Without a doubt, the resurgence of the Wrecking Crew was due in large part due to the play of the A&M linebacking corps,, which had been sorely absent for the better part of a decade. With help from a highly effective defensive line in 2010, they had a great season disrupting the run, and affecting the passing game, giving the defensive backs an upper-hand for the first time in years. The results were clear in the win column and in the numbers, as the Aggies dramatically improved from 11th to first in the Big 12 in run defense (90th to 30th nationally) from 2009 to 2010, 12th to fifth in total defense (105th to 55th nationally), and 11th to fourth in pass efficiency defense (81st to 29th nationally).
There is no denying the fact that the Aggies lose some key members of the unit.
Von Miller, who will likely be a top-five draft pick, will take his all-American abilities to the NFL. However, the Aggies have several, extremely talented contenders, who are eager to fill his shoes, and prove their worth in the Joker role. At inside linebacker, few predicted Michael Hodges would have been so instrumental in the Aggies' defensive success, but he stepped up to the plate in a big way his senior year, and has left a significant vacancy as well. That said, there are a number of promising candidates looking to take advantage of position openings, and to raise their profiles on the depth chart. While young and inexperienced, A&M boasts more talent, speed, and depth, than they've had at the position since the 1990's and they will need every bit of it as the linebacker group will rely on more of a collective pass rushing approach in the absence of Miller.
In this installment, we'll take a look at the young men who will be fighting for starting jobs, rounding out depth this spring, and take as a brief look ahead to the reinforcements arriving later this summer, giving Coach DeRuyter the weapons he needs in taking the success of 2010 to another level this season.
Locked in at Starter: Outside Linebacker
Last year, Sean Porter readied for his sophomore season by adding about ten pounds, and putting together an excellent spring camp (and off-season), locking down the outside linebacker spot. The results were evident as he put up 74 tackles (up from 42 as a freshman). He's an effective pass rusher, tackles well in space, and is great in coverage, as Tim DeRuyter asserted, he allows the Ag's the luxury to leave base personnel (instead of going to nickel) on the field as he can cover a TE or slot WR. Porter's only notable weakness is size and he's been working hard the last few months, adding some good weight, and seeking to continue his momentum throughout the off-season.
Backing Sean Porter is Charlie Thomas, a guy that fits the mold of the old R.C. Slocum spun down safety. Even after adding 20 pounds last year it only put him up to 210, and while he can still stand to add another ten pounds in order to be an every down linebacker, he is extremely fast off the edge, and his safety background makes him a great option on passing downs (blitzing or coverage). That said he has a good nose for the ball, and the hard hitter is capable in run support. He also gives A&M the equivalent of a safety blitz without sacrificing the numbers. Thomas opened eyes last year in regards to his upside as a pass rush specialist, but never really got a chance to make an impact in 2011. That said he got some good reps and experience in all thirteen games his RS-FR year, and will look to gain some separation and footing for himself on the depth chart, as the Aggie's are beginning to infuse a whole host of upper echelon linebackers into the pack.
Cayleb Russell (who is also listed at Joker) will look to take advantage of the low numbers this spring, and make the most of the work. It also bears mentioning that with highly-rated Shaun Ward expected to contribute immediately in the fall at Joker, the coaches could find use for him on this side of the front, as he can also cover very well, and at the least, will line up on this side in the capacity of A&M's nickel package (like last season when Demontre Moore lined up opposite of Von Miller as double Jokers).
Probable Starter: Joker
Filling Von Miller's shoes will be no easy task. That burden is going to take a team effort from the eight returning starters who now have a year in Coach DeRuyter's system and the familiarity with the defensive coaches. That said, assuming the Joker role could go to Demontre Moore, who proved early last season to have an extremely high upside as a disruptive, game changing force, with a lot of flash off the edge. What's exciting this go round is just how much better Moore is going to be, considering his physical and mental ceiling. With a freshman season under his belt, a full off-season to hone his chops, and a year in Coach Kennedy's strength and conditioning, Moore is set to have a really strong season, and do more than hold his own at Joker. No, Moore is not going to be Von, but with added size and skill, he is going to be a monster off the right edge in his own right as a sophomore. In addition to his size, speed, and burst, he also has the added dimension of an extremely long reach which will serve him well in getting off of blocks and in batting down balls and disrupting (or at least discouraging) screens. It's safe to say, Demontre's development will be closely monitored this spring.
The sole reason Moore is listed as a probable starter (as opposed to locked in starter), is Florida native Shaun Ward, who the Aggies were able to land over the likes of the University of Florida and USC. While he won't arrive until this summer, Ward will compete from day one. Without exaggeration, he possesses a first step and speed comparable to Miller's, good hand technique, and varies his pass rush approach. Shaun can also drop back into coverage, and is solid against the run. In a few months Ward will start his college years with another dynamic pass rusher, Brandon Alexander out of Brenham. Alexander may very well grow into defensive end, but until then will bring is speed, and considerable talents to the fray at Joker.
In the meantime, Cayleb Russell and Andrew Weaver will look to make a statement and take advantage of the opportunity at hand over the next few weeks. Russell got a unique chance to show his worth last season against Baylor. Following the death of his grandmother that afternoon, the young man definitely proved himself capable, with his burst off the ball and speed to follow, registering a sack on the Robert Griffin, the Bears elusive and speedy signal caller. Weaver is quick off the snap, has decent speed, and will look to build on the productive off-season he put in last year.
Locked in at Starter: Weak Inside Linebacker
Garrick Williams is the only established middle linebacker currently. He is excellent in pursuit, excels against the run, and can bring the wood. Williams is also great in coverage, reads quarterbacks well, and uses his speed and quickness to break on the ball. His football smarts and instincts made him a natural on the inside, as he was he was able to lockdown a starting job at middle linebacker last spring. Since then he has proved to be a playmaker, improving his already impressive productivity in 2010 with 112 tackles (74 tackles in 2009). A tireless worker, he's also had the direct motivation and guidance of Dat Nguyen who is pushing to get everything out of Garrick for his senior year. Look for Williams to work on improving his blitzing and pass rushing approach the next few weeks (and to add some more mass by August).
Battle for Starter and Depth: Strong Inside Linebacker
Undoubtedly the most important position reload will be Michael Hodges' (who led the team with 115 tackles) vacated strong inside linebacker spot. The candidates are strong but all unproven, but they've got the next three weeks to get a leg up, and the next five months to put it together before it counts.
The most experienced candidate is clearly Kyle Mangan. He started 10 games, and racked up 70 tackles in 2009, and played in all but one game last year. That said, he needs a breakout off-season as the drop off was evident when he came in for Hodges against LSU. Mangan has ability, experience, and perhaps the competition will serve him well, but it has to happen soon.
Jonathan Stewart has been long anticipated to flip a switch, and it looks like he may be set to do just that. We've been told that Stewart has awakened and matured a great deal this off-season, and the competition this spring should serve him well. Given that, talent and size have never been an issue with Stewart, and now that he's committed to the effort, if his instincts are on par with the rest of his traits, look for the junior to emerge amongst the top of the fray.
Last August, true freshman Domonique Patterson entered his first fall camp, and after a few early days of stumbling, showed some real promise when getting reps with the second and first teams. As expected, it was slow progress, but he definitely turned some heads and gained footing for his future. Now with about eight months of work under his belt, and some added size and strength, the speedster will look to show his progress, and push for at least a spot in the two deep at one of the inside spots.
New to campus is 2011 signee and juco product, Steven Jenkins, who could immediately force his way to front running status. He'll have to put on the weight, but has the frame and time (new enrollee will have eight months of S&C by seasons kickoff) to do just that. Coach Sherman doesn't go the Juco route very often, so it's obvious when he does, he's anticipating a quick return on the investment. Jenkins will be expected to make his move here in the early going, and has the athleticism, speed, effort, and physicality to do so. He excels against the run and pass, and has a non-stop motor every down. Given his current size, Jenkins bid to play in the middle could go well into August, but his footing at the end of spring drills, will be a good indicator of his standing in the fight.
Another newcomer, who arrived in January, is Donnie Baggs. He brings more size to the table than Jenkins, but still has a ways to go physically. Aiding his bid, beyond his cool name, considerable speed, and athleticism, will be his intelligence. Just short of three months on campus, Baggs will have time to emerge atop this scrum, but his head-start will clearly prove beneficial, be it in the middle, or at his more natural spot on the outside.
Aaron Arterburn enters his junior season in 2011 and has a tall climb in this fight, but has good instincts and intelligence. In the middle those attributes give him a fighting chance to make his mark in the next few weeks.
The Aggies look to fill some significant vacancies in a linebacking corps that contributed to the revival of the Wrecking Crew last season. The group will look to build on that success in 2011 but will rely on a lot of promising new faces and intense competition in their development over the next few weeks and though out the summer. For the defense to take another step forward in 2011, a few newcomers will need to step up and emerge from the pack much like Hodges did in 2010.
Spring Camp Guide - Linebackers
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