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They are free to roam the middle of the field, looking to lay the lumber on the ball-carriers and receivers that dare to enter their domain. The job of the linebacker is to be instinctual, to be in the right place at the right time and deliver punishing hits.
Here are the top linebackers in the FBS heading into the 2010 season.
GREG JONES, MICHIGAN STATE
While this Spartan looks a little small for a linebacker (6-1, 228), there is no denying that he plays much bigger and is regarded among the best in the country. Jones has earned All-American honors in each of his first three seasons at MSU, including being named a consensus first-team member in 2009. The 2009 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year finished third in the nation in tackles (154), with 13.5 TFLs and nine sacks. The ultimate defensive playmaker Jones heads into his senior season ranked eighth on the school's all-time tackles list (359). The Spartans may not be lifting the Big Ten trophy at the end of the season, but that won't stop the accolades from raining down on Jones.
QUAN STURDIVANT, NORTH CAROLINA
On one of the best defenses in the entire country, Sturdivant stands out as the leader. Perhaps the most NFL-ready LB heading into the 2010 campaign, this Tar Heel has the ability to do it all. The 6-2, 230-pound senior can make plays all over the field and is rarely caught out of position. He earned First-Team All-ACC honors in 2009, finishing with 79 total tackles and 12 TFLs. UNC's offense definitely plays second-fiddle to the defense, which is chock-full of All-American talent throughout. The Tar Heels aren't ready to win the ACC, but opponents will definitely know they are in a fight week-in and week-out.
CHRIS GALIPPO, USC
Following in a long line of stellar LBs at USC, Galippo had a strong sophomore season in 2009, earning some All-American honors, while being a semifinalist for the Butkus Award. The 6-2, 250-pound middle linebacker finished last year with 70 total tackles, eight TFLs, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. The Trojans are under new management and will begin serving a postseason ban this year, but that shouldn't prevent Galippo from once again putting up big numbers, as the team's defensive leader.
MIKE MOHAMED, CALIFORNIA
Mohamed is a veteran LB who has played in all 39 games for the Golden Bears over the last three seasons. The 6-3, 245-pounder came into his own last year, becoming a full-time starter, earning All-Pac-10 First-Team honors, leading the conference with 112 total tackles, with 8.5 TFLs, two sacks and three INTs. On quite a few preseason All-American lists, expect big things from Mohamed in 2010. The Golden Bears are always in the mix when talking about the Pac-10 title, and this senior LB will do everything in his power to keep that going.
ALEX WUJCIAK, MARYLAND
A throwback type of LB, this Maryland Terrapin just keeps getting better. Regarded as one of the top playmakers at his position in the entire country, the 6-3, 245-pound Wujciak followed up Second-Team All-ACC honors in 2008, with First-Team honors in 2009. As a junior last season, he ranked second in the ACC with a team-high 131 tackles (eighth nationally), with 8.5 TFLs and two interceptions. The Terps are not in a position to return to the top of the ACC standings, but expect to hear Wujciak's name mentioned often regardless of where Maryland finishes up.
OTHERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Kelvin Sheppard (LSU), Casey Matthews (Oregon), Josh Bynes (Auburn), Tank Carder (TCU), Mario Harvey (Marshall).
MARK HERZLICH, BOSTON COLLEGE
The legend of Herzlich will follow him forever, as the standout LB, who was the ACC Player of the Year, an All-American and a finalist for the Butkus Award in 2008, missed the entire 2009 season while battling and beating a rare form of bone cancer. In 2008, he amassed 110 total tackles and led all LBs nationally with six interceptions, two of which he returned for TDs. While Herzlich is expected to play this season, it remains to be seen if he can return to form. At less than 100-percent, he will still be a driving force on the BC defense. If he makes it all the way back, he will stockpile most of the defensive awards by season's end.
TRAVIS LEWIS, OKLAHOMA
After breaking Brian Bosworth's school record for tackles by a freshman in 2008 (144 stops), the 6-2, 232-pound Lewis once again picked up All-Big 12 First-Team honors with 109 total tackles as a sophomore in 2009. As instinctual as they come at the linebacker position, the third-year Sooner might not remain in school after the 2009 campaign, as he has everything needed to excel at the next level. The Sooners took it on the chin in 2009, but expect Lewis to be one of the main reasons the team returns to form among the Big 12 elite in 2010.
BRUCE CARTER, NORTH CAROLINA
Another extremely gifted Tar Heel, the 6-3, 235-pound Carter has a complete skill set. With above-average strength, speed and athleticism, this senior will surely be mentioned among the best OLBs in the country. Carter has started 33 career games, including all 13 as a junior in 2009, where he racked up 65 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, two sacks and an interception returned for a TD, en route to All-ACC Second-Team honors. If he stays healthy, it will be difficult to keep him off the First Team this season.
VON MILLER, TEXAS A&M
The first Aggie to be tabbed a First-Team All-American since cornerback Jason Webster in 1999, the 6-3, 240-pound Miller led the nation in sacks (17), while amassing 21 TFLs. Miller is regarded as a hybrid player, who can also line up along the defensive front with his hand on the ground. He projects to be a big- time pass rushing threat in a 3-4 system in the NFL. The Aggies aren't exactly stacked with All-American talent throughout the roster, but Miller is as good as it gets at his position.
ROSS HOMAN, OHIO STATE
The linebacker position at Ohio State has become a launching pad for many a talented player of late, and this year may be no different. Compared favorably to 2007 Butkus Award winner James Laurinaitis, the 6-0, 227-pound Homan may just carve out an award-winning career in Columbus as well. As a junior in 2009, Homan was a Second-Team All-Big Ten member, racking up a team-high 108 total tackles. With above-average speed and playmaking ability, the sky is the limit for this Buckeye, as he should be a driving force in Ohio State's run toward a Big Ten title and perhaps much more.
OTHERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Akeem Ayers (UCLA), Michael Morgan (USC), Chris Walker (Tennessee), Wayne Daniels (TCU), Lawrence Wilson (UConn).