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2012 Big Sky position rankings: Linebackers
A whopping 13 returning Big Sky and Great West all-league performers make up part of the linebacking corps in the BSC in 2012. Two others who were named all-Big Sky back in 2010 are back, too. And that’s not to mention the several names worthy of consideration for this list who have yet to be named to an all-conference team.
But we think we put together some good linebacker rankings here, a list that includes lots of familiar names and plenty of talent on some teams that will contend for the league title – and playoff berths – in the coming season.
And so, with the temperature staying hot as we move toward the middle of July, we continue our summer-long series. Below is our list of the Top 10 linebackers in the Big Sky Conference heading into 2012.
Where are we right? Where are we wrong? Tell us who your No. 1 is.
TOP 10 LINEBACKERS FOR 2012
1. JODY OWENS, SR., MONTANA STATE 2011: 105 tkl, 17 tfl, 5 sacks, 1 int, 1 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: A unanimous all-league selection last season, Owens is one of only two Big Sky Conference linebackers to be named to The Sports Network’s preseason All-America team for 2012. His 17 tackles-for-loss were among the most in the nation a year ago. With his speed, Owens lives in opponents’ backfields: He has accumulated a total of 29.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage in the previous three years. Owens also runs sideline to sideline with abandon. A prototypical outside linebacker, Owens will be a leading candidate for for the league’s defensive MVP award when it’s all said and done.
2. CLARENCE BUMPAS, JR., NORTHERN COLORADO: 2011: 145 tkl, 10.5 tfl, 1 sack, 2 ff, 2 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: A former three-star recruit who first attended Kansas State, Bumpas came to UNC last year and immediately made his mark (just look at the statistics; they’re ridiculous). It wasn’t enough to rescue the Bears’ defense from a poor season, but Bumpas did all he could, racking up 10 or more tackles in nine of his 11 games a year ago. With new LB transfer Leilon Willingham now on board in Greeley (see below) UNC’s defense figures to be better this year. And Bumpas will be in the middle of it all, dogging ball-carriers left and right. Along with Owens, Bumpas was named to The Sports Network’s preseason All-America team.
3. JORDAN TRIPP, JR., MONTANA 2011: 18 tkl, 1.5 tfl, 1 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: A ghastly shoulder injury forced Tripp to undergo surgery and miss the last 11 games of last season. But Griz interim head coach Mick Delaney, speaking to the Midland Roundtable in Billings in May, said Tripp “is so healthy it’s scary” heading into the new year. Tripp, a third-generation Griz, is big and fast, and he covers all ground. He proved that with 99 tackles (9 for loss) and 3.5 sacks in 2010. Montana expects a big year from Tripp, and even bestowed the hallowed No. 37 jersey upon him. There’s always an adjustment period when coming back from a major injury, but Tripp is going to have a huge season. Take it to the bank.
4. ANTHONY MORALES, JR., WEBER STATE 2011: 115 tkl, 10 tfl, 2 sacks, 1 int. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Morales came of age in his first season as a starter last year, finishing third in the league in tackles per-game at 10.5. Now a junior, Morales is ready to cement his standing and prove he is one of the best in the Big Sky. Weber State was rocked with controversy in the offseason when first-year coach John L. Smith up and left for Arkansas before coaching a single game. But with guys like Morales, who has appeared in 21 career games, the Wildcats are in good hands leadership-wise. Morales will have another 100-plus tackle season to anchor the defense in Ogden.
5. JOHN KANONGATA’A, JR., MONTANA 2011: 93 tkl, 12 tfl, 3.5 sacks, 1 int, 1 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: When Jordan Tripp went down with a shoulder injury last year, Kanongata’a filled those shoes brilliantly for the remainder of the season. It was great experience for Kanongata’a. Now, with Tripp back in the lineup, the Griz have the best 1-2 linebacker punch in the league. New Grizzlies defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak says Kanongata’a has a certain “football savvy” to him, and he’ll definitely be one of the leaders of a deep group. Could we see another 90-plus tackles and 10 or more tackles for loss? Stay tuned.
6. ZACH JOHNSON, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2011: 20 tkl, 2.5 tfl, 1 sack. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Like Montana’s Jordan Tripp, Johnson missed tons of time last season due to injury. But Johnson, who has actually missed parts of two seasons, is back after being granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA in February. A second-team All-Big Sky performer in 2010, Johnson is a big-time contributor when he’s on the field. Per the Eagles’ website, Johnson has started each of the 30 games he’s played, making 260 career tackles to rank 10th in school history. Johnson’s average of 8.7 tackles per game is the fourth-most in EWU annals.
7. LEILON WILLINGHAM, SO., NORTHERN COLORADO 2011 (at Central Florida): 19 tkl, 0.5 tfl, 1 int. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: A four-star recruit coming out of Denver’s Mullen High School, Willingham had offers from several major programs, including Michigan. He ultimately went to Central Florida, where he started as a true freshman last season before transferring back to his home state to play at UNC. The 6-2, 240-pound Willingham, a nephew of former Broncos WR Brandon Marshall, has tons of talent and will surely help the Bears’ defense. He struggled to keep up with the speed of the game at UCF, but his upside is huge in the Big Sky Conference. Time will tell just how big his impact will be.
8. KENNITH JACKSON, SR., CAL POLY 2011: 80 tkl, 6 tfl, 1 sack, 2 int, 10 pass def, 8 breakups, 1 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Jackson didn’t have an overwhelming number of tackles last year, but he certainly was one of the best all-around defensive players in the Great West Conference. His distinct ability to track ball-carriers, rush the quarterback and drop back into pass coverage makes him an “all over the field” type player. Jackson even finished second in his league last year in passes-defensed per game (.91). He needs to transition his game to a bigger and better conference, but Jackson is quality any way you look at it.
9. CHAD HANSEN, JR., SOUTHERN UTAH 2011: 104 tkl, 7 tfl, 3 sacks, 1 int, 2 ff, 1 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Hansen became Southern Utah’s defensive leader last year, pacing the team in overall tackles and solo stops. Like Cal Poly’s Kennith Jackson, Hansen will be put to the test in a better conference this season, but he should acclimate himself just fine. Hansen reached the 10-tackle plateau eight times last year, including a 14-stop performance in a game against Weber State. Coach Ed Lamb says that for his team to compete it needs to contain the run. The 6-2, 245-pound Hansen will be the focal point of that goal.
10. IAN SLUSS, SR., PORTLAND STATE 2011: 55 tkl, 13.5 tfl, 3.5 sacks, 2 ff. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Sluss has great quickness on the outside, as his 13.5 tackles-for-loss in 2011 show. Heck, Sluss might be a bit underrated on this list. He was, after all, a second-team All-Big Sky selection after last year. Ryan Rau’s eligibility ran out after last season, and he took his 266 career tackles with him. So the weight falls on Sluss’ shoulders to assume the role of the Vikings’ No. 1 linebacker. He had a great spring and finished with a flourish, making six tackles and picking off a pass in PSU’s last scrimmage.