August 15, 2006

Tackling the task of ranking the top linebackers

The two top linebackers in the country are equally adept at overcoming and inflicting pain.

Penn State senior Paul Posluszny and Mississippi senior Patrick Willis have overcome injuries to appear on most preseason All-America teams. They also fill the top two spots on's list of the nation's best 25 linebackers.

After partially tearing ligaments in his right knee during an Orange Bowl victory over Florida State, Penn State's Posluszny has regained his health in time for the start of the 2006 season.

He also has regained his status as the nation's most feared linebacker. Posluszny won the Bednarik Award last year as the nation's top defensive player and enters this season as's No. 1 linebacker in the nation.

Posluszny is closely followed by Willis, who also knows a thing or two about dealing with health problems.

Willis emerged as one of the nation's most prolific tacklers last year despite playing with a cast on his right hand. He also overcame injuries to his left knee, right foot and right shoulder.

Willis is one of six SEC linebackers to make the list, which ranked second among all conferences. The ACC led all leagues with seven representatives.

Five teams have two players on this list: Penn State (Posluszny and Dan Connor), Virginia Tech (Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi), Florida (Brandon Siler and Earl Everett), Florida State (Lawrence Timmons and Buster Davis) and Southern California (Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers). 2006 Preseason Top Linebackers
1. Paul Posluszny, Penn State, Sr., 6-2, 229
Pro Football Hall of Famer and Penn State radio color commentator Jack Ham has called Posluszny the greatest linebacker in school history. Posluszny won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker and the Bednarik Award as the nation's top overall defensive player last year. He has collected 220 tackles 23 for loss the last two seasons and needs 88 more to break Greg Buttle's career record at Penn State. If Posluszny makes a complete recovery from the knee injury he suffered in the Orange Bowl, he shouldn't have a problem reaching that mark.
2. Patrick Willis, Mississippi, Sr., 6-2, 230
Willis established himself as arguably the toughest player in the nation last year when he led the nation with nine solo tackles per game despite playing with a broken middle finger on his right hand, a sprained left knee, a right mid-foot sprain and a partial AC joint separation of his right shoulder. Wearing a cast on his right hand, Willis led the SEC and ranked sixth in the nation with 128 total tackles. Willis' job doesn't get any easier this season. He will continue to play while mourning the death of his 17-year-old brother, Detris, who drowned this summer.
3. Rufus Alexander, Oklahoma, Sr., 6-1, 231
Oklahoma has produced four Butkus Award winners in its storied history. Alexander could make it five. He collected a team-high 102 tackles last year, including 17 behind the line of scrimmage. He recorded double-digit tackles in six games. Alexander made a name for himself last year with his 13-tackle, three-sack performance against Nebraska. That may have been a sign of things to come.
4. Sam Olajubutu, Arkansas, Sr., 5-9, 222
Olajubutu's lack of size caused many big-time programs to shy away from him. He chose Arkansas over Mississippi State, Middle Tennessee and Troy. Despite the lack of recruiting attention, Olajubutu has played like a five-star prospect since arriving on campus. Olajubutu ranked third in the Southeastern Conference with 118 tackles last year and also recorded 14 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. He posted at least six stops every game, including an 18-tackle performance against Auburn.
5. Vince Hall, Virginia Tech, Jr., 6-0, 244
Hall posted a team-high 112 tackles last year and averaged 8.6 tackles per game. He also showed a knack for making the big play by scoring two defensive touchdowns. The highest-rated underclassman on this list, Hall should team up with Xavier Adibi to help give Virginia Tech one of the nation's top linebacking corps.
6. H.B. Blades, Pittsburgh, Sr., 6-0, 240
Blades grew up as the son of former Miami star Bennie Blades and as the nephew of two other former Hurricanes standouts Brian and Al Blades. H.B. could end up being the best player in his family. Blades moved from strongside linebacker to the middle last season and responded to the change by leading the Big East with 121 tackles. That followed up a 108-tackle performance two years ago.
7. Brandon Siler, Florida, Jr., 6-2, 235
Opposing ball carriers should do everything in their power to stay away from Siler, who recovered seven fumbles last year. But the leader of Florida's defense is tough to avoid. Siler has averaged 70 tackles each of his first two seasons with the Gators. The former consensus freshman All-American also has recorded 10 tackles for loss each year.
8. Anthony Waters, Clemson, Sr., 6-3, 240
While the rest of his team surged late last fall with a four-game winning streak to end the season, Waters maintained a high level of play all year. He collected a team-high 109 total tackles and posted double-digit stops in five consecutive games. Waters also recorded 13 tackles for loss, including 4 against Maryland and four against North Carolina State.
9. Dan Connor, Penn State, Jr., 6-3, 225
Although he is often overshadowed by his Bednarik Award-winning teammate, Connor is putting together an outstanding career. Connor has averaged 80 tackles each of the last two seasons. He collected 76 tackles last year despite missing the first three games of the season and making only seven starts. Posluszny, Connor and Tim Shaw give Penn State the nation's best linebacking trio.
10. Xavier Adibi, Virginia Tech, Jr., 6-2, 221
This pick is based more on potential than production. Adibi compiled 69 overall tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks last year. Many other linebackers put together statistically superior seasons, but few of them can match Adibi's extraordinary physical skills. We expect Adibi to deliver a breakthrough performance this fall.
Best of the rest
11. Brian Toal, Boston College, Jr., 6-0, 232
12. Desmond Bishop, California, Sr., 6-2, 243
13. Earl Everett, Florida, Sr., 6-2, 231
14. Juwan Simpson, Alabama, Sr., 6-3, 226
15. Rey Maualuga, Southern California, So., 6-3, 250
16. Thaddaeus Washington, Colorado, Sr., 5-11, 245
17. Justin Warren, Texas A&M, Sr., 6-3, 245
18. Kevin McLee, West Virginia, Sr., 6-1, 255
19. Lawrence Timmons, Florida State, Jr., 6-3, 227
20. Ali Highsmith, LSU, Jr., 6-1, 226
21. Corey McKeon, Nebraska, Jr., 6-1, 225
22. Nate Harris, Louisville, Sr., 6-1, 232
23. Buster Davis, Florida State, Sr., 5-11, 246
24. KaMichael Hall, Georgia Tech, Sr., 6-0, 225
25. Keith Rivers, Southern California, Jr., 6-3, 230

More Preseason Player Rankings:
Quarterbacks | Running backs | Offensive linemen | Kickers/Punters | Return Specialists
Wide receivers | Tight ends | Linebackers

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