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Monsters in the Middle

Scott Haynes, College Football Senior Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - They are rabid in pursuit of the football. Whether it is shedding blockers, filling up gaps and blowing up running games, pinning their ears back and getting after the passer, or covering backs and tight ends in pass coverage, they have one goal.

They are human cruise missiles, seeking out their targets with reckless abandon.

Here are the top linebackers heading into the 2011 season.

OUTSIDE LBS:

TRAVIS LEWIS - He had a down year by his own standards (109 tackles, three INTs, 1.5 sacks), but the 6-3, 235-pound Sooner is perhaps the best instinctual linebacker in this year's class. Destined for greatness following a freshman season in which he tallied 144 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, four INTs and 3.5 sacks, Lewis has since posted back-to-back 109-tackle campaigns. With his draft status sitting as a late first-day or early second-day pick, Lewis made the decision to return to Norman for another season. With a stacked team once again on both sides of the ball and national title aspirations, look for Lewis to put up huge numbers, bolstering his draft status in the process.

COURTNEY UPSHAW - No team in the country is as stacked at the linebacker position as Alabama. Nick Saban has watched some talented LBs depart for the NFL over the last couple of seasons and he will watch more make the move in 2012. Crimson Tide LBs are big, strong and athletic and this 6-2, 265-pound senior epitomizes those qualities. Upshaw got his first opportunity as a starter in 2010 and seized it, making 11 starts and finishing with 52 tackles, 14.5 TFLs and 7.0 sacks. He can play a number of positions in Alabama's front seven and will vie for All-American honors in 2011.

LAVONTE DAVID - Injuries in front of him on the depth chart allowed the 6-1, 220-pound David to earn a starting position for Nebraska -- the rest is Cornhusker history. David set a single-season record at Nebraska in 2010 with 152 total tackles, his 10.9 tackles per game ranking atop the Big 12 (11th nationally). He earned multiple All-American honors, was an All-Big 12 First- Team member and was named the conference's Newcomer of the Year after coming to Lincoln from the juco ranks.
Jelani Jenkins will be a centerpiece for the Florida defense this season.


SEAN SPENCE - A throw-back type for the Hurricanes, what the 6-0, 220-pound Spence lacks in size, he more than makes up for in playmaking ability. He started all 13 games for Miami this past season, earning All-ACC Second-Team honors with 111 total tackles and 16.0 TFLs (fourth in the conference). He is a gifted collegiate linebacker and while his physical stature may force him to play safety at the next level, his abundance of athleticism puts him among the best there is on this list.

JELANI JENKINS - An extremely gifted athlete, who will be a centerpiece for the Florida defense this season. Really made his presence felt as a freshman in 2010, racking up 76 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks and one INT, being named to the Freshman All-SEC Team. Still very young, Jenkins will need to improve in terms of consistency, but the sky is the limit.

HONORABLE MENTION: Nigel Bradham (Florida State), Zach Brown (North Carolina), Kennan Robinson (Texas), Terrell Manning (NC State), Danny Trevathan (Kentucky).

INSIDE LBS:

VONTAZE BURFLICT - The preseason favorite to win the Butkus Award, Burflict is the quintessential linebacker. Relentless in pursuit, the 6-3, 252-pounder provides jaw-dropping hits on ball carriers on a weekly basis. Just a junior, Burflict followed a hugely successful freshman season in 2009 (69 tackles, 7.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks) with an equally impressive sophomore season, finishing 2010 with 90 tackles and 8.5 TFLs, en route to All-American accolades. Burflict is big, strong, quick and plays with a mean streak -- a lethal combination at any level. Arizona State is a team on the rise and their defensive leader is a big reason for it.

MANTI TE'O - The Hawaii native will get plenty of national coverage this season and not just because he plays at Notre Dame. The Irish are still a team rebuilding, but Te'o is certainly a nice building block. As good a finisher as there is in the college ranks, the 6-2, 255-pounder almost always drops his prey when he makes contact. Te'o has played in every game his first two seasons in South Bend, with 23 starts. Last season, he was without a doubt the Irish's top defensive playmaker, finishing with a whopping 133 tackles, the most by a Notre Dame defender since 1983 (Tony Furjanic). The Irish may have another down year, but it won't be from a lack of plays from Te'o.

LUKE KUECHLY - Just how good are the inside linebackers on a national level? The fact that Kuechly is third on this list should tell you all you need to know. Returning after two All-American campaigns in Chestnut Hill, the 6-3, 235-pounder is the man in the middle for Boston College. The only player to record 300 tackles in his first two seasons at BC, Kuechly is as consistent as they come, entering this year with a string of 22 consecutive games with 10 or more stops. Last year he amassed an amazing 183 total tackles, with 10.5 TFLs, three INTs and three fumble recoveries. He was a finalist for the Nagurski Award in 2010 and was the Butkus Award runner up.

TANK CARDER - The Horned Frogs have long been known for their stellar defensive play, and the 6-3, 240-pound Carder is certainly a key contributor to that the past couple of seasons. A 2010 All-American who was named the Rose Bowl Defensive MVP for TCU, Carder returns for this senior season in Forth Worth. Last year, He registered 60 tackles, with 9.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks, en route to being named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and an All-MWC First-Team member. Carder has overcome physical hurdles in his life (devastating car accident) to reach his goals. A sideline-to-sideline defender with great instincts, versatility and determination.

DONT'A HIGHTOWER - He could be the best of the bunch and now two years removed from a knee injury, the 6-4, 260-pounder will get every opportunity to prove that a lack of production in 2010 was a direct result of the healing process. Hightower earned Freshman All-American honors after amassing 64 tackles in 2008. He started the first four games in 2009 before tearing an ACL. He returned in 2010 and was a Second-Team All-SEC selection, registering 69 total tackles. At full strength, Hightower is a imposing figure, with superior size, speed and athleticism. Only time will tell if he will get back to form. If the knee holds up and doesn't prove to be a limitation, he could have a special season in Tuscaloosa among a very talented LB corps.

HONORABLE MENTION: Jerry Franklin (Arkansas), Shane Skov (Stanford), Chris Galippo (USC), Korey Williams (Southern Miss), Carmen Messina (New Mexico).

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.

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