College News & Analysis

The top 10 linebacker corps in college football ahead of the 2022 season

Iowa defensive lineman Deontae Craig (45) gets embraced by teammates Jack Campbell (31) and John Waggoner (92) after sacking Penn State quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson (2) during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. 211009 Penn St Iowa Fb 029 Jpg

•Using PFF’s preseason positional rankings and PFF-exclusive stats, here are the best linebacking corps in the country.

Iowa ranks first, thanks to three linebackers making PFF’s top 25 list.

•For a detailed analysis of nearly every FBS team, check out PFF’s 2022 College Football Preview Magazine.


College football is just about here, which means it’s time to wrap up our preseason preview. 

PFF’s lead college analyst Anthony Treash already went over the best players at every position, but what about the best position groups? Using his rankings and PFF-exclusive stats, here are the 10 best linebacking corps in the country.

Note: This ranking only includes off-ball linebackers

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1. Iowa Hawkeyes

Not one, not two, but three Iowa linebackers made PFF’s top 25 list, the only school in the country to accomplish such a feat. Leading the Hawkeyes is Jack Campbell, whose 85.7 coverage grade since 2020 is the highest among returning Power Five linebackers. 

Jestin Jacobs got off to a hot start last year with an 82.4 overall grade through Week 4, third among Power Five linebackers. 

Finally, Seth Benson looked strong in coverage last year with a 79.3 grade that ranked 11th in the Power Five. 

2. Cincinnati Bearcats

Despite losing three of their four best linebackers from a year ago, the Bearcats still field one of the best units in the country. Ivan Pace Jr. transfers in from Miami (Ohio) and is arguably the best linebacker in the country on passing downs. He posted 80.0-plus grades both in coverage and as a pass-rusher last season, one of only four to do so in the country. The other three, Devin Lloyd, Nakobe Dean and Channing Tindall, all were taken within the first three rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft. 

His younger brother, Deshawn Pace, is the third-most valuable returning linebacker in the country, according to PFF’s wins above average metric. Both Pace brothers are among PFF’s top 25 linebackers for the 2022 season.

3. Oregon Ducks

Headlining Oregon’s unit is Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell, the top two linebacker recruits in the 2020 class. Sewell has lived up to the hype and is the No. 2 linebacker in both PFF’s preseason college rankings and PFF's 2023 NFL Draft big board. He’s a menace as a blitzer, with his 30.6% pass-rush win rate last year leading all FBS linebackers. 

Flowe is the second-highest-rated recruit in Oregon history, behind only Kayvon Thibodeaux, but hasn’t been able to fully show what he’s capable of. A meniscus injury ended his freshman campaign after just five snaps. Last season, he injured his foot after just one game and missed the rest of the season. Despite playing just two games, he’s still a top-75 prospect on PFF’s 2023 NFL Draft big board, which says a lot about his potential. If he can stay healthy and live up to it, Oregon could easily top this list.

4. Clemson Tigers

The Tigers lost two of their three starting linebackers from 2021 in James Skalski and Baylon Spector but have two exciting pieces returning in Trenton Simpson and Jeremiah Trotter Jr.

Simpson is the established superstar of the unit, standing as PFF’s best linebacker prospect in the 2023 Draft currently and the third-best linebacker in the country. His 34.5% pressure rate last year ranked second among Power Five linebackers.

Trotter played only 58 snaps last year as a true freshman but showed some nice flashes. The former top-40 recruit earned a 71.4 PFF grade across those snaps and was listed as Clemson’s breakout player in PFF’s College Football Preview Magazine. The Tigers also return sophomore Barrett Carter, a former five-star recruit.

5. Washington Huskies

The star for the Huskies is Edefuan Ulofoshio, PFF’s top linebacker heading into next season. Since 2019, the former walk-on has earned 80.0-plus coverage, run-defense and pass-rush grades, the only returning Power Five linebacker to accomplish that feat. Injuries are the only thing holding him back. Ulofoshio has missed 10 games over the past three years and will miss at least half of the 2022 season with a knee injury.

Picking up the slack is Pittsburgh transfer Cam Bright, whose 78.5 grade since 2019 ranks fifth among ACC linebackers. If Ulofoshio was fully healthy, Washington would be higher on this list.

6. Syracuse Orange

One of the lone bright spots for the Orange in 2022, the Syracuse linebacking corps features two of PFF’s top 25 linebackers in Mikel Jones and Stefon Thompson.

Jones was the second-highest-graded linebacker in the ACC last season with a 75.6 mark. He’s No. 11 in PFF’s preseason ranking.

Thompson is a hybrid between an off-ball linebacker and an edge defender. His 26 pressures in 2021 trailed only Trenton Simpson among ACC linebackers. He also only missed 4.9% of his tackle attempts last year, the fifth-lowest rate among Power Five linebackers.

7. LSU Tigers

LSU is one of only four schools with multiple linebackers in PFF’s top 25. Micah Bakersville ranks 19th after posting a 71.8 grade last season, second among returning SEC linebackers.

Mike Jones Jr. rounds out the list at No. 25 after a disappointing first season in Baton Rouge. While at Clemson in 2020, he earned a 90.2 coverage grade, which was first among Power Five linebackers. That dropped to 55.3 last year, which ranked 112th in the Power Five. If he can bounce back, this ranking will be too low for the Tigers.

8. Ole Miss Rebels

The Rebels pulled in one of the more underrated transfers this offseason in Central Michigan’s Troy Brown, the sixth-best linebacker in the country according to PFF’s preseason rankings. His 94.1 coverage grade since 2019 ranks first among all FBS linebackers. 

Starting alongside him is senior Ashanti Cistrunk, who looked solid as a reserve in 2021 with a 75.0 grade on 150 snaps. 

9. North Carolina State Wolfpack

N.C. State has the ACC’s highest-graded linebacker over the past two years in Drake Thomas at an 80.0 mark. He’s PFF’s No. 8 linebacker in college football for the 2022 season

Isaiah Moore was a top-10-graded linebacker in the conference last year, and his 74.7 run-defense grade was fifth-best in the ACC. Payton Wilson rounds out the unit after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. His 71.2 pass-rush grade since 2019 is a top-20 mark in the ACC. 

10. Troy Trojans

There’s one man to credit for Troy cracking this list, and that’s sixth-year senior Carlton Martial.

He joined Troy as an undersized walk-on in 2017 at just 5-foot-9, 210 pounds. All he’s done since then is earn a 94.9 career grade, best among FBS linebackers over the past five years. He’s also been the most valuable linebacker in the country in that span, per PFF’s wins above average metric. Martial is listed as PFF's fourth-best linebacker in the country entering the 2022 season.

Honorable Mention: Marshall Thundering Herd

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