As we hit the preview portion of the 2023 FCS offseason, HERO Sports will rank the top returning players by position group.
While what happens on the field and how things finish at the end of the season is what really matters, preseason rankings give fans an idea of what players and teams they should keep an eye on.
Here are the top returning linebackers in 2023.
These rankings are formed by a combination of the author’s opinion/FCS knowledge (watching guys play, knowing what system they play in, strength of opponents, etc.), on-field production, pro potential, postseason accolades, how they perform against their toughest opponents, and PFF grades.
Best Returning FCS Linebackers
25. Mike DeNucci, Lehigh
24. Tyler Long, Austin Peay (transfer from Norfolk State)
23. Braden Gilby, Furman
22. Jason Freeman, South Dakota State
21. Isaiah Major, Florida A&M
20. Marco Olivas, Lafayette
19. Lewis Matthews, Grambling State
18. Stephen Hillis, South Dakota
17. Levi Janacaro, Montana
16. Brock Mogensen, South Dakota
15. Antoine Williams (former Austin Peay LB currently in the portal but committing soon with FCS offers)
14. James Conway, Fordham
13. Isaac Dowling, Mercer
12. Armon Bailey, Sacramento State
11. William McRainey, Gardner-Webb
10. Rodney Dansby, Houston Christian
9. Colton Adams, Alabama State
8. Liam Johnson, Princeton
7. Bryce Norman, SEMO
6. David Hoage, Northern Colorado
The Top 5
5. Tristan Wheeler, Richmond
Wheeler has been a tackling machine for years. He has earned at least one All-American accolade in four seasons, and he is a four-time All-CAA selection with three straight First Team honors. A 2019 freshman All-American, Wheeler totaled 104 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. In the 2021 spring season, he had 38 tackles and 2.5 TFLs in only four games, getting All-American recognition from Stats Perform and Sophomore AA honors from HERO Sports. The 2021 fall season saw three different All-American honors as Wheeler totaled 114 tackles, six TFLs, one sack, and two interceptions. Last year, the 6-foot-2 and 228-pounder tallied 110 tackles, 11 TFLs, two sacks, two interceptions, and five passes defended to earn a couple more AA accolades. If his level of production stays the same in 2023, which there’s no reason to doubt, Wheeler could end his illustrious Richmond career with more than 450 tackles.
4. Winston Reid, Weber State
Reid is a flat-out beast on the field and was one of the top breakout players in the 2022 season. A First Team All-Big Sky selection with All-American honors from The Bluebloods, he racked up 112 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, four sacks, three quarterback hurries, one interception, two passes defended, and five forced fumbles. The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder makes his presence felt all over the field for a strong Weber defense. His 2022 PFF defensive grade of 90.1 is the third-highest for a returning FCS linebacker.
3. Jacob Dobbs, Holy Cross
Dobbs played in only four games last year before being sidelined with an injury. He was granted a fifth year of eligibility in 2023 and is ready to remind the FCS just how dominant he is. The 6-foot, 237-pounder is an imposing figure, and his sideline-to-sideline play and thumping tackling ability make him a force on the field. As a true freshman and a HERO Sports Freshman All-American in 2019, he had 93 tackles, seven sacks, and 12 tackles for loss. As a Sophomore All-American in the 2021 spring, Dobbs recorded 41 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and one sack in four games. The 2021 fall season saw him take it to another level. Dobbs racked up 137 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks, six quarterback hurries, and three pass breakups, getting recognition on several All-American teams.
2. Adam Bock, South Dakota State
Bock is a three-year starter at middle linebacker for SDSU’s elite rushing defense. In 10 games during the spring season, he totaled 74 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, and two sacks to earn Freshman All-American honors. Bock became a household FCS name in the 2021 fall season, racking up 125 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, eight passes defended, and two forced fumbles, earning a few different All-American honors. The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder made it back-to-back All-MVFC First Team accolades last season despite missing a few regular-season games due to injury. In 11 games, he recorded 76 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, four sacks, and one forced fumble. His 2022 PFF defensive grade of 86.4 is the fifth-highest for a returning FCS linebacker. SDSU has had some legendary middle linebackers, and Bock is as good as it gets in program history with his instincts, athleticism, and ability to play the run and the pass.
1. John Pius, William & Mary
Pius torments defenses coming off of the edge. We’ll group him with the linebackers instead of the defensive line since he’s listed as an outside linebacker in W&M’s scheme and is recognized as a linebacker on All-American teams. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder was a breakout star in 2022. He absolutely wreaked havoc, totaling 72 tackles, 19 TFLs, 11.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hurries, and 12 pass breakups. Pius loaded up on postseason accolades. He was named the CAA Defensive Player of the Year along with All-Conference First Team honors, he earned seven different First Team All-American honors, and he finished second in voting for the Buck Buchanan Award. Pius returns as the most disruptive defensive player in the FCS with his next-level talent. And he’s only a junior with plenty more games to play for W&M.
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