May 25, 2024

College football’s 20 best linebackers of 2024

College football's 20 best linebackers of 2024

Iowa linebacker Nick Jackson (10) tackles Purdue running back Devin Mockobee (45) during the first quarter Saturday October 7, 2023 at Kinnick Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

They are the enforcers, and set the tone on defense.

From blitzing to zone coverage, linebackers are always the most active defenders on the field.

It’s a position that’s all about physicality and requires film study. The elite ones are relentless, have great instincts and play with a tenacity that intimidates opposing quarterbacks.

These 20 players know how to hunt down ball-carriers, dictate the pace of the game and make plays in the clutch for their team. They bring leadership too.

20. Kaleb Elarms-Orr, TCU: The former four-star prospect led California in tackles last year. Elarms-Orr is a staple against the run, and also excels out in pass coverage. He picked off a pass in the opener against North Texas. The Californian stockpiled 13 tackles, including eight solo against Auburn. His 15 tackles in the victory over Arizona State were a season-high. Elarms-Orr posted 10 stops, including seven solo against Oregon State. The six-foot-two, 220-pounder tallied eight tackles apiece against Idaho and UCLA. Elarms-Orr had seven stops apiece against Washington and USC. Not to mention Elarms-Orr recorded six stops, and made Cam Ward eat grass against Washington State.

19. Austin Moore, Kansas State: The Kansas native has led the Wildcats in tackles for loss in each of the past two seasons, with 22.5 during that span. Moore tied for first on the team in stops last year, and capped off his campaign with second-team, All-Big 12 honors. He got off to a hot start with six tackles, including three solo, and a sack in the opener against Southeast Missouri State. Moore posted eight stops, including six solo at Texas Tech. The six-foot-one, 220-pounder also tallied eight tackles against Oklahoma State. Moore even had seven tackles at Texas. With no more eligibility left for Daniel Green, look for Moore to be the enforcer, and set the tone for the Wildcats’ defense.

18. Tre Freeman, Duke: The hometown kid led the Blue Devils in tackles last season. Freeman was consistent, very productive and capped off his campaign with second-team, All-ACC honors. He made an immediate impact, and posted 11 tackles in the opening victory over Clemson. Freeman tallied 13 tackles, and contributed on a sack against Notre Dame. The former three-star prospect recorded a season-high, 15 tackles, and picked off a pass in the win over NC State. Freeman had a season-high, 10 solo stops, and put Drake Maye to the turf at North Carolina. The six-foot, 231-pounder stockpiled 11 stops against Wake Forest. Freeman left a lasting impression with nine tackles in the bowl game.

17. Samuel, Mondon, Georgia: The former five-star prospect was the Bulldogs’ second-leading tackler last season. Mondon made plays all over the field, and capped off his campaign with second-team, All-SEC honors. He posted a season-high, 11 tackles, including seven solo and a sack at Auburn. Mondon recorded six stops, and made the quarterback eat grass at Vanderbilt. The Georgia native also tallied a sack against Florida. Mondon generated eight tackles apiece against Georgia Tech and Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Not to mention he had seven tackles, including six solo in the win over Missouri. Mondon will be a force to be reckoned with for Georgia this fall.

16. Barrett Carter, Clemson: The former five-star prospect finished second on the Tigers in stops, and third in tackles for loss in 2023. Carter was consistent, and earned second-team, All-ACC honors for his heroics. He got off to a hot start and tallied six tackles, including five solo at Duke. Carter recorded seven stops against Florida Atlantic. The Georgia native also posted seven stops, and contributed on a sack in the victory over Syracuse. Carter also recorded seven tackles against Notre Dame. The 21-year old stockpiled a season-high, eight tackles at Miami. Carter made Spencer Rattler eat grass against South Carolina. The six-foot-one, 230-pounder picked off a pass in the bowl game.

15. Power Echols, North Carolina: The Charlotte native finished second on the Tar Heels in tackles last year. Echols was always active, and capped off his campaign with third-team, All-ACC honors. He started hot out of the gates with six stops, including five solo in the opener against South Carolina. Echols recorded nine tackles, including seven solo, and hauled in an interception in the victory over Minnesota. The former four-star prospect tallied a season-high, 12 tackles against Virginia. Echols posted nine stops apiece against Campbell and Duke. Echols left a lasting impression with 11 tackles in the bowl game against West Virginia. With Cedric Gray gone, Echols will be the leader of the defense.

14. Ben Roberts, Texas Tech: The former three-star prospect led the Red Raiders in stops, and tied for second in tackles for loss last season. Roberts made plays all over the field, and remained consistent. He posted 12 tackles, and put Bo Nix to the turf against Oregon. Roberts tallied 11 stops, and picked off a pass at West Virginia. The Texas native also had 11 tackles against Kansas State. Roberts recorded 10 stops, including eight solo in the victory over Houston. The six-foot-three, 230-pounder also generated 10 tackles at BYU. Roberts stockpiled eight solo stops in the win at Kansas. His 13 tackles at Texas were a season-high. Now Roberts is poised for an All-Big 12 caliber campaign this fall.

13. Collin Oliver, Oklahoma State: The 21-year old finished second on the Cowboys in tackles for loss in 2023. Oliver turned it up a notch in conference play, tied for second on the team in sacks, and capped off his campaign with second-team, All-Big 12 honors. He made the quarterback eat grass in the opener against Central Arkansas. Oliver posted a season-high, 10 tackles and a sack against South Alabama. The former four-star prospect also had 10 stops, and contributed on a sack at West Virginia. Oliver made five solo stops at Iowa State. Not to mention he recorded seven tackles, and 2.5 sacks in the victory over Kansas. Oliver also put the quarterback to the turf against Houston and UCF.

12. Easton Mascarenas, USC: The Californian led Oregon State with 107 tackles last year. Mascarenas was very productive, and earned first-team, All-Pac-12 honors. He posted six tackles, and hauled in an interception against UC Davis. Mascarenas tallied a season-high, 13 stops against San Diego State. The six-foot, 231-pounder also had 13 tackles in the victory over UCLA. Mascarenas recorded 10 stops at Washington State. Not to mention he generated 10 tackles, and put Noah Fifita to the turf against Arizona. Mascarenas stockpiled nine stops, including seven solo at Colorado. His nine solo tackles at Oregon were a season-high. Mascarenas should be able to make a huge splash on USC’s defense.

11. Cal Haladay, Michigan State: The 23-year old has led the Spartans in tackles in each of the past two seasons. Haladay got off to a hot start, with 10 tackles, and an interception in the opener against Central Michigan. He posted seven stops apiece against Washington, Michigan and Indiana. His 11 tackles at Minnesota were a season-high. The former three-star prospect had nine tackles at Ohio State. Haladay recorded eight stops, and put the quarterback to the turf at Rutgers. The Pennsylvania native also had eight tackles at Iowa. Haladay left a lasting impression with 10 stops in the finale against Penn State. He’ll be a pivotal piece for new Coach Jonathan Smith to build the defense around.

10. Nick Jackson, Iowa: The Atlanta native has posted 100-plus tackles in each of the past four seasons, with 444 total stops during that span. Jackson was Iowa’s second-leading tackler last season, and ended his campaign with third-team, All-Big Ten honors. He tallied nine tackles at Iowa State. The following week Jackson also had nine stops, and put the quarterback to the turf against Western Michigan. Jackson generated a season-high, 13 tackles at Penn State. The former Virginia Cavalier tallied 10 stops in the victory over Michigan State. Jackson recorded a sack in wins over Northwestern, Rutgers, and Nebraska, and left a lasting impression with 11 tackles in the bowl against Tennessee.

9. Marlowe Wax, Syracuse: The Baltimore native led the Orange in stops, and tackles for loss last season. Wax finished third in the ACC, and 14th nationally in solo tackles per game. He earned second-team, All-ACC honors for his heroics. Wax posted seven tackles, and put the quarterback to the turf against Colgate. The former three-star prospect also recorded seven stops apiece against Army, North Carolina, Clemson, Wake Forest, Western Michigan and Boston College. Wax had nine tackles apiece against Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and South Florida. The six-foot-one, 230-pounder generated eight tackles, and a sack in the victory over Purdue. Wax also tallied eight stops at Florida State.

8. Jacob Manu, Arizona: The former three-star prospect led the Pac-12, and finished 25th nationally in tackles per game last year. Manu wreaked havoc on ball-carriers, and earned first-team, All-Pac-12 honors for his heroics. He got off to a hot start with nine tackles, and contributed on a sack in the opener against Northern Arizona. The next game at Mississippi State Manu tallied a season-high, 12 tackles, and made the quarterback eat grass. The following week Manu posted a sack against UTEP. The Californian opened up Pac-12 play with 11 stops at Stanford. Manu recorded 12 tackles and a sack against UCLA. Not to mention he put the quarterback to the turf against Colorado, Utah and Arizona State.

7. Francisco Mauigoa, Miami: The former three-star prospect led the Hurricanes in stops, tackles for loss and tied for first on the team in sacks last season. Mauigoa was often times unblockable, and finished 13th in the FBS in tackles for loss per game. He capped off his campaign with second-team, All-ACC honors. Mauigoa recorded six tackles, and a sack at North Carolina. The six-foot-three, 230-pounder also had six stops, including four solo and a sack against Clemson. Mauigoa generated nine tackles, and two sacks at Florida State. The Samoan also posted a sack against Virginia, NC State, and Boston College. Mauigoa left a lasting impression with 12 stops in the bowl against Rutgers.

6. Danny Stutsman, Oklahoma: The 21-year old has posted 100-plus tackles in each of the past two seasons. Stutsman tied for 15th nationally in tackles for loss per game. He even capped off his campaign with first-team, All-Big 12 honors. Stutsman posted a season-high, 17 tackles, and a sack against SMU. The following week he recorded nine stops, and returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown at Tulsa. Stutsman tallied 13 tackles, and put the quarterback to the turf at Cincinnati. The Florida native had nine tackles in the victory over Texas. Stutsman stockpiled 12 stops against UCF. The former four-star prospect generated 10 tackles, and a sack in the victory at BYU.

5. Nickolas Martin, Oklahoma State: The Texas native earned first-team, All-Big 12 honors in 2023, in which he finished second in the conference, and seventh in the FBS in solo tackles per game. His 140 stops were the sixth-most in a single-season for a Cowboy defender. Martin led the Big 12, and finished 15th nationally in tackles. He put the quarterback to the turf against Central Arkansas. The next game Martin recorded 10 stops, and a sack at Arizona State. Martin tallied eight tackles and a sack against Kansas. The former four-star prospect also had eight stops apiece against South Alabama, UCF and BYU. Martin posted a jaw-dropping, 17 tackles apiee against Kansas State and West Virginia.

4. Debo Williams, South Carolina: The former two-star prospect had a breakout campaign last year, in which he led the SEC, and finished 13th nationally in solo tackles per game. Williams averaged 9.4 stops per game, which was third-best in the conference, and 18th in the FBS. He started off on fire with 14 tackles, including eight solo in the opener against North Carolina. Williams also had 14 stops at Missouri. The Delaware native generated 11 tackles apiece against Georgia, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Clemson. Williams tallied 13 tackles, including nine solo in the victory over Jacksonville State. Not to mention he recorded nine stops, and made Graham Mertz eat grass against Florida.

3. Harold Perkins, LSU: The former five-star prospect is already considered a first-rounder when he becomes eligible for the NFL Draft. Perkins is talented, athletic and has led the Bayou Bengals in tackles for loss in each of the past two seasons, with 26 during that span. He even capped off his campaign with second-team, All-SEC honors. The New Orleans native posted four tackles, and a sack at Mississippi State. Perkins recorded five stops and put the quarterback to the turf against Arkansas. The 20-year old also generated a sack against Auburn. Perkins tallied a season-high, nine tackles apiece against Ole Miss, and Texas A&M, and hauled in an interception at Missouri.

2. Jason Henderson, Old Dominion: The Pennsylvania native is a tackling machine, who set a school single-season record for stops in 2022. Henderson followed up that amazing campaign with 170 tackles last year, which tied for first nationally. He led the entire FBS in tackles per game, and earned second-team, AP All-America honors. The former three-star prospect finished third in the country with 19.5 tackles for loss. His 22 stops against Coastal Carolina were a single-game school record. Henderson posted a jaw-dropping, 17 tackles apiece against Louisiana, Southern Miss and Texas A&M Commerce. He tallied 16 stops apiece against Marshall and Appalachian State.

1. Jay Higgins, Iowa: The 22-year old tied a school single-season record with a jaw-dropping, 171 tackles last season. Higgins finished 12th nationally in solo tackles per game. He should’ve won the Butkus Award, or at least the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year for his heroics. However, Higgins earned first-team, All-Big Ten, and second-team, AP All-America honors. His 18 stops at Penn State were a season-high. Higgins posted 16 tackles apiece against Utah State and Tennessee. The former three-star prospect had 14 stops apiece against Minnesota and Michigan. Higgins recorded 12 tackles and picked off a pass against Purdue. Jackson and Higgins will form the best linebacker tandem in the FBS.

Honorable Mention

Karene Reid, Utah: The two-time All-Pac-12 performer finished second on the Utes in tackles last year. Reid posted nine tackles and returned an interception 21 yards for a touchdown in the victory over UCLA. He also posted nine stops against Oregon and Washington.

Jeffrey Bassa, Oregon: The Utah native was the Ducks No. 2 tackler in last season. Bassa also earned second-team, All-Pac-12 honors. He posted a season-high, 11 tackles against Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Bassa had nine stops and picked off a pass at Texas Tech.

Abdul Carter, Penn State: The Philadelphia native earned first-team, All-Big Ten honors as a linebacker in 2023. However, Carter moved to edger rusher this spring to be closer to the line of scrimmage. He had two sacks against Michigan State, and another against West Virginia and Maryland.