebackers to play for Nick Saban at Alabama.
No. 2: Myles Jack, UCLA
2014 Stats: 87 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 3 rushing touchdowns
There may not be a more versatile linebacker in college football than Myles Jack. The All-PAC-12 Second Team selection contributed for the Bruins on both sides of the football. Defensively, Jack has spent time playing both inside and outside linebacker, as well as contributing in the secondary. Lauded for his coverage skills, Jack has also improved his run defense and leadership. Two-way players are rare in college football, but UCLA's "runningbacker" is an exception. His freshman season, Jack ran the football 38 times for 267 yards and seven touchdowns. Last year, he carried the ball 28 times for 113 yards and three touchdowns. Jack sees a majority of his carries in short-yardage situations, but has the explosive ability to create big plays for the Bruins. A talented defender, it is Jack's versatility which has him at number two on our list.
William McFadden - I've always been impressed with a player who has the ability to play multiple positions, let alone on different sides of the ball. The amount of dedication required to succeed at the D-1 level at any position is extremely high; Jack has found success at linebacker, in the secondary, and as a running back. It certainly helps that Jack was able to play alongside Anthony Barr, who was versatile in his own way. The coaching staff believes that Jack has value as a member of the secondary, but his instincts at the linebacker position benefit the entire defense. I'm interested to see what NFL teams will try to do with a player who has the size of a linebacker, speed of a running back and coverage ability of a defensive back. Until then, let's enjoy watching the best two-way player in college football.
Sean Berger - His real name should be Myles Jack “of all trades” with the way he plays the game. On offense, when he’s running the ball, he’s like trying to tackle a bowling ball. On defense, which is what we’re evaluating him on this list for, he’s a nightmare for whoever is holding the ball. If you have the ball, Jack will find you and lay a punishing hit on you. Projected as a first round draft pick, he has all the tools to be a superstar at the next level. He’s a tremendous athlete with the ability to deflect passes and disengage from blockers quickly in pursuit of the ball carrier.
Erik Weiss - Myles Jack is simply a player. He doesn’t have a position. That is because he can play all of them, and play them at a superstar level. However, since we’re judging him as a linebacker only, he falls to number two on the list. Jack easily had his best all-around year as a freshman, but his best year as a linebacker was his sophomore season. He finished 2nd on the team in tackles with 88, had 8 tackles for loss, and seven passes defended. Jack is arguably the best all-around linebacker in the country, as he excels in defending both the run and pass coverage. The bottom line is that he makes plays everywhere around the field. Jack has already established himself as one of the most versatile players in the nation, and will most likely be a top-5 pick in the 2016 draft.
No. 1: Scooby Wright III, Arizona
2014 Stats: 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 1 interception
Was there ever any question as to who our top linebacker for 2015 would be? Scooby Wright finished atop all other defenders with his 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, and six forced fumbles, while also finishing with the fourth-most sacks last season. Against Oregon, he strip-sacked Marcus Mariota to preserve the win for Arizona and hand the Ducks their only loss. Wright was an absolute animal last season as a sophomore, and it see ms impossible for him to improve. Although he may not reach the stratospheric numbers he attained last season, Wright is still the linebacker to watch in 2015. The Wildcats return their top four linebackers from last season, and could have the best unit in the country. Wright was the only defensive player in Bovada's Heisman odds list, entering 2015 with 66-to-1 odds. If the junior is able to replicate his sophomore numbers, he should have a great chance to become the first defensive player since Charles Woodson to win the award.
Erik Weiss - Scooby Wright III, or Two-Star-Scoob as he likes to be called, is undoubtedly the best defender in college football right now. He is coming off of a video game-like year in 2014 where he led the nation in tackles with 163 and was 4th in sacks with 14. He won virtually every defensive award and will most likely win them again. Wright plays with a fire that we don’t see from anybody else; he’s got J.J. Watt-type competitiveness. Coming out of high school, he was a 2-star recruit and received only one D-1 offer (from Arizona). Each game, Wright plays as if it is his last. To all the non-believers, Two-Star-Scoob is the greatest in the game and he has still yet to reach his ceiling.
William McFadden - Looking back at what Wright was able to accomplish last season, I cannot believe he only finished 9th in the Heisman voting. The last linebacker to show dominance of this level was Luke Kuechly, who is now one of the top linebackers in the NFL. Wright has a rare combination of speed and strength. He is extremely effective at getting into the opponent's backfield, and is a stout against the run. It is easy to forget that he was only a sophomore last season, and that he should still be improving his skills. His ability in pass coverage could use some work, but his talents as a pass-rusher diminish the need to drop Wright into coverage. In 2014 there was not a more dominant player on the defensive side of the football; don't expect that to change this year.
Sean Berger - Although he’s not solving mysteries like his cartoon counterpart, this Scooby can “do” a lot of things to stop offenses in their tracks. All of us in this discussion can agree that there’s no topping Scooby right now. The guy is just a flat out beast on the field. He’s got a nose for the football and you can almost certainly bet that he’s one tackling the ball carrier. Wright blows right by opposing blockers and takes down anyone in his path. There’s no doubt his value is unparalleled when he’s rushing the quarterback, but he can also drop back in pass coverage and be effective there as well. When 2015 is all said and done, I would not be surprised if Scooby is a dark horse for the Heisman.