College Football: Top 10 linebacker units in the country

2T0WP82 October 7, 2023: Clemson Tigers linebacker Barrett Carter (0) before the ACC Football matchup against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, SC. (Scott Kinser/CSM)

Clemson leads the way for the second-straight year: Even after losing Jeremiah Trotter Jr., the Tigers still have the best linebacker unit in the nation.

Iowa comes in second: The Hawkeyes fall closely behind thanks to the duo of Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson.

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Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

Linebacker is one of the hardest positions to master. A great linebacker must be a jack of all trades for a defense. They’re expected to defend the run, play in coverage and rush the passer, all at a high level.

Here are the 10 best linebacker units as we head into the 2024 college football season.

Check out our other position group rankings:

Quarterback Rooms | Running Back Units | Receiving Corps | Offensive Lines | Defensive Lines

1. Clemson Tigers

For the second straight year, Clemson has the best linebacker unit in the country. It starts with Barrett Carter, my No. 2 returning linebacker in college football. No returning Power Five linebacker since 2022 has been more valuable than Carter according to PFF’s wins above-average metric. He’s especially dominant on passing downs, as he’s the only one in that same group with 80-plus grades as both a pass-rusher and run-defender in that span.

Wade Woodaz is another returning starter who was third among ACC linebackers with a 49.7 passer rating allowed in 2023. Kobe McCloud is expected to take over the starting spot vacated by Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and earned a 75.4 PFF grade on 90 snaps last season. Finally, the Tigers also welcomed five-star true freshman Sammy Brown into the fold.


2. Iowa Hawkeyes 

No FBS linebacker was more valuable than Jay Higgins last year according to our wins above-average metric. He also led the nation with 108 plays where he made first contact on the ball carrier and paced all Power Five linebackers with a 90.8 coverage grade. Higgins enters his fifth season as my No. 3 linebacker in the nation. 

Nick Jackson will once again start alongside him and is a menace downhill. He was one of only two Power Five linebackers who posted 80.0-plus PFF grades as both a run defender and as a pass-rusher. The other was the first linebacker selected in the 2024 NFL Draft, Edgerrin Cooper.

3. Kentucky Wildcats

The Wildcats’ linebacker unit was the strongest part of its team heading into the offseason. They returned D’Eryk Jackson, who was named to PFF’s 2023 All-SEC team following a stellar senior campaign. Alex Afari was another returning starter who was third among SEC linebackers with 12 coverage stops last season.

 Then, Kentucky added Georgia’s Jamon Dumas-Johnson from the transfer portal. He’s my No. 9 returning linebacker in the country due to how much havoc he’s created for opposing offenses over the last two years. Since 2022, his 80.2 run-defense grade leads all SEC linebackers. He’s fifth in that same group with a 24.2% pressure rate.

4. Georgia Bulldogs

Even without Dumas-Johnson, Georgia still has a loaded linebacker room. The Bulldogs return two starters in Smael Mondon Jr. and C.J. Allen, who started as a true freshman last year.

Georgia also has three former five-star recruits behind them in sophomore Raylen Wilson and true freshmen Justin Williams and Chris Cole. Junior Jalon Walker is expected to move to more of an off-ball role after playing at edge defender in 2023, earning a 72.6 grade there. 

5. LSU Tigers

LSU has the best linebacker in the country in Harold Perkins. As a true freshman in 2022, he paced all Power Five linebackers with a 91.0 pass-rushing grade and placed second among all FBS linebackers with 18 quarterback knockdowns (sack/hits). The Tigers asked him to play more in an off-ball role as a sophomore, and he responded with an 81.1 coverage grade that was a top-15 mark among Power Five linebackers. 

The Tigers have another returning starter in Greg Penn III, who was sixth among all Power Five linebackers in 2023 with 0.35 yards allowed per coverage snap. Whit Weeks played a healthy 305 snaps last year and was second among Power Five true freshmen linebackers with a 69.7 run-defense grade. 

6. Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama brings back both starting linebackers from a year ago in Deontae Lawson and Jihaad Campbell. Lawson ranked seventh among FBS linebackers last year with an 88.1 pass-rushing grade. Campbell finished ninth in the SEC with 0.57 yards allowed per coverage snap. 

Jeremiah Alexander is also expected to move from edge defender to an off-ball role this year. The redshirt sophomore was a top-15 overall recruit in the class of 2022.

7. Michigan Wolverines

Even after losing Junior Colson and Michael Barrett, the second level of Michigan’s defense is still in very good hands. The Wolverines added Jaishawn Barham from the transfer portal, one of my top-five linebackers in the country. The former Maryland star broke onto the scene as a true freshman in 2022, placing fifth among Power Five linebackers with an 83.1 coverage grade. He finished the season as the seventh-most valuable linebacker in the country according to PFF’s wins above-average metric.

Ernest Hausmann played over 300 snaps for the Wolverines a year ago and was 11th among Big Ten linebackers with a 70.6 coverage grade. 

8. Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State’s linebacker unit would’ve placed even higher on this list if Abdul Carter hadn’t switched to edge defender this offseason. The potential 2025 first-rounder would’ve been one of my top-10 linebackers in the nation had he remained at his original position.

Even so, the Nittany Lions still earn a place in this ranking due to the rest of their room. Kobe King was seventh among Power Five linebackers last year with an 84.6 PFF grade. Of the Power Five linebackers who played at least 250 snaps last year, Dominic DeLuca was tied for first with a 90.8 coverage grade. Tony Rojas impressed on his 122 snaps in his true freshman season. The former top-100 overall recruit posted an 83.5 PFF grade. 

9. Oklahoma State Cowboys

While Abdul Carter switched from off-ball linebacker to edge defender, Collin Oliver did the opposite. While he wasn’t allowed to pin his ears back as much, Oliver remained an elite pass-rusher. He led all FBS linebackers with 37 pressures last season. The junior also flashed some skills when he wasn’t attacking the quarterback, placing third among Big 12 linebackers with a 75.0 coverage grade. He’s my No. 6 returning linebacker in college football. 

The Cowboys also brought back another starter in Nickolas Martin, who was second to Oliver with 19 pressures among Big 12 linebackers last year.

10. Ohio State Buckeyes

The Buckeyes must replace both of its starters in Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg, but they have plenty of intriguing options behind them. Cody Simon played 374 snaps last season and was seventh among Big Ten linebackers with a 77.7 PFF grade. Sonny Styles is moving from safety to linebacker this year, where his 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame should fit better. In 2023, the former top-five recruit tied for sixth among Power Five safeties with seven tackles for loss/no gain. 

He’s not the only former five-star recruit that Ohio State has in its room. C.J. Hicks was a top-15 overall recruit in the 2022 class and should factor in heavily. 

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