Part Seven: Linebacker
CU linebackers had a pretty good season last year overall, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they benefited greatly from a very good defensive line, and were clearly the third best unit on the field for the defense, behind the line and secondary. When Derek McCartney went down against Michigan the Buff defense lost its only linebacker with both Pac-12 size and Pac-12 athleticism. Say what you will about the 2016 linebacker corps at CU, and there’s plenty of good things to say, but an honest assessment has to conclude that every single linebacker who played extensively had at least one mark against him, or had question marks. Jimmy Gilbert had CU’s best sack total in over a decade, but he was built more like a basketball forward than a Pac-12 outside linebacker and could not be counted on to hold the edge against the run. So it’s fair to say there were issues, and it’s also fair to say that they turned in a credible season anyway. After all, no defense has as strong a season as the Buffs did last year without at least decent linebacker play. So what can fans look for this spring from the position? Let’s take a look.
Let’s start by accepting there are more question marks at linebacker than answers right now. Who will replace leading tackler Kenneth Olugbode at the Jack position? Olugbode had 50 more tackles, yes 50 more, than the No. 2 tackler on the team in 2016. That’s a lot of production, and right now there’s not an obvious replacement. How will McCartney return from a knee injury in the Michigan game that knocked him out for the rest of the season? Will Addison Gillam return for his fifth-year as a Buff? There are persistent rumors, which have yet to be verified one way or the other, that Gillam may hang up his football cleats for good. Will N.J. Falo take the next step at outside linebacker and become a top level dominant presence on defense? Is Drew Lewis ready to live up to the potential he showed in JUCO, and that gained him a scholarship to Washington in the first place?
Yes, it’s safe to say there are lots of questions about the CU linebacking corps, but let’s start with one thing that will not be a question mark. Rick Gamboa will be the starting Mike linebacker next fall. Gamboa has been a favorite whipping boy of fans for two years now, and yes, he is limited athletically and he’s not the biggest middle linebacker ever. But the bottom line is that he does a pretty good job overcoming those limitations and filling the middle of the Buff defense. So good, in fact, that he was the leading tackler on the defense in 2015 with 96 total tackles, and was the third leading tackler in 2016, with 79 total tackles, despite sharing time with Gillam at the position. And he did that as redshirt freshman and sophomore. Gamboa is not All Pac-12 caliber, or a future NFL player, but it’s time to admit that he’s a solid Pac-12 inside linebacker with good instincts, and just as importantly, has an understanding of the game that grows with every game he plays. Going into his third year as a starter at middle linebacker, it’s now safe to say the position will be in good hands with Gamboa.
Beyond that it’s really all question marks, and let’s start with the other guy who’s done a pretty good job at middle linebacker for CU, Addison Gillam. The biggest issue Gillam has had since his Freshman All America season has been staying healthy and putting on the weight needed to really excel at the position at the Pac-12 level. A series of injuries and illnesses have held him back. If Gilliam is healthy and on campus at CU in the fall, he has the talent, athleticism and instincts to be a great linebacker for the Buffs. But that’s a big if. If he’s healthy you have to think Gillam gets the first look at the open Jack linebacker spot. His size and athleticism would be perfect in that role and he could likely put up numbers as good as Olugbode’s were last season.
If Gillam does not factor in at Jack linebacker, then the first shot almost certainly has to go to Drew Lewis, last year’s JUCO newcomer and a guy who was good enough out of high school to wind up at Washington. Lewis played in all 13 games last year, but primarily on special teams where he was truly a star, and his playing time from scrimmage was limited. He had 46 snaps on defense, including a sack against Oregon State, which isn’t a lot, but was enough to demonstrate that he can play at this level. There were moments in games last year where he showed he definitely has the athleticism to be a Pac-12 linebacker. This spring, after a month with Drew Wilson, he needs to show that he is ready to play full-time. At 6-foot-2, 230, with good athleticism, he should be able to make his case this spring. The Buffs need him to step up because CU is anorexia thin at inside linebacker until the freshmen arrive this summer.
Aside from Gamboa, Gillam, and Lewis, the only other scholarship inside linebacker available this spring is Akil Jones, who redshirted last fall and will get his first really good look this spring. At 6-foot-0, 225, Jones is another somewhat undersized linebacker for the Buffs, but there’s no doubt that he brings excellent athleticism to the position. Reports were positive from his first season on the scout team, but he’ll have to really show something to fight off some of the incoming freshmen next fall. What we do know is he was a big play machine as a senior in high school, with an amazing 30 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, which led his league. So the question here is, with a fall on the field and a winter in the weight room under his belt, will Jones be ready to show this spring that he’s a Pac-12 linebacker and a good one? He is definitely a player to watch carefully this spring.
Outside linebacker doesn't have any more depth than the inside positions this spring. It’s only fair and honest to say that CU simply has not recruited well at linebacker over the last few years. That changed in a big way this year, but none of those guys will be here to help out this spring, although it’s also fair to point out that last season the Buffs started 10 of 14 games in the nickel package with only one outside linebacker. So being thin isn’t necessarily as critical at outside linebacker as at inside linebacker.
At 6-foot-3, 250, with superb athleticism, Derek McCartney is the one returning player who unquestionably is a top of the line Pac 12 linebacker with no question marks. Well, aside from the health of that knee and how it will affect his mobility and athleticism. But there is just no question that McCartney has all the tools to be the next in CU’s long line of great linebackers, and his sophomore numbers back that up. Two years ago he finished fourth on the team in total tackles with 70, which is not easy for an outside linebacker. He had five sacks and a team leading 16 quarterback pressures, five more than the next highest on the list, Jordan Carrell. It’s not a coincidence that Michigan changed their offensive game plan after McCartney went down and punished the Buffs off tackle in the second half. CU simply did not have anyone else with his size and athleticism to fill the role. And no CU fan can forget his fumble recovery for a touchdown in that game that put the Buffs up 14-0 in the Big House. Two different publications chose McCartney as a third-team All Pac-12 linebacker before last season. Make no mistake about it, if McCartney comes back full strength next fall with his mobility intact, he has first team All Pac-12 ability.
But it’s likely that McCartney will not see any time on the field this spring, so who should fans keep an eye on during the spring game? Probably the first guy on everyone’s radar is N.J Falo. He has quite a bit of playing time under his belt after two years as a Buff, and has shown enough flashes to make many folks excited about his future. But his future is now, and with Jimmie Gilbert moving on and McCartney out for spring, this is the time for Falo to show what he can do. At 6-foot-2, 230, he’s not big by outside linebacker standards, but he is definitely very athletic and seems to have good instincts on the field. His off the field instincts needed to improve, though, as a three game suspension last season slowed his development. But when he did play he made things happen, with big plays against Stanford, UCLA, and Arizona last year to help the Buffs win all three games. He was also a force on special teams and was named the most improved linebacker during last spring’s drills. One can only wonder what he might have done last fall without that suspension? But so far the news is good and Falo turned in a good five weeks with Wilson and seems to grasp the opportunity in front of him this spring. He would seem to be the obvious heir apparent for Gilbert’s pass rushing spot and he really started to stand out at the end of last season.
The other returning player who figures to get a lot of snaps with McCartney out is Terran Hasselbach, who quietly saw the field in 13 games two years ago as a redshirt freshman, and 12 last year as a sophomore. Much of his playing time as an underclassman was on special teams, but he did play 117 defensive snaps last fall. Hasselbach is another player who is not the prototype outside linebacker, though he’s as well built as any player on this team and packs 240 rock solid pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame. He was a pass rush terror in high school, but his biggest problem has been injuries, including missing all of last spring after shoulder surgery. If Hasselbach can make every practice this spring he should really bloom and could be a player who surprises people next fall. He is one of the few Buff outside linebackers with the beef and strength to hold the edge against the run, and that alone could make him very valuable. But this spring is going to be very important for him to show that he can remain ahead of some very good incoming players.
One of those incoming players is already on campus and participating in winter workouts. Junior College transfer Shamar Hamilton is a bit of a mystery as he is sometimes listed on the defensive line and other times listed at outside linebacker. And he has been listed as anywhere from 6-foot-3, 245 (on CU’s spring roster) to 6-foot-5, 230. Although his height and weight is not clear, it seems clear that Hamilton will get his first look as a Buff at outside linebacker. In his two seasons playing JUCO ball he put up a total of 10 sacks, so there’s no question he can get after the passer at that level. The question will be, can he do it at this level? Going against guys like Jeromy Irwin, Aaron Haigler and Isaac Miller this spring is going to give us some insight into whether Hamilton can make an impact at outside linebacker for the Buffs.
Two outside linebackers redshirted last fall, but both come to it from very different perspectives. Sam Bennion came in last January after a two year mission and had to get readjusted to football. But he now brings two years of added physical maturity, and that’s something that is very valuable for athletes at this level. Pookie Maka, on the other hand, came in for his freshman year and was expected to take a two year mission like Bennion but decided not to.
Bennion is an interesting player as he was initially recruited as a defensive end for a 4-3 scheme but now finds himself at outside linebacker in a 3-4. At 6-foot-5, 230, he is more what folks envision seeing at the outside linebacker position, and now he will have to show that he has the athleticism to make an impact standing up rather than with a hand on the ground. He already started showing something last fall when he was named the Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year. That means that of all the players on the defensive scout team, it was Bennion who most stood out to coaches and offensive starters last year. That bodes well for Bennion this spring. If he can show the kind of athleticism required, he would give the Buffs another big body behind McCartney to provide stout support against the run.
Maka is at the other end of the spectrum in the sense that he clearly has the athleticism to excel at outside linebacker at this level, but right now he really needs to pack some muscle on his frame. At 6-foot-3, 205, he can run, but he’s just not big enough to play extensively yet at the Pac-12 level. With that in mind his decision to stay at CU and not go on his mission is really a godsend for him and the Buffs. What he desperately needs is more time with Wilson and that’s exactly what he’s getting. The Buffs will hope that weight room time pays off quickly. For now, Maka needs to spend this spring getting bigger and working on technique.
At the end of the day there are more questions than answers at all of the linebacker positions for CU, but that is part of what makes college football so fun. Every year players move on and other guys are asked to step up and fill their shoes. How well those guys do that determines how well a team does year in and year out. There’s no doubt that all the linebacker positions at CU will be thin this spring, but there are definitely players in every one of those spots who could step up and exceed what they showed last fall. The question is will they or not? We should have at least a few more answers five weeks from now.