Grades and injuries erased a lot of the veteran depth at the position, and while a total of eight players lined up at the three linebacker positions during the season only four of those were players that had played before at this level. Three in hard-hitting Justin Phillips, Kirk Tucker, and Gyasi Akem were true freshmen and the fourth, who later was done for the season with an injury and missed the early games because of a torn ACL was junior college All-American Devante Averette.
So much was owed to so few, according to Spencer. The few were weak side linebacker Seth Jacobs, who actually lined up at all three positions at various times, veteran middle linebacker and defensive signal caller Ryan Simmons, and super senior transfer Josh Furman, who came from Michigan.
As a group the linebackers accounted for 252 tackles, 32.5 tackles for losses, nine sacks, three interceptions, and three of the nine fumbles forced. That is really good production, albeit from a unit that is supposed to produce. But when you realize that the linebackers had little break and were playing close to 85 to 90 percent of all the snaps -- and Jacobs even higher than that -- then the numbers are even more impressive.
Jacobs did it from the late September on with a shoulder injury that would have ended the season for some players. That shoulder needed surgery at the end of the season, but week in and week out Jacobs wore a green jersey during the week in practice, got treatment, and toughed it out in games.
It was amazing to watch Jacobs as he played at such a high level and finished the season by being named the Defensive Player of the Game in the TicketCity Cactus Bowl.
Simmons also was outstanding. He is a very aggressive player that has developed into a strong leader and student of the game at middle linebacker. He often could be seen moving defensive linemen in front of him into better positions to make plays. His aggressive nature and quickness sometimes caused him to over-run plays but was virtually spot on in his recognition during games.
The star linebacker position really received a boost in the ability to cover in the passing game as Furman, a former safety at Michigan, really excelled in that area. His interception at Kansas helped to seal the victory over the Jayhawks. He also was outstanding as an edge pass rusher with seven sacks and that was good enough to put him in the top five in sacks in the Big 12 at the end of the bowl season.
The bonus of the pups that played this season is the coaching staff found out some about all of them. There is also the advantage of Averette, who is really a good player, and a transfer in Chad Whitener (California) coming back after impressing all fall on the scout team.
Kris Catlin is also back after missing the fall because of academics. He has worked to put himself back on the team. Add to that Josh Mabin, who had to redshirt because of injury, and Spencer may be able to actually redshirt some younger players that have already gained some experience.
That is a great luxury, but the biggest luxury is the return of two starting linebackers in Simmons and Jacobs that could rank among the very best in the Big 12 for 2015.
As an epitaph to the 2014 season the linebackers contributed greatly to the Cowboys being held together during some difficult times as they were playing hard and playing well during the early good times, the middle rough times, and the successful conclusion.