Tuesday, August 28, 2007

2007 Opponent Position Preview: Linebackers | by Pat

We're done with QBs, RBs, WRs, TE/OL, and DL. The 2007 position previews march on...


SLB - Shane Bowen. Sophomore. New Starter.
2006 stats: 7 tackles, 1.0 sack, 1.0 TFL, 1 FF.
MLB - Philip Wheeler. (#7 ILB) RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 89 tackles, 9.0 sacks, 14.5 TFL, 2 FR, 1 FF.
WLB - Gary Guyton. Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats:29 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 8.0 TFL, 1 INT. 1 FR.

The talented and blitz-crazy Georgia Tech defense is led by redshirt senior and all-conference player Philip Wheeler (right). An extremely aggressive tackler, Wheeler is back for his third year as a starter and will contend for All-American honors this season. Gary Guyton also returns, but he's at a new position this year. After starting every game as the strongside 'backer in 2006, Guyton was moved to the weakside this year. At 6'3" 240 pounds he's a big weakside linebacker who will be a handful for the offensive line. Shane Bowen is the new starter to the line at the strongside post. Although the 6'1" 225 pound sophomore saw plenty of special teams work last year as a freshman, he only played linebacker in the 2nd half of the Duke, Samford, and Troy games. As the ND game will be his first game with extensive playing time, look for a few rookie mistakes. Depth: Backing up Bowen will be redshirt freshman Anthony Barnes who had an impressive fall camp and could step in if Bowen struggles. Tony Clark was a backup corner and safety last year, but now he's a linebacker, albeit a small one at 200 pounds.


SLB - Tyrell Sales.
Junior. New Starter.
2006 stats: 17 tackles.
MLB - Dan Connor. (#1 ILB) Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 113 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 9.0 TFL, 2 INT, 3 FF.
WLB - Sean Lee. (#6 OLB) Junior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 90 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 8.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FR, 2 FF.

Even with the graduation of All-American Paul Posluszny, the Nittany Lion linebacking corp is still one of the better ones in the nation. Dan Connor (left) has shifted back to middle linebacker after playing as an outside linebacker last season and should once again crack the century mark in tackles. Sean Lee also returns after a breakout sophomore season that saw him finish 3rd on the team in tackles behind Posluszny and Connor. Lee was largely overlooked last year, but this season should definitely earn all-conference honors if he keeps up his impressive production. Tyrell Sales is the lone new starter after being a backup his first three seasons. He did start at middle linebacker for three games in 2005 and has played plenty of snaps off the bench so he does have experience. Depth: Pushing Sales hard for the starting OLB spot is redshirt freshman Navorro Bowman. He didn't play at all last year but had a strong spring and has impressed the coaches during fall camp. He's extremely fast and athletic and will certainly play a lot in 2007. Bani Gbadyu will also rotate in at times to provide depth. And behind those two is a laundry list of backups like Jerome Hayes, Dontey Brown, Josh Hull, and freshmen Chris Colasanti, Andrew Dailey, and Nathan Stupar.


SLB - Shawn Crable.
(#8 OLB)
RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 37 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 10.5 TFL, 1 FR, 2 FF.
MLB - John Thompson. RS Junior. New Starter.
2006 stats: 6 tackles.
WLB - Chris Graham. Senior. New Starter.
2006 stats: 25 tackles, 1.0 TFL.

Shawn Crable (right) returns as a team captain and the leader of the Michigan linebackers. After playing largely in a backup role he had a stellar 2006 starting eight games at outside linebacker. At 6'5" 245 pounds he's one of the bigger linebackers that ND will face and will look to repeat his excellent performance against ND last season. The other outside 'backer will be senior Chris Graham who has started four games each of the last two seasons at middle linebacker. He's not a big linebacker at 5'11" 225 pounds, but is very quick. The opporutnity to replace All-American David Harris has been a tight camp battle all fall. It sounds like the winner is redshirt junior John Thompson. Thompson has seen backup work at linebacker and special teams assignments but this will be his first go at major playing time. The unofficial book on him is that he's an average linebacker but has a good grasp of the defense and his role. Depth: The competition for the MIKE spot is redshirt freshman Obinna Ezeh. At 6'2" 243 pounds he's bigger than the 6'1" 230 pound Thompson, but is still adapting to the complexities of the defense. Even if he doesn't start he should still see the field for the Wolverines. Outside of that battle, the depth at linebacker isn't all that great. JUCO Austin Panter will provide some depth at the middle and outside linebacker spots. Jonas Mouton will...


SLB - Jon Misch.
RS Freshman. New Starter.
2006 stats: redshirted.
MLB - Kaleb Thornhill. (#45 ILB) RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 68 tackles, 2.5 TFL.
WLB - Eric Gordon. RS Freshman. New Starter.
2006 stats: redshirted.

The Michigan State linebacking corp has undergone a number of changes under new head coach Mark Dantonio. The main one has been a shift to a true 4-3 defense from the 4-2-5 defense under Coach Smith that featured the hybrid linebacker/safety "bandit" position. One of the new starters generating the most press has been redshirt freshman Jon Misch. The coaches keep raving about his ability to make plays, but the new starter at strongside linebacker will be one of the smallest in the nation at 6'1" 200 pounds. And according to Misch himself, he runs a 4.9 40 so he's not all that fast. Helping him and the rest of the defense out will be returning starter and team captain Kaleb Thornhill (left) in the middle. He has the experience (26 career starts) and size (243 pounds) to be a stabilizing force on an inexperienced Spartan defense. At the weak-side linebacker position, there is still a fight for the starting spot, but it looks like redshirt freshman Eric Gordon will get the nod. He's an athletic 'backer who has had strong performances during the fall practice scrimmages. Depth: The surprising thing about Gordon as starter is that he's replaced SirDarean Adams (#43 OLB), who has started the previous 23 games, primarily at the Bandit position. Perhaps Adams will regain his starting spot, but for now he'll be coming off the bench.


SLB - Anthony Heygood.
RS Junior. New Starter.
2006 stats: 6 tackles, 1 FR.
MLB - Josh Ferguson. RS Senior. New Starter.
2006 stats: 17 tackles.
WLB - Stanford Keglar. RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 69 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR. 1 FF.

Stanford Keglar started 10 games last year and 4 the year before giving him the most experience on Purdue's starting linebacker corp. He's a big 'backer at 247 pounds and is very solid against the run. Anthony Heygood was a Purdue running back until October of last season when the coaching staff switched him to linebacker. He didn't get too much experience during the season at the new position but has shown some decent skills during the spring and fall practices. His speed is his strength for now as he acclimates to his new position. The middle linebacker spot has seen one formerly injured player take over for another. Josh Ferguson is a career backup who broke his hip in the middle of last season and was lost for the year. He's back now and for now holds down the starting middle linebacker spot. At 242 pounds he's big enough to help slow down opposing running games. Depth: The reason Ferguson is starting now is because returning starter Dan Bick (#41 ILB) (right) is still fighting through a neck injury suffered last season. He missed all spring practice and the first few weeks of fall camp before being cleared for contact. He did lead the team in tackles last year (95 tackles, 1.0 sack, 3.5 TFL, 2 FR. 1 FF.) so if he can make a full return he'll be an invaluable addition to a defense that finished 114th in the nation last year.


SLB - Aaron Whittington.
RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 29 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 FR.
MLB - Christian Taylor. (#26 ILB) RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 83 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 13.5 TFL.
WLB - Reggie Carter. (#62 OLB) RS Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 48 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 6.0 TFL

The centerpiece of the Bruin defense, Christian Taylor (left), has started 13 games at middle linebacker and is one of the best linebackers in the Pac-10. The Air Force transfer isn't all that big at 6'1" 220 pounds, but he was 2nd on the team in tackles last year and is the kind of player who always around the ball. His tackles for loss production from last year is very impressive for a middle linebacker. Aaron Whittington's also isn't a sizable linebacker at 215 pounds and relies more on speed. He wasn't terribly productive last year, but will bring even more experience to a veteran Bruin defense. Reggie Carter had a strong debut season earning Freshman All-American honors. He should continue to improve and have a tremendous 2007. He is exceptionally quick and does a very good job in pass coverage. Depth: John Hale started three of the final four games of the season at middle linebacker and returns to back up Taylor.


SLB - Tyronne Pruitt
. RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 48 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 1 FF,
MLB -Jolonn Dunbar. (#24 ILB) RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 92 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 7.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 FR, 1 FF.
WLB - Mark Herzlich. Sophomore. New Starter.
2006 stats: 42 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 5.0 TFL, 1 FF.

The Eagle defense took a hit when it was announced that star linebacker Brian Toal will miss the 2007 season to continue to rehab a shoulder injury. But there is still a number of talented linebackers who will suit up, starting with middle linebacker Jolonn Dunbar (right). At 6'0" 220 pounds he led the team in tackles last season and will be a team captain for the second straight year. Tyronne Pruitt is back for his second year as a starter at the strongside linebacker position. He's not the biggest guy at 5'11" 220 pounds but has plenty of experience in defensive coordinator Frank Spazzini's defense. The new starter of the trio is sophomore Mark Herzlich. He earned playing time as a freshman and collected an impressive 42 tackles. He played at 6'4" 250 pounds last year but has slimmed down to around 235 this year in order to get faster. He's still relatively inexperienced but could turn into a very good linebacker. Depth: With one start against Duke under his belt, Kevin Akins will add experience to the depth chart behind Pruitt. Mike McLaughlin saw time playing time last year before injuring his knee. He's a very big backup middle linebacker at 250 pounds.


SLB -Brian Cushing.
(#2 OLB) Junior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 57 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 13.5 TFL, 1 FF.
MLB - Rey Maualuga. (#3 ILB) Junior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 78 tackles, 2.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FF.
WLB - Keith Rivers. (#1 OLB) Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 85 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 7.5 TFL, 1 FR, 3 FF.

Not only the best linebacking corp ND will face, the Trojans have the best and deepest linebacking corp in the nation. Keith Rivers led Southern Cal in tackles last year and is an All-American caliber player back for his final year. It's probably a tie between him, Philip Wheeler, and Dan Connor for best linebacker that ND will face in 2007. Rey Maualuga (left) is the massive 6'3" 250 pound middle linebacker who at times lets his aggressiveness get him out of position. But when he hits someone, they goes down. Like Rivers, he's a safe bet for some sort of All-American honor. Brian Cushing is also back after playing part linebacker/part defensive end last season as SC frequently brought out a custom 3-4 defense. He's back at linebacker now and has slimmed down a bit to 6'4" 235 pounds to regain some speed. Depth: The depth at middle linebacker is probably the deepest in the country with redshirt senior Thomas Williams, junior Luther Brown, and freshman Chris Gallipo fighting for playing time. At the outside linebacker spots there are more talented backups in the form of redshirt junior Clay Matthews, junior Kaluka Maiava, and freshman Malcolm Smith.


OLB -Matt Humiston
. Senior. New Starter.
2006 stats: 10 tackles.
ILB - Clint Sovie. Junior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 61 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 INT.
ILB - Irv Spencer. Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 27 tackles, 1 FR, 2 FF.
OLB - Matt Wimsatt. Senior. New Starter.
2006 stats: 6 tackles, 0.5 TFL.

The Midshipmen lost a stellar inside linebacker in Rob Caldwell but bring back two experienced players to hold down the inside. Clint Sovie started nine games last year and has played in every game the past two season. At 5'11" 201 pounds he's clearly not a big linebacker, but he is extremely quick and a sure tackler. Irv Spencer (right) only started three games last year, but he has played frequently in a backup role the past two season. Spencer is also 6'0" 240 pounds which will help Navy against running teams. On the outside, two new players get the starting nod. Matt Humiston hasn't seen nearly as much playing time as the two inside guys, but he had a strong spring camp and claimed the starting spot from the get-go. Matt Wimsatt on the other hand missed spring ball due to a shoulder injury and is now trying to hold down the starting spot with his fall practice performance. He did get some time in place of an injured Tyler Tidwell last year which should help him fight off his challengers. Depth: The player pushing Wimsatt is Matt Nechak, a big 6'2" 244 pound sophomore with no actual game experience.


OLB -Hunter Altman.
Junior. New Starter.
2006 stats: 14 tackles.
ILB -Aaron Shanor. Senior. New Starter.
2006 stats: not on team.
ILB - Drew Fowler. (#52 OLB) Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 123 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 2.5 TFL, 2 FR.
OLB - John Rabold. Senior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 68 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL, 2 INT, 1 FF.

No linebacker on this preview had more tackles last year than Drew Fowler (left). The senior might not get as many in 2007 as Air Force moves from a 4-2-5 defense to a 3-4, but he will still lead the team in tackles and push for all-conference honors. At 6'2" 235 he's big and fast. John Rabold also returns and despite only having half as many tackles as Fowler he was actually 2nd on the team in tackles last year. He's a speedy linebacker and will form an experienced tandem with Fowler. Aaron Shanor's path led him to leave the team in 2006 after playing as a backup with one start in 2005. He came back in the spring and played well enough to win the starting job though so he can't be all that bad. Hunter Altman was with the team last year and picked up a few tackles here and there in backup duty at free saftey.Now at linebacker the 5'11" 215 pounder will rely on his speed to make plays. Depth: Julian Madrid was also at safety last year where he started 11 games and was fourth on the team in tackles with 40 before injuring his knee. As he gets healthy and acclimates to linebacker he stands to see more playing time and possibly win back a starting spot.


SLB - Charles Robinson.
RS Junior. New Starter.
2006 stats: 3 tackles.
MLB - Mike Tauiliili. (#42 ILB) Junior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 93 tackles, 0.5 sacks,
WLB - Vincent Rey. Sophomore. New Starter.
2006 stats: 12 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 FR.

Mike Tauiliili (right) is clearly Duke's most talented linebacker as he has led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Some rather serious legal trouble threatened to have him kicked off the team but he was reinstated just in time for the start of fall practice. If he can continue to stay out of trouble he'll be an all-conference level player this year and by far the best defensive player on the Duke squad. It is a bit interesting that with 93 tackles he only had 0.5 sacks, but that likely speaks more to his role in Duke's defense than anything else. Charles Robinson is a bit small for the strongside spot at 215 pounds and had very little playing time last season so it will be interesting how he does this season. At the weak side spot, Vincent Rey is the opposite of Robinson in that he's big for a weakside linebacker at 255 pounds. He's only a sophomore so he has plenty of football ahead of him and should be effective against the run. He will probably have some trouble in pass coverage though. Depth: Marcus Jones started 2006 as Duke's starting QB. He was then switched to receiver where he started three games. Now he's a backup linebacker and pushing Robinson at the weak side. On the strong side, expect redshirt junior Tim Ball to play in a rotation.


SLB - Clinton Sydner.
RS Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 83 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT.
MLB -Fred Campbell. RS Sophomore. New Starter.
2006 stats: 5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 FF.
WLB - Pat Maynor. RS Junior. Returning Starter.
2006 stats: 44 tackles, 3 TFL.

Stanford moved from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense under new coach Jim Harbaugh and that has resulted in a shuffling of the linebacker depth charts. Pat Maynor (left) started nine games at middle linebacker last season. But he's now manning the weakside linebacker spot where his speed will help and his size (6'2" 217 pounds) won't be as much as a liability. Clinton Synder is the team's leading returning tackler and will stay put at his usual strongside linebacker position where he started 11 games last year. With such a strong debut season in 2006, he could be in line for an even better season in 2007 Fred Campbell played a backup role last year at outside linebacker, although he did start one game. Now, he has shifted to the interior and locked up the starting middle linebacker spot. He's largely inexperienced so unless he impresses early, he might split time with his backup. Depth: That backup pushing Campbell is redshirt freshman Nick Macaluso, who might be 2007's version of Clinton Synder; i.e. a player who makes a big impact in his first year on the field. Heralded linebacker recruit Will Powers was expected to push for a starting spot, but he was shifted to tight end. Peter Griffin started one game at inside linebacker last year and now will backup Synder on the strongside.

2007 Linebacker Analysis and Ranking

Just like last year, ND is facing a group of very talented linebacking corps in '07. There is also an impressive list of individual talent with Wheeler, Connor, Lee, Crable, Dunbar, Fowler, Tauiliili, and the Trojan trio to name a few.

With so many talented linebackers, I think it's worth pointing out that as much as we dream about Armando Allen's speed being prominently featured early and often, ND is going to need a back who is not only proficient, but dependable, when it comes to picking up the blitz. This was one of the most underrated things that Darius Walker did for ND the past few years. If you remember the Robbie Parris touchdown in the spring game, the reason the pass from Jones was such a duck is because Allen was knocked backwards by Mo Crum into Jones. Certainly I expect Allen to be better now, but early in the season there are likely to be heavier doses of the stronger Travis Thomas and James Aldridge (although he's largely untested in this realm as well)

Likewise, the offensive line is going to need to make sure they have their communication down pat in order to avoid leaving linebackers a wide open path to whichever Irish QB is on the field. For the most part there seems to be a tilt towards speed over size in the opponent linebacker rosters. Perhaps a power running game between the tackles really is preferential to trying sweeps that would play into a fast linebacker's strengths.

On to the rankings. There are a few inexperience and injury wildcards here that make this list a bit fluid. Michigan certainly has a history of strong linebacker play. Should they be moved up? Purdue has some quality guys back too, but without a healthy Dan Bick, how good are they? Of all the previews I do, I think this list has the greatest chance of being dead wrong by the end of the season.

1. USC - Rivers, Maualuga, Cushing...all very, very good.
2. Penn State - A very good group with a current star (Connor) and a potential star in the making (Lee).
3. Georgia Tech - Wheeler and Guyton are a tremendous one-two punch.
4. UCLA - Taylor is one of the more underrated players in the nation. Carter could be very good in '07.
5. Boston College - The loss of Toal overshadows a potentially very good unit.
6. Michigan - Crable has shown what he can do. What can Thompson do?
7. Purdue - Getting Dan Bick back will make a world of difference for this group.
8. Stanford - A bunch of last minute roster switches, but a decent collection of young talent.
9. Michigan State - Plenty of inexperience on the edges. Thornhill is a decent 'backer.
10. Duke - Tauiliili is a force, but he can't do it all by himself.
11. Air Force - Fowler picks up a lot of tackles, but there are question marks at the other spots.
12. Navy - A good mix of experience and quickness, but no standout like Tauiliili or Fowler.