SEC Bloggers: 5 Thoughts On LBs
Arkansas linebacker Jerry Franklin
Arkansas linebacker Jerry Franklin
Posted Jun 27, 2011

CFN's SEC bloggers put the conference's linebackers under the microscope.

Russ Mitchell: On who are the SEC's best returning LBs?

Year in and out the SEC produces some of the nation's best, most athletic and highly drafted linebackers. Not surprisingly, 2011 is shaping up to be more of the same.

Arkansas' Jerry Franklin returns for his senior campaign in Fayetteville. The 6-1, 250-pound inside linebacker has led the Hogs in tackles three years running, and looks to make it four. He's improved each year (87 in 2008, 94 in 2009 and 100 last year), and is a consummate leader.

Courtney Upshaw came back for his senior season to win a national championship, and he'll have a chance to do it while leading what appears to be one of the best defensive units in Capstone history. At 6-2, 265-pounds, Upshaw can not only tackle, he's both quick and fearsome – he had 7 sacks to go with 7.5 TFL, while causing four forced fumbles. Playing beside juniors Dont'a Hightower, Jr. and Nico Johnson means teams won't be able to key on Upshaw – which should make all three of them better. Not to mention the defense as a whole.

When you play for Vanderbilt and still stand out, you know you're a special talent. Chris Marve returns for his senior season in Nashville, and the 6 foot, 235-pounder looks to improve on a 2010 that saw him make 2nd Team All SEC - after suffering a mid-season knee injury. In 2009, Marve led the ‘Dores with 121 tackles…expect more of that form in 2011.

Honorable Mention: Dont'a Hightower, JR, Alabama; Ryan Baker, SR, LSU; Jonathan Bostic, JR, Florida; Nico Johnson, JR, Alabama; Jerico Nelson, SR, Arkansas; Ryan Baker, SR, LSU; Danny Trevathan, SR, Kentucky

Brian Harbach: Who Will Be the Next Breakout LB?

There are many great options for breakout linebackers this fall. Georiga's Jarvis Jones transferred from Southern Cal and sat out last year... he should be an impact player for the Bulldogs. Former Clemson LB Brandon Maye could help shore up some big losses for MSU. Last year's No. 1 high school player in the country, Ronald Powell, should shine for the Gators.

Those three are great choices, but a little too obvious so instead little known Kevin Minter is going to get some love as this year's Breakout LB. There are a lot of reasons to like Minter, he played behind Kelvin Sheppard last year and that is one great linebacker to learn from. Minter has good size at 225 pounds and a little over six feet. But the biggest reason to love Minter is the four guys in front of him.

John Chavis knows how to coach defensive linemen and the middle linebacker in Chavis' defense has always shined, sometimes because they were great but mostly because they knew how to tackle after the D-Line ate up all the blockers. Minter is a good tackler and a smart player, he should be able to put up monstrous stats as the big guys up front do all the dirty work. Minter can make the same impact that Sheppard did a year ago in the stat sheet and on the field.

Billy Gomila: On which team has the most riding on the LB position?

The secondary is an embarrassment of riches, and the defensive line is deep and talented. The position that will determine whether LSU has a championship-caliber defense in 2011 or not is certainly linebacker. That's a little odd to say with two starters returning, including an all-SEC candidate in Ryan Baker, but replacing last year's defensive leader in middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard won't be easy.

The most likely candidate is Kevin Minter, a heralded recruit, but one that saw very little game-action last year as a backup. Minter has decent size and has flashed some athleticism, but he won't have long to find his bearings with the Tigers' schedule. On the strongside, Stefoin Francois returns after a rather uninspiring first season in the line up (37 tackles, 2 TFLs). He rarely stayed on the field in passing situations, and was frequently picked on by opposing offenses when he did. He may be pushed by recently converted safety Karnell Hatcher or incoming recruit Trevon Randle. And while there's a lot to like about Baker -- he has explosive speed and is a ferocious tackler -- his game still needs some refinement. Mental mistakes like biting on misdirection and losing gap containment were costly in last year's losses to Auburn and Arkansas and also the shootout versus Ole Miss.

Obviously, there's talent on hand and defensive coordinator John Chavis has earned a reputation as one of the country's best linebacker coaches over the last 20 years, but the inexperience is jarring. Three seniors in the entire two-deep, one of whom just moved to the position this spring. The rest are sophomores and freshman that won't have much of a grace period, as September features three road games against three of the nation's best offensive minds -- Chip Kelly, Dana Holgorsen and Dan Mullen. On-the-job training could be costly.

Gabe Harris: On which SEC school is today's LB U?

Linebacker has always been the pride and joy of Alabama football. From Lee Roy Jordan to Cornelius Bennett to Derrick Thomas, Alabama has had more than it's fair share of great linebackers.

Nothing has changed since Nick Saban took over as head coach. While he is known as a defensive backs coach, it's his linebackers that have made his defenses dominant. No one has exemplified that better than Rolando McClain. McClain has been one of the best linebackers the SEC has seen in some time and he played like it from the moment he stepped on campus. He started 8 of 13 games as a true freshman and finished his junior year as SEC Defensive Player of the Year before entering the NFL.

This year's lineup is the best in the SEC. Jerrell Harris, Courtney Upshaw, Nico Johnson, and Dont'a Hightower exited spring as the starters in Alabama's 3-4 scheme. Don't expect much of a dropoff when the backups come in either. C.J. Moseley and Jonathan Atchison would start for most teams in the SEC and they are only sophomores. This group has a lot of experience to go with their talent and that spells trouble for opposing running backs.

Saban has brought back LBU to Alabama and it does not look like they are giving that title up anytime soon.

Barrett Sallee: On who will be the conference's next first round linebacker?

Whoever it is, it's going to be an Alabama player.

The Crimson Tide is absolutely stacked at linebacker this season - even by Alabama standards. Leading the way is junior Dont'a Hightower, followed closely by senior Courtney Upshaw and sophomore C.J. Mosley. Since I have to pick one to be the next first round pick at linebacker, I'm going to go with Hightower, but I wouldn't be surprised if I'm wrong, and Upshaw jumps him.

Hightower has all of the skills that NFL scouts slobber over. He's the unquestioned leader of the ultra-talented Tide defense, has the football IQ to be the quarterback of the field under head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart (not an easy task), and at 6-4, 260 pounds, has the size and athleticism to withstand the pounding at the next level.

Alabama has been churning out linebacker talent under Saban, and it's not by accident. The system Saban and Smart runs prepares linebackers for the next level better than any other system in the SEC. Dont'a Hightower will be another example of that in late April 2012, where he will walk across the stage and shake Roger Goodell's hand as a first round draft pick (well...assuming there's an NFL Draft).

Please follow Russ Mitchell on Twitter @russmitchellsec, Brian Harbach @harbabd, Gabe Harris @gpharris and Barrett Sallee @barrettsallee.