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March 16, 2007

The 2007 Contenders: Butkus Award

Dick Butkus, a two-time All-American at Illinois and arguably the most intimidating linebacker in football history, was the third player selected in the 1965 NFL Draft.

Therefore, it's only fitting that the award which bears his name has usually been presented to linebackers that were first-round selections of professional teams.

Eleven of the 20 recipients of the Butkus Award, which is annually presented to college football's most outstanding linebacker, were first-round NFL picks. The 2006 and 2005 winners Mississippi's Patrick Willis and Penn State's Paul Posluszny are projected to be first-round selections in this year's draft. Two-time Butkus recipient Brian Bosworth of Oklahoma would have been selected in the first round had he not entered the supplemental draft.

As is the case seemingly every season, the upcoming 2007 campaign will include several worthy candidates for the Butkus Award - including a finalist and two semifinalist from a year ago. One player who is in contention excelled despite playing next to a former Butkus recipient. Yet another Butkus possibility led the nation's top-ranked defense in 2006.

Those are just some of the top contenders as projected by Rivals.com. With such impressive credentials, it's understood that the next Butkus Award recipient will be a driving force on the field.

And he will likely eventually be a first round draft choice.

Rivals.com top Butkus Award contenders
1. James Laurinaitis, Ohio State, Jr.: Laurinaitis didn't make Ohio State fans forget about A.J. Hawk or Bobby Carpenter, but he sure did lessen the impact of their loss. The son of a former professional wrestler, Laurinaitis emerged as a rugged tackler who recorded 115 stops, including 8.5 behind the line of scrimmage. He was also exceptional dropping into pass coverage, and nabbed a team-leading five interceptions in addition to breaking up two passes. He was one of three finalists for last season's Butkus Award.
2. Dan Connor, Penn State, Sr.: How's this for a novel thought? Let's put a Penn State linebacker on this list. Though playing in the shadow of former All-American and 2005 Butkus Award winner Paul Posluszny, Connor had just three fewer tackles than Posluszny last season. He had 113 tackles with nine going for losses and five sacks. He also had two interceptions and forced three fumbles to earn second-team All-Big Ten recognition. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, he should move up on the all-conference depth chart this season.
3. Philip Wheeler, Georgia Tech, Sr.: A Management major, if he were so inclined he could offer tips to the players that cannot manage to block him. The 89 tackles he accumulated last season were impressive enough, but even more so is that fact that 14.5 were behind the line of scrimmage including nine sacks. Wheeler had a season-high 10 tackles against Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl.
4. Rey Maualuga, Southern California, Jr.: In his first season as a starter last year, Maualuga earned All-Pac 10 recognition and was a Butkus Award semifinalist. He posted 78 tackles with five coming behind the line of scrimmage. Maualuga added two sacks and also had an interception. He was a huge reason Southern California ranked ninth nationally in run defense in 2006. Of course, so was teammate Keith Rivers, who had a strong 2006 season and could upstage his teammate.
5. Vince Hall, Virginia Tech, Sr.: A three-year starter and back-to-back All-ACC selection, Hall led the ACC with 128 tackles in 2006. He doesn't have the knack for making highlight reel plays like teammate Xavier Adibi, but he's a solid, consistent force on a defensive unit that ranked as the nation's best last season.
Others to consider
Xavier Adibi, Virginia Tech, Sr.: 82 tackles, 6.5 for losses, three sacks, three INTs, three forced fumbles
Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina, Sr.: 107 tackles, 14.5 for losses, five sacks
Jonathan Goff, Vanderbilt, Sr.: 93 tackles, six for losses, 2.5 sacks, one INT, two forced fumbles
Ali Highsmith, LSU, Sr.: 63 tackles, 5.5 for losses, three sacks
J Leman, Illinois, Sr.: 152 tackles, 19 for loss, four sacks, two forced fumbles

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