Heading into the 2012 college football season, WalterFootball.com will debut our projections for the nation's leaders during the fall. The All-American teams always have some surprises, and the next fall's stars could be the headline players next April for the 2013 NFL Draft.
First-Team Inside Linebackers:
Jarvis Jones, Georgia
The heavy favorite to be a First-Team All-American is the Bulldogs' sack-master. Jones was a First-Team pick last year after he led the SEC in sacks with 13.5 and tied for second in the nation behind only Illinois' Whitney Mercilus. Not only was the USC transfer Jones a pass-rushing terror last season, he did a good job of chasing down running backs in the ground game. The defender was a perfect fit as an outside linebacker in the Bulldogs' 3-4 defense.
The 6-foot-2, 242-pound Jones had great production as a sophomore in 2011. He had 70 tackles, 19.5 tackles for a loss, two passes broken up and two forced fumbles. Jones' season was highlighted with a four-sack game against Florida in which he was completely dominant. To conclude 2011, Jones was held in check against LSU in the SEC Championship Game and against Michigan State in the Outback Bowl. He only had four tackles combined in those final two contests.
Offensive coaches will attempt to mimic the effective blocking by the Tigers and Spartans this September. Of course, Jones will see plenty of double-teams in 2012. He is going to need to adjust and evolve his game, but he has tons of talent to improve.
Last year was Jones' first significant playing time, so he should be able to use that experience to his advantage as a junior. The SEC will be better prepared for Jones' this year, so it wouldn't be surprising if his production declines by 4-5 sacks. Still, the talented prospect should put together another good season and remain a First-Team All-American.
Sean Porter, Texas A&M
Similar to Jones, Porter is a quarterback-hunter off the edge. Porter did an admirable job as a junior last year of replacing Von Miller as a rush linebacker for Texas A&M. Porter is a seek-and-destroy defender who flies around the field, chasing down ball carriers. His biggest strength is his ability to rush the quarterback off the edge. Porter's closing speed is superb, and he forces throws with pressure regularly when he doesn't record sacks.
Porter led the Big XII in sacks last season. He totaled 79 tackles with 17 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks and one forced fumble. Porter played well against good teams and respectable offensive tackles, recording five sacks against Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Baylor. All three of those teams have offensive tackles who are well regarded.
Heading into November of 2011, Porter had 8.5 sacks and looked poised to compile a total in the teens. However, he had a streak of four games late in the season that he didn't record a sack. Porter was still around the ball in those games and had quality tackle totals with four tackles for a loss. He ended the season well, against Northwestern, with six tackles and a sack.
With Damontre Moore (8.5 sacks in 2011) on the other side, Miller should be poised to unleash some rough Saturdays on SEC quarterbacks this year. Miller (6-2, 230) is a superb pass-rusher who could force the nation to take notice in 2012.
Second-Team Inside Linebackers:
Chase Thomas, Stanford
After a modest freshman season, Thomas has been a consistent playmaker for Stanford the past two year. He started his collegiate career at defensive end before moving to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense as a sophomore.
Thomas recorded 70 tackles with 7.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss in 2010. He received extra attention in 2011, especially after Shayne Skov left the lineup, but Thomas still produced. He racked up 52 tackles with 17.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder decided to return to Stanford for his senior season even though he could've been a second-round pick if he entered the draft. Thomas wanted to get stronger. He's gained 5-10 pounds since since the season and the added strength should help him to take on and shed blocks.
Thomas' game is similar to Chicago Bears rookie Shea McClellin and Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews. Thomas is a dangerous edge-rusher who has a knack for producing sack-fumbles. He is quick off the snap with enough athleticism to dodge linemen and get to the quarterback. With a lot of experience to go along with his good instincts and intelligence, Thomas is capable of big season to close out his career.
Jonathan Brown, Illinois
Even though Brown had a big 2011 season, he remains an underrated player across the nation. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound sophomore was a playmaking force who was constantly flying into the backfield to make tackles. Illinois had a disappointing season that saw its coach fired, but the Illini had a tough defense with Brown being one of their core players.
Brown had 108 tackles with 20.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks, four passes broken up, with a forced fumble and an interception last year. He was tied for eighth in college football in tackles for a loss. For some idiotic, unknown reason, Brown was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection; despite outperforming and outproducing the likes of Ohio State's Andrew Sweat and Michigan State's Max Bullough, both second-team picks. Brown played well against Wisconsin and stepped up against Illinois' better competition. Teammate Whitney Mercilus was a dominant force last year, and Brown made a lot of plays off of Mercilus' disruption.
Brown won't have the luxury of playing with Mercilus in 2012, but Brown could be even better now that he has a year's worth of experience. Brown has a ton of physical talent and upside, along with speed to burn. That gives him the ability to cover sideline-to-sideline.
Brown also plays well in space and has the potential to be an excellent pass-defender. With off-the charts athletic ability and plus instincts, he could be one of the top linebackers in the nation in 2012.
Third-Team Inside Linebackers:
Jelani Jenkins, Florida
A linebacker who could be poised for a massive season is the Gators speedster. Jenkins could be the fastest front-seven defender throughout college football. Florida has a talented young defense that is on the brink of being one of the top defenses in the nation. Jenkins is a big part of that, and he should be even better as a junior in 2012.
Jenkins had 75 tackles with six tackles for a loss, two sacks, one forced fumble, one interception and six passes broken up last year. He earned a starting spot as a redshirt freshman in 2010 and recorded 76 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, one interception and two sacks.
Jenkins has a high ceiling and is just scratching the surface. It would help if the 6-foot-1, 223-pounder could add some weight to shed blocks. With two years of starting experience, Jenkins should be ready to take the next step in 2012.
Gerald Hodges, Penn State
Hodges was one of the breakout defenders in the Big Ten last season. The junior broke into the starting lineup for his first full season of playing time. He was immediately was one of the best defensive players for Penn State. Hodges and defensive tackle Devon Still were the defensive leaders to lead the Nittany Lions to the No. 5 scoring defense in the nation.
Hodges led Penn State in tackles in 2011 with 106. He also had 10 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, one interception, four passes broken up and two forced fumbles. Hodges is a scrappy, physical player who has a real presence on the field. The New Jersey product was a star high school wrestler as well as a football player, and he brings a very disciplined approach to the game.
Still has moved on to the NFL, so Hodges won't benefit from his disruption. As a senior, he should be more prepared for the Big Ten. Hodges should rack up a big tackle total this season given the run-based nature of the conference. At a program that receives a lot of attention, he won't go unnoticed by voters.