Indeed, 2003 starters like Colby Bockwoldt, Mike Tanner, Levi Madarieta and true freshman David Nixon will be sorely missed, but their apparent replacements are a very capable and competent bunch.
They will be led by senior Paul Walkenhorst, who returns after redshirting last year because of injury. Walkenhorst has started every year since his true freshman year and was particularly impressive as a strongside linebacker in Ken Schmidt's (former Cougar defensive coordinator) "bend-but-don't-break" 4-3 defensive scheme.
New defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall's 3-3-5 scheme requires linebackers to be nimble, sure-tacklers with great read-and-react instincts. Walkenhorst learned and adjusted last season to the new defense as a scout team redshirt. It will be interesting to see how Mendenhall and linebacker coach Barry Lamb utilize Walkenhorst, who is bigger and taller than the average linebacker in this scheme.
In any event, Walkenhorst should comfortably make an effective transition. In size and speed, he is comparable to Brady Poppinga, a former linebacker who is now an All-American defensive end candidate.
Mendenhall loves to be unpredictable and versatile in his defensive alignments and Walkenhorst may be used in various roles as the season progresses. Walkenhorst is expected to make a significant impact this fall and will likely pick up where he left off as a team leader and significant contributor in the overall defensive effort.
While he has yet to play his first down for BYU, it took only spring practice for sophomore Cameron Jensen to separate himself as the Cougars' likely middle linebacker starter. Mendenhall's defensive scheme places a premium on effective and efficient play at middle linebacker and Jensen already looks and plays like the main man for this season.
Coming off his LDS mission last year, Jensen, a former Rick's College freshman not previously offered by any major Div. 1 school, generated spectacular enough video highlights at Rick's to be immediately offered scholarships by Oklahoma, UCLA, Arizona State, Utah and BYU.
After quick recruiting visits to these schools, he signed with BYU. His impact and improvement during practice and spring ball was significant. Jensen should be a great middle-anchor on defense the next three seasons and is expected to emerge a star of this unit.
Bryant Atkinson signed with BYU with lofty expectations, and like Jensen, held scholarship offers from some of the nation's top schools. Atkinson's career to date has been hampered by injury, but 2004 may be the season he truly begins to shine.
A testament to the anticipated playmaking skills of both Atkinson and Jensen is the fact that standout true freshman K.C. Bills, who played regularly and impressively last season at linebacker, is being moved to safety. Following his excellent play last fall, Bills was considered by many as a starting linebacker candidate for this season.
Bronco and Lamb are obviously confident enough with their linebacker depth that they are moving Bills to the secondary to ensure they get their best 11 players on the field at the same time.
Despite his move to the secondary, Bills knows the linebacking position well enough he will still line up at this position in different situations. At the very least, he will fill in if the linebacking corps is decimated by injury.
Look for junior college All-American Justin Luettgerodt to possibly land one of the starting linebacker slots. Luettgerodt, a junior, missed spring practice because of a knee injury. However, the buzz from informed sources point to him being a dominant force this fall. He is quick, strong and is a sure-tackler.
Luettgerodt may also see some snaps from the defensive end position since his effective play and intensity is compared to Poppinga. Because he missed spring ball, he remains a wildcard of sorts entering into fall camp.
Providing valuable backup is sophomore Lawrence Cowan, who also served an LDS mission. Cowan saw consistent playing time last season before being sidelined by injury.
Junior college super sophomore transfer Gary Lovely had played impressively as a 200-pound defensive end, but is more obviously suited for linebacker at BYU. However, there are indications he may shore up BYU's somewhat thin secondary unit.
It's way too soon to tell, but incoming true freshman Grant Nelson and Billy Turner may also see some reps this fall at linebacker. More than likely, they will be redshirted unless needed. Nelson, in particular, looks and plays like an ideal middle linebacker standout.
Bottom line: Look for the Cougars' linebacking corps to be one of the stronger defensive units by the end of the 2004 season. They should excel, in large part, because of dominant play from BYU's defensive front that will help shield blockers long enough to allow them to make standout plays.
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