The competition for linebacker this spring will look a lot like it did at the end of the 2008 season. Picking out the starters was actually a pretty tough task, given all of the guys will be healthy and active for spring ball. Throw two highly thought of redshirt freshmen into the mix and you could have some fierce competition for every spot on the 2-deep.
Beginning with the first team, I really see four guys as starters. Anthony Barnes, Brad Jefferson, Kyle Jackson, and Sedric Griffin can all be counted on if found in the starting lineup. Who starts will depend on what scheme we come out to defend and who's healthy. The other good aspect of this group is that there is flexibility between positions.
Kyle Jackson, though I didn't list him as starter, is the key to the flexibility. He has found himself playing big minutes at all three positions. By the way, he also led the group in tackles last year followed by Griffin.
Sedric Griffin is an impact player at the position. His presence is really missed whenever he is not in the lineup. As the only senior member in the LB corp, he'll be the leader of the group and the one with the potential to really change a game. Though not really tall, he's well put together and does a great job of putting pressure on quarterbacks. He had three sacks last year from the LB position.
Barnes and Jefferson are more physically imposing backers. If either puts it all together on the field this year, you could really find your breakout candidate here. Fans for opposing teams may not know much about them now but could by the end of the season. Barnes has been in the program a long time now and has shown flashes of physical dominance. Jefferson has played in each of his first two years at Tech. His progress was slowed by a broken arm early in the 2008 season. He took a while to get back to 100%. Both guys have a lot of upside.
Last year's class comes into play next as all three look prepared to push for spots on the 2-deep. Steven Sylvester is the only one of the three who didn't redshirt last season. With so many injuries to deal with, it was necessary for the coaches to burn a redshirt from this group and Sylvester was the one most ready for prime time. Steven is a ball-hawking linebacker who gets to the ball all over the field. The coaches really liked how he performed this year in practice and in the time he saw the field. He may not crack the starting lineup just yet, but he could be groomed as the long-term replacement for Griffin.
The other two from the 2008 signing class are Malcolm Munroe and B.J. Machen. Both guys appeared to have college ready bodies even when they arrived last summer. With a year in the weight room, both have certainly developed some more and are physically ready to perform and compete for playing time. Munroe was singled out on signing day this year as a redshirt freshman they were looked to for contributions in spring.
The linebacker group is rounded out by Albert Rocker and Osahon Tongo. Both were big-time recruits but their success hasn't happened instantly. Tongo tore up his knee on the first day of his first practice in 2006. He lost some development opportunities at such an important time early in his career that he's really struggled to move up the depth chart since. He's a great kid and it would be nice to see him start having some success in 2009.
Rocker was part of the vaunted class of 2007. He redshirted his first year on campus, so last season was his first opportunity to game minutes. He played in 10 games, mostly on special teams, and logged three tackles on the season. Sylvester, a true freshman, jumped him for minutes when injuries piled up at the position so it would appear Rocker needs to continue to improve in order to crack the 2-deep. Spring will be a good opportunity for Albert to make up that ground.
Current Depth Chart:
MLB: Brad Jefferson, Kyle Jackson, B.J. Machen
OLB: Sedric Griffin, Steven Sylvester, Malcolm Munroe, Julian Burnett
Review, Preview, and Predictions:
The linebacker positions appear to be a little deeper this year versus last for a couple of reasons. One, the position has pulled from the deeper safety position for the "Wolf" (more on that in a bit). Two, due to a few injuries at the position last season, this year's backups received some critical playing time last year and we now know they can handle the load when call upon.
The Wolf position is just a hybrid of a strong safety and SAM linebacker. It's a way to get a fifth defensive back on the field who can help in coverage on the strong side but also typically has some size and can support the run defense as well.
Two guys listed last year as safeties are now tied for first string Wolf – Cooper Taylor and Mario Edwards. Edwards was already familiar with a similar role from his time at Virginia Tech and Cooper Taylor, who seemed to be warming up to the idea of the position, describes it below.
"It's pretty similar to a position we had at Virginia Tech called Whip", said Edwards following the final spring scrimmage. "So, it's fairly similar. I played all 3 positions; free safety, rover and wolf, at Virginia Tech."
Taylor, who from body language and tone seemed like he needed time to warm up to the wolf, told us after the first spring scrimmage at Flowery Branch, "Getting used to it right now – it's a lot different – a lot more zone drops. Safety you're always breaking up on stuff. Wolf you've got to fill stuff in behind you – curl routes, a lot of different drops, but I'm getting used to it and starting to like it."
With a follow up question of how much of it was LB and how much was S, Taylor went on to say, "Split down the middle. It's really truly because – you have to play man-to-man like a safety sometimes, sometimes you have to get inside the box and play a little linebacker. But truthfully it's split down the middle linebacker-safety type."
The truth is both Edwards and Taylor are pretty good at the position. So much so that they supplanted long-time fan favorite A.T. Barnes for the starting spot. Both guys are agile and athletic having been safeties in the past. Taylor is one of the best athletes on the team and was second on the team in tackles last season – ahead of names like Michael Johnson, Derrick Morgan and Sedric Griffin. In the off-season Taylor showed off his natural abilities with some very impressive measurements. "We tested one day - I put up a 4.38 40 – fastest on the team. I put up a 38.5 vertical, which was also top on the team", said Taylor. "And then I put down a shuttle 4.03, one of the top two."
I predict Taylor will just be edged out for top tackler on the team in 2009. Morgan Burnett will again lead the team but it will be much closer this year. For one, Cooper will be on the field more than last year, when he was also second on the team in tackles as an injury fill-in. Also, the Wolf will put Taylor in a good position to be in the middle of many plays. Though Edwards will steal some of Taylor's playing time, when Taylor is in, his speed and instincts will keep him around the ball.
When you can trot out Barnes as the third guy, then you're probably in pretty good shape there. The coaches seem to be recruiting for the Wolf as well. Though he'll probably need to redshirt due to the depth there, Brandon Watts seems like an ideal fit for the position. He was recruited both as a LB and S by teams.
As much as I like guys like Cooper Taylor, the star and leader of the linebackers lives in the middle - Brad Jefferson. Coach Johnson sited him when listing team leaders. The team took a big hit when he missed games last year due to an arm injury. In a tight game versus Virginia Tech, he could have made the difference. Hopefully he'll be healthy and on the field this year when Tech unseats VT as Coastal Division Champs. Jefferson's injury kept him out of four games and out of the starting lineup for a while even when he returned indicating that he needed time to get back to 100%. He's there now and can be a real star in this defense.
Jefferson is also the emotional leader on the linebacker corp and the defense as a whole. After listening to him talk you can hear the passion in which he approaches the game and he make you want to follow him into the trenches as well. "I just want to see everybody flying to the ball", Brad told GoJackets.com's Jared Kimmel during spring. "As a leader of the defense, I try to do my best to get them riled up and get everybody excited. We play at our best when we're excited and just running to the ball – everybody to the ball. Eleven hats on the ball."
Beyond Jefferson, the middle linebacker position gets to looking like more of a concern. When healthy, Kyle Jackson is a good backup to Brad. He proved it in his starts last season when Brad had to miss time. The big question is, will he be ready for the season and how close can he get to being 100% again. When talking about Kyle's foot injury and if Jackson would be ready for the start of camp, Coach Paul Johnson said, "It doesn't look good right now. That's the one guy that doesn't look good. He'll be going to see a specialist on Thursday (July 23rd). As of right now, we won't bring him into camp."
Following Jackson, B.J. Machen fills out the depth chart. There have been good reports on B.J., but you really don't know for sure what you have in a redshirt freshman until you see him with the increased reps and how he handles the situation. So, keeping Jefferson healthy would appear to be an important factor for the Tech defense this coming season.
The Will position is another that is beginning to look pretty solidly filled with good players and good depth. The weak side backer plays closer to the line of scrimmage and is less likely to get into pass coverage and more likely to be included on blitz packages.
Sedric Griffin, the starter, entertains fans with bone-crushing hits. He's not the tallest guy but he's really put together and is a punishing tackler. My defensive breakout player of the year is currently behind Griffin - Steven Sylvester. Sylvester is a rising star and the coaches will find ways to get him onto the field. I predict he'll log starter-type minutes this season from being rotated in. He has the size to help out in the middle and the speed to play on the outside.
Malcolm Munroe is another interesting piece of the puzzle, from the same LB class as Sylvester and Machen. Like B.J., he took a redshirt and didn't receive many reps last fall. He was in the mix more this spring and seems like he'll make for a solid contributor. His playing time will come along slowly at first but he could figure into the mix later on in the season.
Finally, the name Johnson has been very good for Tech in recent years, but there may soon be another name to attach to GT success with a second talented "Burnett". Julian Burnett has received early praise from coaches as a guy who appears physically ready for college football. Julian received a mild amount of hype in last year's recruiting class, but he could turn out to be a very good player - and I predict he will. Since there is some depth at LB currently, it may be tougher to get a freshman on the field right away but any sort of injuries to the current group and Julian could get a look if he gets off to a fast start in early practices. He's one I'm told will be worth keeping an eye on.
As a last note, both Albert Rocker and Osahon Tongo were in the pre-spring LB report but both have been moved to the defensive line.
Overall, it is a solid linebacker grouping and one that has better depth than it has in past years. There isn't a national or conference star in the group like we've seen at other positions with names like Nesbitt, Dwyer, or Burnett in the position reports to date, but Jefferson could step into a bigger spotlight if he remains healthy for a season. This is a group that will play with emotion and fly around the ball. It's a lunch pail kind of group that will be what fans want to see - lots of effort and hard hits.