Positional Preview: Linebackers

Coming in to the 2007, the Duke linebacking situation already had a lot of questions to be answered. The list of questions got a bit longer last week as 2-year starter Mike Tauiliili was indefinitely suspended for a violation of team rules.

Without Tauiliili, the Devils are left with only one returning starter on a unit which was not a position of strength a season ago. Needless to say, the competition for at least two of the three positions will be wide open.

The lone returning starter is senior SLB Pat Bailey (6'4" 235). Bailey has played several positions during his career, including a 3-4 outside linebacker and defensive end. His versatility has allowed him to play well at every position he's lined up. For his senior year, the staff has returned him to strong-side linebacker, a position he played quite well as a sophomore before an injury cut that season short. Bailey has a great motor, good range and is probably the best tackler on the defense. His veteran influence will be invaluable to a unit that will see a lot of fresh faces.

His likely backup is junior Tim Ball (6'1" 225). After spending his first season at Duke as a running back, Ball switched over to linebacker and has steadily progressed up the depth chart every season. In 2007, expect Ball to see significant minutes as the coaches rotate fresh players in frequently. Junior linebacker/defensive end Greg Akinbiyi (6'2" 250) could also factor into the mix here if depth along the defensive line allows.

Tauiliili's indefinite suspension means that sophomore Vince Rey (6'0" 255) assumers the starting role. He will provide quite a contrast to Tauiliili with his imposing size and great strength. Rey also might hold a quickness advantage as well, but lacks experience and might not have the same explosiveness as the guy he is replacing. Still, Rey was a highly regarded recruit who was forced to play last year as a true freshman. He has the potential to fill the starter's role admirably.

Backing up Rey will most likely be sophomore Paul Thornton (6'3" 230). After a decorated high-school career in Texas, he has been forced to watch from the sidelines his first two years at Duke due to a severe Achilles' injury sustained early in 2005. Early indications are that Thornton has fully recovered and is ready to contribute.

Junior Alfred Williams (6'2", 250) has been a special teams contributor during his first two seasons at Duke. He will battle Thornton for playing time behind Rey.

On the weak side, there is a two-way battle going on to see who will be the eventual starter. Currently, junior Charles Robinson (6'2" 215) is the starter. Like Alfred Williams, Robinson has contributed mostly on special teams during his first two years. Robinson, however, has had quite a productive off-season and was one of the starts of the spring game with an acrobatic interception. He is a high-energy player who has been known to talk trash on the field. As a possible starter, he now will need to back it up with his play.

Nipping at his heels, however, is former QB/WR turned linebacker Marcus Jones (6'3' 225). Jones is considered by most to be one of the team's best athletes. He is very fluid and can change direction very well. While he does not have blazing straight line speed, his quickness and knowledge gained playing offense for his first two seasons make him quite effective in pass coverage. He is also a capable tackler, which considering his offensive background, came as a nice spring surprise to the defensive coaching staff.

Duke brought in four linebacker recruits in the 2007 class, (three from the state of North Carolina) each of which will undoubtedly get a chance to show they belong on the field this fall. Asheville product Adam Banks (6'5" 230) might be the most advanced prospect of the group. He played against a decent competition level in high school, and has college level size and speed (4.6 40) already. Oxford's Justin Wilkerson (6'3" 245) played mostly offense in high school. He is outstanding prospect but might have trouble adjusting to both a new position and the transition to college. Lenoir product Damien Thornton (6'1" 235) is probably the most physically ready of the group to play, but he faced a very weak level of competition in high school, and probably needs a year of speed and agility work before he is ready to contribute. Sam Poggi (6'2" 220), son of former Duke player Biff Poggi, could contribute on special teams, but will likely redshirt as well.

Positional Strengths:

1. Size – In recent seasons, Duke has often times lined up players that looked more like bulked up safeties rather than linebackers. With Bailey, Rey, Paul Thornton, and Marcus Jones, the backers will look much more like an ACC-level group. While size is not the most important factor in success at linebacker, it does help a player fight off blocks and in finishing off tackles.

2. Competition – Other than Bailey, all of the spots on the two-deep at linebacker are up for grabs. Just about every time there is intense competition for playing time, the quality of play as a whole unit improves. Two of the positions will likely not be settled until the week before the season-opener. Because of this, the players will compete harder in practice and be better for it.

3. Higher Ceiling – Last season, the Devils lined up two seniors at linebacker in Jeramy Edwards and Codey Lowe. Both players were effective in stretches, but because of the length of time in the program there was little chance unexpected improvement. The coaches knew what they were getting out of these players. With all of the fresh faces in the mix and the talent they possess, the Devils will have more top-end ability than they had last year. Of course, ability means little without performance. Still, there are a few players that seem poised to make the jump to ACC-caliber starters. Because of that potential, this group has a much higher performance ceiling than last year's crew.

Positional Question Marks:

1. Depth – Unfortunately, the wide open competition for starting roles and playing time means that there are really not many proven players in the group. There will be fresh faces starting in at least two positions. Whoever these players are, they will need to answer the question of whether or not they are starting material at the ACC-level.

2. Coverage ability – The overall team speed on the Duke defense is better than last year, but still probably below average for a BCS conference team. At linebacker, the players will probably find themselves in tough coverage situations against the good running backs and tight ends in this league. Of the crew, Charles Robinson is the only player that might be considered a plus in coverage. Marcus Jones might also be able to cover, but will probably have some growing pains during his transition to defense. Unless the other players prove they can hang with the oppositions' backs and tight ends, teams will probably try to expose this area.

3. Tackling – To say the tackling of the Duke linebackers at times last year was awful would be a gross understatement. In past year, the players were not even getting in position to make a tackle. With the improved team speed, players are now getting into position, but are still missing an unacceptable number of tackles. Patrick Bailey is one of the few players on the defense that has shown that when he wraps up, the ball carrier is going down. Improved tackling from the linebackers is critical to Duke's ability to stop the run in 2007.

Bottom Line:

Much of Duke's 2007 success depends on how the question marks in this unit are answered. With Bailey securing the strong-side, the Devils can be confident that they are in good hands there. Someone, however, must step forward and be able to fill in for Bailey so he does not have to play every snap. The loss of Tauiliili for the time being throws the middle into a state of flux. The staff is high on Vincent Rey, but stepping in for a two-year starter on such short notice is a tall order for anyone. Hopefully, Rey is up to the challenge. The most interesting competition will be on the weak-side between Robinson and Jones. Jones will play; he is probably the best athlete in the group and the staff has been trying to get him on the field for the better part of two seasons at a variety of positions. He has the potential to be an outstanding linebacker, but will almost certainly make some mistakes because of his unfamiliarity with the position. Robinson, on the other hand, has been playing linebacker for three seasons. His aptitude for the position is much more well-known. Health will also be key issue as the season progresses. Unlike some other positions, an injury or two among the linebacker could prove very costly.

There is not much experienced depth here even with Tauiliili. Without him, the rest of the linebackers will need to pick up the lost playing time that would have otherwise been spoken for. The good news is that Duke has some talented players competing for playing time. This could eventually lead to Duke being significantly better here than in 2006. Unfortunately, no one will know if this is true or not until the season is underway.

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