By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
This week, we rank out the top inside linebackers in the nation. As the Patriots are currently developing several young players at the position (Spikes, Fletcher, McKenzie) this may not seem to be a position high on the Patriots needs list, however, as we’ve seen this past decade, good inside linebackers that fit Bill Belichick’s system are hard to find. If a good one is available, you can be sure the team will check him out.
1.) Greg Jones (#53), Michigan State: A not overly big tackling machine who checks in at 6’1″ 235. Jones is all over the field and uses his very good quickness and pure speed to track down ball carriers all over the field. Last year, Jones was among the leaders in the country with 154 tackles. He also added 9 sacks as he is a very adept blitzer. For this year, he has 60 tackles for the undefeated Spartans. As evidence he is solid in coverage, which he is, Jones has picked off two passes this year and 6 passes broken up or defended. An alumnus of legendary high school football powerhouse Moeller High in Cincinnati, Jones is in the running for the Butkus Award as the best college linebacker this season. He probably fits better in a 4-3 style defense where he can utilize his speed, quickness and attacking mentality and will be a first round pick.
2.) Alex Wujciak (#33), Maryland: Wujciak, who is in town with the Terrapins to play Boston College today, is a heck of a good inside linebacker. He is a 6’3 250 lb. kid who is a tremendous playmaker and leader on Maryland’s defense. Last season he was first team all-ACC and dominated play with 131 tackles, including 7.5 for losses and 2 interceptions, one of which he brought back for a touchdown. For this season, he’s on a similar pace and has 66 tackles thru 6 games for the 4-2 Terps. Wujciak is sort of a Tedy Bruschi style linebacker, albeit a bit bigger, who plays with reckless abandon, makes plays and gets the most out of his ability. One question about him is he tore an ACL earlier in his college career and dealt with re-injuries for the better part of two seasons. A full answering of his medical situation, though he’s played injury free for two years now, will be the key to him being a first round pick. He would fit excellently in the Patriots defense, though with the young players they already have in the middle its unlikely they’d spend a high pick on this position unless a player like Wujciak slipped a bit and was too good a value to pass on. Check him out today at 1:00 PM as Maryland travels to BC on ESPN3.com.
3.) Kelvin Sheppard (#11), LSU: Sheppard is one of my favorite players in college football right now. He is now in his third year starting for the Tigers. He is an excellent player, one who has a knack for tipping a ball or making an interception or rushing the quarterback or causing a fumble at exactly the right time. He is also a leader on defense and a tremendously hard hitter. He has very good speed and shows up all over the field for LSU. Not a small guy, at 6’3″ 240 lbs. his game also reminds a bit of Tedy Bruschi’s. He would fit with the Patriots and you can check out his playmaking style today on CBS as LSU takes on Auburn at 3:30 PM EST.
4.) Quan Sturdivant (#52), North Carolina: Another fast, attacking type linebacker, Sturdivant has great speed and seems to track down plays all over the field, even on the opposite side from where he may start a play. So far this season, Sturdivant has only played in three games as he has sat out several weeks with a hamstring issue. He is getting closer to coming back, however, and may play this week. When he does, he is not used much as a pass rusher as UNC has other good options there. He is usually used to blow up screens, take away backs and running backs and cause havoc in passing lanes. Against the run, he is too fast and physical to get outside of. He probably would fit better in a 4-3 when he gets to the NFL. Watch him on November 6th when the Tarheels travel to Miami in a tough game, network and time to be determined.
5.) Dont’a Hightower (#30), Alabama: Hightower is a massive 6’4″ 260 lb. pure inside linebacker who would fit well in a 3-4. He started for ‘Bama as a true freshman and put together a very nice 64 tackle first year. Last season, Hightower got hurt by tearing his ACL in the 4th game and had to sit out the remainder of the year. He did receive a redshirt season so actually could stay two more years if he wanted. He could also come out after this season, though its probably unlikely. He seems to have rebounded well from his surgery, playing in all 7 Tide games and racking up 36 tackles. He seems slightly slower and the playmaking hasn’t come back yet, but give it time. He is young and a tremendous athlete with still a lot of room to grow. See how far he’s come from his surgery today on ESPN at 7:00 PM EST when Alabama takes on Tennessee.
6.) Mike Mohamed (#18), California: a good sized kid, Mohamed is another player who puts around pretty eye popping statistics in all categories. For example, last year he made 112 tackles with 2 sacks and 6 tackles for loss, but also snagged 3 interceptions. It was an impressive enough season it earned Mohamed defensive MVP honors for the Golden Bears. This year he sat out an early season game with an injury, but seems to be picking up where he left off with 38 tackles thru 5 games. He’s also added an interception. Mohamed would fit into a Patriots scheme very nicely and he is an active player who is versatile in what he can do and should be at least a second round pick. Watch him take on Arizona State tonight at 3:30 PM EST on Fox Sports Net.
7.) Chris Galippo (#54), USC: A very highly recruited kid who is in his second year as a starter for USC and is a redshirt junior. Galippo had season ending surgery for a herniated disc in his back as a freshman in 2007, an injury that affected him into 2008 when he was a backup. He seems to have recovered for the most part the last two seasons as a starter, but has had periodic continued issues with his neck and back. Some say the 250 lb. Galippo reminds them of Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Uhrlacher and shares #54 with him. And indeed, its a nice comparison as Galippo is also an outstanding athlete who is very strong, stout against the run but can run well enough himself to make plays either rushing the passer or defending the pass. He gets sideline to sideline very nicely. This season, Galippo actually lost his starting job to big USC recruit Devon Kennard as new coach Lane Kiffin came in. Often times new coaches prefer their own recruits to the previous coaching staff and Galippo found himself sitting for the first six games. Last week, however, Galippo was moved to weak side linebacker for the Trojans and had an outstanding game at a new position. He showed great ability to use his talents more in space and it’ll be interesting to see how he plays there the rest of the year. Galippo still has the ability to translate inside or outside in either a Patriots 3-4 or 4-3 system, He is showing some position flexibility and is a tremendous athlete. He may stick around another year to really build up a good resume, but if he does come out he could be a steal after the first round.
8.) Martez Wilson (#2), Illinois: Wilson is a big 6’4″ 250 lb. pure inside ‘backer who also was highly recruited coming out of high school who is a freakishly good athlete. His current teammate Trulon Henry says “He’s a great athlete and a freak of nature physically, one he really gets this and it clicks, its going to be scary.” He has had a bit of a troubled past, getting stabbed in a bar fight during the 2008 season. Then last year he dealt with injuries, including a herniated disc in his neck that caused him to sit out 2009. Now a redshirt junior, Wilson seems to have gotten everything together and is really coming on as a player. Its an unusual combination of side, strength, speed and athletic ability that makes Wilson so tantalizing as a NFL prospect. For his return to action this year, Wilson leads the Illini in tackles with 52 thru 6 games. He has 2 sacks and 4 passes broken up or defended. He’s become more of a leader on defense as well and reportedly grown up from maturity issues off the field as well. If it continues, with his unquestioned talent, he could be soaring up draft charts this spring. Watch him take on Indiana today at Noon on The Big Ten Network.
9.) Josh Bynes (#17), Auburn: Bynes is a good player you can watch in today’s epic showdown of undefeated LSU visiting undefeated Auburn, a game with huge potential national championship implications on CBS at 3:30 PM EST. Bynes is a speedy, quick, decent sized kid who makes a lot of plays and is a leader of Auburn’s defense. He is not obviously big such that he’d fit into a Patriots system, and is probably better for a 4-3, but I wouldn’t rule it out completely as he could get slightly bigger and is a strong kid as well with some size. For the year he leads Auburn with 42 tackles and shown his speed in coverage by picking off 3 passes. He’s probably not a first round pick, but could go in the top 3 rounds and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he ends up a very productive NFL starter for several years.
10.) Tyler Nielsen (#45), Iowa: A redshirt junior, Nielsen is a very smart kid starting for the first time for Iowa this year. And its been a very productive year in the middle for Nielsen, putting together 30 tackles thru 6 games, 1 interception and 4.5 tackles for loss. He’s been a very stout run defender and good in coverage as well. He shows quickness getting to the ball and is turning into a leader for the defense. While Nielsen could come out, he has a year of eligibility left. He should improve greatly from his first to second year as a starter. He could also bulk up a bit more. But he’s a smart kid showing good to high level play on the field and could really take a leap if he stays in another year as one of the top inside linebackers in college football heading into the 2011 season. Watch him take on Wisconsin today with his Hawkeye teammates at 3:30 PM EST on ABC.