Tuesday, August 29, 2006

2006 Opponent Preview - Linebacker | by Pat

Moving quickly through the defensive positions before kickoff, we arrive at the linebackers. Follow the links for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends/offensive lines, and defensive lines. The DL preview also includes the key for stat abbreviations. Linebacker abbreviations in this post include OLB (outside), ILB (inside), SLB (strongside), MLB (middle), and WLB (weak). Rankings in parenthesis are Phil Steele's positional rankings.


SLB - KaMichael Hall. (#21 - OLB) 64 tackles, 4 sacks, 14 TFL, 2 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
MLB - Philip Wheeler. 64 tackles, 4 sacks, 11 TFL, 4 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF. Returning starter.
WLB - Gary Guyton. 19 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFL, 1 PBU. New starter.

The Yellow Jackets will field a very talented linebacker corp that should contend for the best unit in the conference. Preseason All-ACC 1st teamer and Butkus Award nominee KaMichael Hall (right) is the big name and will entering his third year starting at the strongside linebacker position. Hall led the team in tackles for loss last season and is dangerous at rushing the passer, as he does often in the blitz happy Tech defense. Philip Wheeler is another excellent linebacker that pulled in four interceptions last season as a new starter. Considered perhaps the best athlete on the team, Wheeler was moved from the weak-side linebacker position to the middle where expectations on him are sky high. Gary Guyton is the lone new starter with only one career start to his name. Even though he's at the weakside position, Guyton is the biggest Tech linebacker at 6-2, 230 pounds. Depth: There really is no experienced linebacker depth on the Georgia Tech team. Of the four likely candidates to back up the starters, junior Travis Chambers, sophomore Matt Braham, freshman Shane Bowen, and sophomore Taalib Tucker, only Chambers has played a snap at linebacker thus far. And even then he only has 10 career tackles.


Dan Conner. (#4 - OLB) 116 tackles, 3 sacks, 11 TFL, 3 PBU. Returning starter.
Tim Shaw. (#14 - ILB) 76 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 2 FF. Returning starter.
Paul Posluszny. (#1 - OLB) 76 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL, 8 PBU, 1 FR. Returning starter.

I think it's fair to say that this not only the best linebacking unit that the Irish will face, but also the best corp of linebackers in the nation. There is talent, experience, and depth at every position. Because of this, there are rumors they might shift to a 3-4 defense in order to get more linebackers on the field. Paul Posluszny (left) is the star of the group and after winning the Butkus Award last year should be no stranger to any Irish fan. From his outside linebacker position, he can stop the run and defend the pass. The only real question is how he'll return from a vicious knee injury suffered in the Orange Bowl last year. For what it's worth, he says he's back 100%. The other outside linebacker, Dan Connor, is burgeoning star who is extremely fast and made a big impact at the starting outside linebacker spot after being suspended for the first three games last year. In the middle is Tim Shaw, a load at 237 pounds who is very tough against the run and able to exploit an offense that pays too much attention to Posluszny and Connor. Depth: Tyrell Sales started the first three games when Connor was suspended and now provides some experienced depth at the outside spots. When Posluszny went down with the knee injury, Sean Lee stepped in and did a very solid job. He will be expected to do the same again this year if Paul can't go for some reason. If the Nittany Lions go to a 3-4, expect Lee to be the 4th linebacker on the field. Young players Dontay Brown and Jerome Hayes don't have much experience, but are still considered talented players waiting in the wings.


SLB - Shawn Crable. 14 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 TFL, 3 PBU. New starter.
MLB - Dave Harris. (#12 - ILB) 88 tackles, 1 sack, 6 TFL, 3 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF. Returning starter.
WLB - Prescott Burgess. 81 tackles, 1 sack, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 2 FF. Returning starter.

Another talented linebacker group, Michigan has three returning starters but one is in danger of losing his starting spot. Dave Harris returns as the middle linebacker after winning Michigan's linebacker of the year award for his play last season. A big linebacker at 6-2, 242 pounds, Harris is extremely effective against the run. Shawn Crable played himself into a starting position at the Michigan strongside position after being a backup last year. Another big 'backer, Crable is listed at 6-5, 245 pounds, which is huge for an outside linebacker. The final starter is the player with the most press, but also the one in danger of losing his starting position. Prescott Burgess (right) was honorable mention all Big-Ten last year, but might not even be the starter for the Wolverine opener against Vanderbilt. At 6-3, 245 pounds, Burgess is yet another huge linebacker giving Michigan the chance to have all three starting linebackers over 240 pounds. Depth: If Burgess is beat out, it will be by co-starter Chris Graham (#49 - ILB), who started four games last year at middle linebacker. Compared to the other players, Graham is undersized at 5'11, 225 pounds, but he is a consistent tackler and faster than Burgess in the open field. John Thompson is the main backup for Harris in the middle but the rest of the backups such as Brandon Logan and Chris McLaurin are inexperienced. Expectations were high for freshman linebacker Brandon Graham, but he has since been moved to defensive end.


WLB - David Herron. (#32 - OLB) 65 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 FR. Returning starter.
MLB - Kaleb Thornhill. 63 tackles, 1 sack, 4 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FR. Returning starter.
Bandit - SirDarean Adams. (#33 - OLB) 60 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 TFL, 3 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FF. Returning starter.

The theme of experienced linebackers continues at Michigan State where the Spartans return all three starting linebackers. Unlike previous groups though, there are no potential All-Americans on this unit. Still, they are fast, athletic, and veteran players who had enough talent to give ND fits last year. In the middle, Kaleb Thornhill is a physical presence at 240 pounds. He has had some injury problems, but is coming into this season healthy. On the outside, David Herron is a huge outside linebacker at 245 pounds and is probably the best linebacker on the team. He was 2nd on the team in tackles last year behind the graduated Eric Smith. SirDarean Adams (left) plays the Bandit position which is somewhat similar to the now defunct Apache position at ND. Extremely fast, Adams is solid in the passing game and a very strong tackler against the run game. Depth: The backups include inexperienced Steve Jaurez and a trio of players in Tom Dance, Adam Decker, and promising freshman Josh Rouse who didn't play linebacker at all last season. Eric Andino, a promising backup linebacker was moved to tight end.


SLB - Cliff Avirl. 33 tackles, 2.5 TFL. New starter.
MLB - George Hall. (#16 - ILB) 77 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 PBU. Returning starter.
WLB - Dan Bick. 40 tackles, 1 sack, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT. New starter.

The Purdue linebackers are fast and talented, but also injured. The depth chart took a bit of a hit when starting middle linebacker George Hall (right) went down with a leg injury in fall camp. He's had surgery but it's unknown if he'll make it back in time for the late September game against ND. I'll leave him in here for now, but even if he does make it back he likely won't be at 100%. When he is healthy, he's a veteran linebacker who is extremely quick for his size (6-2, 240 pounds). Cliff Avril also has battled some injuries during last year and this fall relating to his back. And it's never good for a linebacker to have back injuries. If he can play pain free, Cliff is the best run stopper on the team and an excellent tackler. Dan Bick has been playing with a shoulder injury through fall camp and it's not sure just how he'll be able to hold up to the pounding of tackling fullbacks and taking on offensive lineman. Especially considering he's a bit undersized at 218 pounds. Depth: Taking Hall's place for the first few games is Josh Ferguson, an inexperienced junior who had a solid offseason and the benefit of playing with the first team defense for much of fall camp. Jason Werner is an extremely fast former safety but like Avril is fighting with back problems and may have to miss some games. Stanford Keglar has 18 career starts under his belt, but has been related to backup status behind Bick for now. If he gets the call, he'll bring a good amount of game experience off the bench.


OLB - Udeme Udofia. 36 tackles, 1 sack, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FF. Returning starter.
ILB - Michael Okwo. 34 tackles, 2 sacks, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU. Returning starter.
ILB - Mike Silva. 57 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
OLB - Clinton Synder. New starter.

Stanford has a number of experience linebackers returning but also might fight off the injury bug. Starting inside linebacker Michael Okwo broke his thumb and will miss time early in the season, though he should be back in the starting lineup for the ND game. He was also injured last season and though he played in 10 of 11 games, only started in 3. Mike Silva is the other inside linebacker in the Cardinal's 3-4 defense and is the leading returning tackler of the linebackers after starting the final 8 games at the inside linebacker position. If needed, he's fast enough to play on the outside. Udeme Udofia is a physical presence at 6-4, 240 pounds and when the Cardinal switch to a 4-3 is the likely choice to move to defensive end. Clinton Synder is the new starter of the bunch and even though the redshirt freshman has yet to play a snap in college, the coaching staff are already talking him up as a future star. Depth: With Okwo out for at least the opener, Pat Maynor is going to get the starting nod. Maynor has a special teams contributor last season and now finds himself with the potential for a lot of playing time. Backing up Maynor is freshman Nick Macalsuo. Peter Griffin played strong safety for the past three years but now is the backup behind Synder on the outside.


SLB - John Hale. 20 tackles, 1 PBU. 1 FR. New starter.
MLB - Christian Taylor. 43 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR. New starter.
WLB - Reggie Carter. New starter.

UCLA was hit hard by graduation at the linebacker position and fields three new starters in 2006. They also field the smallest starting linebacker corp on the ND schedule, smaller even than ND's relatively light Thomas-Crum-Thomas lineup. The most productive Bruin starter is Air Force transfer Christian Taylor (left), who only started one game last year in a backup role but was 6th on the team in tackles. He's not that big for a middle linebacker at 6-0, 222 pounds, but is a very physical player. Sophomore John Hale is the most experienced returning linebacker who started 7 games last year. He started games at both the outside and middle linebacker positions, but will start out on the outside for now. Sophomore Reggie Carter hasn't played yet but he's a highly touted recruit and probably the fastest of the three Bruin linebackers. If he can adjust to college ball quickly, he could be the best 'backer on the team come the ND game. Again, another smallish linebacker at 218 pounds. Depth: Still fighting Carter for the starting WLB spot is Eric McNeal, who is actually even lighter at 208 pounds. 215 pound Aaron Whittington is backing up Hale, but is actually starting the first game against Utah while Hale serves out a suspension. Whittington started two games last year but did miss the final four games with a leg injury.


OLB - David Mahoney. 76 tackles, 8 sacks, 16 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FR. Returning starter.
ILB - Rob Caldwell. (#41 - OLB) 140 tackles, 2 sacks, 7.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 FF. Returning starter.
ILB - Clint Stovie. 6 tackles, 1 FF. New starter.
OLB - Tyler Tidwell. 67 tackles, 10 sacks, 19 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 FF. Returning starter.

Perhaps the most productive linebacking corp in the schedule, Navy has a very good unit in their 3-4 scheme featuring one of the best tacklers in NCAA football. No linebacker on the schedule had more tackles than Rob Caldwell (right), who finished the year with an outstanding 140 tackles. Caldwell isn't all that big, but is the type of player who is always found near or in the pile after a play is over. Joining him in the middle is Clint Stovie, who at 196 pounds is probably the smallest inside linebacker playing D-1 football. On the outside, Navy returns two talented linebackers in David Mahoney and Tyler Tidwell. Tidwell in particular is a very good pass rusher while Mahoney is no slouch either in that department. Depth: Joe Cylc is a bigger option in the middle at 230 pounds if Stovie isn't able to stop the run while Irv Spencer is an even bigger backup option at 240 pounds. Matt Wimsett offers another option at the outside.


SLB - Larry Edwards. (#25 - OLB) 91 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 8 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
MLB - Mark Paschal. 7 tackles. New starter.
WLB - Durell Mapp. 46 tackles, 1 sack, 1.5 TFL, 1 FR, 2 FF. Returning starter.

The leader of this linebackering corp is strongside 'backer Larry Edwards (left). He led the team in tackles last season and is expected to contend for all conference honors this year as one of the team leaders on defense. Mark Paschal is the surprise starter at the middle linebacker position after a solid showing in the spring and fall camps. Another relatively small middle linebacker at 225 pounds, Paschal will have a lot of attention as the rookie running the middle of the Tar Heel defense. Durell Mapp started the final 6 games last year at middle linebacker for North Carolina but this season was switched to the weak-side spot. He missed the spring due to a shoulder injury and in fall camp sprained his knee. Assuming another injury doesn't hit him though, he should be healed up by the ND game. Depth: If Mapp can't go, sophomores Chase Rice and Garrett White will look to step into the starting lineup and contribute. Victor Woolsey is a veteran backup middle linebacker who holds some weight room records for the Tar Heels, but also has had injury issues in the past.


ILB - Joey Keller. 22 tackles, 1.5 TFL. New starter.
ILB - Drew Fowler. 77 tackles, 1 sack, 5.5 TFL. Returning starter.

Air Force runs a 4-2-5 scheme usually where only two players are technically classified as linebackers. For now I'll leave the hybrid outside linebacker/safety positions for the secondary post. Drew Fowler (right, tackling) is the man in the middle as he was 2nd in the team in tackles last year with 77 despite only starting 9 of the 11 games. Joey Keller was a backup last year and is line for a starting spot, but was injured for some of fall camp. Depth: If Keller isn't a starter by the ND game, Jared Baxely might be the man in the middle. The fastest Falcon linebacker, Baxley is inexperienced but Air Force might need his speed. Austin Randle is another backup looking for playing time on the Falcon defense.


SLB- Charlie Rockwood. 15 tackles, 2 TFL. Returning starter.
MLB - Cason Schrode. 69 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 TFL. Returning starter.
WLB - Barrett Scruggs. (#59 - OLB) 80 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.

Barrett Scruggs (left) is the best player on the linebacker line and the former safety is extremely capable in pass coverage. At 213 pounds he might have some trouble with bigger backs, but he did finish 2nd on the team in tackles last year. Cason Schrode mans the middle linebacker position and he finished 3rd on the team in tackles last year. At 250 pounds he's a load and his 11 career starts give him a good amount of experience too. Charlie Rockwood was named the strongside starter last year and started three games before a season ending injury knocked him out for the year. Back and healthy, the Black Knight coaching staff have high hopes that his athleticism pays off in the form of sideline to sideline coverage. Depth: Luke Pell started six games last year in Rockwood's absence and provides a veteran presence off the bench. Sophomore Frank Scappaticci impressed the coaching staff in the spring and from his backup spot behind Scruggs will likely see playing time as he is groomed as a future starter.


SLB - Dallas Sartz. (#4 - SS) 8 tackles, 2 sacks, 2.5 TFL. Returning starter.
MLB - Oscar Lua. (#10 - ILB) 66 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FR. 1 FF. Returning starter.
WLB - Keith Rivers. (#3 - OLB) 52 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FR. Returning starter.

If Penn State is the best linebacking corp in the nation, Southern Cal is #2. The collection of size, speed, and talent here is really impressive and the fruit of three years of almost unbelievable recruiting. There is so much talent, the Trojans might be tempted to try out a 3-4 defense, but for this preview we'll stick with the 4-3. And even then, the names of the starters aren't set in stone. Dallas Sartz returns from a shoulder injury that knocked him out for all but two games of the 2005 season and regains the starting strongside spot he has held since midway through the 2003 season. At 6-5, 240 pounds, Sartz is tough, fast, and smart. If he can stay healthy, he should have a fantastic year. In the middle, Oscar Lua returns for his second year starting after leading the Trojans in tackles last year. He has a highly regarded player on his heels for the starting job, but so far Lua has played well enough in practice to hold him off. Keith Rivers (right) had a breakout game last year against Notre Dame and the extremely fast junior will likely show up on a few national award lists by the end of the season. Depth: You can see the depth of the Trojan team when you notice the Phil Steele rankings for the Trojan backups. Fighting Lua for the starting job in the middle is Rey Maualuga (#26 - ILB) , a ferocious player that I honestly think will be the starter when ND rolls into town. Brian Cushing (#9 - OLB) has battled through some injury problems and will push Dallas Sartz at the strongside 'backer position. If USC goes to a 3-4, look for Cushing to get the call off the bench. Thomas Williams (#49 - OLB) actually started 6 games at the strongside position last year, but now finds himself 3rd on the depth chart at both the strongside and middle 'backer positions. Luther Brown was a very highly regarded recruit who was sidelined last year with back issues. Once healthy, he may make a move up the very crowded Trojan depth chart. Allen Bradford is a highly touted freshman, but he was moved from linebacker to running back in fall camp.

2006 Linebacker Analysis and Rankings

Of all the opponent positions, I don't think any is as impressive and daunting as the collection of linebackers that the Irish will face in 2006. Originally I had high hopes that Darius was going to have an incredible year with all of the attention put on the receivers, but there are a lot of very good run stopping linebackers on the schedule this year. Penn State and Southern Cal have incredible talent and depth while every team save Stanford, UCLA, and Air Force has at least one starting linebacker ranked by Phil Steele. Another thing to note is all of the experience. 9 of the 12 teams return at least 2 starting linebackers and UCLA is the only team to have a completely new set of starters for 2006.

There is so much linebacker talent that it's interesting to see teams like the Nittany Lions and Trojans flirting with the 3-4 scheme in order to get more 'backers on the field. Navy and Stanford already run this formation and while Michigan seems to be moving to a more permanent 4-3 alignment, they will still probably drop into the 3-4 at times this year.

The good news for Irish fans is that not only is Darius Walker experienced enough to deal with quality linebackers, but he's a fantastic pass blocker so those blitzing linebackers will still have a bit of trouble getting to Quinn. Ditto Travis Thomas when he's in. Of course, I wonder if this will limit just how much Munir Prince sees the field against some of the team near the top of my linebacker rankings. Time will tell.

1. PSU - The best linebacking unit in the country.
2. USC - The 2nd best linebacking unit in the country with a ton of potential on the bench.
3. Michigan - Big and strong starters but other than Graham, the backups are untested.
4. Georgia Tech - A very athletic starting trio. Not much proven depth.
5. Michigan State - A veteran unit that will be the leaders of the Spartan defense.
6. Navy - Outstanding production and passing rushing ability. Caldwell is a tackling machine.
7. Stanford - A decent mix of experience and production.
8. North Carolina - Edwards needs to be a leader. A potentially good linebacking corp.
9. Army - A veteran unit returns with some experience coming off the bench.
10. Purdue - Hall is a solid player and there is experience, but injuries could hurt.
11. UCLA - Decent athleticism, but nearly no experience.
12. Air Force - Fowler is decent, but there really is no other depth on the team.

Next up....Defensive backs.