As we continue to meander through the final stages of our series on the Oklahoma State football squad coming out of the spring, we move to linebacker, which may be the most incomplete position coming out of spring and heading into the summer months. Not incomplete in the vein of knowing who the players really are and who is going to start, but incomplete in that so many linebackers missed part of or all of the spring because of injuries.
It was by far the most crippled position of the spring as even defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Glenn Spencer wondered going into the spring game if he would have enough linebackers to line up with, much less enough talent to properly fortify the front line and give a reasonable defensive look to the offenses on both the Orange and Black squads. It was close but it turned out all right.
Spencer had less questions to get answered in the spring, so the injuries may have worked in favor of the Oklahoma State defense in some of the reserve players ended up with more reps. A player like Devante Averette, who will play a lot, also got more reps with nobody to share his spot with. There was also the factor that starting "star" or hybrid linebacker Jordan Burton was out for the spring and that allowed redshirt freshman Kevin Henry, the promising prospect from Baton Rouge, La., and newly moved to the position from safety in Kenneth Edison-McGruder more reps with the first team. Both players took a big jump up in development at the position.
A bonus was that while he did not take a lot of full team and full speed reps, middle linebacker and likely defensive quarterback Chad Whitener was out there and was in that leadership capacity throughout the spring. The key is getting back the established starters for next season and having a young group of linebackers ready that provide the kind of depth it takes defense in the Big 12.
Here's a look at all the returning linebackers and how they came out of the spring:
9 Gyasi Akem, WLB, 6-2, 230, Jr., Broken Arrow, Okla.
Once a "star" linebacker, Akem now weighs 230 pounds and has moved to the weak-side position. He had a solid spring and is progressing toward being trusted with the responsibilities there. Akem is an edgy player and that shows sometimes even in practice. He is very athletic and if he can avoid taking false steps and poor reads he could be a very productive player for Spencer. He certainly provides experienced depth in the linebacker corps.
19 Justin Phillips, WLB, 6-0, 235, RS-So., Pearland, Texas
Phillips decided to take a redshirt last fall after playing as a true freshman and had a starring role on defense with 10 tackles in the Bedlam win over Oklahoma. He got bigger in the weight room as a redshirt and made a strong return on the field this spring. He is by no means the finished product but a player known for not being shy about being physical. He got a lot of reps to help him with the mental part of the game. I like him a lot and he gets better every day. He is a determined and conscientious player. The kind of player that can shoot up the depth chart for a coordinator like Spencer.
26 Kevin Henry, Star, 6-0, 225, RS-Fr., Baton Rouge (Central), La.
Henry was a redshirt as a freshman but his play on the scout team and in practices during the bowl season identified him as a player that was going to show up quickly and he did. Henry might have earned the award for most improved linebacker, if such an award was given. He got a lot of reps, including first team reps because of injuries and he made the most of it. His volume of plays made increased each week during the spring and in the spring game had two tackles and a forced fumble. Count on Henry to have a heavy role on special teams and see some duty on defense even with the return of Jordan Burton.
40 Devante Averette, WLB, 5-11, 230, RS-Sr., Detroit (Melvindale), Mich./Ellsworth C.C., Iowa
Averette is a determined player who has fought hard to get where he is starting with delaying his college for a year of working a double shift at UPS in Detroit. He followed that with his All-American honors at junior college. He is sometimes doing his own thing and still has times where he needs to make better reads but physically he is very active and is a good player. The reps this spring helped and most of those came with the first team defense. He will be an important player this fall but he needs to continue to strive to recognize more on the practice field and have it translate to the games.
50 Josh Mabin, MLB, 6-1, 240, RS-So, Houston (Klein Oak), Texas
Mabin missed his freshman season due to an injury but played last season and is now looking more and more like the compliment to Chad Whitener at middle linebacker. Mabin is a talented player who was able to get a lot of reps in the spring, and because of that improved. He is a physical player that had five tackles in the spring game and is making steady progress.
23 Kenneth Edison-McGruder, Star, 6-0, 215, So., Alief (Taylor), Texas
During the spring the move was made to put Edison-McGruder at the star linebacker position after he had played well last season as a true freshman at safety. He is a big, physical safety and with the addition of senior Derrick Moncrief at safety it gave the coaching staff the opportunity to see what Edison-McGruder would look like at the star. Along with Kevin Henry, the duo held down the position quite well. He can cover well for the star and is also more than comfortable attacking the backfield and rushing a quarterback. He is also a really smart player, ahead of his years, and that is important at the star position. The spot is loaded for next year but should stay that way even after the graduation of Jordan Burton.
44 Nate Christmon, WLB, 5-11, 210, RS-Fr., Midwest City (Carl Albert), Okla.
He's a talented walk-on that has a chance to help especially on special teams. His dad played with Mike Gundy at Midwest City when the two were in high school.
51 Melvin Gilliam, WLB, 5-8, 215, RS-Jr., Tulsa (Booker T. Washington), Okla.
Yes, he is the son of former Oklahoma State safety Melvin Gilliam. He got a lot of reps in the spring.
Injured Linebackers in the Spring
12 Kirk Tucker, Star, 6-1, 200, Jr., Tucker, Ga.
Sat out all of the spring but having as much experience as he does should get right back into the flow of things during the summer.
20 Jordan Burton, Star, 6-2, 215, RS-Sr., Longview, Texas/Stephen F. Austin Univ./Kilgore C.C.
Had post-season surgery and sat out the spring but he is the unquestioned starter at the star and had a strong season in 2015. He will now have two young players to groom behind him in Kenneth Edison-McGruder and Kevin Henry.
45 Chad Whitener, MLB, 6-0, 248, Jr., Mansfield, Texas/California
The bonus with the returning starting middle linebacker is that he was on the practice field for most of the non-contact work and was able to take reps and continue to work on recognition and his leadership and operation on the defense as a primary leader and communicator. He will be fine for the summer and the start of fall camp.
47 Brian Ciznewski, WLB, 5-11, 225, RS-So., Flower Mound (Marcus), Texas
He's a walk-on that missed most of the spring but will be back for the summer and for the 2016 season.