College Football: The top 10 linebacker units in the country

2MAMETX Clemson's Jeremiah Trotter Jr. (54) defends during the first half of an NCAA football game against Georgia Tech on Monday, Sept. 5, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)

• Clemson easily has the top unit: With two of the top five linebackers in the country, the Tigers are the no-brainer choice to lead this list.

• Georgia comes in second: The back-to-back champs return two preseason All-SEC members in Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Smael Mondon Jr.

• LSU rounds out the top three: While he blurs the line between linebacker and edge defender, Harold Perkins is simply one of the best defensive players in the nation.

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

Linebackers must be the jacks of all trades for their defense. They’re expected to defend the run, rush the passer and play in coverage, all at a high level.

Here are the top 10 linebacker units in college football heading into the 2023 season, starting with a school that boasts two of the best linebackers both in college football and the 2024 NFL Draft.

Other Position Group Rankings:

QB | RB | WR/TE | OL | DL

1. Clemson Tigers

With two of the top five linebackers in the country, Clemson is the easy choice to top this list.

Jeremiah Trotter Jr. is the best linebacker in college football, which shouldn’t be too surprising considering his bloodlines. His father, Jeremiah Trotter Sr., was a former All-Pro linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles. The younger Trotter was the only Power Five linebacker this past season to earn 80.0-plus grades both in coverage and as a pass rusher. He’s the No. 2 linebacker in the 2024 NFL Draft, according to PFF lead draft analyst Trevor Sikkema.

The only prospect above him is Barrett Carter, his teammate. Carter was one of only three Power Five linebackers in 2022 who earned 75.0-plus grades as a run defender, as a pass rusher and in coverage. He recorded seven combined interceptions and forced incompletions last season, tied for the most among linebackers.

Likely starting alongside them is Wade Woodaz, who earned a 74.9 grade on 180 snaps as a true freshman safety in 2022.

2. Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia’s unit is headlined by Jamon Dumas-Johnson, one of the best linebackers in college football. He excels downhill, leading all SEC linebackers last season with a 79.7 run-defense grade while placing second in pressure rate (26.7%).

Dumas-Johnson is flanked by Smael Mondon Jr., who was named to PFF’s preseason All-SEC third team. He tied for sixth among SEC linebackers in 2022 in both pressures (22) and tackles for loss or no gain (11).

The third spot is up for grabs, with players such as Jalon Walker, Xavian Sorey Jr. and Raylen Wilson vying for the role. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they were all top-five linebacker recruits in their respective classes.

3. LSU Tigers

As was the case with our defensive line rankings, LSU’s placement on this list depends on the position Harold Perkins Jr. plays the most. As a true freshman in 2022, the former top-10 recruit led all Power Five linebackers with a 90.9 pass-rushing grade. While he’s likely better suited as a pass rusher than in coverage, he’s expected to remain at linebacker in 2023, making him my No. 2 player in the country at that position.

Perkins is joined by returning starter Greg Penn III, who was among the 15 most valuable linebackers in the conference last year, according to PFF’s wins above average metric. Omar Speights is the other projected starter after transferring in from Oregon State. He dominated in the run game last season, leading all Pac-12 linebackers with 27 run-defense stops.

4. Penn State Nittany Lions

Harold Perkins wasn’t the only true freshman linebacker to excel last year. Abdul Carter looks like the next superstar linebacker to rock the No. 11 for the Nittany Lions, joining Micah Parsons and LaVarr Arrington. Last season, Carter tied for fifth among Power Five linebackers in both sacks (six) and forced fumbles (three).

His counterpart is Curtis Jacobs, who was a PFF third-team preseason All-Big Ten honoree. His 21 pressures in 2022 ranked second among Big Ten linebackers. Penn State also returns Tyler Elsdon, a starter last season. Kobe King provides depth and was incredibly efficient as a run defender last year. Despite ranking just 38th among Big Ten linebackers in run-defense snaps (137), he tied for fifth in tackles for loss or no gain (11).

5. Michigan Wolverines

On the latest episode of PFF’s NFL Stock Exchange podcast, PFF draft analyst Connor Rogers revealed his No. 2 linebacker in the 2024 draft is Michigan’s Junior Colson. He made a massive leap from his true freshman season to his sophomore campaign, improving his grade from 48.5 to 75.5. He also was a sure tackler, leading all Big Ten linebackers with just a 6% missed tackle rate in 2022.

The Wolverines return both starting linebackers from a year ago, as Michael Barrett is back for his sixth season. He excels on passing downs, placing fourth among Big Ten linebackers in both coverage grade (78.1) and pass-rushing grade (76.2) last season.

6. Ohio State Buckeyes

No linebacker in the country defends the run better than Tommy Eichenberg. Last season, his 49 run-defense stops tied for the lead among Power Five linebackers, while his 20 tackles for loss or no gain tied for second. He was named a PFF first-team All-American for his efforts in 2022 and was the third-most valuable linebacker in the country, according to PFF’s wins above average metric.

Steele Chambers is also a returning starter and produced a pair of interceptions in 2022, tied for the most among Big Ten linebackers. Cody Simon and C.J. Hicks provide valuable depth in Ohio State’s rotation. Simon earned an impressive 80.5 grade last season on 236 snaps, while Hicks was a top-15 overall recruit in the 2022 class.

7. Missouri Tigers

Missouri returns both of its starting linebackers from a year ago — two of the three highest-graded linebackers in the SEC in 2022.

Ty’Ron Hopper excels on passing plays. He was one of only two Power Five linebackers in 2022 who earned a top-15 grade both in coverage (78.5) and as a pass rusher (84.3). He tied for third among SEC linebackers in pressures (28) while placing second in open-target rate allowed (51.7%). Chad Bailey particularly dominates in coverage, placing third among Power Five linebackers with an 89.8 grade in that department last year. His 21.1% forced incompletion rate tied for fourth in that same group.

While the options behind them are less than inspiring, Missouri deserves a spot on this list for fielding one of the best duos in college football.

8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notre Dame returns all three of its starting linebackers from 2022.

Jack Kiser is at his best going downhill, as he was one of only three Power Five linebackers who earned 80.0-plus grades both as a pass rusher and as a run defender in 2022. His 88.2 pass-rushing grade trailed only Harold Perkins among that same group.

Marist Liufau, meanwhile, dominates in coverage. The senior led all Power Five linebackers in both yards per coverage snap allowed (0.17) and passer rating allowed (35.4) in 2022. For reference, spiking the ball every play nets a 39.6 rating.

Finally, JD Bertrand is entering his third season as a starter and posted a career-high 71.8 grade last year. Jaylen Sneed is also entering his second year with the program and was a top-35 overall recruit in the 2022 class.

9. Alabama Crimson Tide

Deontae Lawson is the new leader of Alabama’s linebacker room following Henry To’oTo’o’s departure. Lawson led all SEC linebackers last year in yards allowed per coverage snap (0.32), and his 52.6% completion rate allowed ranked second. The other starting spot will likely be occupied by Georgia transfer Trezmen Marshall, who earned a 67.3 grade on 170 snaps this past season.

The Crimson Tide also have some of the best depth at the position. Justin Jefferson was the No. 2 overall JUCO recruit in the 2023 class, while Jihaad Campbell (2022) and Qua Russaw (2023) were five-star recruits in their respective classes.

10. Utah Utes

Utah is one of only five Power Five schools with multiple linebackers making PFF’s preseason all-conference teams.

Lander Barton was a preseason first-team All-Pac 12 member and led the conference’s linebackers with a 75.2 run-defense grade last year. He also was the only linebacker in the Pac-12 who posted 70.0-plus grades in run defense and as a pass rusher, earning a 73.5 mark in that department. Karene Reid was named a third-team preseason All-Pac 12 honoree after placing third in the conference both in pressures (19) and yards per coverage snap allowed (0.64) in 2022. Together, they were two of the five highest-graded linebackers in the Pac-12 last season.

The other starting spot will likely be occupied by Justin Medlock, who played only 45 snaps as a true freshman last year.

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