BF.C Fall Camp Preview: LINEBACKER

CORVALLIS -- Oregon State has linebacker depth headed into fall camp. They also have a number of very speedy players who can line up back in the box. But do they have the size and mass to better stop the run this season? A lengthy, comprehensive analysis of all things linebacker, in this black and orange fall camp preview from BF.C...

Michael Doctor - (6-0, 223) Junior standing – Played in all 12 games last year starting in all but one. Connected for 78 tackles (40 assisted) four of which went for a loss (totaling 26 yards) – Doctor also posted two and a half sacks, two interceptions, and a fumble recovery. Look for him to progress already imposing talents this fall camp and season. Doctor is fast – really fast. He has speed/agility comparable to that of many defensive backs in the conference and hits like a ton of bricks to boot. He figures to have a star next to his name in Mark Bankers playbook.

D.J. Welch - (6-2, 225) Sophomore standing – Played in ten games last season notching 18 tackles (eight assisted) and one tackle for a loss of two yards. The coaching staff is really high on Welch, and it is not to difficult to see why. Welch displays quick feet and has more energy than Pacific Power. He is aggressive, sometimes to a fault – but if he can reign in his thirst to always make that big hit and focus on the accuracy of his hits, he will excel under Bray and Banker.

Feti Unga - (6-1, 248) Senior standing – Showed solid improvement in his game this past season when he posted 67 tackles (46 assisted) as well as three tackles behind the line and a sack. Unga has accumulated 99 tackles (61 assisted) and two sacks. Returning starter in the middle for the linebacker corps, although the possibility exists he could see competition from Doctor at MIK in fall camp. Unga is very physical and more than capable of plugging holes in the line to help stop the run.

Rueben Robinson - (6-3, 235) Senior standing – Has slowly progressed up the ranks of the defense since his induction to the team in 2009. Since then, Robinson has seen starts at every linebacker position and has recorded a career total 85 tackles (54 assisted), three tackles for a loss and two pass deflections. He has the most time spent within the program, and Coaches Bray and Banker both noted his significant progress heading into the spring. He looks to again battle for a starting spot, and the coaching staff have him keyed in on the strongside, where his size will aid in a variety of blitz packages.

Shaydon Akuna - (6-2, 245) Sophomore standing – Played in two games last season (Wisconsin, BYU) but suffered a concussion against BYU and effectively missed the final six games. Akuna looked good in the spring and hopes to contend in the mix at (likely) the WIL linebacker spot when fall camp kicks off Monday.

Jaswha James - (6-1, 247) Redshirt freshman – played on the scout team in 2011 where he impressed Banker as well as his fellow teammates. He hopes to take a shot at the starting middle linebacker position this fall camp.

Jabral Johnson - (6-0, 234) Sophomore standing – Accumulated five tackles last season, two of which were assisted. He played in nine games total and looks to make a solid impact in the fall and push for playing time. Could see special teams play as well.

Josh Williams - (6-0, 239) Sophomore standing – Was one of the ten true freshman that played for OSU last season (played in four games). Recorded four tackles, three of them assisted. Shows potential if he can anticipate the run with more proficiency – Hard hitter and he has a fair knowledge of both the outside and middle linebacker positions.

Joel Skotte - (6-2, 235) Freshman standing – Newcomer who could be one of the larger and more physical guys manning the corps under GA Trent Bray. Skotte, a former running back, possesses a good skill set and ideal upper body strength to break blocks and slip into the backfield.

Dyllon Mafi - (6-2, 220) Junior standing – Not much is known about Mafi. Has no recorded stats with the team – but comes out of Laney Community College with the hope of making an impact on the defense during the fall.

Rommel Mageo - (6-2, 221) Freshman – Comes out of America Samoa with five years of football experience underneath his belt. Looks to battle for the outside linebacker position.

Kyle Gardner - (5-10, 225) Redshirt freshman – Walk on backer in September 2011. Injured his foot in the middle of last season, and sat out the rest of the year. Look for him on special teams.

Charlie Gilmur - (6-1, 228) Junior standing – Walk-on backer as of 2010. Gilmur is likely to have a big impact on special teams. He is pretty quick for a linebacker, and showed up with some big hits in the spring - can be an invaluable special teams weapon.

Caleb Saulo - (6-1, 215) Freshman standing – A promising athlete. Will likely start off on special teams with the slight chance that he sees some early playing time during the regular season.

Cade Cowdin - Retired
Zeke Sanders - Retired
Will Storey - Retired

The Good: The linebackers do have depth, though not all is experienced. Even with the departure of two junior backers and a redshirt freshman, the squad under Bray is still stacked with 14 players. Not only does that bode well in terms of keeping some of the more experienced players rested when it comes game day, but it also could translate into a really rock solid special teams unit seeing as how a lot of these guys should moonlight against the kick return.

The coaching staff has defined speed as its focus on defense, and this group of linebackers embodies that vision. They are relatively lightweight as a unit, which makes them very speedy and more apt to run interference in the zone against the screen pass and slant packages. In theory, one doesn't have to worry about breaking a block if they can just run right past it.

Experience – Doctor (JR), Robinson(SR) and Unga(SR) are three who have it. The trio is likely to factor heavily into the defense scheme during fall camp right onto Sept. 1. Robinson's collective growth within the program gives him a deep understanding of exactly what the coaches expect from a player in every class. Last spring, Bray mentioned praised Robinson in terms of raw talent mixed with impressive knowledge of the game. And while Robinson may not exactly fit into that mold of the prototypical lighting quick blitzing linebacker (Robinson is also the tallest player in the company), he is an astute player who can bring down a ball carrier with ease and plug up the running lanes against some of the bigger offensive linemen and fullbacks in the Pac-12.

Doctor is dynamic, his play exudes confidence. He is not the biggest guy on the field, in fact, he is comparatively small when contrasted with most starting linebackers in the conference. But he compensates for it with agility, and makes himself a lot bigger on the field than his measurements indicate - an observation evidenced by his two interceptions as a starter on the outside last season. Skilled when it comes to covering the pass game, a talent many backers struggle to hone at the collegiate level. Awareness, quick feet, and the runner up for most tackles last season, look for Doctor to impress throughout the fall.

Welch is someone to keep an eye on. He is one of the most aggressive linebackers in the squad, and will act as a nice complement to both d-ends Dylan Wynn and Scott Crichton coming off the edge on the blitz. Another player under Banker that displays abnormal speed considering what his position calls for. Being normal isn't going to win games for the Beavers though. The No. 1 strongside linebacker on the depth chart headed into fall camp.

James and Johnson should also be on the watch list, and are two of the two heaviest guys in the group. Their best attribute is stopping the run. The thing that James and Johnson bring to the defense is the ability to get off the blocks -- James, well he just runs right straight through/over them, but Johnson has a good swim move and he is agile. Both of them should get a fair amount of looks in camp.

Last but not least – Trent Bray. He played at OSU and served as LBs coach under Dennis Erickson at ASU for a few seasons. As the linebackers coach at OSU (but under a graduate assistant title), he's not very far removed from his playing days. He is very energetic and just as likely to tell a player how to run a route as he is to show them. When a coach is capable of actually demonstrating a move/route/blitz to a player, it can bring a whole new dimension to the learning process and allows for coaches and players to pinpoint exactly what works and what doesn't.

The Bad: You oftentimes live and die by the blitz on defense. Frankly, with the exception of Doctor, the linebacker corps demonstrated this spring that they need improvement dropping back in pass coverage. While the collective agility of the backers is to be commended, too much speed can be highly detrimental if it's not speed used effectively, especially when blitzing heavily. Therein lies the weakness going into the fall session. With undisciplined speed comes the potential to overrun targets and allow big gains on draw and sweep maneuvers.

In that same vein, awareness can always be improved upon. Not to say it's overly lacking in Bray's unit, but the group is young and generally inexperienced with a few exceptions. Nine of the 14 ‘backers on the depth chart are freshmen or sophomores. And the group as a whole, including the returning seniors and juniors, weren't at a high enough level in play action scenarios this spring. Will this remain a concern for the Beavers during fall camp?

Size can matter, especially when it comes to stopping the run. The '12 defensive line for the Beavers is not optimally built for stuffing the run up the middle. Only three of the players auditioning for a linebacker spot this fall tip the scales at more than 240 pounds - And while James and Robinson showed hints of being able to get off blocks from opposing linemen, that was not the case for the majority of the corps. Sacrificing size for speed could come back to haunt the Beavers against some of the more dominant rushing programs in the conference, (Oregon specifically).

Unga is a good player – he is a big, aggressive guy who can tackle. But in the spring, he lacked the agility and awareness to stop a lot of easy passes over the middle, especially in play action. This calls into question – was that an anomaly or will someone rise up and make a strong bid at MIK by the end of fall camp? There are a few players capable of holding the position, and it might be a battle all the way up to the first game.

Keep your eyes peeled: Doctor is going to turn some heads if he can find a happy medium between the tortoise and hare mentalities. He is genuinely fast as a ‘backer, a skill they haven't figured out a way to teach. And while he could use some bulking up, he is more than capable of holding his own from just about any angle and slot. He has soft hands too, a rare quality in a linebacker. Look for him – potentially – to provide some competition with Unga for the starting spot in the middle.

The Question: Will the speed-over-size approach prove positive for Banker's defense? There are a variety of arguments for the importance of both, and each approach offers benefits that the other ultimately lacks.

Intangibles and Final Thoughts: Without being able to see the offseason progress made yet, it is tough to really say whether or not this linebacker group will be as effective as some hope. TRiley and crew have been adamant about stopping the run on defense – and without big, precise tacklers crashing the line, a lot of the run stopping could still fall to the secondary, and that inevitably results in all types of problems.

Cowdin's retirement is a dent to the linebacker corps, and the same can be said for Sanders. Cowdin looked good in spring and received accolades from both Bray and Banker.

On the whole, OSU has some downright talented players at the linebacker position, Doctor, Robinson and Unga are all leaders and Welch is becoming one. There really is no measure on how valuable a LB is who can also make plays in the secondary -- look for Doctor to be that player. He is durable, swift on his feet, capable of big hits and talented in zone coverage.

Robinson and Unga will need to dedicate significant practice time to jumping the run and keeping up with backs running along the edge if they're to have banner seasons. Neither one possesses the best lateral speed, and that can burn a defense in the Pac-12. Unga is a very talented athlete, but occasionally aggressive to a fault and can lose track of the ball carrier. On a positive note, the unit displayed high levels of endurance over the spring.

Look for this group to be pushed to their limits and fall camp almost always holds surprises in terms of who comes out on top at the end of the day.

Predictions: Doctor (80 tackles, four go for a loss, one sack and two interceptions)

Unga (56 tackles, three for a loss, three sacks, no picks)

Welch (41 tackles, one for a loss, one pick and a sack)

Robinson (31 tackles, one for a loss, two sacks, no picks).

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