- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our position-by-position preseason rankings roll on as we get to the linebackers. This is one of the strongest overall position groups in the league, full of returning stars and pro prospects.
Here are the top 10 individual linebackers leading into 2012, based heavily on last year's performance with some consideration given to potential.
1. Gerald Hodges, Penn State, senior: A first-team All-Big Ten performer a year ago, Hodges is a leading contender for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors this season. A big hitter with speed, he had 106 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in a breakthrough junior campaign. New coordinator Ted Roof could set Hodges loose on more blitzes this season.
2. Chris Borland, Wisconsin, junior: Borland switched to middle linebacker last year, and Bret Bielema said he could be the best middle linebacker he's ever coached. Borland isn't very tall (at a listed 5-foot-11) but makes up for it with all-around athleticism and instincts. He finished with 143 tackles last season.
3. Jonathan Brown, Illinois, junior: Brown made a name for himself last year as sophomore, erupting for 19.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. He gets to quarterbacks in a major hurry, and they are not happy to see him.
4. Max Bullough, Michigan State, junior: The captain of the Spartans' outstanding defense from his middle linebacker spot, Bullough has a keen understanding of the game that comes from growing up in a football family. He's also an impressive athlete at 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds. His tackle numbers last year (89) weren't huge, but he's got a ton of talent around him.
5. Denicos Allen, Michigan State, junior: Allen is one of those talented guys around Bullough. The Spartans love to use his speed on linebacker blitzes, and for good reason. He had 11 tackles and 18.5 tackles for loss last season while flying in from the edge.
6. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin, senior: It shows you how good and deep the Big Ten linebacker corps is that Taylor ranks only sixth after racking up a whopping 150 tackles last year. He's always around the ball and has strong tackling skills. It's hard to find a more reliable combo than him and Borland.
7. James Morris, Iowa, junior: He led Iowa with 110 tackles a year ago, though there's a strong feeling that he and the Hawkeyes should have made more plays on defense last season. Morris has started since midway through his freshman season and should continue to improve. Iowa will need its linebackers to make plays behind a young defensive line.
8. Michael Mauti, Penn State, senior: We love Mauti's playmaking ability and sense for the game, and we love the leadership he's shown through the Nittany Lions' crisis. We just hate the fact that he hasn't been able to stay healthy during his career. Here's hoping for some luck in that department in his final go-round, and if so, he has a chance to be among the very best linebackers in the conference.
9. Kenny Demens, Michigan, senior: Demens was named the Wolverines' top linebacker last season after recording 94 tackles and three sacks. He should be a leader of a veteran group that might provide the strength of Michigan's defense in 2012.
10. Will Compton, Nebraska, senior: Last week at Big Ten media days, Bo Pelini called Compton the unquestioned leader of the Cornhuskers' defense. He'll also look to become the team's top playmaking linebacker in the absence of Lavonte David. He had 82 tackles a year ago, including excellent performances in key victories over Michigan State and Penn State.