Philadelphia, PA – They are usually the heart-and-soul of any defense and hold many hats.
Some are adept at getting upfield and being disruptive, others are sideline-to- sideline in their pursuit and some are used to fill the gaps and plug up the holes.
Regardless of their particular specialty, here is a list of the top linebackers in the FBS heading into 2012:
MANTI TE'O - The complete package at the linebacker position, Te'o is a dominant defender, who arrived at Notre Dame from Hawaii and has more than lived up to the hype. The Irish coaching staff and fan base were thrilled when the 6-foot-2, 255-pound monster decided to return for his senior season. He posted his second straight year with over 100 tackles, finishing an All- American campaign in 2011 with a team-high 128 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Take a gifted athlete, add a high football IQ and finish it off with a nasty demeanor, and Te'o is as close to a can't-miss prospect as there is this season. Not only is he the Irish's top defensive player, but he may well be the best defensive player in the country.
KEVIN REDDICK - North Carolina is still reaping the benefits of Butch Davis' strong recruiting, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Tar Heels will need to replace defensive stalwarts Quinton Coples and Zach Brown, but that should allow Kevin Reddick to shine this season. The 6-3, 240-pounder has size, speed and the football acumen to garner All-American honors in 2012. He is the team's top returning tackler (71) and will be freed up to make plays thanks to some serious talent along the defensive front, especially inside.
SHAYNE SKOV - Just how talented is this Stanford linebacker? Despite a torn ACL that cost him the 2011 season and a February arrest for DUI, the 6-3, 250-pound senior is still high on this list. As a sophomore in 2010, Skov was an All- Pac-10 honorable mention selection, racking up 84 total tackles, 10.5 TFL and 7.5 sacks. If Skov returns healthy and avoids any long suspension from David Shaw and the university, he will be paired with standout linebacker Chase Thomas, giving the Cardinal some serious talent in the middle of the defense.
CHRIS BORLAND - A hard-hitter in the middle of the Wisconsin defense, the 5-11, 250-pound Borland has racked up some serious accolades in his time in Madison. In 2009, he was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, while earning Freshman-All-American status. He missed most of the 2010 campaign with a shoulder injury, but returned with a vengeance in 2011 and was named to the All-Big Ten first team (as a consensus pick). He posted a whopping 143 tackles last season (second in the conference), with 19 TFL and 2.5 sacks. Teamed up with fellow standout Mike Taylor, Wisconsin possesses a strong one-two punch in the linebacker corps that won't go unnoticed in 2012.
JAKE KNOTT - There is no getting around the fact that Iowa State's defense wasn't very good in 2011, but the 6-3, 240-pound Knott would have to be one of the real bright spots on an otherwise dismal unit. He also will benefit from another stud right next to him in A.J. Klein. Knott was an All-Big 12 first- team selection last year following a sophomore season in 2010 in which he averaged a whopping 10.8 tackles per game. He finished 2011 one tackle behind Klein, posting 115 stops, with two interceptions and four forced fumbles.
HONORABLE MENTION: Bruce Taylor (Virginia Tech), A.J. Johnson (Tennessee), Demetrius Hartfield (Maryland), Nico Johnson (Alabama), Andrew Jackson (Western Kentucky).
JARVIS JONES - Talk about making an immediate impact. The 6-3, 240-pound Jones transferred to Georgia from Southern California and in his first season in Athens he took the SEC by storm. Jones was named a First-Team All-American, an All-SEC first-team selection and was a finalist for the Butkus Award. A monster coming off the edge in Georgia's 3-4 defensive front, Jones racked up 70 total tackles, while leading the SEC in both TFL (19.5) and sacks (13.5). Jones could have opted for the NFL after his big campaign but instead returns to Georgia, much to the delight of the Bulldogs' faithful. His non-stop motor and relentless pursuit of the ball-carrier, especially opposing QBs, will land him on highlight reels each and every week.
DENICOS ALLEN - Michigan State certainly benefited from Allen's tenacious sideline-to-sideline play in 2011. The 5-11, 232-pounder made a huge impact in his first season as a starter and is now regarded as one of the Big Ten's most disruptive defenders. Last season, Allen finished with 83 total tackles, but really made an impact upfield, where he ranked fourth in the conference in TFL (18.5) and second in the league in sacks (11). As a result, he was named to the All-Big Ten second team. His size may not intimidate, but this Spartan plays much, much bigger.
SEAN PORTER - Texas A&M lost a special player when Von Miller took his talents to the NFL and filling that void wasn't supposed to come easy. The 6-2, 230- pound Porter was able to cover the gap somewhat with his remarkable breakout junior season in 2011. Porter finished third on the team in total tackles (79), while posting 17 TFL and 9.5 sacks, He will be chasing down ball- carriers in the SEC this season, but the numbers speak for themselves. If he continues to progress in his third season as a starter, the postseason accolades will pile up.
JELANI JENKINS - A freakish athlete who should take the next step in becoming a complete player, the 6-foot, 233-pound Jenkins will be the centerpiece of the Florida defense this season. After earning All-SEC Freshman honors two years ago, Jenkins posted another strong season in 2011, finishing with 75 tackles, 6 TFL and two sacks. Florida is starting to churn out quality linebackers on a regular basis and Jenkins is as good as any of his predecessors. The only downside is his height, but he more than makes up for it with good field awareness and tremendous speed.
JONATHAN BROWN - A real game-changer at the linebacker position, Brown burst on the scene at Illinois in 2011, leading the Illini in tackles (108) while posting 19.5 TFL (second in the Big Ten) and six sacks. He was an All-Big Ten second-team selection and was clearly the team's most improved player, following a 2010 freshman campaign in which he posted 31 tackles. The 6-1, 235- pounder is just getting started, and if he can remain injury-free, he could be as good as any defender in the Big Ten in 2012.
HONORABLE MENTION: Gerald Hodges (Penn State), Khaseem Greene (Rutgers), C.J. Mosley (Alabama), Chase Thomas (Stanford), Mike Taylor (Wisconsin).