Jermaine Carter — Maryland Terrapins — Last season Carter emerged in a deep group of B1G middle linebackers as a 6-0 235-pound stalwart against the run, but he also made some big plays with 6.0 sacks, 3.0 non- sack TFL, two forced fumbles and an interception. He’s a returning team captain, but leads an undermanned defense in a brutal B1G East.
TJ Edwards — Wisconsin Badgers — The Badgers return several very talented (and recovering) MIKE backers in their attacking 3-4 defense, but the former Illinois prep QB and redshirt junior Edwards has arguably the biggest upside as a sturdy 6-1 240- pounder who has twice finished as the unit’s best inside play-maker. He was a freshman All- FAMerican, then led the nasty UW defense in tackles last year, adding three interceptions as a heady presence on the second level. Gonna be hard to run on him and his Badger cohorts…
Shaun Dion Hamilton — Alabama Crimson Tide — A crushing knee injury cut his 2016 short late in the playoff push, and his absence was noticed as he’s a terrific inside defender in the tenacious Saban defense. He excels against the run but also picked off two passes in coverage. Healthy in 2017, expect him to lead the Tide defense in stops. More importantly, look for him to be a leader on the defense that lost so many from the front seven.
Josey Jewell — Iowa Hawkeyes — Time to gloat… When Jewell was signed as a two- star athlete out of Decorah, many Hawkeye fans were disappointed in Kirk Ferentz recruiting some D3 town kid who looked like a project. We however saw Jewell as a diamond in the rough: A player of the year on a championship squad, who moved remarkably we’ll for a 6-2 back and ran roughshod over his lesser competition like… a linebacker. He began his remarkable tenure at the MIKE as a redshirt freshman, and since has developed into a play-maker at the position and future first day draft pick. Look for him to add to his 301 career tackles (14.5 for loss) and four interceptions.
Micah Kiser — Virginia Cavaliers — When you think of a prototypical NFL middle linebacker, they look much like the thick and powerful 6-2 240-pound Kiser, who put up ideal stats as well for the Cavaliers. He outshined much-ballyhooed teammates and conference foes last season as the ACC’s most prolific tackler (134 tackles, third nationally), while also wreaking havoc with 6.5 sacks, 3.5 non-sack TFL, five forced fumbles (two recoveries), seven pass deflections and an interception. He made even more plays in the backfield the prior season, and we anticipate a sprinkling of it all in an outstanding 2017 where he makes a strong push for the Butkus Award and All-FAMerican status (most importantly).
Quentin Poling — Ohio Bobcats — The senior out of Gomer, Ohio has piled on the plays in a terrific career for Coach Frank Solich. He epitomizes the tough and dynamic Bobcat defense, starting 37 games in his three seasons since redshirting, and amassing 267 stops, with 31.5 for loss (13.0 sacks), seven interceptions, ten pass deflections, and four forced fumbles. While he lacks NFL height, he has all the instincts for the position and once again will show up for a timely Ohio defense.
Shaq Quarterman — Miami Hurricanes — Accuse us on buying low with the Hurricane linebackers, guilty, but we love the tenacious and hard-hitting duo that now roams the second level for Da U. The solid 240-pounder was outstanding as a true freshman against legit competition, and given the skill returning around him, we anticipate a bigger sophomore season for the All-ACC player, and Florida prep product. While the Canes lack an offensive quarterback, they have one on the defensive side in Quarterman for the next few seasons.
Cameron Smith — USC Trojans — Smith is a monster, plainly put, and the 6-2 245-pounder has truly yet to frighten offenses at 100%. A knee injury curt short his Freshman All-FAMerican season, and slowed him for part of 2016. This season he’s up to snuff, and primed for dominance amidst an always talented Trojan front. With Porter Gustin and others, the Trojans have some scary threats, but Smith leads them all and in our opinion just might give opposing players the most pause. After all, that’s a nasty, giant ginger.
Jahlani Tavai — Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors — Of all the scary inside linebackers on this list, the most terrifying might just hail from the Mountain West. Yep, that’s right you elitist Power Fivers… Hawai’i’s Jahlani Tavai is a 6-4 Poly power that moves like an outside linebacker yet fills the stat-sheet from the MIKE spot. He totaled 129 tackles (83 solo), with 7.0 sacks and a whopping 12.5 non-sack TFL, plus two forced fumbles and a pick. That’s 19.5 TFL as a sophomore. Thus we expect an even more insane season as Tavai settles into the middle position in his second season there, leading to bigger numbers. Scary, really, no matter the conference.
Azeem Victor — Washington Huskies — A warrior on the inside of a fearsome Dub defense, the speedy and explosive Victor is battling back from a broken leg and from all accounts is ahead of schedule to return to his phenomenal form. He’s a fast and furious 6-3 225 pounds, and essentially everything that gets past the terrific Huskies’ tackles loses to Victor. Look for him to go out on a huge note as a senior and become yet another Cali-grown NFL product out of the loaded Southern Section.
— Tobin Shack (@tobinshack) May 5, 2016
Snubs — Azeez Al-Shaair, FAU Owls; Keishawn Bierria, Washington Huskies; Eric Boggs, Appalachian State Mountaineers; Jason Cabinda, Penn State Nittany Lions; Malik Fountain, Central Michigan Chippewas; Khalil Hodge, Buffalo Bulls; Bryan London, Texas State Bobcats; Nyles Morgan, Notre Dame Fighting Irish; Auggie Sanchez, South Florida Bulls; Connor Strachan, Boston College Eagles; Ty Summers, TCU Horned Frogs; Josiah Tauaefa, UTSA Roadrunners; Kenny Young, UCLA Bruins