B/R CFB 250: Top 18 Inside Linebackers in College Football

Michael FelderNational CFB Lead WriterDecember 23, 2013

B/R CFB 250: Top 18 Inside Linebackers in College Football

0 of 18

    Getty Images

    Editor's note: This is the 10th installment in Bleacher Report's CFB 250 for the 2013 season. This signature series runs through December, with National College Football Lead Writer Michael Felder ranking the best players at every position. You can read more about the series in this introductory article. See the CFB 250 page for more rankings.

    Linebackers in today’s game are asked to do so many different things. Given the prevalence of high-tempo, spread-based systems, playing an inside linebacker spot often includes as much pass coverage as it does run defense.

    In this category, the B/R CFB 250 team took a look at multiple aspects of inside linebacker play in an effort to rank the nation’s best. These interior guys play in 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, but all patrol the middle of the field.

    After looking at pass rushing, run defense, pass coverage and tackling skills, we put together this ranking. If there were any ties, the edge went to the player we would rather have.

    Keep in mind, these inside linebackers are being rated on their performance in college, not NFL potential. But to see where these players may go in the NFL draft (whether they are eligible in 2014 or later), check out Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller's projections at the end of each player slide.

     

     

18. Stephone Anthony, Clemson

1 of 18

    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    11/15

    Anthony is a solid linebacker in the Tigers’ pressure packages. He is capable of shooting the gap to get to the quarterback, as evidenced by his sack total. He is not afraid to mix it up inside and has the size to shed blockers.

    Run Defense

    30/35

    Anthony has taken a major positive step in run defense in 2013, becoming a player who is extremely comfortable getting downhill. He understands the system and makes no qualms about hammering linemen to give his teammates a lane to make a tackle.

    Coverage

    7/15

    The Clemson linebacker is better coming downhill, trying to get to the quarterback, when he is in the game during passing scenarios than when he is backing up into coverage. He is not the guy teams want playing in space.

    Tackling

    30/35

    This is another element in which Anthony has improved in 2013. He has become a more sure tackler. Once he gets to the ball-carrier, he packs a wallop and gets them down on the ground. His angles and approach to the tackle have also improved.

    Overall

    78/100

    Anthony has quietly emerged as a quality linebacker. Being in year two under coordinator Brent Venables has helped him become a reliable linebacker.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fourth round. Has NFL speed, but instincts must improve before he's pro-ready.

17. Michael Rose, Nebraska

2 of 18

    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    9/15

    Rose is a smallish defender who is better suited working into coverage than he is adding himself to the pass rush. The Huskers have newcomer Randy Gregory to generate pressure, and that’s a major plus.

    Run Defense

    29/35

    There are still gaps in Rose’s game, but he’s come on in the second half of the season as a strong run defender. Moving to the interior of the defense has allowed him to flow inside out, and he can track ball-carriers as the edge defenders work to force the run back inside.

    Coverage

    9/15

    As an athlete, Rose is fluid in coverage. The big transition for him will come with moving from being a good athlete in coverage to being comfortable understanding what to do upon getting to his landmarks. However, he is capable of making plays in the back end.

    Tackling

    31/35

    The Huskers redshirt freshman misses tackles because of his speed, something he has improved throughout the season. Rose is keeping his head behind the ball, tracking ball-carriers and consistently bringing them down.

    Overall

    78/100

    Rose had some issues getting onto the field early for Nebraska, but in the second half of the season he has come on quite strong. He can get to the football. Thanks to his speed, he’s one of the few outside linebackers who is comfortable making plays out by the numbers.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Third round.  A ton of potential, but needs to get stronger at the point of attack.

16. D.J. Welter, LSU

3 of 18

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    11/15

    Welter comes off the field in a lot of passing situations, but he has shown that he can pressure the quarterback when teams throw in run situations.

    Run Defense

    32/35

    The first-year starter is at his best against the run, especially interior runs. He’s an old-school linebacker who wants to get downhill first and plug the hole as the play develops. Welter can track the ball backside and sit on cutback lanes as well.

    Coverage

    7/15

    Welter’s a liability in man coverage, as are many true interior linebackers, hence the Tigers getting him off the field in true passing downs. He will push to wall off the interior, but LSU is better off with a quicker player in the game in most situations.

    Tackling

    29/35

    The speed that makes him struggle in coverage also comes into play in some of his tackling. Welter has occasionally come up a step short of making the tackle. That’s not about his reads in run defense, but rather, his ability to get lateral in a hurry.

    Overall

    79/100

    Welter is a quality true middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He’s at his best between the tackles. As he gets farther outside the tackles or away from the line of scrimmage, he becomes less of an asset.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fourth round. Has the tools to be a first-rounder, but must get stronger and stay eligible.

15. Myles Jack, UCLA

4 of 18

    Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sport

     

    Pass Rush

    7/15

    Jack is not a pass-rusher in the slightest. He’s a bigger asset getting into coverage for the Bruins. Instead of wasting the speedy linebacker by allowing him to be swallowed up by linemen, UCLA's staff lets him do what he does best: run.

    Run Defense

    30/35

    The freshman is a key contributor against the run because of his speed. He comes downhill from the inside out and makes tackles as runs are turned back inside by the Bruins front.

    Coverage

    14/15

    Jack is one of the nation’s best linebackers in coverage. He is comfortable moving backward and understands how to track potential receivers while sinking into his zone.

    Tackling

    29/35

    Even as a true freshman, Jack’s one of the nation’s better tacklers. His speed allows him to get to ball-carriers from all over the field, and he is a sure tackler when he gets to the football.

    Overall

    80/100

    Jack is a fighter at the position. He’s comfortable lining up inside and outside, and that versatility helps him be a player against both the run and the pass. He’s strong in coverage, something that many interior players do not bring to the table.

    NFL Draft Projection

    First round. Future NFL star on either side of the ball.

14. Dalton Santos, Texas

5 of 18

    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    8/15

    Given his role on the team, Santos is a bigger help in coverage, thus his inactivity in the pass-rush element for the Longhorns. He’s a fluid athlete, even as a bigger body, and that helps more in coverage, especially since the ‘Horns have Jackson Jeffcoat to come off the edge.

    Run Defense

    30/35

    Santos is another rules player who sticks his nose in quickly in the run game. He works to both hammer and splatter runs to his teammates in addition to shooting run-through lanes when given the opportunity.

    Coverage

    10/15

    Santos is actually quite fluid in coverage. That’s why the Longhorns have no problem keeping him on the field in throwing situations. He transitions from forward to backward well and can break on the ball smoothly.

    Tackling

    32/35

    The Texas inside linebacker is a good tackler. He has good speed, which allows him to get to the ball-carrier and put him on the turf. Santos closes the gate well, can shed blockers and still works to secure the tackle.

    Overall

    80/100

    He’s a quality interior linebacker who is comfortable filling the spill role or making the tackles himself. He works his rules and, depending upon the looks being shown to him, understands how to insert himself into the play.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fourth round. A ton of potential, but his on-field impact hasn't been there.

13. Jack Tyler, Virginia Tech

6 of 18

    Geoff Burke/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    11/15

    Tyler is good getting after the quarterback. He is part of the reason Bud Foster is so confident dialing up odd pressure looks to try to confuse quarterbacks and offensive linemen.

    Run Defense

    31/35

    Tyler makes this list along with his fellow inside linebacker because they work so well in tandem. Tyler is the fill player. He has a knack for scraping to find the run lanes and get to the running back as Tariq Edwards turns the runs inside or forces them to bounce wide.

    Coverage

    8/15

    Unlike his linebacking partner, Tyler is much better downhill than in space. That means he is added to the rush more often than he is asked to sink into coverage. He’s a good athlete going forward, but not the best option moving away from the line.

    Tackling

    31/35

    Tyler is a very good and sure tackler. He gets bodies on the ground and does it as close to the line of scrimmage as possible. He runs well laterally and tracks the ball while recognizing when players will cut back so that he can fill.

    Overall

    81/100

    The Hokies have got a good one in Tyler. He’s a hard-nosed player who focuses on stopping the run first. He’s tracks the ball well and can get to the quarterback in passing situations. 

    NFL Draft Projection

    Seventh round. Instinctive and aggressive, but doesn't have NFL size.

12. Desmond Morgan, Michigan

7 of 18

    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    9/15

    Morgan is another linebacker who is not added to the rush often, but he understands his role when given the opportunity. He’s a splatter player who flashes early to give other rushers a chance to get to the quarterback.

    Run Defense

    32/35

    Morgan makes first contact with lead blockers and helps spill runs to the edge so that James Ross III can make the tackle in a run-through lane. He fits well into the defense and truly understands his run fits.

    Coverage

    9/15

    The Michigan "Mike" linebacker has improved his ability in coverage this season. He is still not proficient at walling off the middle, and that has hurt the Wolverines at times.

    Tackling

    31/35

    Known primarily for his ability to fill immediately and push runs to his teammates, Morgan is an underrated tackler. He does have the ability to defeat a block and make a play. And when he gets into the open field, he closes down the cutback lane well.

    Overall

    81/100

    An underrated player, Morgan understands where he fits in defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s scheme. When the tackle is there, he makes it, but he’s also comfortable when the goal is to help his teammates get to the ball.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Sixth round. Built like a safety, but runs like a middle linebacker.

11. Tariq Edwards, Virginia Tech

8 of 18

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    10/15

    Edwards is the rare linebacker who can do it all. He’s extremely comfortable in the pass rush, coming off the edge or through the interior to disrupt the quarterback. He’s not only good at getting to the quarterback, but at flushing the passer to other defenders.

    Run Defense

    30/35

    The Hokies inside linebacker is a run-first player at his core. Every first step is down toward the line, and that is what defensive coordinator Bud Foster is looking for out of his players. Edwards gets down into the line quickly and spills the run wide to his athletic teammates.

    Coverage

    12/15

    The Hokies operate out of a base 4-2-5 defense, and because of that, they do not make a lot of situational substitutions. As a result, Edwards is comfortable playing the pass, can track running backs and has no problem sinking with a quarterback to mirror the drop.

    Tackling

    30/35

    Edwards certainly makes his fair share of tackles, especially when presented with a run lane or a chance to get to a running back in the backfield. He tracks the ball well from the inside to the edge and can run down his mistakes.

    Overall

    82/100

    In Edwards, the Hokies have a solid linebacker who is capable of stopping the run first and being active against the pass second. He can get after the quarterback, get back into coverage and is stout against the run.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Seventh round. Athletic, but struggles to get off blocks to make plays.

10. Curtis Grant, Ohio State

9 of 18

    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

     

    Pass Rush

    9/15

    Grant is not a pass-rush guy and is not added to that mix very often for the Buckeyes. As a result, he does not have a large number of sacks or quarterback pressures.

    Run Defense

    32/35

    The Buckeyes junior is another true downhill player. Although most people look at tackles as an indicator of run defense, Grant’s contribution comes in more than just tackles. He’s a player who splatters runs to his outside defenders, allowing guys to make tackles in run-through lanes.

    Coverage

    10/15

    Adequate is the best word to describe Grant in coverage, as he possesses the athleticism and know-how to succeed in that area. His big move comes with getting more comfortable understanding how to relate his drops to the quarterback and possible route combinations around him.

    Tackling

    31/35

    Although Grant is not a tackling machine like teammate Ryan Shazier, when the opportunity presents itself, he does not hesitate to get the ball-carrier on the ground. He’s a sure tackler who tracks offensive players well.

    Overall

    82/100

    Grant often goes unnoticed in the Buckeyes’ linebacking group because he lacks flash. However, in that scheme, he collides with lead blockers and linemen, spilling runs to Noah Spence and Shazier. That’s an underrated skill at the position, but a must for a defensive system to work.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fourth round. Can play inside or outside linebacker, just has to improve his strength.

9. Hayes Pullard, USC

10 of 18

    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    10/15

    Pullard can push to the quarterback when given the opportunity. When he is added to the rush, he can also allow his teammates to get freed up by drawing the protection.

    Run Defense

    31/35

    The USC linebacker is a quality run defender who fits well into the new-look Trojans defense. As the line occupies gaps, Pullard is free to run through in pursuit, and he makes tackles well as the run-through player.

    Coverage

    11/15

    As USC’s best interior linebacker, Pullard is comfortable in coverage when given the chance. He’s quick enough to cover running backs and is capable of going from checking the run to sinking into coverage.

    Tackling

    30/35

    Pullard tracks the ball well and has gone from a question mark in the new scheme to a great fit under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast. He scrapes across to the play side well and then squares up to consistently get the ball-carrier down.

    Overall

    82/100

    Pullard is another linebacker moving from the 4-3 into more of a 3-4 role who transitioned well and found a way to continue playing at a high level. Pullard moves well in the box, and the new scheme helps ensure that he excels in tracking down ball-carriers.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Second round. Aggressive and fast, but undersized for the inside.

8. Antonio Morrison, Florida

11 of 18

    Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

     

    Pass Rush

    9/15

    Morrison, much like the rest of the Gators team after the loss of Dominique Easley, was not much of a pass-rusher. With no interior presence, the middle was clogged up and there was no way to come off the edge and bring heat.

    Run Defense

    32/35

    Here is where Morrison excelled. He is a downhill player who wants to collide with linemen and backs at the line of scrimmage and make plays. He’s a comfortable scrape player to the edge and fills holes with strength.

    Coverage

    10/15

    Morrison understands where to get in his drops, but he is not a fluid player in space against the pass.

    Tackling

    31/35

    Morrison is a tackling machine. He flies to the football, keeping his head behind the ball-carrier and exploding to make tackles. Morrison set the tone in the interior for that defense.

    Overall

    82/100

    The Gators backer was a force when he was healthy, worthy of being one of the top linebackers in the nation. He filled holes well, scraped to contact and always looked to play down the hill.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fourth round. Not fast enough for a smaller body type.

7. Eric Kendricks, UCLA

12 of 18

    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

     

    Pass Rush

    9/15

    Kendricks is at his best in coverage, leaving him out of the pass-rush mix for the Bruins. It helps that in rush scenarios, Anthony Barr is on the edge, reducing the need for blitzers from the interior.

    Run Defense

    30/35

    The UCLA junior is a prime example of the versatility that coaches are looking for out of the linebacker position. Although he is not the prototype, Kendricks knows how to get downhill, is fast enough to replace in a vacated gap and wants to tackle at the point of impact.

    Coverage

    13/15

    As a smaller player, Kendrick has the ability and the fluidity to be exceptional in coverage. He can open his hips, is comfortable moving away from the line of scrimmage and understands how to carry receivers in the open field.

    Tackling

    31/35

    Kendricks is a tackling machine. He is the type of player who scrapes across the top well, and because his teammates can set the edge, he runs right into the tackles. He has the speed to track down runs to both sides of the formation.

    Overall

    83/100

    He’s another in the new breed of inside linebackers. Kendricks runs very well, understands where he fits in the defense and wants to make tackles at the line of scrimmage. He’s also solid against the pass, something that is a must in today’s college football world.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Third round. Has all the tools, but struggled to stay healthy in '13.

6. Preston Brown, Louisville

13 of 18

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    11/15

    Brown is another linebacker who knows how to get to the quarterback. His team has used the blitz packages well in 2013, and he's shown an ability to bring pressure and flash to get his teammates loose.

    Run Defense

    32/35

    Brown is a big-bodied, downhill player. He’s at his best moving toward the line of scrimmage and sifting through the wash to make a play. He can take on bigger-bodied linemen, shed and still make tackles.

    Coverage

    9/15

    Although he is a bigger guy, Brown looks comfortable in coverage. He recognizes landmarks, can move out of the backfield to track linebackers and, if pressed into carrying crossers, knows how to trail with good angles.

    Tackling

    31/35

    He’s another tackling machine, thanks to Louisville allowing him to scrape and funneling plays to its interior backer. Brown gets downhill in a hurry, forces backs to make a decision and reacts well to close the gap and get them on the ground.

    Overall

    83/100

    Brown’s another in a crowded cast of very good interior linebackers. With Louisville showing true comfort in going from 4-3 to 3-4 looks, Brown’s ability to excel in both schemes makes him a valuable asset.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Seventh round. A big, strong player, but lacks speed.

5. Chris Borland, Wisconsin

14 of 18

    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

     

    Pass Rush

    12/15

    Borland is adept at getting active behind the line of scrimmage when he’s added to the pass rush. He’s a banger who will take on a blocker and pressure an interior lineman to help get teammates free.

    Run Defense

    33/35

    Borland excels against the run. He’s a true banger when pushing to stop it. He is the rare linebacker who is as good at hammering and splattering runs as he is shedding blocks to make tackles.

    Coverage

    7/15

    Borland is not great in coverage; however, he does show a knack for driving to the football after getting to his landmark. He can come downhill to make a tackle, and that is a plus.

    Tackling

    31/35

    Borland comes onto the list as a tackling machine at this position. He is a thumper who wants to stick his nose into the mix and get ball-carriers on the ground.

    Overall

    83/100

    Another prototypical interior linebacker, Borland can take on blocks, shed blocks and get to the ball even at 5'11". He brings plenty of power to the field. He is an aggressive player who challenges every play.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Late second round. Doesn't have NFL height, but is a playmaker around the ball.

4. Shayne Skov, Stanford

15 of 18

    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    14/15

    Skov has lined up inside and outside for the Cardinal, and from the inside spot, he brings plenty of understanding in the pass-rush game. The linebacker knows how to work stunts and attack weaknesses on the offensive line in an effort to not only free himself for plays, but to ensure teammates come unblocked and get to the passer.

    Run Defense

    33/35

    Skov is another pure downhill-run defender. He is a player whose first steps are toward the line of scrimmage, and that helps him get there and be disruptive between the tackles. Skov has also shown the athleticism to play against the zone read.

    Coverage

    7/15

    The Stanford senior is best suited as an added rusher, not a pass defender. He understands the landmarks, but struggles to open his hips and run after committing to stopping the run first.

    Tackling

    30/35

    He is a good tackler who wants to come up and be physical, especially in the run game. Even when he approaches out of control, Skov understands when to hammer and when to splatter runs, giving his teammates a chance to clean up after him.

    Overall

    84/100

    He is one of the nation’s better interior linebackers. Skov is great between the hashmarks. He wants to come up and make tackles, and the senior delivers a blow when he gets a shot to make a play behind the line of scrimmage.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Early second round. Bounced back after a rough 2012 to once again look like a 10-year NFL starter.

3. Telvin Smith, Florida State

16 of 18

    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    10/15

    Smith can be a good pass-rusher, but simply is lacking for opportunities to get after the quarterback because he’s a more valuable asset in pass coverage. The ability to get downhill is there. He’s just simply better suited for elsewhere.

    Run Defense

    29/35

    Although Smith is not the prototypical downhill-first player, his speed helps him scrape across to make plays in dynamic fashion. He gets downhill in a hurry despite not being the shed-type linebacker who is prepared to take on blocks.

    Coverage

    15/15

    Like C.J. Mosley, Smith is a great asset in pass coverage. The Florida State linebacker can run with backs and tight ends, and he is extremely comfortable in zone coverage carrying or passing off crossers.

    Tackling

    31/35

    Smith is a good and sure tackler. His speed allows him to track down the run from the backside, and although he is a smaller player in size, his speed allows him to bring down bigger ball-carriers. No one outruns him to the edge, which is a major plus.

    Overall

    85/100

    He’s been a true revelation at the position for the Seminoles. Smith filled a void that allowed Florida State to get its best athletes all over the field. He is not the prototype, but he is exactly what the ‘Noles needed on the interior of their defense.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Second round. A tremendous athlete, but has the body of a safety.

2. Max Bullough, Michigan State

17 of 18

    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

     

    Pass Rush

    12/15

    Bullough is one of the better rushers at the position because he has to be. His defense uses pressures to get to the quarterback, and that push to generate pressure means the linebackers have to be comfortable and understand how to reach the QB. Although Bullough doesn't have a high sack total, he does flush the pocket extremely well.

    Run Defense

    32/35

    Bullough is at his best playing downhill, especially against the inside run. The Spartans senior is a physical presence who takes on blocks, sheds linemen and still makes a big impact on the play despite battling through contact.

    Coverage

    9/15

    Bullough’s biggest weakness is getting into coverage. He is not fluid in space, and moving backward is a problem for him. He does wall off the interior well, but he is not a guy who people want in pass coverage.

    Tackling

    33/35

    Bullough is one of the nation’s best tacklers. He does not overrun plays, breaks down and finds a way to consistently get ball-carriers on the ground. He is delivering the blow, even when tasked with shedding linemen in the process.

    Overall

    86/100

    This is the prototypical middle linebacker for a 4-3 scheme. He flows downhill fast, can shed linemen and wants to play physical at every turn. He’s getting better in coverage, but as long as he’s on the field as a pass-rusher, he can help his team without being a coverage liability.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Third round. A lockdown run defender, but limited athlete.

1. C.J. Mosley, Alabama

18 of 18

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    11/15

    Because he is so skilled in pass coverage, Mosley does not often get the chance to rush the passer. However, when he is turned loose after the quarterback, he has a great understanding of how to add to the rush.

    Run Defense

    30/35

    Mosley’s come on strong as an every-down run defender. He sticks his nose into the mix, sheds blockers and makes most of his tackles going downhill. He has a true understanding of how to fill in gaps as he gets over the top on plays.

    Coverage

    15/15

    He is the best linebacker in coverage in the country. He understands how to play zone and wall off receivers from getting to the vulnerable interior. When asked to play man coverage, Mosley can run with backs out of the backfield, and he recognizes when backs stay in to block and adds himself to the rush.

    Tackling

    32/35

    Mosley’s a sure tackler. He runs through contact, squares up on his targets and gets players down on the ground. He brings a punch when he gets a chance to tackle in close quarters.

    Overall

    88/100

    Mosley is everything that a coach could want at the inside linebacker position. He understands the scheme, gets his team lined up and then goes out and makes plays every single week. He is a coach on the field who gets it done against the run and the pass.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Early first round. Prototypical NFL skills at inside or outside linebacker.