Fall Practice Preview: Linebackers

Not much has changed defensively in that the Cougar linebackers will again be featured as the primary playmakers for 2007. It's a position that returns a lot of talent and experience for this coming season, and the backup options look strong and talented as well.

With all four likely starters at linebacker having had considerable playing time, the linebacker position looks to be secure heading into fall camp. There isn't much left to shake out in regards to who will be starting come the first game of the season against Arizona, but there are some intriguing stories that will be unfolded during the fall practice session.

Outside Strength

The strength of the Cougar linebacking corps will obviously be on the outside, where returning starters Bryan Kehl (6-3, 230 Sr.) and David Nixon (6-3, 220 Jr.) will be manning the outside positions. Both are extremely talented and collectively form what could easily be considered the most talented outside linebacker duo in BYU's history.

Kehl has risen to become one of the leaders on defense. He has proven to be a playmaker with unique skills. Not many a practice is completed without Kehl making an outstanding defensive play, usually in the Cougar offensive backfield.

Nixon meanwhile missed basically all of this past spring due to a nagging groin injury. Whether he'll be practicing come Saturday remains in question, but he should be ready to go come the first game against Arizona. A completely healthy Nixon has proven to be one of the most productive LBs BYU has ever had.

Backup Options

The primary backup looks to be Chris Bolden (6-0, 240 Sr.) on the outside. Bolden was held back primarily due to injuries a season ago, but is coming off a successful spring and looks to make a consistent impact on games this season. Bolden's strength comes from pass-rushing the quarterback from the outside.

The other primary options to back up Kehl and Nixon include Austen Jorgensen (6-3, 230 Fr.), who was coming on strong this spring before having the practice session cut short due to injury, Dan Van Sweden (6-2, 220 So.), Jadon Wagner (6-5, 235 Fr.), who could be one of the more intriguing prospects on defense as fall practices begin, and Grant Nelson (6-3, 230), who finished out spring very strong.

These four players will be battling it out hard for the final spot on the two-deep roster. Who gets named as the other backup along with Bolden, or if one of these backups could unseat Bolden on the two-deep roster, are certainly things we'll be keeping an eye on throughout the fall practice session.

Inside Guys

Kelly Poppinga (6-2, 240 Sr.) is the mainstay to replace Cameron Jensen at one of the inside linebacker positions. Look for Poppinga to see almost every rep this coming season as he looks to fill the rather large shoes of Jensen. Poppinga has more speed than his predecessor and will work on matching Jensen's leadership, instincts and strength up the middle.

Joining Poppinga as the other starter on the inside looks to be either Markell Staffieri (6-3, 232 Sr.) or Shawn Doman (6-2, 219 So.). Regardless of who is named the starter between the two, look for both to play significant roles this coming season. Staffieri as the primary run-stopper on short downs, while Doman looks to expand his role from a season ago where he was featured as a "passing-down" linebacker. Both linebackers compliment each other well with their respective abilities, which will benefit the defense greatly as a whole.

The primary backup will be Terrance Hooks (6-1, 230), and a bevy of walkons will look to make a name for themselves this fall.

Another Beck

We'll of course be watching incoming freshman Tyler Beck (6-1, 210) closely to see what impact he can make in the coming years or immediately. Beck comes to BYU after a very successful senior prep campaign.

Bottom Line

Linebacker is a position that looks very secure heading into the season. Depth issues are hardly a concern on the outside, although a couple of injuries here and there could prove hard to overcome on the inside. For that reason, look for many of those listed at OLB to get a look at ILB during the fall.

Replacing Cameron Jensen should not be underestimated. What Jensen left is a huge void that will be very difficult to fill for not just the linebackers, but for the entire defense. From what we've observed, we feel that Poppinga, along with Kehl, are well-suited to fill that void as the primary defensive leaders.

Look for more blitz packages to be added this season, as the strength of this year's LBs looks to be their speed from both the outside and inside. It's a very talented group that could certainly work to improve on what was a very successful 2006 campaign.

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