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Ranking the SEC’s top 10 linebackers of the BCS era

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It’s time to turn our attention to another position the SEC is known for – hard-hitting linebackers. The SEC has had some immensely talented linebackers storm through the BCS era, and naming 10 of them was almost as difficult as escaping one.

This was the toughest ranking so far – tougher than defensive linemen and quarterbacks. How do you compare an 4-3 inside linebacker to a 3-4 outside linebacker?

Here are the SEC’s top 10 linebackers during the BCS era:

1. Patrick Willis, Ole Miss (2003-06)
Notable stats: 265 tackles, 21 TFL
Skinny: Not only does Patrick Willis have one of the best stories, but he also tops the list of SEC linebackers. The two-time All-American won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award in 2006, along with winning the Butkus, Jack Lambert and Conerly Trophies. Willis is loaded with the best makeup of raw skills – he’s fast and strong, but even in college his football IQ and instincts were off the charts. He led the nation in solo tackles his junior year and led the SEC in tackles his senior season. Willis entered Ole Miss as a nobody and exited the best SEC linebacker of the BCS era. 

2. Al Wilson, Tennessee (1995-98)
Notable stats: 77 tackles in ‘98
Skinny: Wilson, like Willis, was a Tennessee native, and you can make the argument that he was the best linebacker to have played in the BCS era, even though it was for only one season. When former players talk about Al Wilson, they talk about not only the dynamic player he was, but also his leadership. Wilson won two SEC Championships and played in one undefeated ’98 national championship. The two-time All-SEC selection racked up 77 tackles despite missing three games in the Vols’ historic ’98 season.

3. DeMeco Ryans, Alabama (2002-05)
Notable stats: 307 tackles
Skinny: Ryans started out playing on special teams and as a reserve LB role for the Tide. He became the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award in 2005, along with being a first-team All-SEC performer and a unanimous All-American, while also winning the Lott Trophy and the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Ryans was a finalist for the Butkus, Draddy, Nagursky and the Lombardi honors. Aside from Willis or Wilson, Ryans was the most complete linebacker.

4. Rolando McClain, Alabama (2007-09)
Notable stats: 275 tackles, 7 sacks
Skinny: Don’t get it twisted – the Alabama Rolando McClain was one of the best linebackers of the BCS era. He was a first-team All-SEC performer in 2008-09, and he was a unanimous All-American in ’09. He won the Butkus and Lambert honors, was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and won a national championship all in 2009. He was the lifeblood for Nick Saban and Alabama’s SEC-leading defense.

5. Brandon Spikes, Florida (2006-09)
Notable stats: 307 tackles, 31.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks
Skinny: Brandon Spikes was a two-time All-American and three-time All-SEC player for the Gators. Spikes commanded the middle of an NFL-filled defense for Urban Meyer. Spikes was a two-time captain for the winningest class in SEC history, going 48-7 over four years. Spikes set the tone for the Gators’ stingy defense.

6. Jarvis Jones, Georgia (2011-12)
Notable stats: 28 sacks, 44 TFL
Skinny: The Southern Cal transfer was a perfect fit for Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense. Jones excelled as the SEC’s most electric pass rusher the last two seasons, racking up 28 total sacks and 44 tackles for loss. Jones broke David Pollack’s single-season sack record with 14.5, and he led the country in sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles (7). The two-time All-American in as many seasons won the Lambert Award in 2012.

7. Mike Peterson, Florida (1995-98)
Notable stats: 249 tackles, 13 TFL, 8.5 sacks
Skinny: Peterson started 24 games and played in 42 during his Gator career. He helped the Gators win the 1996 national championship, and he racked up 249 career tackles, including 13 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He was a first-team All-SEC and All-American during his senior season. He went on to become the NFL’s leading tackler in 2000.

8. Jevon Kearse, OLB, Florida (1995-98)
Notable stats: 145 tackles, 34.5 TFL, 16.5 sacks
Skinny: Kearse was the Jadeveon Clowney before Clowney, and he was appropriately nicknamed the Freak due to his 6-4, 265-pound frame and 86-inch wingspan. He entered Florida as a safety and blew into one of the best rush linebackers in the BCS era who moonlighted as a rush end. Kearse only played one season in the BCS, and he was a first-team All-American in ’98 and was a finalist for the Butkus, Bednarik and Lombardi Awards.

9. Karlos Dansby, Auburn (2001-03)
Notable stats: 219 tackles, 36 TFL, 10 sacks, 8 INTs
Skinny: Like Kearse, Dansby entered Auburn as a safety, only to blow into an All-SEC outside linebacker and one of the premier defenders in college football. He was a two-time All-SEC choice and a 2003 first-team All-American. He was invited to the 2001 ESPYs for his interception-pass against North Carolina in the Peach Bowl.

10. Bradie James, LSU (1999-02)
Notable stats: 418 tackles, 33 TFL, 14 sacks
Skinny: James was a first-team All-American as a senior, and he became just the second player in LSU history to rack up over 400 tackles, including a school record 154 in 2002. He was a two-time All-SEC performer and was the MVP of the 2000 Peach Bowl. His junior season, LSU’s defensive unit was called the “James Gang Defense”. He played three years as the weakside linebacker before becoming the middle linebacker his senior year.

Photo Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports





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Comments 13

  1. Chris Marve – 398 career tackles, 30 TFL, 9.5 Sacks, 8 FF…just sayin

  2. Guess your not counting MIZZOU in your list…. I can let it slide.

    Otherwise I would think Sean Weatherspoon would have been included, right?
    http://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/players/sean-weatherspoon-1.html

    M-I-Z!

  3. Right on with Patrick Willis. DeMeco Ryans was a great leader on the ’05 Tide defense. I can still remember the hit he put on Chris Leak in the Florida game. And even though I’ve always sided with Alabama, I enjoyed watching Dansby play. I wish Rolando would’ve come back for his final year. He would have lined up alongside Donta’ Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, creating one of the scariest LB corps of all time. Didn’t Boss Bailey play in the BCS era? And in response AnchorDOWN32, Chris Marve was great, but if anyone from Vanderbilt makes it, it should be Jamie Winborn.

  4. Another tough list to come up with, for sure. I feel a legitimate argument can be made for numerous others over the last 3, but can’t disagree with those who are actually on the list.

  5. Rivals.com ranked Willis as a 3* LB, #60 at his position. I remember the main thing both his college coaches and pro scouts talked about was not so much his talent, but how he was a ridiculously hard worker with an insane motor. He never gave less than maximum effort on anything.