Which Group of Five and Independent linebackers will leave Power Five programs feeling green with envy in 2017?
The Group of Five has never been light on gifted athletes. And the ones who like to hit and can adequately pack on weight have a chance to star at linebacker during their careers. Now, many of these defenders wind up being a little undersized, looking more similar to safeties, but that allows them to impact opposing passing games, both as a pass rusher and a pass defender. However, pro scouts eyeing the total package of size, athleticism and physicality at linebacker will be steered in 2017 toward the Independents, home of Notre Dame and BYU.
Top Returning Group Of Five, Independent LBs
10. Robert Spillane, Western Michigan
9. Ulysees Gilbert, Akron
8. Auggie Sanchez, South Florida
7. Malik Fountain, Central Michigan
6. Genard Avery, Memphis
5. Jahlani Tavai, Hawaii
A former rugby star, Tavai is adjusting just fine to life on a football field. In fact, he was a breakout star in his second season with the Warriors. Hawaii’s 6-4, 235-pound man in the middle blends ideal size with outstanding range and athleticism to make plays all over the field. In a head-turning sophomore year, Tavai was named First Team All-Mountain West after leading his team with 129 tackles, 19.5 stops for loss, seven sacks and a couple of fumble recoveries.
4. Quentin Poling, Ohio
At only 6-0 and 220 pounds, Poling is clearly undersized at middle linebacker. However, his instincts, passion and range have allowed him to overcome size limitations as a Bobcat. In many ways, Poling has been a microcosm of Frank Solich’s blue-collar, unheralded Ohio D. As a junior in 2016, he was voted First Team All-MAC after making 110 tackles, 13.5 stops for loss, four sacks and three forced fumbles. And Poling will be asked to do even more this fall now that fellow star LB Blair Brown is out of eligibility.
3. Fred Warner, BYU
The Cougars ought to be very tough at the second level this season, with Warner leading the charge alongside Francis Bernard and Butch Pau’u. He’s a terrific athlete, like so many of his peers, but he’s also 6-4 and 230 pounds. And that combination of size, speed and agility allows the BYU staff to use its veteran in myriad different ways. Warner showed in 2016 that he can contribute in all phases, notching a team-best 86 tackles, 10.5 stops for loss, three interceptions, six pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
2. Shaquem Griffin, UCF
In one of college football’s most remarkable stories, Griffin has proven in Orlando that he can do more with one hand than most of his peers can with two. He’s been defying the odds since the age of four, when a birth defect necessitated the amputation of his left hand. It never derailed Griffin, a returning First Team All-AAC performer who piled up 92 tackles, 20 stops behind the line and 11.5 sacks as a junior in 2016. He roams the field like a 6-1, 213-pound guided missile, covering ground in a flash on blitzes and in run defense.
1. Nyles Morgan, Notre Dame
It’s Year 4 in South Bend for Morgan, a salary run season for the former can’t-miss Irish recruit. After a slow first half of his career, he started turning the corner in 2016. The 6-1, 238-pound Morgan cracked the lineup in the middle and then proceeded to be one of the few Irish silver linings on D. He led the team with 94 tackles, including six stops for loss and four sacks. And that was just a building block for a hard-hitting, determined defender who’s ready to excel in run defense as one of new coordinator Mike Elko’s centerpieces.