Top 10 returning linebackers in college football for the 2023 season

Clemson linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. (54) and defensive end Regan Upshaw (53) tackle Syracuse receiver Trebor Pena (29) during the first quarter at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York, Friday, October 15, 2021. Ncaa Football Clemson At Syracuse

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

It’s officially time to hit the reset button.

The 2022 college football season has come and gone, and so has the deadline to enter the 2023 NFL Draft. Now that we know who will continue playing on Saturdays next fall, let's take an early look at the top returning players at every position.

Here are the top 10 linebackers returning to college football next season. Please note that NFL projection is not taken into account here. 

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1. Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Clemson Tigers

The son of former All-Pro linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Sr., the sophomore linebacker has lived up to his father’s name and then some.

The younger Trotter excels on passing plays, as he was the only Power Five linebacker with 80-plus grades as a pass-rusher and in coverage. Trotter was second in that same group in both passer rating allowed (42.9) and open target rate allowed (47.6%).

2. Harold Perkins Jr., LSU Tigers

Perkins was a top-10 recruit in the 2022 class, which may have been too low. 

As a true freshman, he led all Power-Five linebackers with a 91.0 pass-rushing grade. He ranked second among all linebackers in the country with 18 quarterback knockdowns (sacks/hits) and was tied for second in the country with four forced fumbles. Perkins is Micah Parsons-esque in that he can play either linebacker or edge defender at a very high level.

3. Tommy Eichenberg, Ohio State Buckeyes

Eichenberg was a PFF first-team All-American this past season and is the most valuable returning linebacker according to PFF’s wins above average metric

The redshirt junior is a dominant run-stuffer, as his 49 run-defense stops in 2022 ranked second among all linebackers in the country while his 20 tackles for loss/no-gain were tied for third.

4. Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Georgia Bulldogs

Dumas-Johnson is the next great Georgia linebacker, following past Bulldog greats such as Roquan Smith and Nakobe Dean.

In fact, over the past two seasons, the only SEC linebacker with a higher grade than Dumas-Johnson is Dean. The sophomore led the SEC this season with a 79.9 run-defense grade. 

5. Barrett Carter, Clemson Tigers

With two linebackers cracking the top five of this list, Clemson easily has the best linebacking corps in the country heading into next season.

Carter is one of college football's most well-rounded linebackers. The sophomore was one of three in the Power Five with 75-plus grades as a run-defender, pass-rusher and in coverage. His seven combined interceptions and forced incompletions were tied for the most among FBS linebackers as well.

6. Cedric Gray, North Carolina Tar Heels

Gray flew around North Carolina’s defense this year on his way to becoming a PFF second-team All-American.

The junior made first contact on a ball carrier 122 times this season, which was 15 more than the next-closest defender in college football. It was also the best single-season mark by a Power Five player in the PFF College era.

Most plays with first contact among FBS players in PFF College era (Since 2014)
Name Position  School Season Plays with first contact
Rodney Butler LB New Mexico State 2016 133
Cedric Gray LB North Carolina 2022 122
Leighton Vander Esch LB Boise State 2017 121

7. Jaylan Ford, Texas Longhorns

Ford was an honorable mention All-American for PFF this season and a turnover machine for the Longhorns.

The junior’s four interceptions led all FBS linebackers, and he tied for second in the Power Five with two fumble recoveries. His three forced fumbles were also tied for sixth in the country. 

8. Abdul Carter, Penn State Nittany Lions

The No. 11 is reserved for the elite linebackers at Penn State, as Parsons, NaVorro Bowman and LaVar Arrington all rocked the “stix.”

So, when it was announced that Carter, a true freshman, would also wear that number, it raised some eyebrows. He quickly proved he deserved that honor, as his six sacks and three forced fumbles were tied for sixth among all linebackers in the country.

9. Maema Njongmeta, Wisconsin Badgers

Njongmeta is the highest-graded returning Power Five linebacker, earning an 89.9 mark this past season.

The redshirt junior is a menace when coming downhill, as he was the only Power Five linebacker who earned 85-plus grades as both a pass-rusher and run-defender. His 17 tackles for loss/no gain were fifth in that same group as well.

10. Ty’Ron Hopper, Missouri Tigers

Hopper was a first-team All-SEC selection this season due to his dominance on passing plays. 

The Florida transfer was one of four Power Five linebackers who held top-15 grades both as a pass-rusher and in coverage this past season. The junior was also second among SEC linebackers with a 51.7% open target rate allowed.

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