Bloomington – George Ricumstrict's crop of linebackers is a perfect example of the change that's taken place on the IU football team in the last couple of years.
"We're big, we're strong, we're fast, we're athletic, and we have quite a few of them," Ricumstrict said.
Gone are the days having to make due with linebackers who were maybe a bit too small or a bit too young to excel at the Big Ten level. Now, those same players have matured, other talented players have arrived, and IU's linebackers are as talented as they've been at linebacker in years.
Outside linebackers Geno Johnson and Will Patterson are a pair of third-year starters who played a bit undersized as true freshmen, but both are now upperclassmen who weigh at least 235 pounds. In the middle, Matt Mayberry is the biggest of the bunch at 6-2 and 245 pounds, and he's also the fastest as well.
"We can be one of the top groups of linebackers in the Big Ten," Mayberry said. "Ohio State is being talked about as the top, and I know a lot of publications have us fourth or fifth, but I think we can surprise some people."
If Indiana's linebackers do in fact emerge as one of the league's best, it won't be a surprise to Ricumstrict or Coach Bill Lynch. Lynch has singled out the linebackers for their play throughout fall camp and has identified them as perhaps the greatest strength on this year's team.
Each brings something a little different to table, and Mayberry believes it adds up to one of the league's crops of linebackers.
"We each have our unique version of how we play," Mayberry said. "Geno brings the leadership and is really good in coverage. Will can came up and really hit you, and I think I bring the speed. I'll fill the hole and can run, too."
Patterson is coming off a big sophomore season, ranking second on the team with 104 tackles to go along with eight tackles for loss, two sacks, and a team-high three forced fumbles. Johnson, meanwhile, added 58 tackles, three tackles for loss and one interception.
Mayberry, meanwhile, will be the one new face in the starting lineup, replacing Adam McClurg. While McClurg's experience and savvy will be missed, Mayberry's play-making abilities and potential make him a player to watch this fall.
"The difference between Matt and Adam, Matt's probably a lot faster and a lot more physical, and probably more explosive," Ricumstrict said. "Matt brings emotion, he'll bring toughness. We're excited."
The depth at linebacker is another example of the progress that's been made in recent years with the football program. The second unit of Justin Carrington and Darius Johnson at outside linebacker and Tyler Replogle in the middle are all players that Ricumstrict feels comfortable putting on the field this fall.
Replogle was one of two true freshmen to play last season, but had his season cut short by a season-ending knee injury. He's since recovered and has been moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker, a move that Ricumstrict thinks has worked out well.
"He's a natural leader," Ricumstrict said. "He's a very vocal kid, and I think it's a natural fit for him."
While both Replogle and Carrington saw plenty of action last season, the new name on the two deep is Darius Johnson. The redshirt freshman was one of the standouts during spring practice and plays with a physical style that is very similar to that of the man in front of him on the depth chart, Will Patterson.
"He's a physical kid, a 240-pound kid, and he'll hit you," Ricumstrict said. "His pads are always out in front. He'll deliver a blow as opposed to taking one."
It all adds up to more quality depth than Ricumstrict has had in his four years in Bloomington, a group of players that could wind up being the strength of the Hoosiers' defense this fall.
"We hope so," Ricumstrict said. "There are a lot of kids there who have played a lot of football. We're hoping to see the benefits of that this fall."
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Hoosiers Bigger, Better at Linebacker
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