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May 30, 2012

Loaded at LB: 16 'backers in Rivals100

Every year, there are a couple of linebackers who college coaches -- as well as fans -- see on tape and at whom they marvel about their talent. However, no recent linebacker group can compare to the class of 2012.

A year ago, Jabari Ruffin finished the season ranked as the nation's top linebacker. He was the No. 40 overall prospect in the country. This year, five linebackers are ranked in the Top 40. Moreover, 13 have rankings of five stars or 6.0 four-stars, meaning the top of the four-star category, and all are among the top 58 players in the country.

Led by five-star prospects Reuben Foster, Jaylon Smith and Matthew Thomas, the group this year is certainly special.

"It's amazing how cyclical recruiting is," Rivals.com National Analyst Mike Farrell said. "Last year was such a down year overall for linebackers, from the top down to the depth. There were a handful of elite ones, but only three players cracked our national top 50 and that's rare.

"This year we have nine in the top 50 and three five-stars already. The depth at outside linebacker is off the charts and the inside guys are better as a group than last year as well. This could be the year of the linebacker if you had to pull out one position grouping."

Foster comes in as the No. 2 overall prospect in the country and Rivals.com Southeast Recruiting Analyst Keith Niebuhr sees a player certainly deserving of that lofty status.

"Foster is built like a tank and is his explosiveness simply is off the charts," Niebuhr said of the Alabama commit. "He has arguably the quickest defensive moves of any player in this class. Even though Alabama, the school he currently is committed to, would play him at inside 'backer, he has the size, strength and sideline-to-sideline skills to play inside or outside at the next level. In high school, in fact, he has been his best playing up at the line of scrimmage, where his lightning-quick feet and aggressive play often overpower the opposition."

Smith made a huge jump in the rankings this week from the No. 34 player in the country to the No. 4 overall prospect. Rivals.com Midwest Recruiting Analyst Josh Helmholdt has had the opportunity to see him a number of times this spring and keeps coming away impressed.

"We were originally impressed with Smith when we saw him as a sophomore going heads up against some of the top prospects in the 2012 class in a camp setting," Helmholdt said, "but Smith has taken his game to an entirely different level since, and we saw him dominate in three settings since February. What initially catches your attention with Smith is how long his frame is. It allows him to cover a lot of territory and from there he has the ball skills, speed and athleticism to make plays few other linebackers even consider."

Thomas was on the cusp of five-star status in the initial Rivals100 and gained it this time around, coming in as the No. 11 player in the nation.

"Thomas displays a clear understanding of how to play the linebacker position but possesses incredible athleticism," Rivals.com Florida Recruiting Analyst Chris Nee said. "He is very aggressive but does a good job of making sure he is always in position to make a play, whether it is behind the line of scrimmage or down the field. He is a great playmaker who has the ability to dominate games."

The talent does not stop with the five-star players, though. Several other linebackers have made their names as top prospects as well.

E.J. Levenberry Jr., a Florida State pledge, is barely outside the five-star range at the moment, coming in as the No. 21 prospect in the country.

"Levenberry is a smart, instinctual player who is as good in coverage and in his drops as he is moving forward," Farrell said. "Levenberry is always around the football, it seems, and has a knack for making big plays and he will take a few interceptions back to the house for FSU in his career there because he breaks on the ball so well and reads plays like he drew them up."

Clemson commit Dorian O'Daniel comes in at No. 40. This year's No. 5 overall linebacker in the rankings, he falls in the same spot as Ruffin from a year ago, which is a testament to this year's crop and no knock on O'Daniel.

"O'Daniel is still learning the linebacker position after focusing on running back his first couple of years in high school and the sky is the limit for his potential," Farrell said. "He's a weakside guy to me who can drop in coverage, make plays in space and come off the edge and terrorize the quarterback. He still has to fill out, but he has the frame and he's so athletic he could play running back in college if he wanted to. He's just a rare athlete."

Trey Johnson is the No. 42 overall prospect and yet another talented Auburn commit.

"Johnson is a player who gets the job done time after time after time," Niebuhr said. "Find the ball, and you'll find him. Each week, he racks up big numbers and it's because he sees the field well, is an intelligent player, possesses excellent footspeed and is strong and physical enough to shed blocks well. He really is everything you want in an inside 'backer, and he continues to grow, which is a bonus."

A trio of linebacker prospects in Mike Mitchell, Deoundrei Davis and Alex Anzalone all made huge jumps to the Nos. 45, 46 and 49 overall prospects, respectively, from outside the Rivals250 in the previous rankings.

"Mitchell is a guy who really saw his stock soar this spring," Rivals.com Southwest Recruiting Analyst Brian Perroni said. "He was my top overall performer at the Dallas Nike Camp. He's a big kid that can also cover. I could see him playing any of the three linebacker positions at the next level. His nickname is 'The Abusement Park' and it is evident on film that he loves to hit. He is a special teams standout as well and is almost always the first player down the field. He has a motor that can't be taught."

Davis, a Texas commitment, is equally impressive with his athleticism. "Davis is the size of a linebacker at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds but, when you watch him on film, he plays like a safety," Perroni said. "He flies quickly to the flats when the running back catches the ball out of the backfield and he chases down plays from the backside. He seemingly came out of nowhere this spring to become a hot target and has the chance to make a very early impact for the Longhorns."

Anzalone has proven he belongs in the Top 50 as well. "Anzalone is a huge linebacker who is surprisingly good in space and coverage," Farrell said. "He covers a lot of ground with his big body and he had excellent hips for a bigger guy. He's versatile enough to play any linebacker position but I think he'd be at his best as a SAM where he can work through traffic and handle tight ends. He's a lot more athletic than expected."

Out West, both Michael Hutchings and Chans Cox find themselves highly ranked.

"Hutchings has proven to be one of the best linebackers in games and at camps," Rivals.com West Recruiting Analyst Adam Gorney said. "He plays for a powerhouse program and is a standout performer every time I see him. He moves well, tracks down players from behind and really has a great feel for his position. I liked him a lot at the Oakland NIKE Camp because it looks like he has developed more muscle and is playing with more strength. "With Cox, he had offers from Arizona and Arizona State as a sophomore so early on, he was targeted as a top player from that state. He has only proven to be one of the best linebackers in the West and he's a hard hitter, tough and aggressive in games. What a lot of people also like about Cox is that he can play offense and that's where USC is recruiting him. He's versatile, can move and looks great on film."

Rounding out the group of 13 is Mike McCray. However, the Michigan commit is definitely no afterthought.

"As a junior, McCray doubled at tight end and middle linebacker for an undefeated Trotwood-Madison team," Helmholdt said. "Even going both ways and playing nearly every snap, McCray was just as effective in the fourth quarter as he was in the first. He plays with great instincts and is always around the football. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, we did not expect he would be a camp standout, because the elements of his game that make him elite are better appreciated in pads, but he surprised us by going out and taking home MVP honors at the NIKE Camp in Columbus, Ohio, in May."

Overall, there are 16 LBs in the Rivals100 and 25 in the Rivals250, making 2013 the latest Year of the Linebacker.



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