What we've learned from spring: OSU LBs

CORVALLIS – Depth was not an issue for the Oregon State linebacker platoon this spring. It goes without saying that Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander are the big kahunas, but where do some of the younger guys fit in? And is there a clear-cut favorite at the middle linebacker position?

Defensive coordinator Mark Banker and linebackers coach Trent Bray ended the spring essentially with 11 guys looking to fill six spots in the two deeps. And while there are some clear cut starters, there remains competition that could spice things up.

The Veterans
The doctor is in. SAM Michael Doctor is probably the best all-around weapon Bray has at his disposal at this juncture. Doctor is the complete package, despite being the second lightest guy in the OSU ‘backer corps, standing at 6-0, 225. Doctor and D.J. Alexander spent a lot of time trading SAM and WILL responsibilities, and Doctor typically excelled in his handling of each position. Doctor was as fast as ever, and it looks like he has added some muscle to his frame, indicating that it may not be too much of a stretch to assume Doctor will be walloping a few guys a bit harder in the fall. The senior is physically talented but to me, his most notable trait is not among the measurables. Doctor is a leader – a calm, fairly quiet powerhouse that knows OSU's defensive schemes like the back of his hand. As a result, he adds some needed stability to the linebacker unit.

Alexander is fast, agile, smart on his feet and a very capable pass defender. Alexander has packed on some weight as well, but not the point where it interferes with his physical attributes. The junior WILL logged a strong spring session, characterized by his ability to establish quick pressure against the QB or get a hand in the tailback before they zip out of the backfield. Alexander did struggle here and there over the spring, mostly when it came to defending tight ends – he just isn't the best zone defender, often playing a bit shallow in his coverage areas and allowing taller targets such as Caleb Smith and Connor Hamlett to snag a big gain over the top. Man-on-man assignments are more up his alley, as they allow him to focus on one guy and use his speed. All in all, Alexander has honed his speed and fashioned it into a weapon for closing out plays along the sideline and being a disruptive force against the aerial and ground attack, he just needs to fine tune a few things heading into fall.

Jabral Johnson and Josh Williams came out of the spring with the backup roles pretty well in hand. Johnson spent a good portion of the spring as a second to Alexander and saw his fair share of looks as the WILL when the situation called for it. The junior is a capable defender with decent speed and a big frame - he needs to work on identifying offensive schemes and adjusting accordingly. Johnson and Trent Bray had a lot of communication with one another toward the end of spring, discussing proper positioning when defending against the pass, and taking the right angle when facing a run. He's a solid No.2 guy as far as I am concerned.

According to Mike Riley, Williams is the guy giving Joel Skotte some competition for that MIK slot. Williams commanded the 2's pretty well in April, and he has got a build similar to Feti Unga which in my eyes makes him a more appealing run-stopping option than Skotte. But that's just it – Williams is a great guy to have in the middle due to his size and subsequent tendency to plug up running lanes with ease, but his pass defense is lacking. At this stage, Williams has at least secured a spot as the back-up at MIK and there is no telling what fall could bring. With a little work on his coverage habits the junior could blossom into one heck of an option in the middle of that linebacker platoon.

Dyllon Mafi, as well as Charlie Gilmur, saw their roles expand very little during the spring. Both players are seniors but both were mostly relegated to seeing limited time on the scout team. Spring ball for these two lent itself to the notion that they may see some time as special teams' guys, but beyond that I am not expecting much.

The Young Guys
Skotte may very well benefit from the spirited competition he is likely to receive from Josh Williams in the ensuing months. Skotte is the favorite for a starting gig as the middle linebacker, but he is young, smaller than the usual Beaver MIK (6-2, 229) and relatively inexperienced at such an important role in the OSU defense. Still, it is not entirely difficult to see why Skotte has earned the favor of Bray and Riley – he is very quick, has good vision when dropping back in coverage and he has a knack for slipping through the line and making plays that result in negative yards. Perhaps that is where Skotte and the older, larger Williams differentiate the most. Whereas Williams is a good call for plugging up the running lanes and making sure the middle of the D-line isn't too vulnerable, Skotte actually bolts through the running lanes and makes big stops that get his fellow defenders pumped up. Skotte is quicker, and a more adept pass defender in the middle of the field. He drops back into coverage faster than Williams, and exhibited that he was better at defending short pass plays this spring. Skotte should get the go ahead as far as fall as concerned, but to do not count Williams out just yet.

Caleb Saulo is another guy to keep an eye on. The players that saw the most time with the 2's this spring were Saulo, Johnson and Williams – and they appeared to work quite well as a unit. Saulo (6-1, 224 RS FR) is the lightest ‘backer OSU has in the depth chart right now, as well as one of the fastest. The best observation of Saulo at this stage is that he is ‘a great fit' considering OSU's recent approach to the linebacker group -- and the defense as a whole -- is predicated on speed and agility. Saulo was an adequate pass defender and run stopper this spring when projected to Pac-12 standards -- and that is a lot more than most redshirt freshman ‘backers can say after just over a year with the program.

Jaswha James, as well as Kyle Gardner, have yet to really jump out at me. This duo of redshirt sophomores spent a fair amount of time as casual observers on the sideline, with James occasionally getting a call in to run a play or two with the second string backers and Gardener finding himself running with the scout team. James (6-2, 231) has a slightly higher athletic ceiling than Gardener (5-11, 228), but Gardener started to show toward the end of spring camp that he was figuring out how to use his shorter stature to his advantage in terms of getting pressure and finding room to maneuver through opposing offensive lines.

Rommel Mageo – I still have pretty high hopes for him but he didn't make a lasting impression this spring. Call me a harsh judge of talent. And it's certainly possible the redshirt freshman from Pago Pago just hasn't hit his stride in the OSU defensive schemes yet. There could be a reason for that however, one that might be outside the sphere of Mageo's control. He is a big guy (6-2, 242) trying to squeeze into a speedy defensive game. ‘The faster, the better..' is the type of ‘backer who routinely excels in a Mark Banker defense and Trent Bray has been coaching according to that philosophy. Mageo's large frame is less conducive to the system he is a part of. The fact is that he is quick enough with his directional speed, but lacks the agility necessary to make a huge impact at any position other than perhaps the MIK, where Skotte and Williams are the frontrunners. It will be interesting to see where Mageo lands come August.


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