Dan Molls leads the strongest group of linebackers in the MAC. (Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE)
Time to look at the 2012 MAC football season. We're going to preview the conference unit by unit, ranking the teams one through 13 at every position and facet we can think of. Today: the linebackers.
The linebackers were actually harder to rank than the defensive backs, if you can believe that. The balance of power in the MAC linebacking corps was significantly altered when Ball State's Aaron Morris flunked out of school and Akron's Brian Wagner decided to play his senior season at Arizona after graduation. Both were first team all-MAC selections last season.
It's never an easy day in the Mid-American Conference.
1. Toledo - The Rockets have two of the best linebackers in the conference in middle linebacker Dan Molls (70 tackles, 3.5 TFLs) and outside linebacker Robert Bell (78 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, one sack, four forced fumbles). Molls missed a huge chunk of the season with a leg injury but was 10th nationally with 143 stops in 2010. Not too shabby. Vladimir Emilien, a transfer from Michigan, will join them up front.
2. Bowling Green - First team All-MAC player Dwayne Woods (111 tackles, 14 TFLs) is a monster in the middle of that Falcon 4-2-5 defense. Outside linebacker Paul Swan (63 tackles, 1.5 TFLs) isn't too shabby, either.
3. Kent State - The Golden Flashes have two studs returning in seniors C.J. Malauulu, a middle linebacker, and Luke Batton, an outside linebacker. Malauulu (83 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks) was a second-team All-MAC selection and Batton (102 tackles, 3.0 TFLs) a third-teamer. Andre Parker (eight tackles) or Nick Conrad (nine tackles) should be the starter at the other OLB spot, leaving Kent State inexperienced on that side of the field.
4. Eastern Michigan - Third-team All-MAC outside linebacker Justin Cudworth (83 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, three forced fumbles) shined in his first season in green after transferring from the College of the Canyons Junior College. The two linebackers lining up next to Cudworth - who has the potential to be a first-team player this year - are experienced players Bryan Pali (47 tackles, 3 starts and is a community college transfer) and Colin Weingrad (34 tackles, five starts).
5. Ohio - Who's going to replace stud Noah Keller? That's the key question for this unit. Jelani Woseley (53 tackles) and Keith Moore (35 tackles, 4.0 TFL) will be expected to pick up the slack, as will senior Alphonso Lewis (64 tackles, 5.0 TFL).
6. Buffalo - The Bulls have a pair of solid middle linebackers in sophomore Lee Skinner (80 tackles, nine TFL) and senior Jaleel Verser (49 tackles, 6.0 TFL). But it's first-team all-MAC OLB Khalil Mack (65 tackles, an ASTOUNDING 20.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks for good measure) that makes this unit tick. Mack is one of three returning starters and is virtually unblockable on the outside. Senior Imani Chatman is expected to be the other starting OLB (two tackles) in the team's 3-4 scheme.
7. Ball State - This group would easily be in the top three if it wasn't for the unfortunate case of junior OLB Aaron Morris, a first team All-MAC player who left school in January after he was suspended by the team for academic reasons. His 115 tackles will be hard to replace, but there's still talent. Middle linebacker Travis Freeman (134 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, one INT) was a second-team All-MAC player last year and is joined by OLBs Tony Martin (73 tackles, 2.5 TFLs) and Kenneth Lee, which is impressive for him considering he's a transfer from St. Joseph's College, a Division II school. Julian Boyd (17 tackles) is also an option.
8. Northern Illinois - This whole Devon Butler saga really throws things out of whack. Butler had 80 tackles in 2010 and sat out last year after a bizarre shooting incident, and now he's left DeKalb after getting stabbed at a party this past weekend? That's a huge blow for the linebacking corps. But the Huskies do return OLB Tyrone Clark, who missed all of last year with a suspension. Clark will be joined by returning starter Jamaal Bass (62 tackles, 5.5 TFL) and some sort of combination of Victor Jacques (20 tackles) and Michael Santacaterina (28 tackles, one INT).
9. Western Michigan - Teams that play only two linebackers in a 4-2-5 can be hurt or bumped up in the rankings. The Broncos think they've got a good one in sophomore middle linebacker Devon Brant (43 tackles) and he'll line up with junior Terry Eason (a junior college transfer), sophomore Trevor Ishmael (26 tackles) or junior Desmond Bozeman (25 tackles).
(NOTE: In yesterday's secondary rankings, I inadvertently left off junior Johnnie Simon, who is technically a defensive back but his 114 tackles, 10.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks scream linebacker. In fact, I had him listed as linebacker in my notes before I was notified that he's actually a DB. I decided not to include him in the linebacker rankings for fear of messing up twice instead of just once.)
10. Akron - The Zips would be much higher on the list if not for the Brian Wagner's decision to play his final season under Rich Rodriguez at Arizona after he graduated from Akron in December. Wagner tallied 147 tackles and 6.0 TFL last year. The Zips have experience in the area, with expected starts in OLBs Justin March (36 tackles) and Jamar Williams (38 tackles), and MLB Troy Gilmer (71 tackles). The key will be whether or not new defensive coordinator Chuck Amato can maximize their talents.
11. Miami - With three new starters at linebackers, the RedHawks enter the season with this group as The Great Unknown. A pair of seniors - OLB Evan Harris (40 tackles) and Jaytee Swanson (30 tackles, one INT) - will anchor the trio with sophomore Tyler Tucker (18 tackles) starting on the weak side. It's not easy replacing a pair of all-MAC performers in Jerrell Wedge and Ryan Kennedy. This could end up being one of those scenarios where they're super-talented but just haven't had a chance to shine, and we'll look back on this and have a good chuckle.
12. UMass - The good news: The Minutemen return two starters in Chad Hunte (58 tackles) and Perry McIntrye (116 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks) with McIntyre possibly competing for an all-conference spot. The bad news is that this group will be playing up to FBS for the first time and may not quite be ready for all this yet. They may get there sooner before later. The competition at the other linebacker spot is between Greg Hilliard (eight tackles) and D.J. Adeoba (30 tackles).
13. Central Michigan - Opponents converted their third downs more than 45 percent of the time last season against the Chippewas. Is that the fault of the linebackers? They're probably not guiltier than anyone else, but improvement is needed. MLB Shamari Benton (58 tackles, 3.5 TFL) will be the driving force while he's paired up with two new starters. Sophomore Cody Lopez (58 tackles) has a beat on one OLB spot with sophomores Ryan Petro (14 tackles) and Justin Cherocci (29 tackles) going for the other one.