Countdown to Camp: Linebacker

The Tigers return in 2002 with a solid combination of youth and experience at linebacker. Junior John Leake will likely take on a bigger role this season, and the addtions of Kelvin Morris and Brandon Jamison should pay immediate dividends to a defense that looks to be vastly improved this year.

The Tigers return in 2002 with several interesting possibilities at linebacker. For one, there are a couple of younger players such as Eric Sampson and LeRoy Hill that could find themselves in a position to look for serious playing time.

On the other hand, that was the conversation back in the spring. This fall, Sampson and Hill will have to battle it out with junior college transfers Kelvin Morris and Brandon Jamison. But before we get too deep into the players involved, let's take a look the scheme employed by new defensive coordinator John Lovett.

Lovett used a 4-3 alignment this spring, even though the Tigers will shift into multiple fronts a good bit in the fall. "We'll be multiple up front and in coverage, which I think will create problems as far as forcing turnovers," said Lovett this spring.

That means his linebackers are going to have to dig in and be ready to make some plays, and without question, the early edge for playing time will certainly go to the guys with speed. That being said, look no further than John Leake, one of the fastest players on defense to lead this team in 2002.

Leake returns after an impressive sophomore season that saw him register 134 tackles, good for 11th best in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The junior out of Plano, Texas was also named the most improved linebacker this spring as he culminated his efforts with a 13-tackle performance in the Orange and White game.

While Leake returns this season as one of the top linebackers in the conference, he also will be taking on a new leadership role with two years of significant game day experience under his belt. Add in the expertise of new defensive coordinator John Lovett, and you get the sense that there has been a big breath of fresh air released on this defense.

"We're going to go nuts out there. It's going to be much more aggressive. We've got a lot more coverages, a lot more alignments. Hopefully we can screw up the quarterback because we're going to blitz a ton, and mix up our coverages," Leake said in a post spring-game interview.

"It's all about trying to make big plays and get turnovers, because that's what wins games."

While Leake will start at one of the outside spots, senior Rodney Thomas returns for his senior season at middle linebacker. Thomas, along with Leake, were the only two players that finished last season with over 100 tackles, and as a starter for 11 of 12 games, he also tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 9.

Thomas had a solid spring, showing a toughness that was just downright nasty in several of the scrimmages held in early March. To say that the senior from Dublin, Georgia isn't afraid to hit would be a gross understatement.

Quite frankly, he looked sensational, showing good instincts in reading plays, and displaying a tenacity that most Clemson fans haven't seen out of a middle linebacker in a long, long time. Simply put, Rodney Thomas will be tough to unseat as a starter at this season.

Eric Sampson is currently listed as the other starter opposite John Leake, and with good reason.

As a freshman last year, he finished second on the team among freshmen in total tackles with 31. He was also named the defensive Rookie of the Year by the Clemson coaching staff. And interestingly enough, after spending most of the spring practicing (and his career) as a defensive back, the coaching staff decided that he easily could move to linebacker, a move that I might add, was well warranted.

Sampson unleashed several powerful hits on some of his teammates this spring. The one that immediately stands out in my mind is a play which saw the sophomore level big tight end Ben Hall as he attempted to catch a pass on a drag route across the middle of the field. He flat out knocked Hall out of his socks, and the few fans that were there that day can attest to it. Sampson is a hitter, and he'll be rewarded for his aggressive play with significant playing time this fall.

And that brings us to the new comers, Brandon Jamison and Kelvin Morris- two players who originally signed with the Tigers two years ago, before both ended up going the JUCO route.

The one thing you need to know about Brandon Jamison is that he's fast. Really fast. He was clocked as the fastest player on his team in junior college, consistently running under a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash. At 6'2, and probably weighing in close to 225 pounds by the time practice gets underway, the last thing you want to be facing as an offense is a guy that big that can outrun your wide receivers.

Kelvin Morris also spent also spent the last two years playing linebacker at Southwest Mississippi Community College. He finished his last season with 71 tackles and 9 sacks. He also caused five fumbles, and registered 20 tackles for loss. Those statistics were good enough to earn him Defensive Player of the Year honors for his conference last season.

Morris is what you would call an intimidating football player. He backs down to no one, and he attacks all cylinders, every single play. You could actually make the same case for Jamison.

Needless to say, it will be extremely difficult to keep both of these players off the football field in 2002- they are just too talented, and too quick not to be in the game.

In retrospect, Morris is a bit more polished than Sampson at this point, and go ahead and write it down right now, he could sneak in there and start in Athens. Watch his progress in August- that will be the key.

And what about Rodney Feaster? Feaster after all, is a senior this year.

In all likelihood, he'll be in reserve role in 2002, backing up Rodney Thomas. The Chester native had at least one tackle in every game in 2001, and he recorded 38 tackles overall.

Make no mistake, Feaster will see his share of action this year, but there seems to be a logjam of athleticism and talent that could keep him to the numbers he posted last season.

LeRoy Hill is also another young buck that could make an impact in 2002. As a true freshman, he had 31 tackles in just 145 plays for the season. He possesses the same sort of skills as Eric Sampson to go along with good speed and great athleticism. In fact, he'll go into August with every opportunity to unseat Sampson on the first or second team.

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