The Big Ten has always had great linebackers, whether we're talking about the days of Dick Butkus at Illinois, A.J. Hawk at Ohio State or Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern—just about every Big Ten team has their iconic linebacker.
However, not every year produces an outstanding crop of linebackers and coming into 2013, the Big Ten was looking to show that a less-than-stellar 2012 season by the group as a whole was a fluke.
With names like Chris Borland, Max Bullough and Ryan Shazier all coming back, it was obvious that there were stars. The question was would anyone else step up to the plate and prove the race for the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year Award would be more than a three-horse race.
Following three weeks of the season one thing is becoming clear—the Big Ten is deeper than originally thought at the position—and that's saying a lot considering how deep some thought the league already was.
Just how deep is this group in 2013?
Try, eight of the top-11 tacklers in the Big Ten are from the linebacker position and that doesn't even include powerhouse Max Bullough.
Bullough has just 15 tackles on the season, but the defense he is a part of has allowed just 183 total plays to opposing teams. That means he has been in on the tackle in eight percent of defensive plays. He has added 2.5 tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries and one pass break up to the mix as well.
Currently, Illinois has two of the top three tacklers in the conference. Jonathan Brown leads the league in tackles with 38 (2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks) and sophomore Mason Monheim, for some of the struggles he had early on, is third with 30 tackles to his name.
Before the season, who would've guessed that that would have been the case?
In addition to Brown and Monheim, the top-10 tackler's list also includes Anthony Hitchens (Iowa), Christian Kirksey (Iowa), David Cooper (Indiana), Chris Borland (Wisconsin), Ryan Shazier (Ohio State) and Chi Chi Ariguzo (Northwestern).
Once again, not exactly a who's who of names from before the season. However, once you take a look at the tape on these guys you begin to see it is more than just the numbers—it's what is behind those numbers that should be impressing you.
Brown has been flat out dominate in games for the Illini and David Cooper of Indiana has been a good playmaker for a team lacking them on defense.
Iowa's trio of senior linebackers have been more than just tackling machines this year and they're doing it closer to the line of scrimmage, an issue Iowa had last year. Heck, Anthony Hitchens' one sack is half of the Hawkeyes' total on the season so far.
What has been even more impressive has been the performance of some of the young guns of the position. Guys like Josh Banderas (Nebraska) and T.J. Simmons (Indiana) have shown up, regardless of what is going on around them.
Banderas has 16 tackles, one tackle for loss, a pass break up and a quarterback hurry through three games.
Simmons has 21 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss to his name early on his career and he appears to have cemented a position on the defense based on his talent and growth from game one to today.
Things are about as deep, talent-wise, as the Big Ten has had and the mix of youth and star power make this a very dangerous group heading into conference play.
While the individual numbers have been impressive, what is even more telling are some of the team numbers.
Currently, five Big Ten teams are all allowing under 100 yards rushing per game to their opposition this season. That list is also a who's who of the best defenses in the league, with Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa composing those five teams holding opponents to under 100 yards rushing.
That should tell you all you need to know about how good this crop of linebackers are. Without stellar linebacker play you don't get those kind of numbers happening.
So, as the conference contenders begin to separate themselves in the coming weeks, look towards the linebacker group across the league to have a big time role in what goes down.
*Andy Coppens is the lead writer for the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter for more news and views from across Big Ten country.