Penn State Nittany Lions: Will Compton

There's one area where you can't criticize the Big Ten's performance this year: linebacker play.

The Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker, announced its 12 semifinalists on Monday, and one-third of the list is populated by Big Ten players. Two of them, appropriately enough, are from Linebacker U.

The semifinalists are:

Steve Beauharnais, Rutgers
Arthur Brown, Kansas State
Jonathan Brown, Illinois
Max Bullough, Michigan State
Gerald Hodges, Penn State
Jarvis Jones, Georgia
Dion Jordan, Oregon
Michael Mauti, Penn State
Kevin Minter, LSU
C.J. Mosley, Alabama
Trent Murphy, Stanford
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame

It's good to see Mauti and Hodges on this list after they were inexplicably snubbed for the Lombardi Award semifinalists list. Penn State conspiracy theorists can calm down a little bit. Bullough has played terrifically for a Spartans defense that has been asked to carry a heavy load, and Brown has been one of the few highlights in a barren Illini season.

All are worthy selections, but you could also make a very strong case for Wisconsin's Chris Borland and Mike Taylor and Michigan's Jake Ryan, who are each having outstanding seasons. Iowa's James Morris, Nebraska's Will Compton and Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo are also starring at what might be the league's deepest position this year. Filling out the linebacker spots on the All-Big Ten team won't be easy this year.

Te'o and Jones will be hard to beat for this award, but the Big Ten could get one player into the finalist group.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 6

October, 4, 2012
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Through five weeks of the season, which players have established themselves as the top candidates for individual Big Ten awards? Glad you asked.

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: The leader in the clubhouse after September, Miller continues to be the main reason why the Buckeyes are undefeated. He's averaging 115 rushing yards and 186 passing yards per game, though he'll have to cut down on both his turnovers and the big hits he's taken.

2. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: If Miller hadn't been so valuable the first five weeks, Martinez would be the clear choice so far. He's leading the league in pass efficiency, has an 11-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and is the engine that drives the Big Ten's top offense.

3. Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State: McGloin still leads the Big Ten in passing yards, and his 10 passing touchdowns are second to only Martinez. He's also added four rushing scores. He has had a hand in all but two of Penn State's 16 touchdowns this season.

4. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: Bell continues to lead the conference in rushing, but two supbar games in losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State hurt his cause in this race. He can still pile up the stats in the next couple of months, however.

5. Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa: The Hawkeyes' walk-on has an incredible story and has been playing incredibly the past three games, racking up 507 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Not playing much the first two games put him behind the leaders for individual honors, but if he can keep this up he'll catch them in the end.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State: There might not be a better linebacker in the country right now than Mauti, who is the heart and soul of the Nittany Lions' defense. His two-interception performance against Illinois sealed his status as the Big Ten defensive MVP of September.

2. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: The senior had another sack against Marshall, giving him four this season. But the Boilers' overall defensive effort wasn't very good last week. Purdue will need Short to stand tall against Michigan this week. The next three weeks will be make-or-break time for his candidacy and his team's season.

3. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin: Borland was all over the place against Nebraska last week, and is having an outstanding season (43 tackles, three sacks, four pass breakups, one forced fumble).

4. D.L. Wilhite, DE, Minnesota: Wilhite paced the Big Ten in sacks (4.5), but the Gophers' poor overall defensive showing against Iowa last week dented his chances.

5. Will Compton, LB, Nebraska: Compton might have played his best game as a Husker in leading his team's second-half comeback against Wisconsin. He leads Nebraska in tackles (44) and has three sacks, along with two quarterback hurries.

Richter–Howard Receiver of the Year

1. Allen Robinson, Penn State: Robinson has more receiving yards (439) than anyone in the league and is tied for tops in the Big Ten in catches (32) and touchdowns (five). He might also be the league's most improved player after catching three balls as a freshman.

2. Antavian Edison, Purdue: The Boilermakers have a lot of weapons, but Edison is their clear go-to guy in the passing game. He has as many touchdown catches as Robinson in one less game.

3. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Abbrederis' value to the Badgers' offense is immense. He's leading the league in receiving yards per game (99.8) and might be ahead of Robinson had he not missed a game and a half with a chest injury/concussion.

4. Devin Smith, Ohio State: No receiver in the league has more highlights than Smith, who has caught game-winning bombs against Cal and Michigan State. Urban Meyer said after the Michigan State game that Smith is blossoming into a great player right before our eyes.
Recognizing the best and brightest from around the Big Ten in Week 5. This week's stickers have a defensive flavor to them ...


  • Penn State LB Michael Mauti: He has been the Big Ten's best linebacker this season and arguably the league's best defender, and he turned in his best performance in a 35-7 rout of Illinois. Mauti recorded two interceptions, returning one for 99 yards to set a new team record for longest interception return. He added six tackles, including a half-sack, as the Lions swarmed the Illini. Mauti has 48 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, to go along with two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery this season.
  • Northwestern QB/WR Kain Colter: One of the nation's most versatile players had quite a day against Indiana as Northwestern racked up a team-record 704 yards in the 44-29 win. Colter repeatedly gashed Indiana on the zone read and as a receiver in the passing game. He recorded career highs for rushing yards (161), receiving yards (131), receptions (9) and touchdowns (4, all rushing). Colter tied a single-game team record for both rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns. He averaged 11.5 yards per rush.
  • Ohio State LB Etienne Sabino: Perhaps Sabino is saving his best for last with the Buckeyes. The senior came through in a big way Saturday, recording a sack and two crucial quarterback hurries as Ohio State held off Michigan State 17-16. Sabino recorded eight tackles and a pass breakup in the win. Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller also merits a mention here.
  • Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez: The Huskers junior avenged the worst performance of his career last year in Madison with a strong one in Nebraska's come-from-behind 30-27 win against Wisconsin. Martinez finally showcased his running skills with 107 yards and a touchdown on just 13 carries. He also completed 17 of 29 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Huskers linebackers Will Compton and Alonzo Whaley also merit mentions here.
  • Iowa's linebackers: The Hawkeyes' defense bounced back in a big way against Minnesota, and linebackers Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey led the way. Hitchens and Morris combined for 22 tackles, two sacks and a pass breakup, while Kirksey had a 66-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Iowa's 31-13 win, to go along with a fumble recovery and six tackles.
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.

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Kevin Jairaj/US PresswireA new coordinator could help Penn State's Gerald Hodges put up even bigger numbers as a senior.
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.

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