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August 23, 2011

Preseason top 20: Linebackers

We continue our breakdown of the nation's best players at each position with a look at linebackers.

"Best" doesn't necessarily mean the most pro potential or even the most talent. Instead, it's a mix of what the player has accomplished and how we think the player will do this season. But production does trump potential.

We will look at a position a day until Aug. 29, when we rank all 120 of the nation's quarterbacks. Wednesday, we will look at cornerbacks. Here are the linebacker rankings.

20. MICHAEL MAUTI, PENN STATE
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/242, Jr.; Mandeville (La.) High
THE BUZZ: Mauti was an important reserve as a true freshman in 2008, but has had injury issues the past two seasons. He missed the '09 season with a knee injury, then was bothered by a series of nagging injuries last season. He still started seven games last fall, finishing with 67 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. If he can stay healthy this fall, he will vie for All-Big Ten -- and maybe even All-America -- honors. Before his knee injury in 2009, Penn State coaches were saying he was the latest in a long line of great Nittany Lions linebackers. His dad, Rich, played wide receiver at Penn State in the mid-'70s and later played in the NFL.

19. MYCHAL KENDRICKS, CALIFORNIA
THE PARTICULARS: 6-0/240, Sr.; Fresno (Calif.) Hoover
THE BUZZ: He is heading into his third season as a starter for the Golden Bears after serving as a reserve as a true freshman in 2008. He was a second-team All-Pac-10 performer last season, when he had 66 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries. He is expected to play inside linebacker this fall after being an outside 'backer the past two seasons. His dad, Marv, was a running back who led UCLA in rushing in 1970 and '71.

18. RYAN BAKER, LSU
THE PARTICULARS: 6-0/236, Sr.; Blountstown (Fla.) High
THE BUZZ: Baker is coming off an 87-tackle, seven-sack season and should vie for All-SEC -- and maybe even All-America -- honors this season. While he's not the biggest guy (he's listed at 6-0, with "listed" being the operative word), he runs well and hits hard. He played the first month of last season -- his first as a starter -- with a broken jaw.

17. KEVIN REDDICK, NORTH CAROLINA
THE PARTICULARS: 6-3/240, Jr.; Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military, preceded by New Bern (N.C.) High
THE BUZZ: Reddick moved into the staring lineup midway through his freshman season and has been a fixture since. Reddick led the Tar Heels with 74 tackles last season. UNC must replace second-round pick Bruce Carter and sixth-round selection Quan Sturdivant in the linebacker corps, but Reddick's return makes that task much easier.

16. TANNER BROCK, TCU
THE PARTICULARS: 6-3/250, Jr.; Copperas Cove (Texas) High
THE BUZZ: Brock had 106 tackles -- 26 more than any teammate -- last season for the Rose Bowl-winning Horned Frogs. It was his first season as a starter. Brock and Tank Carder give TCU one of the nation's best linebacker tandems. His dad, Reb, is the defensive coordinator at Copperas Cove High.

15. KOREY WILLIAMS, SOUTHERN MISS
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/243, Sr.; New Orleans Edna Karr
THE BUZZ: After a great sophomore season in which he made 121 tackles, Williams slipped a bit last season, finishing with 93 stops, including 14.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Williams redshirted as a freshman in 2007, then played just four games in 2008 before suffering a broken jaw. He heads into his senior season with 238 career tackles, with 29.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five pass breakups and four forced fumbles.

14. BRUCE TAYLOR, VIRGINIA TECH
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/252, Jr.; Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High
THE BUZZ: Taylor capitalized on the opportunity that occurred when a preseason injury sidelined Barquell Rivers. Taylor had a team-high 84 tackles -- 15.5 for loss -- to earn second-team All-ACC honors last season. Taylor already has earned a reputation as a big-play performer. His pass deflection resulted in a pick-six in the ACC title game victory over Florida State, and he recorded two sacks each in wins over Boston College and Georgia Tech.

13. KEENAN ROBINSON, TEXAS
THE PARTICULARS: 6-3/235, Sr.; Plano (Texas) East
THE BUZZ: Other linebackers in the Big 12 have gotten more attention, but Robinson is as good as any and better than most. He was one of the few bright spots for Texas last season and is coming off a strong junior season in which he led the Longhorns with 113 tackles. Robinson is aggressive and has good range. When needed, he can be an effective pass rusher, and he's also good in coverage.

12. SEAN SPENCE, MIAMI
THE PARTICULARS: 6-0/224, Sr.; Miami Northwestern
THE BUZZ: As a true freshman, Spence stepped into a feature role and made his first career sack against Tim Tebow. Spence heads into his fourth season as a starter with a reputation as one of the ACC's most prolific tacklers. He had 111 tackles -- including 16 for loss -- to earn second-team all-conference honors last season. Spence is accustomed to winning: His Miami Northwestern team finished the 2007 season atop the national rankings.

11. TANK CARDER, TCU
PARTICULARS: 6-3/237, Sr.; Sweeny (Texas) High
THE BUZZ: Carder made a national name for himself with his huge Rose Bowl effort, which included breaking up a potential tying two-point conversion pass late in the fourth quarter, but he had developed into one of the nation's top linebackers long before that New Year's Day effort. Carder was the Mountain West defensive player of the year last season, when he was the heart and soul of a unit that led the nation in total defense for a third consecutive season.

10. COURTNEY UPSHAW, ALABAMA
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/265, Sr.; Eufaula (Ala.) High
THE BUZZ: Upshaw went from key reserve in 2009 to important starter for the Tide last season, finishing with 52 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks despite being bothered by a nagging ankle injury. Upshaw, who was a defensive end in high school, had five sacks and three forced fumbles in the final two games of the season.

9. JERRY FRANKLIN, ARKANSAS
THE PARTICULARS: 6-1/241, Sr.; Marion (Ark.) High
THE BUZZ: Heading into his fourth season as a starter, Franklin has led the Hogs in tackles in each of the past three seasons. He had a career-high 100 last season (eighth-most in the SEC), along with 6.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. Franklin was a wide receiver and safety in high school in Marion, which is across the Mississippi River from Memphis.

8. SHAYNE SKOV, STANFORD
THE PARTICULARS: 6-3/243, Jr.; Pawling (N.Y.) Trinity-Pawling
THE BUZZ: Thought Stanford was all Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh? Stanford fielded a top-20 defense last season, one that held Virginia Tech to 66 rushing yards in the Orange Bowl. The Mohawk-wearing Skov had a huge performance, finishing with 12 tackles and three sacks. He finished the season with 84 tackles and should contend for All-America honors this season. Skov is from the San Francisco Bay area but attended prep school in upstate New York.

7. DONT'A HIGHTOWER, ALABAMA
THE PARTICULARS: 6-4/260, Jr.; Lewisburg (Tenn.) Marshall County
THE BUZZ: He made an immediate impact as a freshman in 2008, then missed most of the '09 season with a knee injury. He played well last season -- 69 tackles, which was second on the team -- but wasn't quite as disruptive as he was in 2008. He should be totally healthy this fall. Despite his size, Hightower is adept in coverage, but he is at his best when he's near the line of scrimmage. He has 149 career tackles.

6. MANTI TE'O, NOTRE DAME
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/255, Jr.; Honolulu Punahou
THE BUZZ: Te'o was the biggest reason for Notre Dame's dramatic defensive improvement during its late-season surge in 2010. He made 133 tackles, the highest single-season total by a Notre Dame player since Tony Furjanic (147) in 1983. His big season included a 21-tackle performance against Stanford, the most by any FBS player against a team from one of the Big Six conferences since North Carolina LB Durell Mapp made 23 tackles against N.C. State in 2007.

5. KENNY TATE, MARYLAND
THE PARTICULARS: 6-4/220, Sr.; Hyattsville (Md.) DeMatha Catholic
THE BUZZ: Tate had a standout season in 2010 with 100 tackles, three picks, four forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks. Those are impressive all-around numbers for a safety, and this season, he will look to put up similar stats from a hybrid linebacker/safety position under new coach Randy Edsall. Tate has excellent ball skills and good speed but also the size to play close to the line, so the new scheme should further suit his skill set.

4. LAVONTE DAVID, NEBRASKA
THE PARTICULARS: 6-1/225, Sr.; Fort Scott (Kan.) CC, preceded by Miami Northwestern
THE BUZZ: David -- who played on the same state-title-winning high school team as Miami LB Sean Spence -- was a touted junior college transfer last season, and he more than lived up to billing. He set a Nebraska single-season record with 152 tackles and was the Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year. He had eight games with double-digit tackles, including three games with at least 15 stops. David also had six sacks and eight quarterback hurries.

3. VONTAZE BURFICT, ARIZONA STATE
THE PARTICULARS: 6-3/252, Jr.; Corona (Calif.) Centennial.
THE BUZZ: Burfict has all the qualities of a great linebacker -- speed, range, toughness, enthusiasm and a nasty disposition. He's too nasty at times, with too many personal fouls. But he has promised he will overcome those undisciplined tendencies. He also was cited by coaches for his offseason work in the weight room -- the first time that's happened. As good as he has been (90 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss in '10), he's getting better.

2. TRAVIS LEWIS, OKLAHOMA
THE PARTICULARS: 6-2/227, Sr.; San Antonio Lee
THE BUZZ: When healthy, Lewis is one of the top two or three linebackers in the nation. The caveat "when healthy" is needed because he is expected to miss at least the first month of the season with a broken bone in his foot. He is a three-time All-Big 12 honoree, and his 362 career tackles is the second-highest total for an OU player under Bob Stoops. Lewis has eight career interceptions, which already ties an OU career record for linebackers.

1. LUKE KUECHLY, BOSTON COLLEGE
THE PARTICULARS: 6-3/235, Jr.; Cincinnati St. Xavier
THE BUZZ: There isn't a more prolific tackler in the nation. Kuechly has an astounding career average of 13.1 tackles per game to lead all active FBS players. He had 183 tackles (20 more than anyone else) last season while posting an NCAA-leading 110 solos. He had ranked second nationally in each of those categories as a freshman. Kuechly has made at least 10 tackles in 22 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the nation.

Rankings and player capsules compiled by Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee.



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