The Tigers are not only talented in the middle of the defense, but they are also very deep at the position as well. Linebacker coach Joe Whitt has 11 players to cover the three positions. The three first stringers all have starting experience and they were also three of the five leading tacklers on the team last season.
Junior Dontarrious Thomas, known to many fans and his teammates as "DT," is a powerful force at linebacker. Thomas led the Tigers in tackles last season with 122 stops, nine of which were tackles for losses. He also added one and a half sacks and an interception to his impressive 2001 tally. This season Thomas will be making a move to weakside linebacker, which should free him up even more to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
Whitt says that he thinks the new position is a perfect fit for Thomas. "DT is going to make plays wherever you line him up, but linebacker is a position where a guy with speed and agility can make a lot of plays and he has those things."
Another starter making a move for the 2002 season is junior Karlos Dansby. He is moving to strongside linebacker spot from his rover in 2001. His former position was a hybrid between a linebacker and a safety that was used in former defensive coordinator John Lovett's 4-2-5 alignment. The move closer to the line of scrimmage should make Dansby an even more difficult force to deal with this season. He will most likely improve on his total of 59 tackles from last season. Dansby also has the potential to equal or improve upon his team-leading total of five interceptions because he covers so much ground at his new position.
The other starter will be senior Mark Brown at the middle linebacker spot. He finished fifth on the team in total tackles with 55 last season despite missing three games with a neck sprain, playing with a broken bone in his hand and a knee problem. Brown is a tough and talented player who brings both speed and power to the position and should be a serious problem for any opponents planning to run or throw the ball over the middle.
Brown, who is the lone senior in the group, says that he expects big things from himself and the other linebackers this fall. "Unlike some other people I think we are going to back up our preseason hype and maybe exceed our preseason hype," he says. "We are looking to be the leaders on the defensive side of the ball. And we are looking to meet all of our goals and all of our expectations this year."
The depth at linebacker for the Tigers is young and untested. Still, the talent behind the starters is evident to coaches and players. The second team is made up of two redshirt freshmen and one true freshman. Redshirt freshmanTravis Williams will back up Dansby on the strongside. Also a redshirt freshman, Antarrious Williams will back up Thomas on the weakside. True freshman Lemarcus Rowell, who was mistakenly declared ineligible by the NCAA Clearinghouse last fall, will be the backup to Brown at the middle linebacker spot.
Also in the mix will be sophomores Mayo Sowell and Derrick Graves, as well as another true freshman, Tyrone Martin. The other two linebackers are Mike Sherill and Kevis Burnam. Both are freshmen who are not expected to play this season. Sherill is likely to redshirt and Burnam can practice but not play as a partial academic qualifier.
Even with the second team being untested in game action, Brown says that he is impressed with the talent level behind the first team. "I like our depth because if one of us goes down we know that we have got somebody who can step right in and fill the spot. Our defense would not get hurt that bad by someone being out because we have got a lot of good depth. It is one thing have depth, but you need to have talented depth, too."
Along with the position changes for Thomas and Dansby the linebackers will be playing under the new 4-3 scheme of defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. While this change could be problematic for some teams, Whitt says that it should be a perfect fit for his linebackers. "They are going to play well," he says. "It is a good defense, a good scheme and the kids have really adapted to the scheme quite well. If you were out recruiting linebackers for this scheme Karlos Dansby, Mark Brown and DT Thomas would be exactly what you would want."
Brown notes that the transition into the new system has been much smoother than he expected. "I thought it would be harder to learn a new defensive scheme, but his defensive scheme is pretty simple and it gets the job done."
Head coach Tommy Tuberville says he is counting on Thomas, Dansby, Brown and company to be difference-makers for the 2002 edition of the Tigers. "I expect good things from them they should be the strength of our defense."