Here is another group that isn't just as good as it's star players. Even without Daryl Smith for all of spring and Keyaron Fox sitting out many practices himself, this group is still strong. For most of spring, the first team was completely changed from how it looked at the end of last season.
Ather Brown, a former starter at OLB, was going to compete for the starting spot again on the outside but with Smith sitting out, the coaches decided to give him a look at MLB. He was no Daryl Smith, but who is? Brown did like one would expect, play solid defense. He holds his own well and is a big hitter. Smith is much more of a playmaker but you don't lose much by having Ather in the game.
Ather now has the ability to play all LB positions, so he should once again see plenty of playing time next season. The only question is will he backup Smith or try to win back a starting OLB spot from a couple of guys that don't look like they'll easily give it up? My guess is that he continues to be the 4th man contributes valuable depth.
Even though he missed some time in spring, Fox is a no-brainer to start one of the outside slots. We all know what Key can do, but I think this is the year he starts to receive some accolades within the conference. Fox is an absolute monster, and if others don't know that by now, they will figure it out this fall.
Talented Redshirt Freshman Kingi McNair is currently manning the final starting spot. Coaches really talked him up in the off-season, and he didn't disappoint in spring. They knew he had some good skills but really wanted to work on his toughness. He saw tons of reps in spring and looks about ready for other teams will throw at him. He closes in on ball carriers very quickly and hits hard. He still needs some work in the passing game but I feel that he will be capable of filling the shoes left by graduating senior Recardo Wimbush.
Another very pleasant surprise was seeing Gerris Wilkinson finally start to show what the hype was about when he was recruited. With Fox out, Wilkinson was promoted to first team for several practices and looked good too. He has a pro body and can hit. This spring it started to click for him and put himself in a better position to make more plays. With everyone healthy in fall, Wilkinson will go back to second team but, due in large part to him & Ather, I feel very good about our depth at this position.
Tabugbo Anyansi is another guy that was a 4-star recruit like Wilkerson. And like Wilkerson, he had yet to play up to those expectations. Anyansi had an up and down spring. He didn't really shine much throughout, but he did step up big seemingly out of the blue during the Spring Game. I was pleased with his effort in that game and it gives me reason to hope for more practices like that in fall.
Sterling Green is a guy that I thought was ready to make a big impact on defense this spring but he seemed to take a step backward. He sat out last season for academic reasons but still practiced. He may still have some of those issues hanging over his head which would weight on anyone's mind. To his credit, he did lay a brutal hit on Suggs in the Spring Game when Suggs unwisely chose to run at Sterling when the play broke down. Sterling is a good player and I hope he returns to form in fall.
Anthony Lawston was back at Linebacker after playing some at DE last season. Unfortunately Lawston has spent a lot of his career looking for the right position for him. At this point he is still behind several players on the depth chart and likely won't be a huge contributor unless we are again hit with injuries. Lawston is experienced and is built well, like Wilkerson, and is a capable backup at the MLB position.
With all of these guys at LB, it will be tough for one of the freshmen to break into the rotation for playing time unless they are really good players. The coaches have told Nick Moore though that he could see some time at MLB in order to build up future depth since Smith is in his last season. Beyond possibly Moore, I don't see us needing to use the other freshmen, Phillip Wheeler or KaMichael Hall, in 2003.
Overall all our linebackers play the run real well but still need to get a little better in pass coverage. If Smith & Fox had played more, we would have likely been better but the ones that filled in for them did an admirable job. Those guys led this group to a solid score this spring.