Going into 2008, the Missouri Tigers had a lack of depth at the linebacker position despite returning all three starters. The situation was made worse when injuries to Van Alexander (knee) and Andrew Gachkar (blood clot) put their seasons in jeopardy.
Just one short year later, the Tigers seem to have an abundance of options to fill out the linebacker unit. Returning to anchor the unit is first-team All-Big XII honoree Sean Weatherspoon. The once lightly-recruited linebacker from Jasper, TX recorded 155 tackles, five sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2008.
His play last season led to speculation that Weatherspoon may forego his senior season to enter the NFL draft. Instead, Weatherspoon will try to lead a historic turnaround in the Missouri defense while improving on the third-round grade that was given to him by the NFL draft advisory board.
Backing up Weatherspoon will likely be junior Andrew Gachkar. Gachkar battled through a large blood clot on the right side of his chest leading into the 2008 season.
After two surgeries, three weeks in the hospital and one less rib, Gachkar returned to the practice field and eventually the game field. Throughout the process, Gachkar's weight dropped from above 220 pounds to below 200. Now that he has had a year to recover and train, Gachkar should return to the disruptive force he was on special teams during the 2007 season.
For the past two years Weatherspoon has lined up to next to Brock Christopher on nearly every defensive snap. With Christopher graduated, the middle linebacker duties will likely fall to junior Josh Tatum or sophomore Will Ebner.
Tatum, the former University of Southern California recruit, comes to Columbia with a lot of hype as fans hope for a stronger defensive unit in 2009. Tatum, who measures in at 6'0", 240 lbs., led his San Francisco City College team with 120 tackles in 2008 in addition to recording seven sacks. Those numbers combined with his 4.44 forty speed are what make Missouri fans so excited to see Tatum in action alongside Weatherspoon.
However, Missouri sophomore Will Ebner might have something to say about Tatum coming in and taking over the middle linebacker spot. Ebner showed flashes of brilliance as a true freshman as he registered 21 tackles and showed a great nose for the ball on special teams. The key for Ebner to win the job over Tatum will be to defend the pass as well as he attacks the run.
The third starting spot appears to be Luke Lambert's to lose. Lambert started every game for the Tigers last season and managed 58 tackles, one sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. As Missouri progressed through Big XII play last season and faced the vaunted spread offenses that permeate the conference, the Tiger defense gradually played out of the nickel more, which left Lambert on the sidelines.
Battling to back-up Lambert will be junior Jeff Gettys and redshirt sophomore Tyler Crane. Gettys is a walk-on from Houston, MO who has made his mark on special teams for the Tigers. Crane, an Allen, TX native, made the move to linebacker from defensive end after his freshman year and should be ready to contribute in 2009.
Wilson, whose father Jay was a linebacker for the Tigers, recently took home the Buck Buchanon Award as the top large school lineman/linebacker in the Kansas City area.
InsideMizzou's Prediction: By arriving on campus in time for the spring semester, Tatum gains a sufficient knowledge of the defense to earn the starting nod over Ebner. This gives the Tigers a starting linebacker core of Weatherspoon, Tatum and Lambert. Much like last year, Lambert does not see the amount of snaps as the other two linebackers because of the nickel package the Tigers use so frequently. Gachkar and Ebner excel anchoring the kick coverages and Burton has his redshirt burned to help on special teams.