Monday, August 29, 2005

2005 Opponent Position Preview - Linebacker | by Pat

The season is only days away so we'll try to finish off the position previews ASAP. Here's a look at the linebackers who will be gunning for Quinn and Walker all season long. All stats from 2004.

PITTSBURGH Linebackers

Brian Bennett. 35 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR.
H.B. Blades. 108 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3 INT, 2.0 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR. Returning Starter.
Derron Thomas. 19 tackles.

Linebacker is looking like the strength of the Pitt defense and Blades (right) is the headliner. Wannstedt moved Blades from the outside to middle linebacker to get the 6'0", 245 busybody involved in more plays. Taking over the weakside linebacker position is senior Brian Bennett, who started every game in 2003 on the strong side and had over 100 tackles, but was beaten out by Blades last season. Derron Thomas is the most inexperienced starter so the sophomore will need to make an impact to keep his starting spot on the strongside. Depth: Pushing Thomas for the starting slot is Clint Session, who was #2 on the team in tackles last season. Backing up Bennett is J.J. Horne, who is a big weakside linebacker at 6'3", 235 and has been a spot starter the past two years. Scott McKillop so far has the edge on becoming Blades' backup in the middle. The upside of the competition is that Pitt should have a deep rotation at linebacker this season with plenty of strong and fast bodies to choose from.

MICHIGAN Linebackers

Chris Graham. 6 tackles.
David Harris. 10 tackles, 1 FF.
Prescott Burgess. 27 tackles, 1 INT, 2 FF. Returning Starter.

Michigan's situation at linebacker is anything but clear, as most of the spots still seem up for grabs. But don't confuse lack of a depth chart as lack of talent, as there are a good number of quality players vying for a starting slot. The buzz around Chris Graham is considerable and his exceptional speed makes up for his relative lack of size (5'11", 225). Harris (left) was praised by Carr for having a strong spring and looks recovered from a serious knee injury that sidelined him back in 2003. Burgess had a strong finish to 2004 and the converted safety will bring added speed to a position that at times had trouble with mobile quarterbacks. Depth: Scott McClintock is actually a returning starter and finished 4th on the team in tackles last season, but he appears to have been beaten out for a starting slot. Still, look for him to see the field often. Shawn Crable brings plenty of size (6'5" 247lbs) to the position while John Thompson adds plenty of speed and athletic ability. I mentioned Pierre Woods and LaMarr Woodley in the D-Line Preview, but they could also see time lining up as linebackers.


David Herron. 95 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 3 sacks. Returning Starter.
Kaleb Thornhill.
32 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 FF.
SirDarean Adams. 2 tackles.

With one of the younger linebacking groups on our schedule this year, Michigan State will be counting on instant production from an inexperienced, but talented group. The leader of the unit, Herron (right), is a converted fullback who transformed into a decent pass rusher and should help the defensive line get pressure on the quarterback. Last year he finished 4th on the team in tackles. Thornhill is a versatile linebacker who can play inside or at the hybrid "Bandit" position, which is a somewhat similar, but more NCAA-friendly, version of ND's Apache linebacker. This season however, the 6'1", 240 Thornhill will start out as the Spartan's middle linebacker. After defensive star Eric Smith was moved to safety, SirDarean Adams looks to be the new starter at the Bandit position. He is the most inexperienced of the group, but adds a lot of speed to the position and is going to be counted on to aid the Michigan State secondary. Depth: A high school teammate of Tom Zbikowski, Eric Andino had an impressive spring and should see his playing time increase as the season progresses. Steven Juarez, one of the seven JUCO's brought on to help this year's Spartans, is also expected to add even more speed to the linebacking unit.

WASHINGTON Linebackers

Evan Benjamin. 105 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF. Returning Starter.
Joe Lobendahn. 100 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 FR, 1 FF. Returning Starter.
Scott White. 83 tackles, 12.0 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FR, 1 FF. Returning Starter.

More talented than most might think, the linebacking corps is a strength for the Husky defense and will help keep them in games this season. The three returning starters are not only were the three leading tacklers on last year's team, but have a total of 96 college football games under their belt. Benjamin is a converted safety who has the speed to drop back into pass protection but at 6'0", 215 is one of the smaller linebackers the Irish will face. In fact, all three linebackers are not exactly "big" by D-1 standards and rely more on speed to get the job done. Lobendahn (left) is the force in the middle and the leader of the group. White, like Evan, uses speed more than power to get to the ballcarrier. Depth: Dan Howell played in every game last season and even started against Washington State so many hope 2005 will be his breakout season. Kyle Trew and Tahj Bomar should also expect to see time.

PURDUE Linebackers

Stanford Keglar. 61 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 0.5 sacks. Returning Starter.
George Hall. 92 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 INT, 1 FR. Returning Starter.
Bobby Iwuchukwu.
40 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 0.5 sacks. 1 FR. Returning Starter.

As at every other defensive position, Purdue returns all 3 starting linebackers. However, this is still a relatively young unit with only one senior on the depth chart. In fact, the inexperienced backups are expected to eventually be even better than the starters in front of them. Iwuchukwu (right) is the lone senior and will look to provide leadership and guidance for the rest of the talented linebackers. Manning the middle is George Hall who is a big run-stopper at 6'2", 250. The weakside is being held down by sophomore Keglar who finished 4th on the team in tackles during his first year as a starter. With a year under his belt, he should be even more productive. Depth: Perhaps the biggest name in this group is freshman Kyle Williams, who, while only around 210lbs, is already being fitted with All-Big Ten expectations. Look for him to play more and more minutes on the weakside as he learns the defense. Cliff Avril started four games last year when Iwuchukwu went down with an injury and is another player with a bright future.

USC Linebackers

Dallas Sartz. 48 tackles 3.5 TFL, 1.5sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF. Returning Starter.
Oscar Lua. 13 tackles, 1.0 TFL.
Kevin Rivers. 25 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF.

USC will have a young linebacking corp this year, but one that will not want for speed or strength. Sartz (left) is the leader of the defense and is a very steady and dependable linebacker. Rivers played last year as a freshman at defensive end as a pass rushing specialist and will be the linebacker most often lining up on the line of scrimmage, looking to sack the QB. His speed is his best weapon but he's also strong enough to be excellent at defending the run. Lua has the unenviable task of replacing Matt Grootegood in the middle and will need to be productive if USC wants to keep up their impressive defensive output. Depth: There is a lot of talent waiting in the wings with all-everything recruit Thomas Williams pushing Rivers at the strongside while JUCO All-American Ryan Powdrell is challenging Lua for the starting gig in the middle. And the influx of talented freshman Brian Cushing, Rey Maluaglaga, Luther Brown, and Kaluka Maiava give the Trojans even more talent to fit into their defensive schemes.

BYU Linebackers

Justin Leuttgerodt. 26 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack.
Cameron Jensen. 103 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 INT. Returning Starter.
Paul Walkenhorst. 107 tackles in 2002.

Jensen (right) is a team leader and led the team in tackles last season. He will be counted on to be help out against the run in BYU's 3-3-5 defense. Leuttgerodt, a highly recruited JUCO, will help out on the outside and add even more size (6'4", 240) to the Cougar run support. Walkenhorst has battled injuries during his career, but when healthy adds a huge (6'5", 252) presence to the BYU defense. Depth: Washington State tranfer Aaron Wagner will be ready to go if Walkehorst succumbs to injury once again while Dan Bates and Bryan Kehl are expected to see plenty of time this season. A number of other young players will help contribute to a deep unit that will be one of the strengths of Coach Mendenhall's defense.

TENNESSEE Linebackers

Omar Gaither. 92 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INT, 2 FF. Returning Starter.
Kevin Simon. 5 tackles, 1.0 TFL.
Jason Mitchell. 57 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FR.

Backing up their talented and deep defensive line, Tennessee will bring a talented and deep linebacking corps to South Bend this November. Kevin Simon is one of the better middle linebackers that the Irish will face this season, but he has had trouble staying healthy. Joining Simon on the Butkus Award watchlist is Gaither (left) who is very well-rounded as a strongside linebacker who can play the run but also is capable of dropping back into pass coverage. Mitchell will use his outstanding speed on the outside and should be a blitz threat all game long. Depth: As per usual, Tennessee has an assorted mix of strong and fast athletes, waiting their turn to see the field. Jerod Mayo has impressed the coaching staff and teammates alike in recent scrimmages. Jon Poe, Marvin Mitchell, and Daniel Brooks also look to contribute to a very deep squad.

NAVY Linebackers

David Mahoney. 85 tackles 12 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF. Returning Starter.
Rob Caldwell. 15 tackles, 1.5 TFL.
Jake Biles. 7 tackles.
Tyler Tidwell. 11 tackles 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack.

Mahoney (right) is the only returning starter on the Midshipmen unit and his veteran presence will surely be needed to bring a long a group of young and inexperienced players. Caldwell and Biles are the new faces in the middle of the linebacker line and will rely on their speed to stop the run more than their 220-lb frames. Tidwell checks in a 216 lbs and is more of a safety playing linebacker than anything else. His strengths are dropping back into pass coverage. Depth: Navy took a bit of a hit when heralded sophomore Keith Lisante left the program. Former QB Jason Monts will add depth to the middle.

SYRACUSE Linebackers

Kellen Pruitt.
80 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks. Returning Starter.
Kelvin Smith. 53 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 INT.
Jerry Mackey. 106 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF. Returning Starter.

An underrated linebacking corp, Syracuse will field a very fast, athletic, and deep group this season. Smith moved to the middle in the spring and looks to stay at that position in the fall. The problem is, that's where Mackey started last season and led the team in tackles. After missing the spring with an injury, Mackey will have to work hard to regain his starting spot in the middle. If he does, Smith will move back to the outside. Pruitt (left) is a two year starter on the outside with very good pass protection skills. Now on the strongside, he will be called on more this year though to help with run support. Depth: In addition to all three starters, the entire 2nd team for Syracuse returns as well. Backing up Pruitt is special teams contributor and sophomore Vincenzo Giruzzi, who is considered the fastest linebacker on the team. Former defensive end Tommy Harris will start out backing the weakside linebacker spot while Jameel McCain will contribute at middle linebacker.

STANFORD Linebackers

Jon Alston. 62 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 10.0 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FR, 3 FF. Returning Starter.
Michael Okwo. 39 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 FR.
Kevin Schimmelmann. 58 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 2 FF. Returning Starter.
Timi Wusu. 20 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks.

Another 3-4 defense and another star linebacker in Jon Alston (right). Outside linebacker Alston is considered one of the best in the Pac-10 and along with two year starter and inside linebacker Kevin Schimmelmann will be the leader of the Cardinal defense. Joining Schimmelmann along the inside is Michael Okwo who doesn't have much experience at linebacker but was name 1st Team All-Pac 10 last year as a special teamer. The 4th outside linebacker position isn't completely solid as a few players are still fighting to be named the starter. Wusu, a track decathlete and former football walk-on, missed the spring with injury and is going to have to play well to see the field first. Depth: Challenging Wusu are Udeme Udofia and Emmanuel Awofadeju, who are both around 6'4", 240. Michael Craven and Mike Silva are also looking for playing time and add experience to a deep position.

2005 Opponent Analysis and Ranking

Linebacker is a tough position to predict before any games have started. The position can be filled with a variety of players and it's not unusual to see a former running back, defensive lineman, or safety show up in this unit. With so many new coaches on the schedule this year, it's even harder to try and figure out the starters, as multiple players are given shots in fall camp to impress the new guys making out the depth charts.

This year seems a bit of a mixed bag at linebacker. Some teams like Purdue and Washington bring back plenty of experience and production. Others are expecting new guys with litttle playing time to beat out more veteran players and be instant impacts on the defense.

One trend does seem to be a hell of a lot of linebacking speed (as opposed to size). Plenty of teams are putting their fastest players on the field and appear to be willing to perhaps give up a bit in the size department to make it happen. Of course, this doesn't automatically mean it will be easier to run on these teams. Rather, it seems a result of more teams (the Big 10 especially) moving towards more pass-happy offenses.

Here's my take on how our opponents shake out at linebacker.

1. Tennessee - Simon's health is the key to keeping this spot. Plenty of experience and depth.
2. Purdue - Experience, production, and a future star in Williams on the bench.
3. USC - Lacking experience, but way too much talent not to be productive.
4. Michigan - New faces and an added emphasis on speed. Quality depth.
5. Washington - Veteran experience and proven production. Strength of the Husky football team.
6. Syracuse - Joins Tennessee as only opponent with two Butkus Award candidates.
7. Pittsburgh - Blades is a top level player. Need surrounding cast to compliment him.
8. Stanford - Alston is one of the Pac-10's best. A squad that could move up these rankings by the end of the year.
9. BYU - Like Blades at Pitt and Alston at Stanford, Jensen is a great linebacker surrounded by average talent.
10. MSU - Herron is a quality linebacker and there are some talented linebackers hoping to make a mark.
11. Navy - Should be a decent group, especially with Mahoney, but not enough to move out of 11th place.

Next up, and finally, secondaries.