Fall Practice Preview: The Linebackers

BYU's linebacker are so good heading into the 2006 season that head coach Bronco Mendenhall gave up his 3-3-5 scheme just to get more of them onto the field. While there is game experience at every linebacker position in the new 3-4 defense, the race for two of the starting spots is wide open.

Solid Starters

The only two starting defensive positions that are secure heading into fall practices are those held by middle linebacker Cameron Jensen (6-2, 241, Sr.) and outside linebacker Bryan Kehl (6-2, 220, Jr.). Jensen was the center of the defense for the past two years, but Kehl used spring ball to stake a claim on one of the outside linebacker spots.

Entering his fourth year on the team, Jensen is as solid as they come in the middle. While he has always supplied solid and unflinching play at the critical middle linebacker position, Jensen was hampered with nagging injuries that impaired his mobility and overall speed for parts of the last two seasons. Look for Jensen to move beyond his strong leader, solid performer reputation and become a dominant force in all aspects of the game this year.

Jensen is the unquestioned defensive leader. He will be the one rallying the troops once again, which has earned him the nickname "The General" by his teammates. Jensen will be an irreplaceable leader off the field as well as on and will be tough to replace once he graduates.

Kehl saw limited action at outside linebacker last season. The fact that he appeared on the field at all is impressive because he returned from his LDS mission just weeks before the start of fall camp. Kehl made incredible strides through the season and into the off-season and is now dominating play at linebacker.

Kehl is the complete package with speed, size and strength. He was constantly in the offensive backfield during the spring, and there is no reason not to expect him to be in the same place this fall.

Battle in the Middle

Joining Jensen as the starter at the other middle linebacking position will be either Markell Staffieri (6-3, 233, Jr.) or Aaron Wagner (6-3, 247, Sr.). While only one will win the starting position, both will undoubtedly play and contribute throughout the 2006 season.

Staffieri provides solid play whenever he has the chance. He also has a reputation as one of the toughest players on the team because he does not back down from even the biggest offensive linemen.

Wagner is one of the best all-around athletes on the team. He was poised for a great season last year before going down with an ACL injury that kept him out of spring practice too. Wagner will be raring to go from day one as he looks to reclaim his position starting at linebacker.

Terrance Hooks (6-1, 215, Fr.) looks to solidify his spot as the backup middle linebacker behind Jensen. Hooks was primarily a running back in high school, so the redshirt year was very helpful in the transition to full time linebacker.

Three for One

Three very capable linebackers will compete for the outside linebacker spot opposite Kehl. Chris Bolden (6-1, 230, Jr.), Kelly Poppinga (6-2, 237, Jr.) and David Nixon (6-3, 220, So.) all showed flashes of greatness throughout spring practices.

Bolden is a junior college transfer whose strength lies in pass coverage and in coming off the edges on blitzes. He played his way through junior college at safety which will serve him well at linebacker in passing situations. Bolden will be a valuable third down and passing situation type linebacker at the very least. In preparation for the Las Vegas Bowl, Bolden flew around the line so quickly on blitzes that he would have had a sack any time the running back did not pick him up.

Poppinga joins BYU after transferring from Utah State. During the spring, he looked the strongest in run support among the three challengers for outside backer. He was often mentioned in the same breath as Kehl as players making an impact during the spring before he went down with an injury.

Cougar fans will remember Nixon from his outstanding true freshman performance as a starting linebacker. He rebounded well from his mission and was quickly regaining his pre-mission form as spring practices came to a close. Nixon has as much upside as anyone at linebacker. He has a redshirt year available, which could be used if only due to the stellar play of the other two outside backers.

Other linebackers who will be competing this fall include Wes Anderson (5-11, 240, So.), Dan Bates (5-11, 228, Sr.), Rex Doman (6-1, 220 Jr.), Gary Lovely (6-2, 200, Sr.), Dan Van Sweden (6-3, 210, Fr.), and Andrew Stacy (6-3, 218 Sr.).

Bottom Line

While there are a lot of able bodies at every linebacker position, what will really make this unit productive is its versatility. Each athlete has different strengths whether it be power, lateral movement, speed off the edges, or coverage skills.

The defensive is now structured to feature this group. The players are up to the call, and if the defensive line can keep opposing blockers occupied, the linebackers will be the playmakers they are expect to be.


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