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U-Who? USC, Georgia top contenders for title of 'Linebacker U'

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Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press
Clay Matthews has been selected to five Pro Bowls since departing USC after the 2008 season.

The next group in our "U-Who?" series is linebacker. While inside linebackers are important if teams want to win on Sundays, outside linebackers have become the rage on draft days, with four of them going in the first round this year and seven in the past two years.

We're grouping all linebackers together for this exercise.

15 for '15:
CFB 24/7 counts down the best of what college football has to offer in varying categories for 2015.

So, which college program is best at producing NFL players at linebacker? Here's a look at the top 10 candidates for the title of "Linebacker U.," based on a 15-year history of their draft picks at the position, and factoring in the overall quality of the group, too.

Note: Some of the players included on this list also appear in our "Defensive Line U" post, as certain players have played both defensive end and outside linebacker. We did not include college safeties who eventually became NFL linebackers in this list.

10. Ohio State

First-round picks past 15 years: 4
Top three rounds: 7
Total drafted: 17
The skinny: The 17 draftees is second-most in our time frame, and the sheer number is the only reason the Buckeyes are on this list. Two of the No. 1s were busts: Bobby Carpenter and Vernon Gholston. The others were A.J. Hawk and Ryan Shazier, who struggled as a rookie last season. Second-rounder James Laurinaitis is a solid player, but the only other real success story is fourth-rounder Matt Wilhelm, who played eight seasons and was a full-time starter for one of them.

9. Michigan

First-round picks past 15 years: 0
Top three rounds: 5
Total drafted: 8
The skinny: There haven't been that many Michigan linebackers drafted in the past 15 years, but half have become (at the least) solid NFL players. Second-rounders David Harris, Victor Hobson and LaMarr Woodley have combined to start for 17 seasons, and Woodley three times has finished with double-digit sack totals. Fourth-rounder Larry Foote has been an eight-year starter.

Check out the top 10 players from Florida to play in the NFL.

8. Florida

First-round picks past 15 years: 1
Top three rounds: 5
Total drafted: 12
The skinny: The 12 draftees is tied for sixth-most in our time frame. The lone first-rounder is Dante Fowler, Jr., who went No. 3 overall in the 2015 draft but is going to miss his first season with a torn ACL. Despite the lack of first-rounders, there have been numerous success stories. The biggest: sixth-rounder Jeremy Mincey, who plays end but was drafted as an outside 'backer and is heading into his ninth season. Second-rounders Jon Bostic, Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes, third-rounder Channing Crowder, fourth-rounder Jelani Jenkins and fifth-rounder Andra Davis also became starters, and seventh-rounder Brandon Siler lasted six seasons and was a part-time starter in three of those.

7. Penn State

First-round picks past 15 years: 0
Top three rounds: 4
Total drafted: 9
The skinny: The nine draftees is tied for 11th in our span and there have been no first-rounders. But Penn State still has produced some high-level linebackers headed by third-rounder NaVorro Bowman and second-rounders Sean Lee and Paul Posluszny. Third-rounder Dan Connor became a starter. Fourth-rounder Gerald Hodges was a part-time starter last season. And fifth-rounder Tim Shaw and seventh-rounders Josh Hull, Michael Mauti and Nathan Stupar have each lasted at least two seasons; all but Mauti have lasted at least three, and Mauti is headed into his third season.

Take a look at the top 10 players from Purdue to play in the NFL.

6. Purdue

First-round picks past 15 years: 2
Top three rounds: 5
Total drafted: 9
The skinny: The nine draftees is 11th-most in our span, but the hit factor has been high. The only first-rounder is Ryan Kerrigan, who has 38 sacks in four seasons. He isn't the only Boilermakers linebacker to make a mark as a pass rusher; there's also fourth-rounder Shaun Phillips and first-rounder Anthony Spencer. And third-rounders Akin Ayodele (an eight-year starter, for four teams) and Landon Johnson (five-year starter, for two teams) were solid players. The other three draftees -- Stanford Keglar, Niko Koutouvides and Joe Odom -- each played for at least three seasons, and Koutouvides was an excellent special-teamer throughout his nine-year career.

5. Alabama

First-round picks past 15 years: 3
Top three rounds: 6
Total drafted: 10
The skinny: The 10 draftees is tied for ninth. Five of the six taken in the first three rounds have panned out -- though to differing levels. The first-rounders have been C.J. Mosley (excellent as a rookie last season), Dont'a Hightower (a starter in each of his three seasons) and Rolando McClain (who is talented but also troubled). Second-rounder DeMeco Ryans has been a starter in each of his nine seasons, and fellow second-rounder Courtney Upshaw -- like Hightower -- has started in each of his first three seasons. Seventh-rounder Kenneth Pope played for four seasons and was a starter for one of them.

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4. Florida State

First-round picks past 15 years: 4
Top three rounds: 8
Total drafted: 18
The skinny: The 18 draftees is the most in our time frame. Only one of the first-rounders (Lawrence Timmons) has become a star, though Kamerion Wimbley has been OK and there is hope for Bjoern Werner. Fourth-rounder Nigel Bradham, sixth-rounders Geno Hayes and Vince Williams and seventh-rounder Dekoda Watson continue to outplay their draft status. Fifth-rounder Telvin Smith played well as a rookie last season. Second-rounder Tommy Polley was a five-year starter in the early to mid-2000s.

3. Miami

First-round picks past 15 years: 4
Top three rounds: 8
Total drafted: 13
The skinny: UM's 13 total draftees is tied for fourth in our span. While UM hasn't had a first-rounder since Jon Beason in 2007, it still has produced some solid 'backers (and there are high hopes for rookie second-rounder Denzel Perryman). Each of the first-rounders paid off: Beason, Dan Morgan (when healthy), Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams. Second-rounder Rocky McIntosh, third-rounders Tavares Gooden and Sean Spence and fourth-rounders Colin McCarthy, Daryl Sharpton and Leon Williams each started for at least one season. Twelve of the 13 (all but Perryman, who, again, is a rookie) have lasted at least three seasons in the NFL; Spence is heading into his fourth, and he will make it 11 of 13 who have lasted at least four seasons.

Check out the top 10 players from Georgia to play in the NFL.

2. Georgia

First-round picks past 15 years: 3
Top three rounds: 10
Total drafted: 13
The skinny: The 13 draftees -- tied for fourth-most -- does not include Thomas Davis, who was selected as a safety. There have been a lot of draftees and a lot of success stories. The first-rounders, though, have been a mixed bag. Alec Ogletree has started all 32 games in his two-year career, but Jarvis Jones has struggled in his first two seasons and David Pollack lasted just two seasons before having to retire because of injuries. Third-rounder Justin Houston is a pass-rush force and a bona-fide star. Third-rounder Will Witherspoon started for nine seasons, and second-rounders Boss Bailey and Kendrell Bell for five each. Second-rounder Odell Thurman was a starter in his only season before off-field issues ended his career. Third-rounder Akeem Dent is a journeyman talent who has been a part-time starter.

1. USC

First-round picks past 15 years: 4
Top three rounds: 6
Total drafted: 16
The skinny: The 16 draftees ranks third in our time frame. First-rounder Clay Matthews is a star; the other three first-rounders -- Brian Cushing, Nick Perry and Keith Rivers -- have had up-and-down careers. Cushing and Matthews were part of a 2009 USC draft class that included four linebackers; second-rounder Rey Maualuga (a six-year starter) and fourth-rounder Kaluka Maiava (a full-time starter for one season and a part-time guy in two others) were the other two. Seventh-rounder Malcolm Smith was MVP of Seattle's Super Bowl win following the 2013 season. Second-rounder Lofa Tatupu was a solid starter for six seasons. Fourth-rounder Markus Steele and fifth-rounder Zeke Moreno each lasted at least three seasons and started for one.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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