News & Analysis

College Football: Ranking the top 10 returning LBs in 2021 and a sleeper to watch

Nov 14, 2020; Seattle, Washington, USA; Washington Huskies linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio (48) electorates after recovering a fumble against the Oregon State Beavers during the first quarter at Alaska Airlines Field at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

We are just over 100 days away until the kickoff of the 2021 college football season, and we at PFF are here to get you ready for it. This week, we start with our top 10 players by position and name a sleeper who could also make some noise.

Here are PFF’s top 10 — really, 11 — linebackers returning to college in 2021. The list is based on a bevy of factors, including PFF grade and other advanced metrics available to CFB Premium Stats+ subscribers. And remember, this has nothing to do with pro potential.

Find the rest of PFF’s top returning college players series here:
QB | RB | WR | TE | OT | iOL | DI | EDGE | LB | CB | S

1. EDEFUAN ULOFOSHIO, WASHINGTON

He may have only seven career starts to his name, but the 2018 two-star walk-on has done enough to cement his place as one of the top off-ball linebackers in all of college football. Ulofoshio has yet to have a bad outing in his two years of game action at Washington, proving to be a consistent playmaker in every facet of play.

Across 452 snaps since 2019, Ulofoshio has posted a grade above 82.0 against the run, as a pass-rusher and in coverage. No one else in the Power Five accomplished the feat in that span. His tackling is no issue, either, as he missed just five times across 93 career attempts, forming a 5.4% missed tackle rate that ranks third among Power Five linebackers.

Don’t sleep on Ulofoshio; he’s legit.

Clemson linebacker Mike Jones Jr. (6) practices at the Allen N. Reeves Football Complex August 2, 2019. © SABRINA SCHAEFFER/Staff via Imagn Content Services, LLC

2. MIKE JONES JR., LSU

Jones places this high solely because of his impact in the passing game. His run defense and tackling are shaky, but LSU can live with those deficiencies. Jones is fresh off a season in which he posted an elite 90.2 coverage grade and was a blitz weapon with 11 pressures on 48 pass-rush snaps.

His athleticism will be an asset to the Tigers, who no longer have to be too worried about the departure of standout coverage linebacker Jabril Cox.

3. CARLTON MARTIAL, TROY

Martial walked on for the Troy Trojans in 2017, made his first start in 2018 and has since been in the conversation for the best off-ball linebacker in the Group of Five. He’s on the smaller end, standing at 5-foot-9 and 216 pounds, but that hasn’t held him back. Martial posted PFF grades of 90.9, 91.3 and 82.4 in his three years on the field. He has accumulated 159 defensive stops in that span, the most among all FBS off-ball linebackers.

While the lowest-graded season of his career came in 2020, that 82.4 mark was still good enough to rank 12th in the FBS. And over his last six games, he was college football’s highest-graded off-ball linebacker.

4. JOJO DOMANN, NEBRASKA

Domann mans a hybrid role in the Cornhuskers’ defense; he’ll line up at outside linebacker or in the slot — the latter being where he has played most often. There’s a reasonable case that he should be on the safety/slot list, but his listed position by the team is outside linebacker, so here we are.

Domann’s coverage prowess has been apparent ever since he took on a major role in 2019. Over the past two seasons, he's recorded an 86.6 coverage grade, nine forced incompletions and 19 passing stops. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound sixth-year senior also made major strides in run defense in 2020, raising his grade from 56.3 to 73.5.

5. MICAH MCFADDEN, INDIANA

McFadden is the best blitzing off-ball linebacker in college football, and the Hoosiers will continue to take advantage of that despite the departure of former defensive coordinator Kane Wommack (now head coach at South Alabama). McFadden rushed the passer on close to 28% of his pass snaps in 2019, coming away with an 81.9 pass-rush grade. In 2020, that rate jumped to over 44%, and his pass-rush grade skyrocketed to 90.8. 

He did that while showing major growth in coverage and as a tackler, which was his downfall in 2019. McFadden went from missing a tackle on 27% of his attempts in 2019 to just 13% of the time in 2020. And all of his misses in 2020 came in two games (Penn State and Ohio State).

6. JALEN PITRE, BAYLOR

Pitre took on a big role as a true freshman in 2017 but put forth a mediocre performance. He himself said it was tough to acclimate to Power Five ball in a complex system. In Year 2, his playing time dipped before a shoulder injury caused him to redshirt in 2019.

Pitre came back at full strength in 2020 and was one of the most explosive and productive players at the position. He posted a grade above 80.0 against the run, as a pass-rusher and when dropping into coverage, paving the way for a top-five PFF overall grade among Power Five off-ball linebackers. 

Evanston, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Jack Sanborn (57) defends Northwestern Wildcats running back Cam Porter (20) during the second half at Ryan Field. Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

7. JACK SANBORN, WISCONSIN

Sanborn shined in the passing game in his first year as a major piece within Wisconsin's defense in 2019, but he had some major kinks to work out in run defense and tackling. He posted an 83.8 coverage grade, six combined pass breakups and interceptions and 23 pressures on 83 pass-rush snaps en route to a 77.3 pass-rush grade. On the flip side, he produced a 24% missed tackle rate and a 56.5 coverage grade.

After a rough debut against Illinois in 2020, Sanborn worked out those kinks. He finished the year with a run-defense grade that was nearly 30 grade points higher (84.3), and his missed tackle rate dropped by 10 percentage points.

8. MIKE ROSE, IOWA STATE

Rose has ranked among the best linebackers in the Big 12 in each of his three years starting for the Cyclones. His PFF grades stand at 78.1 (sixth), 75.8 (second) and 78.4 (second). Last year, Rose showed his best play against the run, where he took on blocks with ease and recorded a 91.6 run-defense grade that tied for best in the FBS.

His coverage, however, is a bit shaky. Rose snagged five interceptions in 2020, but he was often caught out of position, leading to a 50th percentile coverage grade among Big 12 off-ball linebackers. The year before that was a different story, though, so he could bounce back in 2021. In 2019, Rose trailed only Garret Wallow (TCU) and Kenneth Murray (Oklahoma) for the best coverage grade in the conference. This also speaks to the volatility of the facet as a whole.

9. KADOFI WRIGHT, BUFFALO

Wright displayed pristine eye discipline over the past two seasons for the Bulls. Since 2019, he ranks inside the top 10 in negatively graded play rate in run defense and has allowed just four first downs in coverage while tying for the fourth-most plays made on the ball (10). His stop numbers are a little underwhelming, but again, his mistakes are few and far between. Over the past two years, Wright boasts a 90.8 PFF grade.

10a. NICK ANDERSON, TULANE

Anderson went from a two-star recruit to JUCO to one of the top off-ball linebackers in the Group of Five. His run defense, in particular, was the backbone of his success, leading him to a 91.6 such grade in 2020 that tied for the highest in college football. His positively graded play rate against the run was also among the 10 best marks in the country.

10b. DORIAN WILLIAMS, TULANE

How about this Tulane duo? While Nick Anderson does his best work against the run, Dorian Williams excels in coverage. He put up a 90.2 grade in that facet last year, which was his first year as a full-time member of the Green Wave defense after seeing only 77 snaps as a freshman in 2019. Williams came away with 14 passing stops on the year, tying for the second-most in the FBS.

ONE (ACTUALLY TWO) MORE NAME TO WATCH: VENTRELL MILLER, FLORIDA & NATE LANDMAN, COLORADO

Both Miller and Landman enter 2021 with similar backgrounds of having proven high-end play, but each is coming off an inconsistent season.

Miller got his first start in 2019, shining as an impact player in the passing game all season. His 79.4 coverage grade and 84.3 pass-rush grade were both top-15 marks among Power Five off-ball linebackers. In 2020, he gave up bigger plays and his run defense was inconsistent, to say the least. He earned three single-game run-defense grades above 85.0 but also five below 45.0.

Landman has been a three-year starter for the Buffaloes, with his first season being by far his best. He posted a grade north of 70.0 as a run defender, tackler, pass-rusher and when dropping into coverage en route to an 85.5 overall mark.

However, Landman took a step back in all four of those areas in 2019, resulting in a 62.8 PFF grade. He turned it all around in 2020, playing the run as well as anyone in college football. He posted an 88.2 grade in that facet (third in the Power Five) and an astounding 25% run-stop rate (first in the FBS). Landman still struggled in coverage, recording a 42.3 grade on the year.

The high end from these two linebackers is as good as you’ll see at the position, but it’s the roller-coaster nature of their play that kept them outside of the top 10. We shall see if that changes in 2021.

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