With key holes to plug across the linebacker depth chart, there will be plenty of competition in fall camp. Here's how I see the 2-deep shaking out and what we can expect from each player.
Leftside Linebacker: PAUL WALKENHORST
Replaces: Levi Madarieta
After starting three consecutive years before he was sidelined last year by injury, there isn't much left to know about Walkenhorst except how well he will perform in Bronco Mendenhall's 3-3-5 defense. Walkenhorst has done little to disappoint as an outside linebacker. Why should this year be any different?
Some fans have speculated Walkenhorst lacks the speed to pursue efficiently. Let me tell you I'll gladly trade Levi Madarieta's half-a-step of speed for Walkenhorst's tackling ability any day. Walkenhorst is faster than people give him credit for and he is a sure-tackler with impressive instincts. He is also the linebacking corps strongest player. Madarietta's poor tackling from last season is well documented. The notable difference in tackling ability between our right and left sides last season led to glaring weaknesses opposing offensive coordinators sought to exploit in 2003. Walkenhorst is a can't-miss upgrade for the Cougars.
Tackling was, seemingly, a big problem for certain players in past seasons. Wrapping up should not hinder the 2004 defense. In addition to Walkenhorst, Bryant Atkinson, K.C. Bills, Cameron Jensen and Lawrence Cowan all demonstrate good technique. JC All-American Justin Luettgerodt's technique is reputedly textbook, even if he has not had much chance to demonstrate it yet. Look for the 2004 BYU linebackers to wrap up solid and tight.
Walkenhorst was also voted captain of the linebackers by his teammates. If that isn't a sure indication he will be starting this fall, I don't know what is. That is especially impressive considering BYU does not lack leadership at its linebacker position. From various accounts, younger players like Jensen and Bills have emerged as team leaders. Based on his strengths, I think only a total collapse in fall camp or another season-ending injury will keep Walkernhorst from playing in the first series against USC.
Middle Linebacker: CAMERON JENSEN
Replaces: Mike Tanner
Mike Tanner was a heady, sure-tackler who had a great nose for the ball. Under Schmidt's system, Tanner was capable of great statistical numbers. He was much better at middle linebacker than Walkenhorst. Under Mendenhall's system, Tanner wasn't in as good of a position to pad his statistics, but he played very well within the system and did his job well.
Even though he had a pretty good senior season, Tanner lacked some physical skills that would have allowed him to make more plays. These skills became evident in Cameron Jensen's play during spring practice and in the Blue & White spring scrimmage. Jensen can cover more ground than Tanner. He's just not quite as thick. Like Tanner, he is also a hard hitter with a great nose for the ball. With his speed and ease of movement, he should manage to sidestep blockers easily and get to the ball.
Jensen was responsible for tackling fleet-footed wide receiver Michael Morris 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage during the spring game. I just can't picture Mike Tanner doing that. That's why I think Jensen is an upgrade.
The linebacker corps loses one big playmaker in Colby Bockwoldt, but gains excellent playmakers in Jensen and Walkenhorst. It's the addition of playmakers that makes this year's group better.
Fans hope the K.C. Bills/Bryant Atkinson combo can make up for the 77 tackles 15 tackles that Bockwoldt generated. Playing in the Mendenhall system, numbers like that are possible for players with their kind of speed.
Rightside Linebacker: K.C. BILLS
Replaces: Colby Bockwoldt
The fact this is not an upgrade is not a slap on KC Bills. It's simply high praise for Bockwoldt, one of BYU's most versatile linebackers ever. Bockwoldt could do everything. Bills maybe an emerging Bockwoldt impact player and could nab as many sacks as the departed senior. Bills reportedly runs a 4.58/40 time, which is the same speed Bockwoldt clocked at a recent NFL combine.
In addition to speed, Bills apparently has excellent tackling skills, amazing instincts and good leadership skills. He's also tough. Bills has the physical tools to emulate Bockwoldt's impact, but needs to develop a little more savvy and remain injury free. If things go his way, look for Bills to star the next three seasons.
Leftside Linebacker: JUSTIN LEUTGERRODT
Replaces: David Nixon
Based on last year's excellent performance as a true freshman, Nixon would likely have broken the starting lineup this fall. While it is difficult to picture either Walkenhorst or Bills on the bench, if Nixon was still around, Bills would most likely have shared time at middle linebacker or played on the outside.
As an incoming JC All-American, Luettgerodt may emerge an immediate starter this fall, but a knee injury that kept him out of spring practice makes it impossible to slot him a starter before we see him in action. At the very least, he will secure the No. 2 spot on the leftside during fall practice, providing his knee is fully recovered. Until then, nobody knows quite what to expect out of him. All we have to go on right now is 147 tackles in 10 junior college games. That's impressive.
Middle Linebacker: LAWRENCE COWAN
Replaces: K.C. Bills
Lawrence Cowan is a solid player who should improve significantly between his freshman and sophomore years. He can play either inside or outside, but since the outside positions are well stocked, he'll likely end up on the inside.
Cowan is deceptively fast, tough, strong and is hard hitting. He was a highly recruited player before his LDS mission and was a good back-up last year. At this juncture, it does not appear he has the game-breaking playmaking ability of Jensen.
Rightside Linebacker: BRYANT ATKINSON
Replaces: Bryant Atkinson
Upgrade: Yes, an upgrade of experience
As a somewhat experienced junior (he's seen limited action in 20 games) with excellent physical skills, Bryant Atkinson should be ready to make a substantial contribution. I expect he'll see plenty of time. If Bills goes down, there won't be much of a drop off with Atkinson. He runs as well as Bills and is the same size. Bills is possibly a bit more of an instinctive player and a fiery leader. With sub 4.6/40 speed, both Bills and Atkinson should be equally adept at getting to the quarterback, tracking down running backs or dropping back to provide good pass coverage.
With three new starters, most BYU fans might call this linebacker group young and inexperienced. So far the linebackers are not executing Mendenhall's defense exactly the way he would like them yet. They know the schemes, but do not execute them with precision all of the time. The reaction time is still a little off in spots. Not to worry, the team is close.
By the end of fall camp, the linebackers should do exactly what their coach expects them to. From my vantage point, linebacker is not a position Cougar fans will have to worry about this season.
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