CHICAGO — The Butkus Award honoring the nation’s best linebackers kicked off its 33rd annual selection process Monday by announcing its collegiate preseason watch list.

Mirroring the legendary “51” pro jersey of the award’s namesake Dick Butkus, whom NFL Films considers the best defensive player in football history, each watch list features 51 players identified by a 51-person selection panel of deeply experienced coaches, talent evaluators and journalists. Appearance on the watch list is not required to become a winner.

The Collegiate Butkus Award watch list includes candidates from 42 universities, including six returning semifinalists and one returning finalist, Josey Jewell of Iowa.

RELATED: All college football 2017 watch lists

The High School Butkus Award watch list includes candidates from 50 secondary schools across 23 states. Florida (seven), California (six) and Ohio (five) claim the most candidates among states.

Semifinalists will be named Oct. 30, finalists on Nov. 20 and winners will be notified on or before Dec. 5. The professional winner will be announced in early 2018.

The 2016 Butkus Award winners:

Professional: Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
Collegiate: Reuben Foster, Alabama (now San Francisco 49ers)
High school: Dylan Moses, IMG Academy, Bradenton, Fla. (now Alabama)

Formed in 1985, the Butkus Award was expanded in 2008 to honor linebackers at three levels while helping spread the word about Butkus’ I Play Clean initiative which encourages teens to eat well, train hard, and play with attitude instead of resorting to performance-enhancing drugs.

The Butkus Award, www.thebutkusaward.com and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/51.butkus, is presented by the Butkus Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit organization. Selection criteria is located on the official website. The Butkus Award is a member of the National College Football Awards Association (NCFAA) which encompasses college football’s most prestigious awards. Its 23 awards have honored more than 800 people since 1935. Visit www.NCFAA.org for more information.

2017 collegiate watch list:
Genard Avery, Memphis Jerome Baker, Ohio State
Davin Bellamy, Georgia Keishawn Bierria, Washington
Eric Boggs, Appalachian State Oren Burks, Vanderbilt
Jason Cabinda, Penn State Lorenzo Carter, Georgia
Jermaine Carter, Maryland Jack Cichy, Wisconsin
Koron Crump, Arizona State Nick DeLuca, North Dakota State
Devante Downs, California Tremaine Edwards, Virginia Tech
T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin Rashaan Evans, Alabama
DeMarquis Gates, Mississippi Dre Greenlaw, Arkansas
Shaquem Griffin, UCF Porter Gustin, USC
Shaun Dion Hamilton, Alabama James Hearns, Louisville
Manase Hungalu, Oregon State Malik Jefferson, Texas
Josey Jewell, Iowa Jordan Jones, Kentucky
Kendall Joseph, Clemson Junior Joseph, Connecticut
Peter Kalambayi, Stanford Arden Key, LSU
Micah Kiser, Virginia Darius Leonard, South Carolina State
Mike McCray, Michigan Skai Moore, South Carolina
Airius Moore, North Carolina State Nyles Morgan, Notre Dame
Uchenna Nwosu, USC Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma
D.J. Palmore, Navy Jacob Pugh, Florida State
Shaquille Quarterman, Miami (Fla.) Tegray Scales, Indiana
Cameron Smith, USC Sione Teuhema, Southeastern Louisiana
Matthew Thomas, Florida State Azeem Victor, Washington
Fred Warner, BYU Tre' Williams, Auburn
Chris Worley, Ohio State Trevon Young, Louisville
Kenny Young, UCLA