Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - A lot of the heavy lifting is done by the big guys up front, allowing those on the second line of defense to weed their way through the traffic and make plays.
Here is a list of the top linebackers in the FBS heading into the 2014 season:
RAMIK WILSON - The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Wilson became just the third Georgia Bulldog to lead the SEC in tackles, finishing with 133 stops in 2013, en route to a spot on the All-SEC first Team, along with third-team All-America honors. Wilson came out of nowhere to excel as a top playmaker in the Georgia defense, after collecting just 10 total tackles in 2011 and 2012 combined. Jeremy Pruitt comes to Georgia this year after serving as Florida State's defensive coordinator. How he uses Wilson remains to be seen, but he should continue to get the best out of a player who just seems to be scratching the surface of his talent.
BENARDRICK MCKINNEY - Staying in the SEC, next on the docket is the 6-5, 245- pound McKinney, who burst on the scene as a true freshman in 2012, finishing with 102 tackles and earning a spot on the All-SEC Freshman Team. His numbers weren't quite as prolific in 2013, although he did lead Mississippi State with 71 total tackles, adding seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries to his stat line. With great size and above-average athleticism, McKinney may not stay at MSU past this season. Several draft experts have a first-round grade on him. Another productive season in the FBS may cement his status.
DENZEL PERRYMAN - Perryman has performed since he stepped on the Miami campus. After starting five games as a freshman, he upped that to six as a sophomore in 2012. Last season it all came together for the athletic thumper, who earned All-ACC first-team honors after posting a team-best 108 total tackles. Consistency was the key, as he posted six games with 10 or more stops. Perryman will move inside to the middle and has taken the necessary steps to hold his own by bulking up, going from around 210 pounds to a now-sturdy 242. A sideline-to-sideline playmaker, Perryman's numbers could skyrocket in 2014 and with it, his draft status.
A.J. JOHNSON - Oozing with raw talent, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Johnson has produced since Day 1 at Tennessee. As a true freshman in 2011, he amassed 80 tackles to finish second on the team. He upped that to an SEC-best 138 stops in 2012, followed by another productive campaign in 2013, earning All-SEC first-team honors and several All-America accolades, as he finished with 106 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss. He is an aggressive playmaker with the size to make a real impact right out of the gate at the next level. His final season in Knoxville, Tennessee, could be his best.
MYLES JACK - Despite making heads turn as a freshman last year at UCLA, where he played on both sides of the ball and scored seven touchdowns on just 38 carries, the 6-1, 230-pound Jack will make most, if not all his plays on the defensive side of the football this season. He started 11 games at linebacker for the Bruins and amassed 75 total tackles with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. He was named both the Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year in the Pac-12, while finding his name on the Freshman All- America squad as well. A rare athlete, Jack's role defensively should expand in 2014 and with it his trophy case.
ERIC STRIKER - An All-Big 12 first-team selection in 2013, the 6-foot, 220- pound Striker left NFL brass drooling over his potential, as he abused the Alabama offensive line in the Sugar Bowl, finishing with seven tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble against the Crimson Tide. On the year, Striker posted 50 total tackles, with 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. The Sooners could find themselves back among the conference elite in 2014, with what looks to be a much improved defense. A blur off the edge, it will be interesting to see how Striker is used from down to down. The numbers could be astronomical when all is said and done.
SHAQ THOMPSON - Another gifted athlete in the Pac-12, Washington's Thompson (6-2, 230) is a two-time All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection. Last season, he amassed 80 total tackles with four tackles for loss, one sack and one interception that he returned 80 yards for a touchdown. A star two-way player in high school (running back and linebacker), Thompson would like nothing better than to follow UCLA's Jack as a two-way star. New head coach Chris Petersen hasn't ruled it out. While Thompson has cut his teeth in the FBS on the defensive side of the ball, seeing him on the field more wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for the Huskies.
ERIC KENDRICKS - The aforementioned Jack is not the only star on the UCLA defense, as he will be paired with the 6-foot, 228-pound Kendricks. Heading into his junior season, Kendricks has already proven himself as a playmaker, leading the Pac-12 in tackles in 2012 (150), while returning two fumbles for touchdowns that year. The numbers tailed off slightly in 2013, but Kendricks still put up a team-best 106 stops and was an All-Pac 12 honorable mention selection as a result. With sideline-to-sideline range and great instincts, Kendricks is poised for another big season which should aid his draft stock.
KYLER FACKRELL - The only player on this list from a non-power conference, Fackrell (6-5, 245) definitely belongs, as he has put up big numbers in both the Western Athletic Conference and Mountain West. This Utah State Aggie was a All-WAC first-team selection in 2012, as well as a Freshman All-American, finishing with 87 total tackles, eight tackles for loss and three interceptions. He earned Sophomore All-America honors and was an All-MWC second-team member last year, posting 82 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and five sacks. With great length and the ability to both rush the passer and drop into coverage, Fackrell could be a hot commodity come the 2015 draft.
TREY DEPRIEST - The Alabama defense lost a real star with Butkus Award winner C.J. Mosley moving on to the NFL. From a leadership standpoint on defense, expect Nick Saban to lean on the veteran DePriest (6-2, 242). Last season, DePriest finished third on the team in tackles (65) with 7.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one interception. He continues to improve his numbers with each season and as the new face of the Alabama defense, he will get his opportunity to shine even brighter this year.
HONORABLE MENTION: Stephone Anthony (Clemson), Jake Ryan (Michigan), Terrance Smith (Florida State), Norkeithus Otis (North Carolina), Addison Gillam (Colorado) and Tyler Matakevich (Temple).