Continuing our evaluation of the position units, we rank the Big East Linebacker corps. There is a lot of disparity from end of the spectrum to the other.
1. Rutgers – The Knights landed two players on the Butkus Award watch list for the nation’s best linebacker: Khaseem Greene (1st team All-Big East, 141 tackles in 2011) and Steve Beauharnais (77 tackles, 11 for a loss). One only one other Big East player (Sio Moore) shared that distinction. Joining them in the starting lineup will be Jamal Merrell. This unit will be all the better because of the strength the defensive line and secondary. If defense wins championships …
2. UConn – Sio Moore is the lynchpin of the Huskies defense. He was behind only Trevardo Williams in sacks last season, and led the team in tackles for a loss (9.5). Jory Johnson led the Huskies in tackles (97) and had seven for a loss. Yawin Smallwood came on strong last year and impressed especially as a pass defender. Behind them are players who could be strating elsewhere: Maryland transfer Ryan Donohue and redshirts Jefferson Ashiru and Marquise Vann.
3. South Florida – DeDe Lattimore was the Bulls top tackler in 2011 (94), including sacks (seven) and tackles for a loss (six). He is joined by Sam Barrington and Michael Lanaris who were right behind Lattimore in tackles. Mike Jeune is also a veteran on the two-deep. Reshard Cliett and Hans Louis are likely to round out the unit, to form a tremendous front seven with the Bulls line.
4. Syracuse Orange – The Orange lost a lot of defensive talent in 2011, but gained a lot of experience in the process. This year it returns all its starters, including 2nd Team All-Big East honoree Marquis Spruill, Dan Vaughan (team-leading 72 tackles) and Dyshawn Davis (6.5 tackles for loss). Siriki Diabate, Cameron Lynch and newcomer Oliver Vigille fill out the unit.
5. Louisville Cardinals – The Cards had a tremendous run defense last year, allowing only 101 yards per game on average (10th nationally). Though they lose some key members of that defense, Preston Brown (84 tackles) returns to build on that success. He’ll be joined in the starting lineup by veteran Daniel Brown and Deiontrez Mount. Behind them are George Durant and Keith Brown. They’ll have their work cut out to repeat last year’s performance.
6. Pittsburgh Panthers – The Panthers are returning to a 4-3 scheme this year and have some new faces at this position. Todd Thomas is only a sophomore but probably is the most talented. Shane Gordon and Eric Williams will likely start in front of Nicholas Grigsby, Dan Mason and Emanuel Rackard. The secondary is sound and the line has some veterans that should lend some support.
7. Cincinnati Bearcats – The Bearcats suffered some defensive roster losses in the offseason that will leave a void. Malik Bomar and Nick Temple return to the lineup as does Solomon Tentman. The two-deep is rounded out by Greg Blair, Corey Mason and probably an underclassman. These are not household names and the unit is not likely to set a lot of records in 2012.
8. Temple Owls – The Owls had a great defense in their last season in the Mid-America Conference. For their first season in the Big East they have a tougher schedule. Blaze Caponegro is back along with converted running back Ahkeem Smith. Redshirt Nate Smith or Olaniyi Adewole will likely round out the starting unit. Behind them are Gary Onuekwusi, Praise Martin-Oquike and Matt Falcone.