Others Considered: Auburn, Georgia, Michigan State, Northwestern, Oregon, Stanford, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M
#10 – Notre Dame
The Irish return two potential All-Americans to this group in seniors Te’Von Coney (MLB) and Drue Tranquill (WLB). The two combined for over 200 tackles last year, including 20.5 tackles for loss. The starter at the Sam/Rover spot will likely be Asmar Bilal, a four-star junior that has been looking for more playing time.
#9 – Washington
Two starters will return on the inside in seniors Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett, both of whom should contend for All-Pac 12 honors. Another name to watch will be DJ Beavers, who was expected to start inside until it was announced that Bartlett would shift over from his former role as an OLB.
#8 – LSU
Potential All-American Devin White is the only returning starter from this group, but the boys in Baton Rouge have recruited so well that the Tigers still make this list thanks to a group of highly touted players that are getting a chance to shine in 2018. Sophomore four-star K’Lavon Chaisson at the buck is the most intriguing to me.
#7 – Clemson
Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar are back at the will and mike respectively, but the Tigers do need to find a replacement at the sam linebacker spot now that Dorian O’Daniel is off to the NFL. It’s unclear whether that spot will go to the senior Jalen Williams or the much faster sophomore Isaiah Simmons who could play more of a nickelback role.
#6 – Duke
Duke is probably the most unique team to make this list as the Blue Devils run a 4-2-5 mainly, but the two linebackers in that set are both so good that I could not leave them off this list. Joe Giles-Harris lit up statbooks with 125 tackles (16 TFL) in 2017 playing at what I guess you would call the middle linebacker spot, and senior WLB Ben Humphreys will also contend for All-ACC honors.
#5 – Miami
All three starters are back from a group that helped lead Miami to an ACC Coastal Championship including a potential All-American contender at middle linebacker in Shaq Quarterman. Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud are the starters at the will and sam respectively, and all three have two years of starts under their belts, making this one of the more experienced groups in the nation.
#4 – Michigan
The highest ranked team that runs a 4-3 mainly is the Michigan Wolverines. Two of the three starters return from a group that helped make the Wolverines the #3 defense in the country in opponent ypg. SLB Khaleke Hudson and MLB Devin Bush are both back after combining for 13 sacks and 146 tackles last season, and the WLB spot will be filled by the speedy four-star Josh Ross or the more experienced Devin Gill.
#3 – USC
Three out of the four from last year’s group are back including potential All-American Cameron Smith on the inside. He’ll be next to junior John Houston (84 tackles last year). The OLB spots will be filled be Jordan Iosefa and Porter Gustin, both of whom have struggled with injuries at points in the past five years, but made big impacts when healthy.
#2 – Wisconsin
All-American senior TJ Edwards is back at the inside spot where he will contend for many awards, and he will be joined by three other upperclassmen with Ryan Connelly (88 tackles in 2017) lining up next to him on the inside, senior Andrew Van Ginkel (6.5 sacks) stepping into a bigger role on the edge, and former high school quarterback Zack Baun at the other outside backer spot.
#1 – Alabama
Anfernee Jennings may be the only returning starter, but Alabama’s linebacking core is still the best in the country. Two five-star players will slide into the inside linebacker spots in sophomore Dylan Moses and junior Mack Wilson. The other outside spot opposite Jennings will likely be filled by experienced senior Christian Miller.