Way Too Early Depth Chart: LBs

Now that National Signing Day is sewn up, we take the next step: How do the new players fit into the current roster? Next up is a unit decimated by departures of Khairi Fortt, Johnny Ragin and Chad Whitener, as well as the seeming injury retirement of Nick Forbes.

SAM Linebacker
Jalen Jefferson

The Favorites:
Jalen Jefferson (6-2, 230, RJr)
Michael Barton (6-1, 225, RSo)

Next Up:
Jason Gibson (6-2, 205, RJr)
Edward Tandy (6-1, 220, So.)

Dark Horses:
Devante Downs (6-3, 230, Fr)
John Porchivina (6-1, 220, Fr)
Jacob Wark (6-4, 250, RJr)
Key Additions: Jason Gibson, Devante Downs, John Porchivina

The Skinny: Jefferson has been just about as dependable a defender as the Bears have had over the past two seasons. The redshirt junior-to-be started all 11 games in 2013, tallying one interception, 64 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, two pass breakups and two quarterback hurries. In 2012, Jefferson played in eight games with seven starts, chalked up 47 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, one breakup and two quarterback hurries. If there's a bell cow on this defense, it's him.

Barton filled in all over the place last year as a redshirt freshman, he played in 11 games with three starts, posting 64 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss (second on the team to Deandre Coleman) with 2.0 sacks, one breakup and two hurries. He's a speedy hurt bomb with a sky-high football IQ, and it's going to be tough to keep him off the field.

Because of the lack of depth across the board at linebacker, Jason Gibson bounces back to help fill the void, after spending last season getting sparse playing time as a defensive back (six games, four tackles). Gibson came in as a four-star prospect and he's got plenty of speed, as well as a well-developed sense of physicality and toughness.

Tandy played in three games last season -- almost exclusively on special teams -- but ended the year on the scout team. Tandy is a versatile athlete, even playing some of the more dynamic running backs while on scout team, and he'll have the chance to play somewhere, particularly given the lack of depth at SAM and MIKE.

There are a few wild cards here, the first being Jacob Wark. Sources have said that the erstwhile tight end/inside receiver may be moved to the other side of the ball as a linebacker or defensive end, given his size and the lack of a true tight end spot in the Bear Raid offense. He's done yeoman's work blocking in the BONE, but a 6-foot-4, 250-pound body is a terrible thing to waste. True freshman Devante Downs is coming in as a defensive athlete, and is a hard-hitter at linebacker once he gets healthy from an ACL tear, a process he'll continue with Cal's S&C staff during spring ball, while seeing a little bit of action as he can stand it.

"It's kind of gone back and forth a million different times with him," Sonny Dykes said. "He wanted to be a running back, and then he came and saw Art (Kaufman) and said, ‘Hey, I'm your linebacker.' Part of the switch is because he's kind of got multiple personalities (laughs) and is dealing with the whole Carrie Syndrome (more laughs). We'll see. It'll be different tomorrow."

There's another potential two-way guy who will likely slot in at linebacker, and that'll be John Porchivina. Thought to be coming in as an offensive athlete, Porchivina will likely start life out as a linebacker, and his size and speed make him a perfect fit for the SAM position
MIKE Linebacker
Hardy Nickerson, Jr.

The Favorites:
Hardy Nickerson, Jr. (6-1, 230, RSo)
Michael Barton (6-1, 225, RSo)

Next Up:
Edward Tandy (6-1, 220, RFr)
Chandler Leniu (6-1, 225, Fr)
Key Losses: Khairi Fortt, Chad Whitener (transfer), Nick Forbes (injury)

Key Addition: Chandler Leniu

The Skinny: Here's the elephant in the room: The loss of Nick Forbes.

"We talked two weeks ago, and he just came in and said, ‘I really tried,' and to his credit, he did try," Dykes said of the player he figured to be the Bears' best linebacker last season, before a herniated disc slowed him down. "He tried, kept going out there, he'd feel good for a while and with backs, you know how it is. You wake up some days and it hurts, and the next day it didn't. It was tough on him, because coaches, we're not the most patient in the world. We're going, ‘What's going on? Get well, get well, get well,' and he was trying. He'd have good days and bad days. He just came to the conclusion that he was going to get his back fixed. He's going to have surgery. He felt like the best long-term answer for him was to go in and get it fixed and worry about football later. If he gets well, maybe he'll leave the door open to coming back, down the road, but I think he's going to try and graduate and go on with his life."

The keystone position in the front seven was shaping up as the one that's the most uncertain, with the losses of Fortt and Whitener, and the unavailability of Forbes, who will have surgery soon. Whitener was able to crack the two-deep given the injuries in the linebacker corps last season, and recorded six tackles -- including 1.0 TFL -- in 12 games, with one fumble recovery. Nickerson played most of last season with a gimpy foot, which finally knocked him out against Colorado. Nickerson's speed and trigger speed were far below even the most modest of preseason projections, and that foot proved to be the reason why. The fall camp battle between him and Forbes was, essentially, two horses running on three legs apiece, given Forbes's nagging back injury.

As mentioned above, Barton is going to be very difficult to keep off the field. Both he and Nickerson came in as inside linebackers under Clancy Pendergast's 3-4 system, and Barton saw snaps at the MIKE throughout the season, starting the Big Game in the middle.

Tandy came in as a MIKE, and while he'll provide valuable depth on the outside, if needed, MIKE is where his home truly is, and where he can be best utilized. If Nickerson isn't 100% for spring (and Dykes says he will be "very limited") Tandy could see a lot of first-team reps come his way.

Leniu is a tackling machine, and has been one of the most consistent players every time Scout.com has seen him on the recruiting trail. On a team full of D1 prospects at Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco, he's arguably the best high school player. In the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, Leniu was an early star and was always around the ball. He's as good dropping into coverage as he is diving headfirst into the line to stop the run, but he's not the fleetest of foot. He's probably most similar to Nickerson, though with a bit more athleticism. That said, he is a bit on the short side and has to get faster if he's going to be effective at the college level. The good thing is, with Nickerson and Barton ahead of him, he has at least some time to learn.
WILL Linebacker
Nathan Broussard

The Favorites:
Nathan Broussard (6-3, 235, RJr)
Michael Barton (6-1, 225, RSo)

Next Up:
Jason Gibson (6-2, 205, RJr)
Sam Atoe (6-0, 205, Jr)
Devante Downs (6-3, 230, Fr)
Aisea Tongilava (6-0, 210, Fr)
Noah Westerfield (6-3, 210, Fr)
Key Losses: Fortt, Johnny Ragin III (transfer)

Key Additions: Sam Atoe, Broussard (returning from injury), Devante Downs, Aisea Tongilava, Noah Westerfield

The Skinny: Broussard went down just as he was making a move at the WILL during fall camp, and though it remains to be seen how quick he is coming off an ACL tear, he could wind up being the biggest addition to the linebacking corps. In 2012, Broussard played in 11 games with four starts, tallying 18 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks and one QB hurry in very limited time. He's efficient, tough and aggressive.

Barton has the speed to play both the outside spots, as we've gone over ad nauseum, and Gibson would seem to be the best fit at WILL, particularly if he hasn't put enough weight on to play the SAM (he dropped nearly 25 pounds, going from linebacker to safety). Atoe played mainly nickel, but also shaded towards linebacker in the College of San Mateo's 3-3-5 scheme, and he's a strong downhill runner who loves to hit. While he may not strictly line up at linebacker, if he lines up at nickel, he profiles more as a linebacker than a defensive back because of his physicality. Downs is the biggest wild card here, given that we don't know quite how healthey he'll be for spring. While Downs was primarily a running back before going down with an ACL tear in June, he spent plenty of time as a linebacker, to the point where schools offered him at that position. When Downs originally committed, he committed to come in as a defensive athlete, and given his size -- 6-foot-3, 230 pounds -- he's ideally built to be a pass-rushing outside linebacker.

Westerfield needs to add some weight if he's to fill in at rush end, but for the moment, he might be just the right size to be a speed backer on the outside in certain situations, though it's more than likely he redshirts in order to add some size and muscle.

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