2009 Unit Preview – Linebackers

In this segment of the analysis of the 2009 San Jose State defense, Inside Sparta Associate Editor R.P Cotta, Jr., takes a look at the linebackers.

Linebackers they got.  Plenty of  ‘em - and good ones, too.  Many analysts rank San Jose State's linebacker squad as equal to or better than most in the WAC.  Little wonder. With the likes of Second-Team All-WAC linebacker Justin Cole, last year's leading tackler Travis Jones, and the expected return to action of junior Ryno Gonzalez, Spartan linebackers bring experience, ability, and proven tenacity to the game.  Hey, but that's not the news.
The news is that SJSU seems to be switching from a fairly standard 4 – 3 – 4 defensive alignment to a somewhat exotic 4 - 2 - 5.  That means they will play four down defensive linemen, just two linebackers, and five defensive backs as our basic defensive formation.  More on this below, but for now, the two-deep roster is:

Linebacker No. 1

  1. Justin Cole, SR, 6-foot-3, 240-pounds
  2. Ryno Gonzalez, JR, 6-foot-1, 230-pounds

Linebacker No. 2

  1.  Travis Jones, SR, 6-foot-1, 230-pounds
  2.  Pompey Festejo, JR, 6-foot-0, 215-pounds

Of course, there may be times when the Spartans line up with three linebackers.  In that case, expect to see Ryno Gonzalez at the third position. 

Justin Cole was a Second-Team All-WAC selection in 2008, playing all 12 games, starting 11, registering 23 unassisted and 45 assisted tackles.  He intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown against Boise State.  He got to the quarterback five times, and recovered three fumbles.  He is a big hitter.  Wasn't it Cole who put quite a smack on Toby Gerhart at Stanford last year?  On selected plays, Cole may line up as a fifth down lineman.  If he lines up behind defensive end Carl Ihenacho, their side of the field will be very, very tough to run against.  With a good effort in 2009, Cole will be a First-Team All-WAC selection, and probably the first Spartan taken in the NFL's 2010 draft.

Remember a guy named Matt Castelo?  You know, that plucky Spartan linebacker who turned out to be All-WAC, and led the team with 141 tackles (67 of them solo) in 2007?  Sure you do, how could anyone forget him?  But in 2008, Travis Jones helped ensure SJSU wouldn't miss him, as he led the team with 70 tackles (36 unassisted), three for loss.

Ryno Gonzalez started five of six games his sophomore year (2007), then hurt his foot, and missed the balance of the season, and all of 2008.   In those first six games, he registered 26 tackles (12 unassisted).  Most Spartan fans are looking for Ryno to return to his previous form on the field.

Pompey Festejo, a guy I've had my eye on for a couple of years, is turning out to be a very capable football player, and is ready to take on a bigger role in the defense.  In 2008, he notched 20 unassisted tackles, and added 29 more assisted for a total of 49.

So, not a bad group, don't-cha think?

But SJSU has w-a-a-a-a-y more linebackers than just that.  If one or both don't redshirt, keep your eyes on the "O'Neil Brothers", Kyler O'Neal at 6-foot-0, 213-pounds, and Wade O'Neill, at 6-foot-1, 225-pounds.  Sophomores this season, each saw playing time as freshmen in 2008, and figure to be starters before they finish at SJSU.  Ina Liaina, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound sophomore, is also expected to move from fullback to linebacker for the 2009 campaign.  Others competing for playing time will be seniors John Smith, 6-foot-0, 232-pounds, and Eric Bucholz, at 6-foot-3, 240-pounds, and junior Braden Storaasli, at 6-foot-0, 213-pounds. 

So what's with lining up just two linebackers and five defensive backs in 2009?  At Arizona, Coach Tomey developed the "Desert Swarm" defense.  I've heard him credited with inspiring the spread offense, which was developed to stop his defenses. Is this the Spartan Swarm?

I could be wrong, but it looks like Tomey is building some real flexibility (and stealth) into his defense.  With guys like Duke Ihenacho and Pompey Festejo, SJSU has defenders who are a hybrid-type, between linebacker size and DB size, with good speed.  With five DBs in the game, one or more can line up as a linebacker, blitzes can be launched from anywhere, Justin Cole can line up as a down lineman or at least up on the line.  Opposing quarterbacks may have trouble recognizing all the shifts possible in defensive formations, and opposing linemen may not know how to execute their assignments if Cole suddenly puts himself down on the line.  The defense can be shifted after the opposing offense has taken the line, moving guys up, or over.  What the opposing offense thought would be a favorable match-up with a receiver might be gone.  Routes or plays designed to be run against one set-up may not work against the morphed scheme.  All in all, it can create confusion for our opponents and opportunity for the SJSU defense. 

If this is what Coach Tomey has in mind, this scheme goes beyond mere genius, bordering on the truly diabolical.  I can't wait to see how it works out.  If I'm right, that is.

Unit Grade: B+

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R. P. Cotta, Jr., is an Associate Editor for Inside Sparta. You may contact R.P with any questions, comments, or tips at rpcottajr@insidesparta.com

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