By the end of spring training, the numbers were down due to injury – one a crusher - but Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Tyrone Nix still believes the LBs can be salty.
"Overall, the linebacker unit improved a lot. They showed good intensity, they are bigger and they are fast," Nix declared. "I think we are going to be strong at the point of contact – we were knocking people back more this spring than last spring.
"Certainly, the devastating injury to D.T. Shackelford is a major setback – he was our leader and he was making a lot of plays – but I think we have guys who will step up and perform. I think they will bond and come out at the other end as a good unit."
At Will, where D.T. was, the void at the end of spring was being filled by Mike Marry, who was the middle linebacker until Shackerlford's knee injury. For the purpose of this article, Nix put him at Will but he said Marry could move back inside in the fall depending on who has progressed and who is available.
"We have all our linebackers learn every LB position just for this reason – someone gets hurt and the next best has to jump in there," he explained. "We are blessed with some smart, versatile LBs. Marry is very intelligent. He brings knowledge and toughness to the table. He's a big kid who has also shown some potential to lead. I want him to get a little lighter on his feet, but he quietly made plays in spring training. I liked what he did."
Rudy Wilson, Will Martin and Ryan Collins round out the Will slot.
"Rudy is our fastest LB. He's a 4.5 40 guy. I think there are situations where he can help us – some in man coverage and some in pressure packages," Nix allowed. "Will was hurt most of spring. He has size and he knows the system. I just need to see more of him. I am anxious to see him in spring.
"Ryan is a try-hard kid we are glad we have. He will help on the scout team."
In the middle, with Marry moved outside for the time being, one of the pleasant surprises of spring – Ralph Williams – gets the nod.
"Josh Lancaster, who we call St. Paul, is a walkon who has been here. He's small in stature but he packs a punch. I love his attitude. Nick Eley was a defensive lineman last year and he's moved to LB. He's a big kid who is learning the ropes."
At Sam, Joel Kight was having a "great" spring, but a knee injury knocked him out of the picture and opened the door for Clarence Jackson, perhaps the best athlete of the bunch.
"Joel was having an outstanding spring before his injury. He was playing faster, mentally and physically, and he was making a lot of plays," Nix said. "When he got hurt, ‘Jack' took over and came up with an outstanding spring as well. I tell you, it was really a tossup as to who made the most impact between those two during spring. Clarence is a productive playmaker and showed signs of being the real deal. I'm going to put our best 11 on the field next year and I think he's probably one of them right now."
Sam Noblin converted from safety to linebacker and drew Nix's eye in spring.
"Sam got better and better in the transition. He has range, he's intelligent and he's made a smooth move from safety to linebacker," Nix assessed. "He's still learning and growing, but I think he has a future. I want to see him keep working in the weight room, but I like Sam and the way he approaches the game."
Nix gave a brief recap of the defensive front and the secondary to go along with his linebacker evaluation.
"Our defensive line was besieged by injury this spring, but even before the injury bug hit it appeared our young guys are going to play an important role. To be all they can be, they need a big summer on and off the field, but I am very happy with where they are," Nix said. "You never want injuries, but it afforded the young guys a chance to get better in their development.
"They showed a hunger to me and it was fun to watch them grow. They worked hard and they are coming together as a unit. All they need to do is keep maturing and getting stronger."
Nix also saw good things develop in the secondary.
"The biggest thing I saw was more confidence, which resulted in better coverage," he said. "Getting Wesley Pendleton in here helped with that. I think we are going to be a faster unit and will be better in man coverage. They got better and better and I credit most of that to Coach (Keith) Burns. He's outstanding and the kids have bought into what he's teaching them."
Bottom Line: The LBs were dealt a bad blow with D.T.'s injury, but they will survive and thrive because there is more talent – even though it's young – than last year in that group. Defensively, the Rebs are playing better as a unit and that has produced a faster look to their attack. Nix stressed doing the little things right and they are following that instruction, which has resulted in better production this spring. It's also obvious there are no individuals on the unit and they are all playing within the framework of the scheme. The addition of Burns has been a major plus – already – as well. Frankly, the defense has been one of the surprises of the spring, in our estimation, despite numerous injuries to key personnel. It should get real interesting in fall when most are healthy and ready to go again.
Next Up: The Secondary.