Wednesday, September 03, 2008

2008 Opponent Position Preview: Linebackers | by Pat

We're in the home stretch. Done with the QB, RB, WR, TE/OL, and DL previews, now we get to the linebackers. A stat primer: TFL = tackles for loss. INT = interception, FR = fumble recovered, FF = fumble forced. Phil Steele position rankings in parenthesis as always.


WLB - Andrew Preston. RS Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 72 tackles, 1.0 sack, 7.0 TFL.
MLB - Luke Laolagi. (#53 ILB) RS Junior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 94 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 6.0 TFL,
SLB - Russell Allen. (#14 ILB) Senior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 119 tackles, 1.0 sack, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR.

The strongest unit on the team, the Aztec linebackers return every starter from last season. The star of the corp and defense overall is strongside linebacker Russell Allen (right). The senior has started 31 games, was 1st Team All-Conference last eason, and 33rd overall nationally in tackles made. He's the leader of the defense. Middle linebacker Luke Laolagi is also a veteran player, starting every game last year and nearly getting 100 tackles. In his first season seeing playing time, Andrew Preston started nine games and was 5th on the team in tackles. He plays in a bit of a rotation, but should see even more time now that he's a returning starter. Depth: Redshirt junior Jerry Milling is listed as a co-starter with Preston. He injured his foot last season and spent most of the season on the bench. Now that he's healthy, he will rotate in at the weakside 'backer spot with Preston.


WLB - Jonas Mouton. (#48 OLB)
RS Sophomore. New Starter.
2007 stats: 5 tackles.
MLB - Obi Ezeh. (#13 ILB) RS Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 68 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 4.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FF.
SLB - Austin Panter. Senior. New Starter.
2007 stats: 7 tackles, 1.0 TFL.

It's a re-tooled Michigan linebacking corp for 2008. The only returning starter is middle linebacker Obi Ezeh (left). In his first year starting last year he finished 5th on the team in tackles. At 6'2" 247 pounds he is a big 'backer for stopping the run with just enough speed to drop back into coverage. The outside linebackers are stepping up from reserve roles last season, which should make for a few growing pains. Redshirt sophomore Jonas Mouton and senior Austin Panter have limited experience and even less production from last season. Mouton fought through some ankle injuries while Panter didn't adapt from his junior college ball to Big Ten football as quickly as predicted. The development of these two might dictate the overall effectiveness of the Michigan defense. Depth: Sophomore Marell Evans started the Utah game at the weakside linebacker spot but has already lost his starting job and is now listed as the backup strongside 'backer behind Panter. Redshirt senior John Thompson is the backup to Ezeh at middle linebacker. He started three games last season, but isn't going to be much more than situational reserve in 2008 as Ezeh develops.


WLB - Eric Gordon. (#33 OLB) RS Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 62 tackles, 1.0 sack, 7.5 TFL, 1 INT.
MLB - Adam Decker. RS Junior. New Starter.
2007 stats: 0 tackles.
SLB - Greg Jones. (#40 OLB) Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 78 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 8.5 TFL, 1 FF.

A surprise last season, sophomore Greg Jones (right) led the team in tackles in his first year on campus and is on the verge of becoming a nationally known player. Not overly big at 6'1" 222 pounds, Jones is fast and always around the ball. He didn't even crack the starting lineup until the sixth game of the season but still accumulated more tackles than anyone else on the team. Weakside 'backer Eric Gordon also had a productive first year on the playing field. He started 10 games and while he's not big at 6'0" 220 pounds, like Jones, he is exceptionally quick. New starter and redshirt junior Adam Decker was slated to see more playing time last season, but an ankle injury knocked him out for all but two games. He's in his fourth year in the program but hasn't seen the field much to this point. At 6'2" 238 pounds, he provides the bulk that Jones and Gordon lack. Depth: Redshirt junion Brandon Denson moved from safety to linebacker where he now backs up Greg Jones. Senior Ryan Allison is another fast 225 pounder providing depth behind Gordon. He's seen limited action the past few years on defense and special teams after starting his career as a wide receiver.


WLB - Jason Werner.
RS Junior. New Starter.
2007 stats: 28 yards, 1.0 sack, 2.0 TFL.
MLB - Kevin Green. RS Sophomore. New Starter.
2007 stats: 7 tackles.
SLB -Anthony Heygood. (#6 OLB) RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 81 tackles, 1.0 sack, 15.0 TFL, 3 FF.

Another team that is rebuilding their linebacker corp, Purdue will rely on the leadership of returning starter Anthony Heygood. While starting 12 games last season, Heygood was second on the team in tackles and tied for the lead in tackles for loss. Interestingly, of the 15.0 tackles for loss, only 1 was a sack. Senior Jason Werner has battled through back injuries and a switch from safety. He played in every game last season as a backup linebacker and now moves into the starting lineup. As with Heygood, his strength is his speed on the field. Middle linebacker Kevin Green is pretty inexperienced as he only played part time in eight games last season, averaging less than a tackle per game. He isn't a huge middle linebacker at 6'2" 236 pounds, but should be big enough to stand up to the run. Depth: The second string is young as it consists of a sophomore (Tyler Haston), redshirt freshman (Joe Holland), and freshman (Chris Carlino). If they are pressed into extensive playing time early in the season, there will be the expected growing pains.


WLB - Pat Maynor. (#29 ILB) RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 88 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 16.5 TFL, 1 FF.
MLB - Chike Amajoyi. Sophomore. New Starter.
2007 stats: 47 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 9.0 TFL, 3 FR, 1 FF.
SLB - Clinton Synder. RS Junior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 96 tackles, 8.0 sacks, 14.5 TFL, 3 FR, 4 FF.

Stanford returns one of the nation's more underrated linebacker corp. Redshirt junior Clinton Synder (right) is the leader of the group and his 8.0 sacks highlight his ability to get to the quarterback. He has started 22 games and his 96 tackles last season were good for 2nd most on the team. Redshirt senior Pat Maynor has started 20 games and led the team in tackles for loss last season. He was also 26th in the nation in that category last season. Chike Amajoyi is the newcomer to the starting lineup, but saw increasing action last season as a valuable reserve. He was also named the team's most valuable freshman. Depth: Behind the starters is a collection of backups who have solid game experience. Backup middle linebacker Nick Malaculso started six game last year so he certainly is familiar with his position. Redshirt junior Will Powers started four games in 2006 before moving into a reserve role in 2007. He'll back up Synder at the strongside spot. Redshirt senior Thaddeus Chase hasn't started a game, but he did play in every game last season, although mainly in a special teams role. He's currently slotted in the reserve role behind Maynor.


WLB - Quan Sturdivant. (#45 ILB)
Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 47 tackles. 1.0 sack, 1.5 TFL, 1 FR.
MLB - Mark Paschal. Senior. New Starter.
2007 stats: 53 tackles, 0.0 sacks, 6.5 TFL
SLB - Bruce Carter. Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 25 tackles, 0.0 sacks, 2.0 TFL, 1 FR.

Both outside linebackers for North Carolina fall somewhere between new starter and returning starter. Both Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter (left) worked their way onto the field as freshman last season and wound up starting five and seven games respectively. Both rely on impressive speed to fly over the field and make plays. As they gain experience in 2008 they should only continue to get better. Sturdivant specifically is expected to develop into one of the better linebackers in the ACC. Mark Paschal hasn't had the instant impact of his linebacker counterparts. Instead he has slowly worked his way into the starting lineup. He started one game in 2006 and four in 2007. Now the starter at 6'0 230 pounds he'll have to provide veteran leadership to the younger linebackers. Depth: Another older player who has been with the team for a few years is senior backup weakside linebacker Chase Rice. He broke his ankle last season while playing for a starting spot. He's behind Carter now where he'll be a solid reserve. Junior Kennedy Tinsely moved over from fullback a few years ago and to this point has been a special teams player. Now he's the backup to Paschal in the middle.


WLB - Joshua Gage. Senior. New Starter.
2007 stats: 7 tackles, 2 FR.
MLB - Donald Butler. Junior. New Starter.
2007 stats: 52 tackles, 0.0 sacks, 2.5 TFL
SLB - Mason Foster. Sophomore. New Starter.
2007 stats: 25 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 5.0 TFL, 1 FR.

Junior Donald Butler (right) has the most experience on a linebacking corp that doesn't have much overall. He started four games last year before missing a number of games due to injury. He's healthy now and at 6'1" 242 pounds he's built like a traditional run stopper. Joshua Gage is a former walk-on who played mainly on special teams the past two years. Due to lack of depth, he's now a starting linebacker and will need to quickly come up to speed if he wants to help the Huskies. Sophomore Mason Foster saw the field immediately last season and even started four games, three at the weakside spot and one in the middle. Now at the strongside spot, Foster is expected to develop into a quality linebacker for Washington. Depth: The Husky linebacking corp took a big hit when last year's leading tackler E.J. Savannah was thrown off the team for undisclosed reasons this summer. Senior Trenton Tuiasosopo started eight games at middle linebacker last season but now is the backup to Butler.


WLB - Shane Murray.
RS Junior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 60 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 4.0 TFL, 3 FF.
MLB - Scott McKillop. (#19 ILB) RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 151 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 9.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FR, 2 FF.
SLB - Adam Gunn. RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 59 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 6.0 TFL, 1 FR, 1 FF.

No player in the country had more tackles per game than Scott McKillop (left) last season. A 6'2" 240 run stopper, McKillop will once again be near the nation lead in tackles considering last year was his first year as a starter. Returning starters Shane Murray and Adam Gunn only had about half as many tackles as McKillop but were still second and third on the team. Murray and Gunn were also in their first year as starters last season and with an entire year of experience under their belt should be even better in 2008. Murray came to Pitt as a QB before moving to safety and then settling in at linebacker. Gunn only cracked the starting lineup last season, but has been in the Pitt program for five years. Depth: Redshirt freshman Max Gruder is the backup behind McKillop but hasn't played yet. Outside linebackers Triston Roberts and Brandon Lindsey are two other promising backups who haven't seen game action yet.


WLB - Brian Toal (#3 OLB)
RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: out with injury
MLB - Mike McLaughlin. RS Junior. New Starter.
2007 stats: 64 tackles, 0.0 sacks, 5.0 TFL.
SLB - Mark Herzlich. (#23 ILB) Junior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 97 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 12.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FR, 2 FF.

The Boston College Eagles line up a trio of talented linebackers for 2008. The big news is the return of Brian Toal from the shoulder injury that sidelined him in 2007. He has started 31 games in his career and is line for post-season honors if he is able to return to pre-injury form. While Toal will get headlines, returning starter Mark Herzlich (right) might be the best linebacker on the team. He started every game last year and was second on the team in tackles and first in tackles for loss. A big outside linebacker at 6'4" 238, Herzlich is effective against the run and athletic enough to be a threat against the pass. Redshirt junior Mike McLaughlin is the lone newcomer, but started three games last season and played extensively as a backup. Despite his backup status, he still finished the year fourth on the team in tackles. At 6'0" 252 pounds, he's a very big inside linebacker that will combine with BC's defensive tackle tandem to make rushing up the middle a tough task. Depth: Redshirt senior Robert Francois is another big middle linebacker at 6'2" 253 pounds. He started seven games in 2006 and was eighth on the team in tackles with 39 last season. Another redshirt senior, Kevin Atkins has started two games in his career and despite playing a reserve outside linebacker role last season was third on the team in sacks with 4.0.


OLB - Corey Johnson.
Senior. New Starter.
2007 stats: 20 tackles.
ILB - Clint Sovie. Senior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 10 tackles.
ILB - Ross Pospisil. Junior. New Starter.
2007 stats: 67 tackles, 0.0 sacks, 2.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR.
OLB - Craig Schaefer. Junior. New Starter.
2007 stats: 13 tackles.

Returning starter Clint Sovie (left) started nine games in 2006, but injuries cut short his 2007 season during the second game of the year. The defensive captain for 2008, Sovie will attempt to top his 61 tackles and 2 interceptions from 2006. At only 5'11" 210 pounds, he's extremely quick, but undersized for an inside linebacker. His fellow inside 'backer, junior Ross Pospisil, only started four games last season while mainly working out of a reserve role. He still finished fifth on the team in tackles. At 6'0" 223 pounds, he's not as big as most 3-4 inside linebackers, but he's bigger than Sovie. The lightest starting linebacker is 6'2" 205 pound Corey Johnson. Originally a basketball player for Navy, he transitioned to football and played in every game last season as a backup and special teams player. Junior Craig Schaefer starred mainly on special teams last season and now finds himself in the starting lineup. At 6'2" 222 pounds, he's actually the biggest starting 'backer on the team. Depth: The infamous Ram Vela, last seen sacking Even Sharpley in the 4th quarter last season, is the backup behind Johnson at one of the outside 'backer spots. Adding a bit more size to the depth chart is sophomore Tyler Simmons. He's yet to play in a game, but at 6'3" 23o pounds has more ideal size for his position.


WLB - Mike Mele.
Sophomore. New Starter.
2007 stats: 29 tackles. 0.0 sacks, 0.5 TFL.
MLB - Jake Flaherty. Senior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 95 tackles, 1.0 sack, 9.5 TFL.
SLB - Derrell Smith. Sophomore. New Starter.
2007 stats: 1 tackle.

Senior Jake Flaherty (right) is the leader of the Orange linebacker corp. He's played in every game since he's been on campus and started all 11 last season. He finished 2nd on the team in tackles last season and is a good bet to reach the top spot in '08. At 6'1" 228 pounds he's a bit on the lighter side for a middle linebacker and might be suspectible to a power running game. Weakside linebacker Mike Mele is only a sophomore after seeing reserve action as a freshman last season. He's also a smaller linebacker at 6'0" 218 pounds. Redshirt sophomore Derrell Smith is settling in at linebacker after starting out at running back and seeing time as a pass rushing defensive end. Depth: Redshirt sophomore Parker Cantey started two games last year so he will provide some experience off the bench as Smith's backup. He's another smallish 'backer at 6'3" 218 pounds. Due to a pre-season concussion, redshirt junior Mike Stenclik only played five games last season. But he started three of them and will use that experience as the second string middle linebacker behind Flaherty.


WLB -Kaluka Maiava. (#63 OLB)
Senior. New Starter.
2007 stats: 44 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 4.5 TFL, 1 FF.
MLB - Rey Maualuga. (#2 ILB) Senior. Returning Starter.
2007 stats: 79 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 10.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR, 1 FF.
SLB - Brian Cushing. (#1 OLB) Senior. Returning Starter. 2007 stats: 25 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2.0 TFL, 1 FR.

Southern Cal once again will field some of the nation's top linebackers. Keith Rivers was lost to the NFL which means senior Kaluka Maiava will get a chance to build off his reserve role from last year that included one start. The big name of the Trojan linebackers is big Rey Maualuga. At 6'2" 260, he's one of the biggest linebackers ND will face and has enough speed to chase down running backs trying to get to the corner. Now in his third year as starter he will be one of the best linebackers that ND faces in 2008. Senior Brian Cushing is also earning plenty of accolades, but his contributions to the team don't always show up in the stat sheet. While coming off pre-season surgery, he averaged only 2.5 tackles per game in the 10 games that he played. But with his experience (27 career starts), he'll be an effective and disruptive strongside linebacker. Depth: Somewhat surprisingly, there is little experienced depth on the Trojan second string that is healthy. Maualuga's backup at middle linebacker, Uona Kaveinga, is a 6'1" 235 pound true freshman. Redshirt sophomore Michael Morgan contributed on special teams last year and now is the reserve strongside 'backer behind Cushing. At 6'4" 220 pounds, he's definitely lighter than Cushing. Sophomore Malcolm Smith did see the field last year as a freshman, picking up six tackles. He's back as the backup weakside linebacker. Redshirt junior Luther Brown (#55 ILB) and redshirt freshman Chris Galippo were both extremely highly regarded recruits, but both are injured and may or may not be at full go by the time ND travels to Los Angeles.

2008 Opponent Linebacker Analysis and Ranking

At first glance, the strength of this year's linebacker opposition is on the edges. Sure, middle linebackers like SC's Rey Maualuga and Pitt's Scott McKillop may be the toughest overall linebackers ND will face. But the list of talented outside 'backers -- MSU's Greg Jones, Purdue's Anthony Heygood, Stanford's Pat Maynor and Clinton Snyder, and BC's Brian Toal and Mark Herzlich all bring a lot of speed and talent from the outside linebacker spots. Michigan and Syracuse are really the only two teams on the schedule that have their talent focused in the middle.

Getting back to those outside players, until ND can prove otherwise, expect opposing defensive coordinators to keep sending their linebackers on blitzes up the middle and from the edges. With ND also facing a number of talented defensive lines, communication between the ND OL (and others in the backfield) is essential if ND wants to avoid a sequel to last year's sack fest. Speaking of last year, only four players on this linebacker preview did actually sack ND last year. Stanford's Clinton Synder and Chike Amajoyi were each credited with one (although one or both may have been when Clausen ran out of bounds) MSU's Eric Gordon notched one while SC's Rey Maualuga had two. Overall, the only linebackers who totaled more than three sacks last year were MSU's Greg Jones, the trio of Stanford linebackers, and Maualuga.

Ranking linebacker units is always a bit iffy, as it's hard to tell how a new starter will react to being in the starting lineup. Before his 151 tackle showing last season, Pitt's Scott McKillop totaled a lackluster 29 in 2006 as a backup. Is there another unsung McKillop on the ND schedule? Here's my best crack at a ranking. I think the first four are pretty set. After that it gets a bit murky and I could see reasons for justifying teams sliding up or down a few spots.

1. Southern Cal - Once again they top the best linebacker list.
2. Boston College
- Two very good players in Toal and Herzlich and some decent depth.
3. Pittsburgh
- A veteran unit highlighted by Scott McKillop.
4. Stanford
- A fast and experienced group of linebackers.
5. Michigan State
- Greg Jones is at the start of a very productive career.
6. North Carolina
- A younger unit, but a lot of athleticism and promise.
7. Purdue
- Heygood highlights an otherwise somewhat inexperienced group.
8. San Diego State
- Plenty of experience and production, but still let up a ton of yards.
9. Michigan
- An uncharateristic spot for the Wolverines. Ezeh will need to pick up the slack.
10. Syracuse
- Flaherty is a tough veteran, but can't do it all by himself.
11. Navy
- Sovie and Pospisil have a bit of experience in the middle. The edges are young.
12. Washington
- Very inexperienced, but Foster and Butler have some promise.