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. We also will project the winners of the postseason awards that are given out to the best of college football.
The Butkus Award is given to top the linebacker in college football. Last year's winner was Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Butkus Award Winner:
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame
Te'o enters the 2012 season as the top middle linebacker in college football. He could've been a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but decided to return South Bend for his senior season.
Not only does the 6-foot-2, 255-pound linebacker have all the physical tools to be a dominant player, but he is also very intelligent and instinctive. Te'o has been extremely consistent the past two seasons, so there is no reason to think that he won't maintain that level of play this year. The senior has seen everything there is at the college level.
Te'o was a Second-Team All-American last year as well as the heart and soul of the Irish defense. Tbe junior led Notre Dame in tackles for the second straight year, making 128 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks. He recorded 133 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, one sack and one forced fumble in 2010.
If Te'o stays healthy, he is probably a lock for 120 tackles with a nice mix of splash plays. He will get extra blocking attention, but he already had that in 2011; it didn't prevent him from making any less of an impact. It would be very surprising if the senior had a drop in his production.
Te'o is a well-rounded linebacker who does everything well and lacks any flaws in his game. He is physical at the point of attack in run defense using his good instincts to get in position to make plays. Te'o is a solid pass-defender, too. He splits time between blitzing and dropping into coverage, executing well in both phases.
Another thing going for Te'o is the media bias in favor of Notre Dame. The teams's exaggerated spotlight and the extra media attention have helped its players win awards in years past. Te'o would be a really good linebacker n any college football team, but playing for Notre Dame only helps him receive more notice.
Jarvis Jones, Georgia
This is another award where we have Jones as the runner-up. He obviously is an excellent player to be in the running for so many postseason honors. However, the Butkus Award seems to have a preference towards linebackers who rack up big tackle totals over blitzing pass-rushing linebackers. Only one pass-rusher has won the award since 2000 (Von Miller in 2010). The other 11 winners were all run-stuffing middle linebackers. Thus, Te'o gets the nod over Jones.
Jones had a shot to lead the nation in sacks with two games left in the 2011 season. Somehow, both LSU and Michigan State held the breakout star in check. Last year was his first significant playing time with Georgia as he sat out the 2010 season after transferring from USC. Jones took the SEC by storm in 2011, and he was named a First-Team All-American.
Jones still led the SEC in sacks last year with 13.5, tying for second in the nation behind only Illinois' Whitney Mercilus. Not only was Jones a pass-rushing terror last year, but he did a good job of chasing down running backs in the ground game. The sophomore had 70 tackles, 19.5 tackles for a loss, two passes broken up and two forced fumbles.
Jones was a perfect fit as an outside linebacker in the Bulldogs' 3-4 defense. The 6-foot-2, 242-pounder is extremely talented and is a player who is similar to young Broncos' star Von Miller.
The SEC will be better prepared for Jones this year. There is no doubt that he will see tons of double-teams in 2012. Offensive coaches this September will attempt to mimic the effective blocking used last season by the Tigers and Spartans. Georgia doesn't have a pass-rusher on the other side from Jones who can help keep the double-teams away from the talented junior either.
With all of that to overcome, it wouldn't be surprising if Jones' production declines by four to five sacks this season. However, if he duplicates his 2011 season, Jones could easily come home with the Butkus Award.
Butkus Dark Horse:
Jelani Jenkins, Florida
There are four Florida Gator linebackers on the Butkus watchlist, and, if Ron Powell wasn't injured in the spring, there would probably be five. Among those talented defenders, Jenkins is the best. He is perhaps the fastest front-seven defender in the nation, having the speed of a defensive back. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder has extremely rare speed.
Jenkins broke into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2010. He totaled 76 tackles on the season, which led the Gators front-seven defenders and was behind only safety Ahmad Black on the team. Jenkins chipped in 4.5 tackles for a loss, one interception and two sacks, too.
Jenkins played even better as a second-year starter last season, making 75 tackles, six tackles for a loss, two sacks, one forced fumble, one interception and six passes broken up. He stood out with good games against LSU, Alabama and Florida State.
After gaining two years of starting experience, Jenkins should be able to play freely in 2012. He won't be learning a new defense this year and that continuity should help him.
Another thing that should help Jenkins is adding more weight. The official listings haven't been released, but there are reports that he has added a lot of muscle bulk under Florida's new strength and conditioning coach. That should help Jenkins shed blocks and be more forceful in the tackle box. He has good talent around him and could be on the cusp of a massive season.
Honorable Mentions: Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown, Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter, Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas, Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen, Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown, Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges, Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith, Iowa State linebacker Jake Knott, Washington State linebacker Travis Long, Texas A&M linebacker Damontre Moore, Iowa linebacker James Morris, Alabama linebacker C. J. Mosley, North Carolina linebacker Kevin Reddick, Oklahoma linebacker Tom Wort, Florida linebacker Jon Bostic and Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland.