September 24, 2023
College football's 20 best linebackers of 2023

Oklahoma linebacker Danny Stutsman glances toward the sideline before a play in the third quarter against Iowa State Saturday October 27, 2022 at Jack Trice Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

Linebackers are the most intimidating defenders on the field.

It’s a position that requires physicality, intelligence, great vision and and natural instincts. They are the quarterbacks of the defense, who set the tone every game. The elite ones are deadly in pass coverage, and against the run.

Shedding through blockers is key. Missed tackles are unacceptable. Last season these 20 backers proved they can blitz, drop back and play zone, and do all of the dirty work in the trenches. Now they’re looking to capitalize on their success in 2023.

20. Karene Reid, Utah: The former three-star prospect is an enforcer, who loves bringing down ball carriers in the backfield. Reid finished third on the Utes in stops and tackles for loss last season. He also capped off his stellar campaign with second-team, All-Pac-12 honors. Reid posted six tackles in the opener at Florida. The Utah native tallied seven stops and a sack in the win over USC. Reid also recorded seven tackles at Oregon, and picked off a passing against San Diego State. In back-to-back victories over Arizona State and Oregon State, Reid combined for a jaw-dropping, 19 tackles. Not to mention he registered a sack against Washington State, UCLA and Penn State.

19. Omar Speights, LSU: The former three-star prospect led the Beavers with 83 stops, and ranked second in tackles for loss last season. Speights capped off his stellar campaign with first-team, All-Pac-12 honors. He tallied four solo stops against Fresno State. Speights recorded seven tackles apiece against Boise State, Utah and Arizona State. The Philadelphia native generated eight stops, including five solo against USC. Speights posted nine tackles, including six solo at Washington. Not to mention he had a season-high, 13 tackles in the victory over Oregon. Now the six-foot-one, 235-pounder is bringing his experience, leadership and production to the best division in all of College football.

18. Mason Cobb, USC: The Utah native led the Pokes in tackles for loss, and ranked second on the team in stops last season. Cobb made plays all over the field, and finished the year with second-team, All-Big 12 honors. He stockpiled 11 tackles, including 2.5 for loss in the opener against Central Michigan. The following week Cobb recorded nine stops in the victory over Arizona State. The following game against Arkansas State, he made the quarterback eat grass twice. Not to mention he tallied eight stops against Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Kansas State. His 16 tackles against TCU, were a season-high. Cobb made 11 stops in the regular season finale against West Virginia.

17. Bryce Gallagher, Northwestern: The Massachusetts native held his own for the Wildcats in 2022, and racked up 100 tackles. Gallagher averaged 5.3 solo tackles per game, which ranked 15th in the FBS. For his heroics on the gridiron, he earned third-team, All-Big Ten honors. Gallagher generated 10 stops apiece against Nebraska and Purdue. He recorded 13 tackles, including nine solo against Miami (Ohio). Gallagher tallied 12 tackles apiece against Southern Illinois and Penn State. The former three-star prospect had a season-high, 16 tackles, including seven for loss and a sack at Maryland. Not to mention Gallagher has stockpiled a jaw-dropping, 190 tackles over the past two seasons.

16. Jackson Mitchell, Connecticut: The former three-star prospect is coming off a phenomenal season with the Huskies. Mitchell registered a jaw-dropping, 140 tackles, which was seventh-best in the FBS, and it tied for sixth in program history. He’s always around the ball, makes plays all over the field and has tremendous instincts. Mitchell recorded 16 tackles apiece against Utah State, Syracuse and Army. The Connecticut native tallied 13 stops at Ball State, and 12 in the win over Boston College. Not to mention he posted 10 tackles against Michigan, and put the quarterback to the turf against Fresno State. Mitchell had nine stops apiece against NC State, Florida International and Liberty.

15. Abdul Carter, Penn State: Last season he made an immediate impact as a true freshman, and led the team in sacks. Carter ranked second on the Nittany Lions in tackles for loss. Not to mention he earned second-team, All-Big Ten honors for his heroics. He tallied six solo tackles, a sack and forced a fumble in the victory at Auburn. The Philadelphia native generated four stops, including three solo and a sack against Ohio State. Carter also put the quarterback to the turf in victories over Maryland and Rutgers. His eight tackles against Minnesota were a season-high. In the regular season finale against Michigan State, Carter had seven tackles, including three for loss and two sacks.

14. Maema Njongmeta, Wisconsin: The Illinois native led the Badgers with 95 stops, and ranked second on the team in tackles for loss last year. Njongmeta also capped off the season with third-team, All-Big Ten honors. He tallied eight stops apiece against Illinois State, Washington State and Illinois. Not to mention Njongmeta generated 11 tackles apiece against Michigan State and Iowa. Njongmeta had a season-high, 12 tackles, including nine solo and 2.5 for loss against Minnesota. The former three-star prospect left a lasting impression¬† with seven stops, including one for loss in the bowl victory over Oklahoma State. With Nick Herbig off to the NFL, Njongmeta will be Wisconsin’s enforcer.

13. Jackson Sirmon, California: The former three-star prospect led the Golden Bears in stops, and second in tackles for loss last season. Sirmon earned first-team, All-Pac-12 honors last season. He’s one of the league’s best inside linebackers. recorded eight tackles apiece against UC Davis, Washington State and Colorado. He tallied nine stops, a sack and forced a fumble in the win over UNLV. Not to mention he generated 13 tackles apiece against Oregon and UCLA. Sirmon had a season-high, 15 stops, including two for loss and a sack at Notre Dame. The Tennessee native registered 11 stops against Washington. Sirmon posted a sack and recovered a fumble in the victory over Stanford.

12. Shaun Dolac, Buffalo: Although he had no stars behind his name out of high school, he raised several eyebrows with his stellar play in 2022. Not only did Dolac finish second in the FBS with 147 tackles, but he also led the country in solo stops per game. He capped off his stellar campaign with first-team, All-MAC honors. The New York native tallied seven tackles, including six solo in the opener at Maryland. Dolac racked up 14 stops, including three for loss in the victory over Bowling Green. Not to mention he stockpiled 13 tackles apiece against Eastern Michigan and Georgia Southern. Dolac had a season-high, 15 tackles in the win over Holy Cross, and 12 apiece against Toledo and Akron.

11. Jason Henderson, Old Dominion: The former three-star prospect led the entire FBS in tackles last year. Henderson’s 186 stops set a school single-season record. Not to mention he set a program record, with 22 total tackles against Georgia Southern. The Pennsylvania native averaged 15.5 tackles per game, and earned third-team, AP All-America honors for his heroics. Henderson generated 19 tackles, including two for loss against Marshall. Not to mention he posted 21 stops against Arkansas State. The six-foot-one, 225-pounder posted 18 tackles apiece against Virginia Tech, James Madison and South Alabama. Henderson had 17 stops, including 11 solo against Georgia State.

10. Harold Perkins, LSU: The former five-star prospect lived up to his billing last season. Perkins led the Bayou Bengals in tackles for loss and sacks as a true freshman. Not to mention he ended 2022 with second-team, All-SEC honors. Perkins posted eight stops against New Mexico and seven against Southern. The New Orleans native generated eight tackles, and a sack in the victory over Alabama. Not to mention Perkins tallied six solo stops, and three sacks in the win at Arkansas. Perkins also put the quarterback to the turf against Mississippi State, Ole miss and Purdue. His 10 stops in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia were a season-high, and he picked off a pass at Auburn.

9. Junior Colson, Michigan: The Tennessee native had an unforgettable campaign in 2022, and led the Big Ten Champs with 101 tackles. Colson helped Michigan finish sixth in the FBS in total defense, and capped off the year with second-team, All-Big Ten honors. He registered 10 stops in the opener against Colorado State, and six apiece against Nebraska and TCU. The former four-star prospect tallied 13 tackles against Maryland. Colson posted seven tackles apiece against Iowa, Indiana and Ohio State. Colson generated 10 stops, including one for loss against Michigan State. The six-foot-two, 235-pounder had a season-high, 15 tackles in the Big Ten Championship against Purdue.

8. Cal Haladay, Michigan State: The former three-star prospect led the Spartans in stops and tackles for loss last season. Haladay’s 120 tackles were amazing, and he capped off the year with second-team, All-Big Ten honors. He posted 10 tackles apiece against Western Michigan, Maryland and Indiana. Not to mention he stockpiled 12 stops against Minnesota. The Pennsylvania native put on a monster performance against Michigan, with 13 tackles, including seven solo. Haladay had a season-high, 19 stops in the victory over Rutgers. The six-foot-one, 230-pounder left a lasting impression over the final two games against Indiana and Penn State,with a jaw-dropping, 21 tackles.

7. Jeremiah Trotter, Clemson: Although he played alongside two projected NFL first-rounders last season, he still ranked first on the ACC Champs in stops and tackles for loss. Trotter knows how to set the tone for the defense. Not to mention he capped off the year with second-team, AP All-America honors. He generated seven tackles apiece against Syracuse and Notre Dame. The former four-star prospect stockpiled 11 stops against Louisville. Trotter had a season-high, 13 tackles, including one for loss in the victory over Florida State. Over the final four games against Miami, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee, Trotter combined for 36 tackles, including 8.5 for loss and five sacks.

6. Nick Jackson, Iowa: The Atlanta native has been one of the nation’s most productive linebackers over the past three seasons at Virginia. During that span Jackson has been a three-time, All-ACC performer and generated 324 tackles. Last year Jackson racked up 104 stops, plus five sacks, and it would’ve been more if two of Virginia’s games didn’t get cancelled. Jackson stockpiled 11 tackles apiece against Louisville and Pittsburgh. His 14 stops apiece against Richmond and Miami, were season-highs. The six-foot-one, 234-pounder put the quarterback to the turf twice in the victory at Georgia Tech. Jackson also made the quarterback eat grass against Syracuse, North Carolina and Illinois.

5. Nathaniel Watson, Mississippi State: The Alabama native is coming off a monster campaign with the Bulldogs. Watson racked up 113 tackles, including 12 for loss and six sacks last season. He also earned second-team, All-SEC honors. Watson recorded 10 stops apiece against Bowling Green, Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss. The former three-star prospect posted a jaw-dropping, 16 tackles against Georgia. Not to mention Watson had a season-high, 17 tackles, including eight solo at Kentucky. The six-foot-two, 240-pounder racked up 11 tackles, including seven solo and a sack against LSU. Watson also made the quarterback eat grass against Texas A&M and in the bowl victory over Illinois.

4. Danny Stutsman, Oklahoma: The former three-star prospect led the Big 12 with 125 stops in 2022. Stutsman averaged 5.2 solo tackles per game, which ranked 16th in the FBS. He posted 12 tackles, including nine solo, and a sack in the win over Kent State. Stutsman had 13 tackles against Texas. Not to mention he recorded 14 stops, including nine solo, and picked off a pass at West Virginia. Stutsman registered a season-high, 18 tackles at Texas Tech. The Florida native tallied 10 stops apiece against Kansas State and Baylor. Stutsman registered seven tackles apiece against TCU, Kansas and Florida State. There’s a reason why Brent Venables wants him to be the focal point of the defense this fall.

3. Cedric Gray, North Carolina: The Charlotte native generated video game numbers with 145 stops last season, and ranked 10th in the FBS in tackles per game. Gray was first in the ACC, and sixth in the country in solo tackles per contest. He racked up 14 stops apiece against Appalachian State, Georgia State, and Georgia Tech.  Gray had a season-high, 16 tackles, including 10 solo and a sack in the victory at Virginia. The former three-star prospect stockpiled 13 tackles apiece against Notre Dame and Miami. Gray forced a fumble in three different conference tilts. Over the final three games, Gray combined for 23 tackles. For his heroics on the gridiron, Gray earned first-team, All-ACC honors.

2. Jaylan Ford, Texas: The former three-star prospect ate ball carriers for breakfast with 119 tackles last season. Ford made plays all over the field, and averaged 9.2 tackles per game, which ranked second in the Big 12. He finished the year with first-team, All-Big 12, and third-team, AP All-America honors. Ford posted 10 tackles, including two for loss and a sack against Alabama. Not to mention he recorded 13 stops, and picked off a pass in the victory over Baylor. The Texas native also hauled in an interception in wins over Kansas State and Iowa State. Ford racked up a season-high, 15 tackles, against West Virginia, 12 against Texas Tech, and 10 in the Holiday Bowl against Washington.

1. Tommy Eichenberg, Ohio State: The Cleveland native made himself a household name in the Big Ten last season. Eichenberg racked up a jaw-dropping, 120 stops, and ranked fourth in the FBS in solo tackles per game. Not to mention he capped off the year with first-team, All-Big Ten, and second-team, AP-All America honors. Eichenberg posted nine stops, including six solo and two sacks in the season-opening win over Notre Dame. He recorded 14 tackles at Wisconsin, and nine against Rutgers. The former four-star prospect generated a season-high, 15 tackles, including 10 solo at Penn State. Eichenberg also registered 10 solo stops apiece in road victories at Northwestern and Maryland.

Honorable Mention

Luke Reimer, Nebraska: The hometown kid led the Blackshirts with 86 tackles last season Reimer posted a season-high, 15 tackles in the opener against Northwestern. He generated nine stops apiece against Georgia Southern, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Not to mention Reimer tallied 10 tackles, including six solo against Michigan.

Michael Bennett, Michigan: The Georgia native ranked second on the Wolverines with 72 tackles last season. Bennett also earned third-team, All-Big Ten honors. He recorded 11 stops in the victory over Ohio State. Not to mention Bennett tallied 10 tackles, and a sack in the Big Ten Championship Game win over Purdue.