NOTE: This is the third installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
Southern Utah takes a major hit this year with the loss of first-team All-Big Sky linebacker Zak Browning, who has left the team to embark on a two-year Mormon mission. Not great timing for a program that made the playoffs last year.
Browning certainly isn't the first player to make such a commitment (and he won't be the last). The reverse of SUU's situation is Eastern Washington's fortune of getting Ronnie Hamlin back for a sixth year. So the Eagles' D hangs on to one of its fixtures while the Thunderbirds lose one of theirs. With Browning out and Hamlin returning, here are the 10 linebackers to focus on entering the 2014 season:
TOP 10 LINEBACKERS
1. RONNIE HAMLIN, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 140 tkl, 6 tfl, 2 sacks, 2 ff, 1 fumble rec, 2 int, 2 pass def, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: As if Eastern Washington needed any more star power, Hamlin is back after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Hamlin has already made 37 starts and has racked up 361 career tackles, and enters 2014 just 71 tackles shy of breaking the all-time school record set by former Buck Buchanan winner and fellow linebacker J.C. Sherritt. EWU has played 11 playoff games since 2009 (the year Hamlin arrived on campus). There should be more coming, especially with Hamlin wreaking havoc.
2. ALEX SINGLETON, SR., MONTANA STATE 2013: 110 tkl, 16½ tfl, 1½ sacks, 2 ff, 3 int, 11 pass def, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Singleton surely has the potential to be the best linebacker in the Big Sky. The Thousand Oaks, Calif., product simply makes plays. He lives in opponents' backfields (as evidenced by his tackles for-loss totals) and has four interceptions in the past two seasons. Singleton had a big year in 2013 anchoring MSU's linebackers as team captain Na'a Moeakiola was on the shelf with an injury. With Moeakiola healthy and back in the lineup, Singleton should have more room to roam. Not good news for offensive coordinators.
3. NICK DZUBNAR, SR., CAL POLY 2013: 112 tkl, 7 tfl, 1 sack, 3 ff, 1 int, 11 pass def. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Cal Poly produced one of the league's co-defensive players of the year in 2013 (lineman Sullivan Grosz). Can Dzubnar contend for that award this year? Dzubnar may seem anonymous but he hardly plays like it. He moved inside last year after playing outside his first two seasons and again produced 100-plus tackles. Dzubnar thrives on being one of the most disruptive defenders in the Big Sky, and he's already forced six fumbles, picked off three passes and recovered two fumbles in his career. Many of the Mustangs' fortunes on D rest with Dzubnar.
4. MATT HOLLEY, SR., SOUTHERN UTAH 2013: 110 tkl, 13½ tfl, 2 sacks, 1 ff, 2 fum rec, 2 int, 6 pass def, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: As it's noted above, first-team all-conference linebacker Zak Browning is gone. So Holley's influence might have to be greater this season, even if he did have a breakout year in 2013. Holley's penchant for making plays really came through at the end of last season as the Thunderbirds made a surprise run to the FCS playoffs. His two interceptions in a late-season game at Montana State were killers. SUU won, and effectively eliminated the Bobcats from the playoffs. Holley should play big again in 2014.
5. LEILON WILLINGHAM, SR., NORTHERN COLORADO 2013: 98 tkl, 6½ tfl, 1 sack, 1 ff, 2 pass def. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Last year, Willingham began to fulfill some of the big expectations UNC's coaches had for him when he transferred to the Greeley, Colo., campus from Central Florida after the 2011 season. Now as a senior, he looks to make bigger strides. A Denver native, Willingham stands 6-foot-2 and has bulked up to 252 pounds. He takes over as the leader of the linebackers now that longtime standout Clarence Bumpas is gone. The Bears' defense, which struggled versus the pass last season, needs Willingham to be a top-echelon linebacker.
6. CODY MCCARTHY, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 114 tkl, 10½ tfl, 2½ sacks, 6 pass def. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: McCarthy was very good in the regular season, as his numbers attest. But he was even better in the playoffs as the Eagles were a win shy of another trip to the FCS title game. The Boise, Idaho, product combined for 24 tackles in the Eagles' quarterfinal and semifinal games (11 vs. Jacksonville State and 13 vs. Towson), and that's the perfect springboard toward this season. McCarthy has made 20 career starts, making him the second-most experienced player on Eastern's defense behind Hamlin. McCarthy should have a big year.
7. NA'A MOEAKIOLA, SR., MONTANA STATE 2013: DNP-injured; 2012: 89 tkl, 13 tfl, 1 sack, 1 int, 9 pass def. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Few defensive players in the Big Sky have as much motivation to bounce back than Moeakiola. A team captain, Moeakiola missed all of last season after injuring his shoulder in spring ball, and the Bobcats were forced to press on without one of their fiercest players. MSU went on to miss the playoffs in a year where they had national title aspirations. Expect a big year from Moeakiola if he remains healthy. With him, the Bobcats' starting linebacker trio (with Singleton and Cole Moore) is one of the top groups in the league.
8. MITCH BECKSTEAD, SR., IDAHO STATE 2013: 111 tkl, 5½ tfl, 1 fum rec, 3 int, 13 pass def. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Beckstead took home the Bengals' Jared Allen Strength and Conditioning Award in the spring, and in the fall he was tabbed as the team's defensive MVP. So Beckstead should be primed and ready for another strong season as a senior. Idaho State was greatly improved numbers-wise on D last year, giving up 25 fewer touchdowns than it did the year prior and reducing its points-allowed average by more than 20 points. If the Bengals continue to trend in that direction in coach Mike Kramer's fourth year, Beckstead will be a big reason why.
9. AUSTIN HASQUET, SR., NORTHERN ARIZONA 2013: 91 tkl, 5½ tfl, 1 sack, 1 fum rec, 3 int, 13 pass def, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: The Lumberjacks finished plus-5 in turnover margin last season as the defense snared 24 takeaways. But that wasn't all. NAU scored seven defensive touchdowns last year, including six interceptions returned for scores. Hasquet had a hand in a few of those. Will that high-scoring trend continue into this season? Either way, the 6-1, 225-pound Hasquet will be a force again this year. The Lumberjacks, thanks to a strong defense and a great running game, are 17-6 overall and 13-3 in the Big Sky combined in the past two years.
10. CAMERON ONTKO, SR., CAL POLY 2013: 108 tkl, 7 tfl, 1 sack, 1 int, 3 pass def. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: At 5-11, Ontko is one of the shortest linebackers in the league, but that hardly hinders his production. Ontko was injured during spring practice but he should be ready by the time the season starts to team with Dzubnar and make up one of the league's better defensive combos. Ontko took over at weakside linebacker last year and had 108 total tackles. His 9.8 stops per game ranked fourth in the Big Sky. That's some solid contribution on a defense that ranked third in the league overall and No. 1 in scoring defense (at 21.6 points-allowed per game).
*** NATIONAL NO. 1: LYNDEN TRAIL, SR., NORFOLK STATE. The 6-7, 260-pound Trail dropped down to Norfolk State from Florida in 2012 and has dominated ever since. Last season he was named the FCS National Defensive Performer of the Year by the CFPA. Numbers don't lie: Trail had 94 tackles (12½ for loss), 8½ sacks, 5 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions in 2013.
LAST WEEK: 2014 defensive back rankings
LAST YEAR: 2013 linebacker rankings
NEXT WEEK: Defensive line