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August 11, 2005

Veteran linebackers return for 2005

Experience matters. At least when it comes to playing linebacker at the highest levels of college football.

Seven of Rivals.com's top 10 linebackers are seniors and each has started for at least the last two years. The three others who made the list were comprised of two juniors and a sophomore.

The ACC, Big Ten and SEC each landed three players on the list and the Pac-10 had one representative.

1. A.J. Hawk (Ohio State)

The Buckeyes unquestioned defensive leader lacks the physical size of most of the players who landed on this list, but few can match the outside linebacker's tenacity and savvy, or his on-field production.

A tireless worker, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound senior had more tackles in 2004 than any Buckeye since Chris Spielman - arguably the greatest linebacker in OSU history - put up 156 stops in 1987.

The Big Ten's Preseason Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, Hawk has a strong shot at becoming just the second Buckeye to win the Butkus award. Andy Katzenmoyer was the first in 1997.

2004 stats: 141 tackles (62 solo), eight tackles for losses, two interceptions, one sack.

2. Chad Greenway (Iowa)

Big Ten offenses learned to stop running the ball to this outside linebacker's side of the field early in 2004. But, the 6-4, 244-pound senior from Mt. Vernon, S.D., still found ways to consistently make plays.

He finished with at least seven tackles in each of the Iowa's 12 games and posted double-digit tackles in seven others. With the Hawkeyes losing all four starting defensive linemen, he may have to produce even better numbers to keep his team in the Big Ten title hunt again.

2004 stats: 113 tackles (71 solo), eight tackles for losses, three sacks, three interceptions.

3. Ernie Sims (Florida State)

The most intimidating player in the nation on either side of the ball, this muscular 6-0, 220-pound junior craves big hits and nasty collisions. Coaches often have to remind him to turn down his intensity level in practice for fear he might hurt a teammate.

Any quarterback or running back facing Florida State should also be concerned with their health. Sims, who looks bigger and has fully recovered from a fractured fibula suffered in the spring, has a chance to be part of the nation's top linebacking corps with Buster Davis and A.J. Nicholson.

2004 stats: 86 tackles (41 solo), nine tackles for losses, 4.5 quarterback sacks, two forced fumbles, one blocked punt.

4. Ahmad Brooks (Virginia)

This 6-4, 249-pound junior is the best NFL linebacker prospect. A physical specimen, he is blessed with a great first step and more speed than many defensive backs. Scouts also like the fact that he has played extensively in a 3-4 defense.

Brooks, who mostly plays on the interior, put together his best season yet in 2004, and with the loss of third-round pick Darryl Blackstock, the Cavaliers need him to do even more now.

2004 stats: 90 tackles (39 solo), 10 tackles for losses, eight sacks, two interceptions.

5. Brandon Siler (Florida)

With the arrival of Urban Meyer at Florida in the offseason, much of the talk in the swamp has centered around offense. But a young defensive player may end up being the star of Meyer's new team.

The 6-2, 239-pound Siler is only the second player to lead the Gators in tackles as a true freshman in the history of the program, and with more room for improvement, the sophomore could become a dominating force for a long time in the SEC.

2004 stats: 77 tackles (50 solo), 10 tackles for losses, two quarterback sacks.

6. Abdul Hodge (Iowa)

Most of the premier Florida programs chose not to recruit this 6-2, 234-pound middle linebacker from Fort Lauderdale. They've spend the past couple of years regretting it.

The senior has earned the nickname "The Hitman" during that time and has led the Hawkeyes in tackles in each of the last two seasons. He is excellent in pursuit and plays extraordinarily well in big games, making 12 tackles in a Hawkeyes win against Ohio State and 15 in an upset against LSU in the Capital One Bowl in 2004.

2004 stats: 116 tackles (79 solo), five tackles for losses, three sacks.

7. D'Qwell Jackson (Maryland)

Some NFL teams reportedly had Jackson, the ACC's leading tackler last season, ranked as high on their draft boards as former Maryland defensive lineman Shawne Merriman, who was taken with the No. 12 pick in the 2005 draft.

Unlike Merriman, the 6-foot-1, 239-pound middle linebacker decided to stay in college for his senior year, and with Ralph Friedgen's offense still facing some major problems, that move will allow the Terps to remain a contender in the revamped ACC.

2004 stats: 123 tackles (63 solo), seven tackles for losses, four sacks, two interceptions.

8. Will Derting (Washington State)

Haven't heard of Derting? Every Pac-10 offensive coordinator knows exactly who he is.

A throwback type of player, the 6-0, 235-pound senior plays with a level of toughness that you would expect from someone who grew up on a cattle ranch. He made at least seven tackles in every game last season and made 14 stops against top-ranked USC.

2004 stats: 93 tackles (54 solo), 11.5 tackles for losses, 3.5 sacks.

9. Travis Williams (Auburn)

Stand this 6-1, 207-pound senior up against the other players on this list and he would clearly be the smallest. But, none might beat him in a race from sideline to sideline.

What Williams lacks in size he makes up for in speed, and SEC ballcarriers can expect to be closely followed by him once again.

2004 stats: 80 tackles, (58 solo), nine tackles for losses, two interceptions.

10. DeMeco Ryans (Alabama)

Ignore Ryans' stats from 2004. Focus instead on the extraordinary numbers the 6-2, 232-pound outside linebacker put together as a sophomore when he collected 126 tackles, including 25 in a single game.

The senior still has all the skills and ability that Alabama fans fondly remember watching two years ago, and with proven middle linebacker Freddie Roach at his side, the Crimson Tide will have one of the top linebacking duos in the nation.

2004 stats: 78 tackles, seven tackles for losses, two forced fumbles.


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