The team will also have to replace what Chris Bolden brought to the team as the third outside linebacker a season ago. Bolden played a significant role in the Cougar defensive scheme, proving very effective at rushing from the outside throughout the 2007 season.
Replacing Kehl's and Bolden's collective services looks to be a daunting task, one that will be undertaken by a group of talented yet very inexperienced players. While David Nixon is a lock to start and lead the linebackers on the weak side, much has to be worked out on the strong side beginning with spring practices.
Nixon has played a significant role in the Cougar defense since arriving as a true freshman before his mission. Nixon has been a mainstay on the outside in each of his three seasons, and having him back amid a sea of inexperience at the other LB positions is huge for the 2008 Cougar defensive unit.
Nixon's strength is his speed. He's shown to be very fast off the edge in rushing the passer and jumping running backs in the backfield, while his lateral pursuit to the outside is above-average. Nixon is the real deal and will likely be recognized as one of the best at his position to ever play at BYU when he finishes up this season.
Just about all of the experience of those who will competing for the strong side position will come from Grant Nelson, and that experience is somewhat scant. Nelson saw the bulk of playing time when Kehl was out of the game, which was only late in the fourth quarter when the game wasn't in question.
Nelson has shown to be an effective practice player, completing his assignments well on most occasions. While Nelson has a ways to go to match what Kehl brought to the position athletically, he is a solid player who excelled in kick coverages.
Dan Van Sweden, who will also be competing for the position, also excelled in kick coverages.
There is a trio of other intriguing options to help fill the strong side linebacker positions. These options include a converted tight end, a former ultimate fighter and a junior college transfer.
Vic So'oto has made the switch and has been working out in the offseason from the strong side linebacker position. So'oto's athleticism has always been apparent and he's shown to be a very physical player since he first arrived on campus.
I recall the first practice So'oto ever had at BYU. It was a non-contact drill with the newcomers, and as So'oto lined up for his first passing drill, he was met very closely at the line of scrimmage by the defender. As the defender went to jam him, So'oto extended his arms and decleated his would-be defender in a brutal manner.
Yes, So'oto has never shied away from physical contact. He thrives on it, which leads this observer to believe that he's best suited for the defensive side of the ball. Coupled with his physical nature is some great athletic ability. So'oto has above-average speed for his size and moves very well laterally.
So far this offseason So'oto has received raves from his teammates. There are several players that feel So'oto will win the starting position. His learning curve is steep, having never played the position, and this spring will be crucial for him in learning the nuances of the position if he's to see time at SLB this coming season.
Jadon Wagner's athleticism was apparent early last season before he got injured. Wagner, like So'oto, presents one of the more impressive overall athletic packages on the team.
What also was apparent in watching practices is that Wagner had a ways to go in learning the outside linebacker position. Should So'oto or Wagner learn the position and the assignments therein this spring, then the strong side linebacker position should be a very strong position come fall.
Coleby Clawson from Snow College is enrolled and will be competing for the position as well. Clawson logged his time at Snow as a defensive end, but will be moved to the end-like SLB position while at BYU.
While those competing for the SLB position have almost no experience collectively, their prospects are exciting. There are many options this spring that will be battling it out for the position, and at least one of them should shine through to become the frontrunner for the starting slot this coming fall. We'll be watching the battle for the SLB position as closely as any position this spring.