That means first-year linebacker coach James Willis has his work cut out for him. With senior Karibi Dede expected to get the start at middle linebacker after playing there during the spring and fellow senior Will Herring moving to the strong side after starting three seasons at safety, the job was going to be tough anyway. Without two of his best linebackers to start the season Willis says that all he and his players can do is work hard this preseason and find a way to get the job done.
"What happens with the suspensions is that, at least with my unit, we'll start finding out what some of our young kids can do," Willis says. "We'll have to lean on them pretty heavily. It can only help us in the end.
"It's really going to affect the way we prepare the whole squad," he adds. "You can't take away reps from the kids that are going to be playing those first games. We've got to be real particular how we work those guys in practice." Head coach Tommy Tuberville announced the suspensions of Sears and Blackmon. Both players were involved in alcohol-related incidents that led to their arrests and punishment from Tuberville.
A preseason All-SEC selection by both the coaches and writers, the 6-3, 225 Herring is expected to make a smooth transition from safety to linebacker this fall. In the spring the former high school quarterback looked like a natural at the position and Willis says he thinks Herring will be a very good player for the Tigers in 2006.
"During the spring we moved Will Herring from safety to linebacker," Willis says. "I think it's a good move for him and the team. That's one thing about Will is that he's so unselfish. He didn't care because it's all about what is best for the team. I really think physically it will be a good move for him. He's a big, strong, athletic guy that can make some plays and a lot of plays close to the box. I think it will be good move for him."
Herring has started 36 games and has 178 total tackles in three seasons.
In the middle the job belongs to Dede. A former safety as well, Dede has played the last two seasons at linebacker on both the weak and strong sides. With Sears out because of his conviction on drunk driving charges, Willis says it gives several players the opportunity to make a move and get into the playing rotation against Washington State. That group includes Chris Evans, Courtney Harden and Mark Pickett.
"We're still looking for Kevin Sears and Karibi Dede to do some things for us in the middle," Willis says. "Chris Evans and Courtney Harden will hopefully step up this training camp and make some good things happen.
"Patrick Trahan and Alonzo Horton are going to be the backups at sam (strongside) linebacker. Right now the depth is pretty good. Those guys really have to click this fall. They've done a great job this summer of staying in shape and doing the things they've had to do in the weight room. I'm hoping for good things from those guys also.
"Starting off we'll look at Karibi and Kevin at the mike," Willis adds. "Over at 2ill (weakside) you look at Tray and Merrill (Merrill Johnson). Hopefully, Courtney and Chris can find a spot at either of those two positions. Both of them have the potential to do it. It's just a matter of them going out and doing it now. I challenged both of them and they've pretty much stepped up so far."
Courtney Harden played in eight games last season and had six total tackles.
On the weakside Blackmon was the favorite to be the starter coming out of the spring after an injury kept Johnson out of action for much of the practice time. Now healthy and with Blackmon out for an indefinite number of games due to his suspension, Johnson has the upper hand as the Tigers open fall practice. Despite being smaller than the coaches would like, Willis says Johnson brings plenty of things to the table for the defense.
"It changes a lot," Willis says. "Merrill Johnson, who really needs to be on the field, I think this will be a big opportunity for him to come in and make some things happen. You look at him on the field and see the things he does, he's a great athlete and so fast. He's also physical, which you really love in a linebacker. He got hurt in the spring and didn't play much, but I think he'll be ready. I'm looking forward to him coming out and stepping up. It's never too early to be a leader. I think he understands that and is willing to accept that opportunity."
Plagued with injuries his first two seasons, Merrill Johnson played in 11 games last season and made 21 tackles. His best game came against Ball State with nine tackles.
To help with the depth on the weakside the Tigers moved Steve Gandy from strong safety to linebacker. Having the opportunity to work at linebacker for several practices during the spring, Willis says Gandy gives the team another very good athlete to work at the position.
"Steve had a chance to work a little at linebacker during the spring, but didn't make the move finally until recently," Willis says. "He's going to bring some extra speed to our unit, which is always good."
Speed should also come from a pair of signees, Craig Stevens and Hendrick Leverette. While Stevens was expected to be a strongside backer for the Tigers, both could get an immediate look on the weakside with the absence of Blackmon. Willis says he's anxious to see both on the field and get a feel for their talent.
"I'm looking for things out of the new signees also," the coach says. "Craig Stevens, I think, is going to be a great addition to our unit. He's young, but he's smart and already has the frame. We've got to see how that works with him and also Hendrick Leverette. I'm looking forward to this training camp and hopefully some good things will come out of it."