With that in mind, and our determination to bring a fresh approach to an age old preseason football magazine chore of previewing a team position by position, we are going to preview the 2009 Cowboys by presenting two scenarios at each position. There will be the best-case scenario in which the team deals with no injuries and no drop-off in production from last season at each position, and what that position can contribute to the season. Then we will follow the best case scenario with what we call the fire-drill scenario. This will present potential catastrophic problems and what can be done and which players could step up to keep the team going and the excitement from the preseason prognostications of an epic campaign alive.
Obviously, we are rooting for the best case scenario but head coach Mike Gundy will be the first one to tell you that in the course of a college football season – especially one where a team plays a schedule with six likely opponents in the Top 25, seven teams that went to bowl games in 2008, and the ultra-rugged Big 12 South – there are always pitfalls and adversity, most in the form of injuries. You have to have a team that is ready to execute a fire drill and get it right.
42-Justin Gent, 6-2, 229, Jr., Irving (MacArthur), Texas
49-Kenny Alexander, 6-1, 215, So., McKinney (North), Texas
33-LeRon Furr, 6-3, 220, Fr., Columbus (Carver), Ga.
47-Colton Richardson, 6-3, 215, Fr., Ada, Okla.
44-Donald Booker, 5-11, 232, Sr., Houston (Klein Forest), Texas/Navarro J.C., Texas
59-Tolu Moala, 6-0, 229, Jr., Inglewood, Calf.,/El Camino C.C., Calif.
55-Jordan Barnes, 6-1, 220, Fr., Fort Wayne (Homestead), Ind.
22-James Thomas, 6-0, 195, So., LaMarque, Texas
24-Deron Fontenot, 5-9, 201, So., Grand Prairie (South Grand Prairie), Texas
48-Tyler Fields, 5-11, 201, Fr., Hugo, Okla.
Three senior starters and a lot of young and incoming talent make the linebacker position much more pleasant to analyze these days. Even going into the spring there were some doubts about how good this group could be, but the spring erased many doubts and replaced them with expectations.
Best Case: It looks good if everything we saw in the spring holds up and a couple of the freshmen like Jordan Barnes and LeRon Furr report and show that they can provide depth. There is not an absence of depth at the position, but you are always asking average players to become good, good players to become very good, and very good players to become great. Defensive coordinator Bill Young has done that with addition by subtraction in the playbook.
"He's letting us play, taking what we already know and just improving it," said star linebacker James Thomas. "As you can see on the field it is working."
Added middle linebacker Orie Lemon, "He's just taken what we already know and made it easier for us to be out there and not have to think about everything. Simplify and go out there and play, that's what we do."
"I'm for the defense," said head coach Mike Gundy, who was complimentary of the defenders throughout the spring. "I'm for them shutting us out in every practice."
At the star linebacker Andre Sexton has been good. As a senior he needs to become even better, and he found out in the spring that James Thomas is ready to push him and Deron Fontenot is eager to get on the field.
Lemon continued his progress at middle linebacker and played well in the spring with pressure coming from fellow senior Donald Booker, who has benefited from Young's simplifying the playbook. Booker is a big hitter who when he is in the right place can create massive havoc for an opposing offense. He'll cause offensive players to see ghosts. Tolus Moala, who has great bloodlines, is also a player that can help in the middle.
Patrick Lavine is a four-year starter and much is expected out of him this fall. Like the other linebacker positions there is experienced depth with Justin Gent, who showed this spring that he is getting impatient for more playing time, and Kenny Alexander.
"We are working hard as a staff and trying to decide who plays where and what fits their talents," said Young. "What we are trying to do also is role play individuals and try to put them in situations where one guy may be better playing the run than the pass, and the other guy may be better against the pass. We will try to do that also. We will have two people playing one position, but you still have to be able to back up at the other position. That has worked well."
The best case is the Cowboys stay healthy at linebacker and allow the younger players to come along with some reps throughout the season because next year the position will turn over.
Fire Drill: It is pretty simple here as there are plenty of players. The linebacker position will turn over next season as there are senior starters at all three spots and a senior backup in the middle. Injuries to the starters will kick start that process a season earlier. The backups are all experienced so there won't be as much concern with putting them out on the field.
The new recruiting class also includes some very talented linebackers that physically should be close to being ready to compete. A rash of injuries could create an opening for the most eager of those freshmen to jump in and play some. This is a position where a freshman or two are expected to play some.