Camp Countdown: Linebackers

Does the switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 hurt the California defense, or does it make the linebacking corps that much better? We break it down in this edition of Camp Countdown, complete with VIDEO of spring practice.

In today's camp countdown, we flip over to the other side of the ball to take a look at the stocked linebacker corps, which returns three players with Division I starting experience as the post-spring starters. Perhaps the most experienced unit on the defense, the linebackers will have to adjust to a new defensive scheme, switching from the 3-4 to the 4-3, but does that help the California defense, or hurt it?



SAM BACKER

Sophomore linebacker Jalen Jefferson.
USA Today Sports

THE CONTENDERS:
Jalen Jefferson
Sophomore
6-foot-2, 235
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 38 outside linebacker.

Michael Barton
RS Freshman
6-foot-1, 230 pounds
As a recruit: Four-star prospect, No. 19 outside linebacker, 2012 Semper Fidelis All-American.

Johnny Ragin III
Freshman
6-foot-3, 215 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 60 outside linebacker, No. 24 SPARQ rating in the nation the summer before his senior season; Came in sixth in the state of Oregon in the shot put with a throw of 48 feet, 2.75 inches … Recorded a personal best 52' 10.50" shot in April … Won state javelin title with a throw of 187'10" … Threw a personal-best 199'3" earlier in the spring … Part of the state-title 4x100 relay team … Came in ninth in the state 100m finals with a time of 11.69 seconds.

MIKE BACKER


Junior linebacker Nick Forbes.
Scout.com

THE CONTENDERS
Nick Forbes
RS Junior
6-foot-3, 245 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 11 middle linebacker, 2010 U.S. Army All-American.

Hardy Nickerson, Jr.
RS Freshman
6-foot, 225 pounds
As a recruit: Two-star prospect, No. 79 middle linebacker, 2012 Semper Fidelis All-American.

Chad Whitener
Freshman
6-foot, 210 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 58 middle linebacker.

Edward Tandy
Freshman
6-foot-2, 225 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 83 outside linebacker; Played outside linebacker, safety and rover for Tustin (Calif.) High School.

WILL BACKER


Junior linebacker Khairi Fortt.
Scout.com

THE CONTENDERS
Khairi Fortt
RS Junior
6-foot-2, 235 pounds
As a recruit: Four-star prospect, No. 11 outside linebacker, 2010 U.S. Army All-American; 2012 transfer from Penn State, where he played MIKE linebacker.

Nathan Broussard
RS Sophomore
6-foot-3, 245 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 143 defensive end.

David Wilkerson
RS Junior
6-foot-2, 245 pounds
As a recruit: Four-star prospect, No. 7 middle linebacker, participant in the 2009 Offense-Defense Bowl.

Jason Gibson
RS Sophomore
6-foot-2, 225 pounds
As a recruit: Four-star prospect, No. 10 outside linebacker, 2011 U.S. Army All-American.

THE SITUATION: New defensive coordinator Andy Buh set himself to the task this spring of changing the face of the Cal defense from a 3-4 scheme (which the Bears had run since 2009) to a 4-3 look. The surplus of linebackers that Cal assembled over the past several recruiting cycles is, then, both good and bad.

In the ‘plus' column, the Bears now have quite a bevy of backers to choose from, with some former outside linebackers moving down to play along the front, including Brennan Scarlett and Chris McCain.

In the ‘cons' column, Cal now has a logjam at three positions that are slightly different from the four linebacker spots the Bears previously utilized, not only in responsibilities, but body types.

The reduction from four linebackers to three means even more responsibility will be shouldered by a true MIKE backer, instead of having a nominal MIKE alongside another inside linebacker in the middle.

What came out of spring ball was an interesting mix of linebackers playing rolls that they may not have in the previous 3-4 system, including Fortt and Forbes -- both of whom fit the prototypical MIKE body type and skill set – as well as a pair of young linebackers – Nickerson and Barton – who came in as a ready-made inside linebacker pair.

The wildcard in this group is certainly Gibson, who was limited in the spring due to injury, which is why he's not among the top contenders. That doesn't mean, though, that the former U.S. Army All-American won't make a big impact once he can get on the field without any health concerns. Gibson played defensive end at Gardena (Calif.) Serra, but his speed and physique is more suited to being a rush backer, and that's what we expect him to do once fall camp starts.

TALE OF THE TAPE: The majority of the linebackers listed above – because they were recruited under the old system, for the most part – are versatile, with Fortt having played MIKE at Penn State, Wilkerson having come in as an inside linebacker, and Barton and Nickerson both able to play in the middle. Among the youngsters, Nickerson and Whitener are true MIKE backers, while Barton has the speed to play on the edge. Broussard played both linebacker and defensive end at Plano (Tex.) West, so he brings an added size and strength dimension, as well.

Buh did a lot of shuffling between positions and experimenting with his linebackers this spring, which saw Broussard moved to the MIKE after making an eye-opening play at WILL, in the early goings.

"All of the guys that are playing the position right now, each of them brings a different talent to the position," Buh says. "Most of them are interchangeable, from outside to inside. That's why we're capable of doing that."

The biggest shift, it seems, from the previous alignment to the current one, is that the taller, longer athletes are now moved down to the defensive line, while overall, the linebackers get a little bit shorter, but stouter. Forbes and Fortt, in particular, have really taken to the new strength and conditioning program, and are both built to stop just about any offensive player foolhardy enough to run their way.

Jefferson had a breakout season last year at inside linebacker, tallying 47 tackles as a redshirt freshman, to go along with 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 2 QB hurries and one pass break-up. Jefferson's biggest task last offseason was trimming down some of the baby fat and getting stronger and faster, which is what allowed for him to be so effective when injuries forced him into service. He's only gotten stronger and faster, which is going to allow him to be a tough match-up on the strong side, particularly if he's the beneficiary of a barricade-blasting defensive end like Brennan Scarlett. He started spring practice as a second-string player, but after just two practices, was running with the ones.

A lot like Jefferson, Nickerson used his redshirt year to remake his body, and while one of the big criticisms of him coming out of Oakland (Calif.) Bishop O'Dowd was that he was a bit too slow, he has the benefit of his father's football IQ and sharply-honed instincts that make him a perfect fit for a true MIKE. It wouldn't surprise me if, should injuries mount, he winds up being a breakout performer, much like Jefferson was last season.

As I mentioned earlier, Gibson is the wildcard – the one guy who I think could make the leap from not being on the post-spring two-deep to being in the starting rotation. He spent 2011 as an inside backer, then moved to the outside prior to 2012. Truth be told, while his instincts and speed from sideline to sideline were an asset on the inside, his quick first step, recognition and experience on the outside as a stand-up high school defensive end will serve him better at the WILL. He's certainly the fastest linebacker that Cal has in its stable, and his time on the inside has helped his coverage skills. He's a very different type of linebacker than Fortt and Forbes, which gives the Bears the option to mix-and-match depending on opposing personnel and game situations.

Because of the wealth of linebackers, it's likely that Tandy and Ragin will redshirt, but only because there's such a logjam. Tandy really flew under the radar as a recruit, but the staff loves him, and feels that they got a steal because of his nose for the ball and his aggressive play as a run-stuffer. Ragin is a plus-plus athlete, and down the road, could wind up turning into a real star. If he gets much bigger, it's not a stretch to see him moving down to take Scarlett's place as a hybrid rush end.

Wilkerson has plenty of pursuit speed to chase down plays from the back side, and at times has shown a variety of moves to get around the edge, but he's just been too injury-plagued for us to get a real idea of what his true potential is. He's a heady player with good football IQ, but his biggest enemy has been his own body. If he doesn't make an impact – or stay healthy -- this year, he could very well get passed up by some of the younger WILL backers.


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