They are the enforcers along the front seven and are usually the heart and soul of the defense.
Linebackers set the tone before every snap, fly from sideline to sideline and take care of whoever comes across the line of scrimmage. It’s a position that demands physicality and aggression. Having great vision and shedding through blockers to make ball-carriers eat grass is just another day at the office on autumn Saturdays.
These 20 backers made a name for themselves in their respective conferences last year and now they’re back to wreak havoc again this fall. Be afraid, be very afraid.
20. Chris Bergin, Northwestern: He was overshadowed last season because of teammates Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. However, Bergin finished third on the team in tackles. Not too shabby for a defender who had no stars behind his name out of high school. Bergin racked up 12 tackles in the win at Iowa. The Michigan native followed up that performance with 11 stops and an interception in the victory over Nebraska. Not to mention Bergin recorded 11 tackles apiece in losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder left a lasting impression with nine tackles in the bowl victory against Auburn. Bergin will be the heart and soul of Northwestern’s front seven this fall.
19. SirVocea Dennis, Pittsburgh: As a true sophomore he tallied 14.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 10 games. Dennis generated 11 total tackles, including eight solo and a sack at Boston College. The New York native had six solo stops, including four tackles for loss against Notre Dame. Dennis played arguably his best game of the year in the win over Florida State. The six-foot-one, 230-pounder tallied six solo tackles, including three for loss and two sacks in the matchup. The former two-star prospect finished the year with third-team All-ACC honors. The Panthers lost several defenders from the front seven to the NFL Draft. So Dennis will have to be the enforcer and leader of the unit in 2021.
18. Noah Sewell, Oregon: He’s the younger brother of Penei, who’s projected as a top-10 pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Sewell is a former five-star prospect and made his presence felt in the conference as a true freshman last season. The six-foot-three, 250-pounder also tied for first on the team in tackles. Sewell stockpiled 10 tackles, including two for loss against Oregon State. He tallied nine stops against California. Not to mention Sewell had a sack apiece in wins over UCLA and Washington State. The Samoa native was all over the field in the bowl loss to Iowa State and contributed seven tackles. Sewell finished with four solo tackles in four different games. His name should ring bells in the Pac-12.
17. Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin: The former four-star prospect led the Badgers in tackles and earned third-team All-Big Ten last season. Sanborn racked up 14 total tackles, including 10 solo and a sack at Northwestern. The Illinois native followed up that performance with nine stops, including a tackle for loss and forced a fumble against Indiana. Sanborn saved one of his best performances of the year for last in the bowl win over Wake Forest. The six-foot-two, 232-pounder finished with 11 total tackles, including two for loss and picked off a pass in the matchup. Wisconsin’s defense finished fifth in the FBS against the run and Sanborn is going to be a staple in the middle again this fall.
16. Carson Wells, Colorado: He’s just one part of a two-headed monster the Buffaloes will have at linebacker in 2021. Wells racked up a jaw-dropping, 16 tackles for loss in five games. The former three-star prospect also finished first in the FBS in tackles for loss per game. Wells had an interception in the win over UCLA, plus five solo tackles apiece against Stanford, San Diego State and Utah. He tallied 12 total stops, including eight solo and four for loss in the win over Arizona. Not to mention the six-foot-four, 250-pounder made several plays in the home finale against Utah, with five solo stops and three tackles for loss. Wells had at least one sack over the last three games he played in.
15. James Skalski, Clemson: The Georgia native is one of the most experienced linebackers in the FBS. Skalski is as mean as they come and often times his physicality gets the best of him. He has made a jaw-dropping, five consecutive Playoff appearances. Last season the former three-star prospect tallied 13 tackles in the win over Virginia. Skalski had six stops and a tackle for loss against Pittsburgh. The six-foot, 240-pounder recorded five tackles apiece in the ACC Championship and the loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, when he got ejected for targeting. Skalski finished with second-team All-ACC honors in 2020 and has 210 career tackles under his belt.
14. Christopher Allen, Alabama: Last season he tied for first on the team in tackles for loss. Standing six-foot-four, and weighing 250 pounds, Allen delivers the pain when he tackles ball carriers. He had a sack, to go along with a forced fumble in the win at Arkansas. Allen also put the quarterback to the turf against Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. The former four-star prospect tallied four solo tackles, including one for loss and a sack in the victory over Florida in the SEC Championship. The Baton Rouge native capped off last season with second-team All-SEC honors for the National Champs. Alabama will boast arguably the best duo of linebackers in the country this fall.
13. Edefuan Ulofoshio, Washington: He had no stars next to his name out of high school, but has molded into one of the best linebackers in the Pac-12. Last season Ulofoshio started all four games for the Huskies and led the team in tackles. Not to mention he finished third in the FBS in solo tackles per game and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors. The six-foot, 230-pounder racked up 10 tackles in the opener against Oregon State. Ulofoshio generated a sack and forced a fumble in the victory over Arizona. The Alaska native followed up that performance with 14 stops in the win over Utah. Ulofoshio had a career-high, 18 total tackles and a fumble recovery on Senior Day against Stanford.
12. Devin Lloyd, Utah: The former three-star prospect started all five games and led the Utes in tackles last season. Lloyd made a living in backfields, with 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Not to mention he finished eighth in the FBS in solo tackles per game. The California native started out on fire, with 11 tackles, including two for loss against USC. Lloyd followed up that performance with 11 more stops at Washington. However, he saved his best production for Senior Day against Washington State. The six-foot-three, 232-pounder stockpiled 10 tackles, including nine solo, four for loss and a sack. Lloyd’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed and he earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors.
11. Jake Hansen, Illinois: He’s one of the most dynamic defenders in the Big Ten. Hansen led the Fighting Illini in stops and tackles for loss last season. The former three-star prospect also earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. Hansen tallied 14 tackles, forced a fumble and recovered another against Purdue. The Florida native had a season-high, 15 total tackles, a sack and picked off a pass in the win at Rutgers. Hansen followed up that performance with seven stops, a fumble recovery and another interception in the victory at Nebraska. The six-foot-one, 230-pounder couldn’t pull the trigger on the NFL during the offseason and now he’s back for a sixth year with Illinois under new coach Bret Bielema.
10. Bumper Pool, Arkansas: The Texas native is a tackling machine for the Razorbacks and finished with 101 stops in nine games last season. Pool tied for ninth in the FBS in tackles per game and was a natural in pass coverage. He started his 2020 campaign off with a bang and recorded 11 tackles in the opener against Georgia. Pool followed up that performance with a jaw-dropping, 20 total tackles in the win at Mississippi State. The six-foot-two, 229-pounder returned against Texas A&M and tallied 14 tackles. Pool cranked out 11 stops against LSU. The former four-star prospect delivered a lasting performance with 13 tackles in the finale against Alabama.
9. Olakunle Fatukasi, Rutgers: The former three-star prospect is the most underrated defender in the Big Ten. However, Fatukasi is a one-man wrecking crew, who can fly from sideline to sideline. He tallied 101 tackles in nine games last season. The New York native finished ninth in the FBS and first in the conference in tackles per game. Fatukasi generated 10 stops, forced a fumble and recovered two others in the opening win at Michigan State. The six-foot-one, 234-pounder followed that up with a 14-tackle performance against Indiana. Fatukasi had 13 tackles apiece against Ohio State and Illinois. He recorded 17 stops apiece against Michigan and Penn State, and earned first-team All-Big Ten.
8. Payton Wilson, NC State: He racked up 108 tackles in 10 games last season and is arguably the best returning linebacker in the ACC in 2021. Wilson led the Wolfpack in stops, tackles for loss and interceptions. The North Carolina native also finished first in the conference and 13th in the FBS in tackles per game. Wilson started fast out of the gates with 10 total stops in the opening win over Wake Forest. The former four-star prospect generated 19 total tackles and two interceptions in the victory over Duke. Wilson had 12 tackles apiece against Miami and Liberty. The six-foot-four, 235 pounder carried out double-digit tackling performances against Florida State, Syracuse and Georgia Tech.
7. Will Anderson, Alabama: The former five-star prospect started every game for the Crimson Tide last season and ended with Freshman All-SEC honors. Anderson finished third on the team in sacks, to go along with 10.5 tackles for loss. He combined for 12 tackles and three sacks in back-to-back wins over Auburn and LSU. Not to mention the Georgia native had two sacks apiece against Arkansas and the victory over Florida in the SEC Championship. The cherry on top to Anderson’s true freshman campaign was blocking a field goal in the Playoffs against Notre Dame. Anderson, along with fellow linebacker Allen, will be a deadly combination for ball carriers to deal with in 2021.
6. Nikolas Bonitto, Oklahoma: Last season he finished second on the team in tackles for loss and sacks. Bonitto delivered in the clutch for the Sooners and earned second-team AP All-America honors. The Florida native had five stops, including two tackles for loss and two sacks in the win over Texas. He looked like a man among boys against Kansas, when he recorded three solo tackles and three sacks. The former four-star prospect also had a sack in Bedlam and against Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship. Bonitto racked up six sacks over Oklahoma’s final five games. The Sooners should have the most talented defense in the league this fall and Bonitto will spearhead the action.
5. Micah McFadden, Indiana: The Tampa native led the Hoosiers in stops, tackles for loss and sacks during their magical 2020 season. McFadden tied for 16th in the FBS in solo tackles per game. The former three-star prospect made his presence felt in the Big Ten after he tallied 11 solo tackles in the opening win over Penn State. He added nine tackles and two sacks against Michigan State, plus 10 solo stops at Ohio State. The six-foot-two, 235-pounder generated a sack in the victory over Maryland. McFadden racked up nine total tackles and two sacks at Wisconsin. He put the quarterback to the turf in the bowl win over Ole Miss and earned first-team All-Big Ten and third-team AP All-America.
4. Zakoby McClain, Auburn: The former four-star prospect started nine games last season and led the SEC, with 113 tackles. McClain generated 11 total stops and a sack at Georgia. He followed up that performance with 13 tackles in the win over Arkansas. The six-foot, 211-pounder recorded 13 tackles, including nine solo and a sack in the loss at South Carolina. Not to mention McClain’s stockpiled a season-high, 17 tackles, a sack and forced a fumble against Texas A&M. Despite the bowl loss to Northwestern, the Georgia native still finished with 11 stops. With McClain in the middle of the front seven this fall, the Tigers’ defense should have a smooth transition for the new coaching staff.
3. Grant Morgan, Arkansas: Last season he made plays all over the field for the Razorbacks, and led the team in stops and tackles for loss. Morgan finished with 111 tackles in nine games and earned first-team All-SEC. He had 14 stops in the opener against Georgia. The 5-foot-11, 222-pounder followed up that performance with 15 tackles in the win at Mississippi State. Morgan raised eyebrows across the conference when he stockpiled 19 tackles and picked off a pass in the victory over Ole Miss. In back-to-back games against Tennessee and Florida he combined for 27 tackles. However, Morgan delivered another monster performance of 19 tackles against LSU, which was the last game he played in.
2. Mike Rose, Iowa State: He had an unforgettable season as a true sophomore in 2020 and received several accolades. Rose is a tremendous athlete, who excels against the run and in pass coverage, thanks to a stellar background in basketball. The former three-star prospect is a magnet to ball-carriers and always sets the tone for the Cyclones’ defense. Rose recorded double-digit tackling performances in five different conference games. Not to mention the Ohio native picked off a pass against TCU, Oklahoma State, Baylor Kansas State and Oregon. Rose earned first-team All-Big 12, second-team AP All-America and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
1. Nate Landman, Colorado: The former three-star prospect has blossomed into one of the most experienced and productive linebackers in the country. Landman is a two-time, first-team All-Pac-12 performer, who has been a tackling machine for the past three seasons. He tied for second in the FBS in tackles per game last season. Not to mention he tied for eighth in the FBS in tackles for loss per game. Landman tallied nine tackles in the opening win over UCLA. He followed up that performance with 17 tackles, including 14 solo and recovered a fumble in the victory at Stanford. Two weeks later he racked up 10 solo stops, including four for loss against San Diego State. The six-foot-three, 235-pounder combined for 24 tackles in Colorado’s last two games of the regular season. No. 53 is arguably the best inside backer in the country.
J.J. Weaver, Kentucky: He tallied 33 stops, including 6.5 tackles for loss in nine games and earned Freshman All-SEC honors. Weaver is currently recovering from an ACL injury.
Drake Jackson, USC: The former four-star prospect recorded 20 tackles, two sacks and an interception for the Trojans last season. Jackson finished 2020 with second-team All-Pac-12 honors.
Terrel Bernard, Baylor: He racked up 55 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception last year. Bernard suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in November, but he’s still a two-time, All-Big 12 performer.
Cameron Goode, California: The Texas native is one of the most experienced defenders in the Pac-12. Goode had three sacks in four games and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2020. Now he’s back for a sixth season.
Avery Roberts, Oregon State: The former Husker player led the Beavers with 69 tackles in six games last season. Roberts finished ninth in the FBS in solo tackles per game and earned first-team All-Pac-12.