SPRING PREVIEW – LINEBACKING CORPS
This article is the second of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it enters spring camp. The article reviews roster changes and injuries prior to spring camp. The article also identifies issues that need to be addressed in spring practice and can be observed by fans at the practices and scrimmages. I'm previewing the defense first. Part 1 focused upon the DLine. Backstopping the DLine is the LB corps.
For the first time in three years, the LB corps didn't resemble a M*A*S*H unit. After missing 35 of 77 man-games the previous two seasons, the first team LBs on opening day started all but one man-game. Head Coach Greg Schiano was fortunate that his starters stayed healthy because attrition had whittled away his depth. The second team rarely saw action and included two true freshmen. Although healthy, the LBs lacked speed and often played tentatively. Villanova revealed this shortcoming all too clearly in the season opener, stretching the LBs vertically with seams and slants then horizontally with crossing routes, bubble screens, and misdirection runs. Although a lack of foot speed and athleticism were the primary hindrances to performance, the hesitancy that was prevalent in the first two weeks was replaced with more aggressive, if not always affective, play. Schiano must replace the unit's mainstay and leading tackler from the two previous seasons while simultaneously developing depth.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Sr MLB Gary Brackett (12 GS, 130 tackles, 12 TFL, 4 sacks, 1 INT, and 3 FR) is the only player lost of the two-deep. Brackett progressed from walk-on to second team to starter in three seasons. Brackett was a rock at MLB for two seasons. He started every game and was twice voted defensive MVP. Bracked finished second in tackles (92) in 2001 and first in 2002. He led the team in TFLs and sacks both years. Brackett's reliability, toughness, durability, and leadership will be sorely missed.
Schiano also switched former backup WLB Terry Bynes (10 GP, 11 tackles, and 1 FF) to SS.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- RS Sr WLB Brian Bender (12 GS, 77 tackles, 8 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, and 2 FF)
- Sr SLB Brian Hohmann (11 GS, 12 GP, 46 tackles, 5 TFL, and 1 INT)
- So SLB Will Gilkison (1 GS, 11 GP, and 21 tackles)
- RS Jr MLB Jeremy Campbell (9 GP and 14 tackles)
Brian Bender finally shed the injury bug last season. As a freshman, Bender played in 10 games as the backup SLB before suffering an ACL injury at SS in the season finale. He regained his backup SOLB job in 2000, nine months after reconstructive knee surgery, but a shoulder injury in Game 4 cut short his comeback. Bender earned the starting SLB job in 2001 but a neck injury ended his season after Game 3. He received a medical redshirt. Bender switched to WLB after Brad Cunningham unexpectedly quit the team last summer. Bender, whose durability was a major concern, started every game at WLB last season, finishing fourth in tackles and third in TFLs. He is the leading returning tackler among LBs. Although he will enter spring camp as the incumbent starter at WLB, will he be able to hold off the expected challenge from Terry Bynes or William Beckford?
Brian Hohmann was recruited primarily as a long snapper. He lost his long snapper job after a miserable debut against Villanova as a true freshman. Limited only to special teams action during a season in which the LB corps bled itself white, Hohmann appeared to be a write-off destined to never see legitimate playing time with the arrival of a new head coach. However, something funny happened on the way to the scrap heap. Injuries again decimated the starting lineup and created playing time opportunities for the backups. When Brian Bender suffered a season-ending neck injury, Hohmann was the surprise replacement as the starting SLB. Attrition at WLB opened that starting SLB job when Bender switched to WLB last summer. Hohmann again beat the competition and started at SLB, finishing seventh in tackles and fifth in TFLs. Schiano may move Hohmann to MLB to replace Gary Brackett. Will Hohmann hold off the challenge from younger players for his starting job?
Will Gilkison is yet another Schiano recruit who lost a redshirt season while playing primarily on special teams as a true freshman. Attrition at LB enabled Gilkison to earn the backup SLB job behind Brian Hohmann. Yet Gilkison didn't start seeing action at SLB until midseason even though he had been playing all along on special teams. Gilkison started the season finale at SLB. Will Gilkison play at SLB or MLB and will he emerge from spring camp entrenched as a starter?
Jeremy Campbell redshirted as a true freshman. He played in nine games in 2001, primarily behind Gary Brackett as the backup MLB. Attrition whittled the depth of the LB corps that was four-deep one year ago (including incoming freshmen). Campbell won the backup MLB job by default in 2002 but barely played as Brackett rarely left the field. Campbell will be fortunate to maintain his spot on the two-deep through spring camp as younger players push for playing time.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS So Ishmael Medley (11 GP, 8 tackles, and 1 TFL)
- So William Beckford (redshirted)
Ishmael Medley was one of seven freshmen to be redshirted in 2001. Despite severe roster attrition at LB, Medley was unable to break the two-deep last season, being unseated by two true freshmen. If Medley can't break the two-deep in spring camp, he likely will not be a contributor for the rest of his career.
William Beckford was academically ineligible last season. As it was with TB Clarence Pittman the year before, glowing reports emerged of Beckford's play in practice. Spring camp will give Rutgers fans their first glimpse of Beckford with the regulars. How far up the depth chart will he move? How fast? And at what position?
As with the DLine, the performance of the LB corps in spring camp against a suspect offense can hardly be used as a barometer of quality. View the good with some skepticism. Worry about the bad. As also with the DLine, the evolution of the depth chart will be the most telling development of spring camp. LBs can better be judged against peers at the same positions rather than their counterparts on offense. Given the lack of speed at LB last season, the inability of younger, more athletic players to displace slower veterans would be a cause for concern. With nearly the entire two-deep returning, the evolution of the two-deep will be worth watching. Who will end up where? Who will start and who will sub? Of particular interest in the LB corps will be the following:
- Who will replace Gary Brackett as the starting MLB?
- Who will assume Brackett's leadership role?
- Will seniors Brian Bender and Brian Hohmann fend off challenges from second year players for their starting jobs?
- How many second year players seize starting jobs? At what positions?
Coming Next: Part 3 of my Spring Preview. I'll finish the defense with a look at the defensive backfield heading into spring camp.
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