Throughout the offseason, Sports on Earth is counting down the top returning players at every position in college football. Last week, the 2016 series made its debut with the 40 best running backs. This week, we move on to the 30 best linebackers.
With a wide variety of schemes and creatively used players who defy positional designation, it's not always the easiest position to group together. But All-America and all-conference teams typically do it, so here we make an attempt to do it as well, ranking the 30 best linebackers -- whether they're on the outside in a 3-4, in the middle of a 4-3 or anything else. That even includes Michigan's Jabrill Peppers, who is making a shift to a hybrid linebacker role this season.
As always, these rankings are based on what players have accomplished and what kind of impact they are capable of making at the college level, not necessarily NFL draft projections.
*Update: South Carolina's Skai Moore was originally included at No. 14 on this list. However, on Tuesday, Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp revealed that Moore will undergo surgery on his neck and redshirt this season, with the goal to return to the field in 2017.
30. Jermaine Carter, Maryland. The Terrapins are hoping for a boost on their defense with D.J. Durkin coming in as head coach, and while they struggled last season, Durkin does have a few enticing building blocks. A key one is Carter, a 6-foot, 240-pound junior inside linebacker who enjoyed a breakout 2015 season with a team-high 103 tackles and 14 tackles for loss. Half of those tackles for loss came in Maryland's final four games, and he'll enter the 2016 season as a rising star in the Big Ten.
29. Jason Cabinda, Penn State. Linebacker U rolls on. The Nittany Lions boast three starters capable of appearing in this range in the rankings, with Cabinda joining Nyeem Wartman-White and Brandon Bell. Cabinda shifted to middle linebacker in his first season as starter after Wartman-White suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1. As part of a stellar Nittany Lions defense, the 6-foot-1, 237-pound Cabinda led the Lions with 100 tackles and had five pass breakups, 5 ½ tackles for loss and an interception. This will be a formidable unit with Wartman-White returning from injury.
28. Elijah Lee, Kansas State. Lee broke out as a second-team All-Big 12 pick as a sophomore, leading the Wildcats defense 80 tackles and three interceptions, in addition to chipping in with five sacks. He's become an all-around weapon for Kansas State, a speedy junior capable of making plays in space, in the box against the run, as a pass rusher and dropping back into coverage.
27. Taylor Young, Baylor. With all the attention on offense, an often underappreciated key to the Bears' on-field success has been an improved defensive line. The entire starting line is gone, though, putting increased pressure on the linebackers, led by Young. While only 5-foot-10, the 225-pound junior has 20 starts in two seasons. Last season as a sophomore, Young finished with 80 tackles and 13 ½ tackles for loss despite shoulder troubles early in the season, proving to be a valuable player for the Bears, particularly in space.
26. Matt Milano, Boston College. Don't let the Eagles' offensive woes take away from how dominant their defense was last season. They led the nation in yards per play allowed, and Milano formed a fantastic linebacking core with Steven Daniels, who's gone, and Connor Strachan. While just 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, Milano was a force as a junior, with 60 tackles, 17 ½ tackles for loss, 6 ½ sacks and two forced fumbles as part of an outstanding run defense.
25. Vince Biegel, Wisconsin. Biegel returned for his senior season despite the loss of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU. Under Aranda, Biegel teamed with Joe Schobert to form an excellent duo of playmakers off the edge at outside linebacker. Biegel had 9 ½ tackles for loss and 4 ½ sacks as a junior, and the Badgers will likely lean more heavily on him now with Schobert off to the NFL.
24. Richie Brown, Mississippi State. A role player for his first two seasons, Brown broke into the starting lineup with Benardrick McKinney gone and filled the role admirably. The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder led the Bulldogs with 109 tackles and had 13 tackles for loss, 6 ½ sacks and an interception. He had over 10 tackles in four of the first five games, developing into a rock-solid, reliable tackler in the middle of the Mississippi State defense
23. Hardy Nickerson Jr., Illinois. Nickerson's father was a five-time Pro Bowler, and he is now Illinois' new defensive coordinator under Lovie Smith. That prompted Nickerson Jr. to head to Illinois as a graduate transfer from California. At Cal, Nickerson shined on an otherwise shaky defense, racking up 111 tackles. At Illinois, he's a huge get for his father's first defense, especially after top Fighting Illini linebacker T.J. Neal transferred to Auburn.
22. Steven Taylor, Houston. Houston had one of the nation's top run defenses last season, with Taylor playing a key role. Now a senior, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Taylor racked up 92 tackles, 18 ½ tackles for loss, 10 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles, filling the stat sheet to help lead the Cougars to the Peach Bowl. Houston loves to go on the attack on defense, and Taylor's disruptive play contributed to the Cougars leading the nation in forced turnovers.
21. Azeem Victor, Washington. The Huskies continue to churn out high-quality defenders. Safety Budda Baker is the star of the defense, but they are loaded at two of the linebacker spots with Keishawn Bierria and Victor. Victor, a 6-foot-3, 227-pound junior, led the Pac-12's top defense with 95 tackles as a sophomore, and he also had nine tackles for loss, six pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
20. Salamo Fiso, Arizona State. Fiso's numbers continue to climb over the course of his career, as he turned a stellar freshman debut into 11 tackles for loss as a sophomore, which grew into 20 tackles for loss as a junior -- tied for sixth nationally. Todd Graham's defenses are always aggressive, and the 6-foot, 230-pound Fiso is standing out in the scheme, putting up 99 tackles, 4 ½ sacks and an interception last season to form a dangerous tandem with Christian Sam.
19. Riley Bullough, Michigan State. The Bullough family continues to shine for Michigan State defense. Max Bullough was a first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2013. Riley, a younger brother, emerged as a second-team All-Big Ten pick last season as a junior, leading the Spartans with 106 tackles and also posting 7 ½ tackles for loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Their young brother Byron is a sophomore linebacker on the team. They're not the only generation, though. Two other Bulloughs have led the Spartans in tackles: Their father, Shane, and their uncle, Chuck. If that's not enough, their grandfather Hank Bullough was a guard for the Spartans in the 1950s. If Riley leads the Spartans in tackles again, that'll make it eight times since 1985 that a Bullough has been Michigan State's top tackler.
18. Jordan Evans, Oklahoma. With Dominique Alexander and Eric Striker gone, Evans returning for his senior season is huge for the Sooners' linebacking corps. He was sorely missed in the second half of the Orange Bowl after injuring his shoulder, and he'll return to give Oklahoma a quick, smart and experienced player at inside linebacker. The 6-foot-2, 233-pound Evans has 23 starts and 188 tackles under his belt in his college career, including 83 tackles and five tackles for loss last season to earn him second-team All-Big 12 accolades.
17. Calvin Munson, San Diego State. The Aztecs ranked ninth in yards per play allowed last season, with a terrific defense leading them to a Mountain West title. They have a good shot at repeating with players like Munson returning. A 6-foot-1, 240-pound senior, Munson shined as a junior. He set the tone for the season with two interceptions returned for TDs in the Aztecs' opener and ultimately went on to finish with 98 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 9 ½ sacks and two forced fumbles.
16. Micah Kiser, Virginia. Kiser was mostly a special teams player as a redshirt freshman in 2014, but he broke out as a star for the Cavaliers as a sophomore, leading the ACC with 117 tackles. He also finished with 14 tackles for loss, 7 ½ sacks and two interceptions to earn a first-team All-ACC spot. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Kiser has a relentless style of play, flying to the ball, and he should thrive on the inside of the 3-4 scheme installed by new head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
15. Keith Kelsey, Louisville. A mainstay on the Cardinals defense the last three seasons, Kelsey returns for his senior year after earning first-team All-ACC recognition in 2015 with 106 tackles, 11 ½ tackles for loss and three sacks. Devonte Fields is Louisville's top playmaker at linebacker, but Kelsey is a steadying presence, the leader of the defense at inside linebacker, a reliable tackler who had double-digit tackles in five games last season and led the charge for one of the nation's top run defenses.
14. Cameron Smith, USC. Smith finished second on the Trojans in tackles as a true freshman with 78 despite playing in 10 games, missing the final four with a torn ACL. USC's first true freshman starter at inside linebacker in a season opener since 1978, Smith thrived in his debut season, with three games in which he recorded double-digit tackles, plus three interceptions (one returned for a TD) in the team's win over Utah. He already looks like an NFL linebacker at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds with great instincts. If he returns healthy, he should become a star at the center of an otherwise rebuilt USC front seven.
13. Ben Boulware, Clemson. With Clemson's defense facing a rebuild last season, Boulware was one of the key factors in the Tigers successfully reloading instead. The Tigers' starter on the weak side, Boulware finished with 81 tackles, 7 ½ tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and two interceptions in 15 games, earning first-team All-ACC honors. An intense 6-foot, 240-pound senior, Boulware is Clemson's leading returning tackler.
12. Kendell Beckwith, LSU. Beckwith's decision to return for his senior season was a huge boost to an LSU defense that will be loaded with talent under new coordinator Dave Aranda, helping to foster colossally high expectations for the Tigers in 2016. The 6-foot-2, 252-pound Beckwith broke out as a star at middle linebacker during the 2014 season and has kept up his high level of play. Last season, he had 76 tackles and 10 tackles for loss in 11 games. The leader of the Tigers defense, Beckwith is an intelligent, instinctive linebacker who reacts quickly and plays with physicality and strength, allowing him to thrive on the inside of the LSU defense against the run.
11. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt. While the Commodores still have a long way to go on offense, Derek Mason has the defense in terrific shape, with Cunningham the key to the whole unit. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior broke into the starting lineup in September and emerged as the Commodores' star last fall, getting voted first-team All-SEC for a season in which he had 103 tackles, 16 ½ tackles for loss and 4 ½ sacks.
10. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee. Originally a part-time defensive back, Reeves-Maybin has shined for the Volunteers as a starting outside linebacker the last two seasons. A 6-foot, 225-pound senior, he returned to Knoxville for another year after back-to-back 100-tackle seasons, including 105 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, six sacks and two forced fumbles last year. Reeves-Maybin had 21 tackles in the Oklahoma game alone last season, proving to be an explosive tackler capable of disrupting plays in the backfield.
9. Josey Jewell, Iowa. A team captain as a redshirt sophomore, Jewell was a breakout star for Iowa's Rose Bowl squad, leading the team with 126 tackles, plus four picks and 7 ½ tackles for loss. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior was a two-star prospect who stayed in his home state of Iowa and is now a star, coming off an All-Big Ten season at middle linebacker. Jewell is a relentless playmaker for the Hawkeyes, one who is stout against the run up the middle but also capable of making plays in space.
8. Malik Jefferson, Texas. The most high-profile recruit of the Charlie Strong era thus far, Jefferson was rated the No. 10 overall player in the class of 2015 by 247Sports' composite rankings. After enrolling early, he started nine games as a true freshman, finishing with 61 tackles and seven tackles for loss. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Jefferson only scratched the surface as a freshman, and he's poised to take center stage for what will otherwise be a rebuilding Longhorns defense up front. Jefferson can line up anywhere and should form an excellent linebacking duo with fellow sophomore Anthony Wheeler, able to blitz, drop into coverage and make plays against the run sideline-to-sideline.
7. Tim Williams, Alabama. A breakout star last season as a junior, Williams is not a complete player yet, but he became a game-changer as a situational pass rusher. Listed as a linebacker, he spent much of his on-field time with his hand in the ground, coming onto the field as a defensive end to create a four-man Bama line in passing situations. He had only 18 tackles but 10 ½ sacks, including six in the final five games of the 2015 season. With only 26 career tackles, the 6-foot-4, 237-pound Williams still has a lot to prove as he moves into a bigger role this fall, but he's one of the most dangerous and disruptive defenders in the nation, with a chance to emerge as a star as a senior, along with other standout Bama pass rushers like Jonathan Allen and Ryan Williams.
6. Reuben Foster, Alabama. The 2013 five-star recruit has gradually grown into a star for Alabama, and with Reggie Ragland gone, he's now the standout in the middle of the Crimson Tide defense. A 6-foot-1, 240-pound senior, Foster became a full-time starter last season and finished with 73 tackles (eight tackles for loss). A hard-hitting run defender, Foster has grown from special teams force to a key part of the Crimson Tide's impenetrable run defense up the middle. He can make plays sideline-to-sideline, though, with fantastic athleticism and closing speed. He's also one of the hardest hitters in the game -- just ask Leonard Fournette.
5. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan. Michigan's official spring roster listed Peppers as a safety/cornerback, and he would be near the top of either of those two lists. During spring practice, however, new defensive coordinator Don Brown experimented with Peppers in more of a linebacker position. Peppers is only 6-foot-1, 208 pounds, but don't think of him as a traditional linebacker. Maybe he's an outside linebacker, maybe he's a slot or corner or maybe he's a box safety. It doesn't really matter how he's designated. He's one of the nation's best athletes, poised to become a national star as a hybrid player for an excellent defense. One of the nation's top recruits in 2014, Peppers played only three games as a freshman before injury problems derailed his debut. Last season, he started 12 games and finished with 45 tackles, 10 pass breakups and 5 ½ tackles for loss, plus averages of 11.4 yards per punt return and 27.9 yards per kick return, two rushing touchdowns and eight receptions. He can excel in whatever role Michigan asks him to fill.
4. Devonte Fields, Louisville. Fields began his career at TCU, where as a defensive end he was named Big 12 defensive player of the year with 18 ½ tackles for loss and 10 sacks as a true freshman in 2012. He played in only two games in 2013 and was kicked off the team because of an assault charge that was eventually dismissed when he agreed to take anger management courses. After a year of juco ball, the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Fields transitioned to outside linebacker in Louisville's 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. He excelled in his first season, with 64 tackles and 11 sacks, and ranked third nationally with 22 ½ tackles for loss. He's the top returning player for what should be another excellent Cardinals defense.
3. Raekwon McMillian, Ohio State. A five-star recruit in the class of 2014, McMillan quickly made his presence felt upon arriving on campus in Columbus. Now a 6-foot-2, 240-pound junior, McMillian forced his way onto the field as a true freshman. Despite technically being a backup, he often played more snaps than starter Curtis Grant and finished with 54 tackles and 6 ½ tackles for loss. With Grant gone, McMillian stepped into the full-time role at middle linebacker, at the center of a star-studded defense. He led the team with 119 tackles, becoming a reliable force in the middle of the field, a sure tackler with pro athleticism.
2. Jarrad Davis, Florida. Davis could have easily gone pro, but he decided to return for his senior season and is poised for All-America production. A three-star recruit, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Davis was a role player for two years, then emerged as a force last season. One of the fastest linebackers in the country, Davis boasts absurd closing speed and explosiveness, and while he's not huge, he's a tenacious player capable of taking on and shedding blocks with physicality. He had 94 tackles and 11 tackles for loss as a junior for an excellent Florida defense, and his athleticism makes him capable of being a disruptive playmaker all over the field.
1. Anthony Walker, Northwestern. Walker's coach, Pat Fitzgerald, set the all-time standard for linebackers at Northwestern, but Walker has a chance to be the Wildcats' first defensive first-team All-American since Fitzgerald in 1995-96. A 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior, Walker broke out as a full-time starter last season at middle linebacker, finishing third in the Big Ten in tackles (120) and tackles for loss (19) while adding three interceptions and three forced fumbles. Northwestern had one of the nation's best defenses for much of the season, springing it to a surprise 10-win season. Walker was the backbone of that defense, a speedy, instinctive linebacker who can rush the passer, disrupt plays in the backfield, track down ball carriers and successfully drop back into coverage.
Honorable mention: Ryan Anderson, Alabama; Brandon Bell, Penn State; Jayon Brown, UCLA; Jordan Burton, Oklahoma State; Lorenzo Carter, Georgia; Ed Davis, Michigan State; Kevin Davis, Colorado State; T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin; Brooks Ellis, Arkansas; Travin Howard, TCU; Peter Kalambayi, Stanford; Matt Linscott, Tulsa; Nico Marley, Tulane; T.J. McCollum; Western Kentucky; T.J. Neal, Auburn; Christian Sam, Arizona State; Augie Sanchez, South Florida; Michael Scherer, Missouri; Christian Tago, San Jose State; Matthew Thomas, Florida State; Austin Valdez, Bowling Green; Tanner Vallejo, Boise State; Nyeem Wartman-White, Penn State; Eric Wilson, Cincinnati