College Football Discussion: Is Penn State Still Linebacker U?7 min read

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John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog:  https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/

You have probably heard the names Linebacker U or Tailback U associated with college football programs with perhaps more than one school proclaiming to be a position U. Which schools truly deserve that distinction?

I used the following criteria to determine which school is truly a position U:

  1. One can certainly debate how good a player was in college. However, when it comes to being named an All-American, there is no debate. If a player was named an All-American, he had to be very good. Rather than add to a school’s claim of being “position U” with players who weren’t All-Americans, and debate how good they were, such as the University of Miami’s quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar or Auburn’s running backs William Andrews, Joe Cribbs, James Brooks, Lionel James, and Ronnie Brown, only 1st, 2nd and 3rd-team All-Americans factored into the selection and evaluation process.
  2. Only a player’s collegiate performance was taken into account and considered, and not what they accomplished as a professional. If a Heisman Trophy winner or an All-American was a bust in the NFL, that doesn’t diminish what they accomplished at the collegiate level. Their performance as a pro does not factor in or influence this selection process.

Also, occasionally a position change occurs for a player from his college to professional career so which position does the school get credit for? For example, should Terrelle Pryor count as a wide receiver for Ohio State?  That’s absurd. That’s why only their college career should count towards a being a position U.

In comparing each school’s All-Americans from the past 50 years, obviously some were greater than others. Past and recent greatness as well as consistency through the years are what constitute a school being chosen as a position U.

This is my look at the linebacker position in my series on which school should be known as Linebacker U.

When you say Linebacker U, one school historically comes to mind and that is Penn State and with good reason. From 1968-2014, no school has had more All-American linebackers than Penn State with 17 which is roughly one Penn State linebacker being an All-American every other year. Beginning with Dennis Onkotz in 1968, the Nittany Lions had an All-American linebacker for eight of the next nine years (Onkotz ’68-’69, Jack Ham ’70, Charlie Zapiec ’71, John Skourpan ’72, Ed O’Neill ’73, Greg Buttle ’75, and Kurt Allerman ’76) thereby earning the reputation and nickname of Linebacker U. Linebacker U was born.

No discussion of Penn State’s all-time linebackers is complete without also mentioning two-time All-American Shane Conlan ’85-’86. Then came Andre Collins in 1989 and then came along Lavar Arrington ’98-’99, Brandon Short ’99, Paul Posluszny ’05-’06, Dan Connor ’06-’07, Sean Lee ’07, Navarro Bowman in 2009, Michael Mauti in 2012 and Mike Hull in 2014.

Arrington won the Bednarik Award as the best defensive player in college football and the Butkus Award in 1999 as the best linebacker in college football, Posluszny was a two-time recipient of the Bednarik Award in 2005 and 2006 and he also won the Butkus Award in 2005 as well and Connor was chosen for the Bednarik Award in 2007.

However, is Penn State still Linebacker U?  Let’s look at other schools that certainly rate honorable mention in the Linebacker U discussion.

Florida rates an honorable mention having 16 All-American linebackers in the past 50 seasons. Some of the more notable Gator All-American linebackers were: David Little ’80, Wilbur Marshall ’82-’83, Alonzo Johnson ’84-’85, Jevon Kearse ’98, and Brandon Spikes ’08-’09.

Florida’s other linebackers to be named All-American the past 50 seasons were: Ralph Ortega ’74, Glenn Cameron ’74, Sammy Green ’75, Clifford Charlton ’87, Huey Richardson ’90, Mike Peterson ’98, Andra Davis ’01, Channing Crowder ’04, Brandon Siler ’06, Antonio Morrison ’15 and Jarrad Davis in 2016. Of those 16 linebackers however, none won the Butkus Award as the best linebacker in the country or the Bednarik Award as the best defensive player in the country.

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame had 14 linebackers named All-American in the last 50 seasons. The two most recent players, Manti Te’o and Jaylon Smith both won the Butkus Award and Te’o also won the Bednarik Award.

Notre Dame’s All-American linebackers the past 50 seasons were: Bob Olson ’69, Greg Collins ’74, Bob Golic ‘78, three-time All-American Bob Crable ’79, ’80 & ‘81, Mark Zavagnin ’82, two-time All-American Ned Bolcar ’87 & ’89, Wes Pritchett ’88, Michael Stonebreaker ’88 & ’90, Demetrius DuBose ’91, Anthony Denman ’00, Courtney Watson ’02, Cedric Figaro ’86 & ’87, three-time All-American Manti Te’o ’10, ’11 & ’12, and Jaylon Smith in 2014 and 2015.

One might be surprised to learn that UCLA had 15 All-American linebackers in the past 50 years. Arguably, the best Bruin linebacker of all-time is three-time All-American Jerry Robinson ’86-’88. The more notable linebackers for the UCLA were two-time All-American Ken Norton, Jr. ’86 & ‘87, Carnell Lake ’87 & ’88, Anthony Barr ’12 & ‘13, and 2014 Butkus Award winner Eric Kendricks.

The other linebackers that made All-American for UCLA in the past 50 seasons were: Mike Ballou ’69, Neal Dellocono ’84, Roman Phifer ’90, Jamir Miller ’93, Donnie Edwards ’94, Robert Thomas ’01, Brandon Chillar ’03, Spencer Havner ’04, Akeem Ayers ‘10, and Myles Jack in 2014.

Oklahoma had 13 All-American linebackers in the past 50 years with three of them claiming the heralded Butkus Award and those three linebackers were two-time All-Americans for the Sooners: Brian Bosworth ’85 & ‘86, Rocky Calmus ’00 & ’01, and Teddy Lehman in 2002 and 2003. Bosworth won the Butkus Award in 1985 and 1986, Calmus in 2001 and Lehman in 2003.

Rod Shoate was a three two-time All-American linebacker at Oklahoma from 1972-1974 and Daryl Hunt ’77 & ‘78, George Cumby ’77 & ‘79, and Eric Striker ’14 & ’15 were two-time All-Americans for the Sooners.

The Sooners other All-American linebackers the past 50 seasons were: Dante Jones ’87, Joe Bowden ’91, Rufus Alexander ’06, Curtis Lofton ’07, Travis Lewis ’11 and Obgonnia Okoronkwo in 2017.

Ohio State has a strong linebacker tradition and had 14 All-American linebackers the past 50 seasons. Some of their more honored linebackers were: Randy Gradishar ’72-’73, Tom Cousineau ’77-’78, Chris Spielman ’86-’87, Steve Tovar ’91-’92, Butkus Award winner Andy Katzenmoyer in 1997, A.J. Hawk ’04-’05, and three-time All-American James Laurinitis ’06-’08.  Laurinitis was recipient of the Butkus Award in 2007. Ryan Shazier was an All-American in 2013 and Raekwon McMillan was another Ohio State two-time All-American in 2015 and 2016.

Ohio State’s other All-American linebackers in the past 50 seasons were: Marcus Marek ’82, Pepper Johnson ’85, Na’il Diggs ’99, Matt Wilhelm ’02, and Darren Lee in 2015. It would not be easy to pick the three best linebackers in the history of Ohio State football.

Without question, if there was such a thing as Linebacker U West it would be the University of Southern California. USC has produced 16 All-Americans and it’s quite an impressive list: Willie Hall ‘71, three-time All-American Richard Wood ’72, ’73 & ‘74, Clay Matthews ‘77, Dennis Johnson ‘79, Chip Banks ‘81, Jack Del Rio ‘84, Duane Bickett ‘84, Junior Seau ‘89, Scott Ross ‘90, 1998 Butkus Award winner Chris Claiborne, Matt Groodegood ‘04, Lofa Tatupu ‘04, Brian Cushing ‘08, 2008 Bednarik Award-winner Ray Maualuga, Hayes Pullard ‘14 and Su’a Cravens in 2015.

Which brings us back to our initial question, is Penn State still Linebacker U?

Alabama, not Penn State, had the most All-American linebackers since 1968 with 19, and it’s not just having the most All-Americans that makes Alabama Linebacker U, Alabama’s linebackers have captured season ending honors as the best in the nation.

Since the Butkus Award was originated in 1985, no school has had as many linebackers win the Butkus Award as Alabama’s four: Derrick Thomas in 1988, Roland McClain in 2009, C.J. Mosley in 2013 and Reuben Foster in 2016.

Alabama All-American linebackers the past 50 seasons: Mike Hall ’68, Tom Surlas ’71, Woodrow Lowe ’73-75, Barry Krauss ‘78, Thomas Boyd ’80-’81, Cornelius Bennett ’84-86, Derrick Thomas ’87-’88, Keith McCants ’89, Dwayne Rudd ’96, DeMeco Ryans 2005 and Rolando McClain in 2008 and 2009. The latest have been Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower in 2011, C.J. Mosley in 2012 and 2013, Trey DePriest 2014, and Reggie Ragland in 2015 and Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson in 2016.

2016 was the year that tipped the linebacker scale in their favor inching past Penn State. Three Crimson tide linebackers (Foster, Williams & Anderson) were named to one All-American team or another along with Foster becoming Alabama’s fourth player to win the prestigious Butkus Award.

The Crimson Tide have earned the right to be called Linebacker U.

Interesting fact: From 1968 to 2001, the University of Georgia had only linebacker make All-American, and that was Ben Zambiasi in 1976.

Alabama logo Photo credit: Greece Trip Admin on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Ohio State Photo credit: buckeyekes on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Penn State Photo on Visual Hunt

USC Flag Photo credit: csulb gal on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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John Baranowski

John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog:  https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/

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