Fall Camp Preview - Linebackers

The Aggie Websider continues to get you ready for the 2011 season with a position-by-position look at the Texas A&M football team. Special contributor Jeffrey Jennings breaks down the linebacker position. Can the unit overcome the graduation of Von Miller and Michael Hodges?

The defensive line paved the way for the rebirth of the Wrecking Crew, but without a doubt, the heart and soul of A&M’s defense, is the linebacking corps.  They had a great season stopping the run (A&M’s top four tacklers were their linebackers) and disrupting the passing game, giving the secondary the upper hand for the first time years.  The results were clear in the win column and in the numbers, as the Aggies dramatically, improved from 11th to 1st in conference run defense (90th to 30th nationally), 6th to 2nd in tackles for loss (41st-31st nationally), 12th to 5th in total defense (105th to 55th nationally).

The Aggies will have to shoulder two significant hits, losing number two NFL draft pick, Von Miller (4th in tackles with 68, 1st in TFL with 17.5, 1st with 10.5 sacks), and the cerebral coach on the field Michael Hodges (1st in tackles with 115, 3rd TFL 7.5, 3rd sacks 4.5) with his impeccable nose for the ball.  While Miller’s vacated Joker spot has several strong players to fill the role, replacing him is impossibility, and the team will take a collective pass rushing approach in the effort. Hodges middle linebacker spot has been the most talked about opening in years.  While it’s a concern, the fact it’s the only real question mark on the team is a great sign, and the Aggies have a long list of candidates who will take part in the marquee battle of spring.  One encouraging facet of the unit is that A&M has the strongest crop of up and coming backers since the defense was in its heyday, boasting more talent, speed, and depth, than they’ve had at the position since the 90’s.

In this piece, we’ll take a look at the young men who will be fighting for starting jobs, rounding out depth and giving Coach DeRuyter the weapons he needs in taking the success of 2010 to another level this season.

Locked in at Starter: Outside Linebacker

Sean Porter readied for his sophomore season by adding about ten pounds, and putting together an excellent off-season locking down the outside linebacker spot.  The results were evident as he put up 74 tackles (3rd on the team and up from 42 as a freshman). He’s an effective pass rusher, tackles well in space, and is great in coverage.  As Tim DeRuyter said, he allows the Ag’s the luxury to leave base personnel on the field (instead of going to nickel) as he can cover a tight end or a slot receiver.  Porter did a fine job with most of the finesse Big XII competition, but his only notable weakness was size against more physical teams the Ags have faced.  He’s applied his tremendous work ethic to that end, and has added good weight and strength, without sacrificing his tremendous speed.  Coach Sherman and his teammates are anticipating a breakout season for the junior and if he continues taking his game to another level, Sean could find himself closing the season with all conference honors.

Though he missed some time in spring, Charlie Thomas still emerged as a top performer in camp.  Coach Sherman said he solidified his role backing Sean Porter.  The classic R.C. Slocum, spun-down safety is a no-brainer on passing downs, as he is great in coverage, and like a cannon ball fired off the edge when rushing the passer.  Similar to Porter, that aspect gives A&M the equivalent of a safety blitz without sacrificing the numbers.  His size is his only glaring weakness.  Even after adding 20 pounds last year it only put him up to 210, and he can still stand to add another ten pounds in order to be an every down linebacker.  That said, he has a good nose for the ball, and the hard hitter is capable, if not optimal, in run support.  He 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 2010.  However, he got some good reps and experience in all thirteen games his RS-FR year.  I would expect the sophomore to see a significantly increased role as DeRuyter and A&M look to continue their consistent and productive pass rush.  Thomas will be getting a look at inside linebacker in fall camp, as A&M looks for answers there.  He has good instincts and reacts well, but size may keep him on the edge.

Probable Starter: Joker

Walk-on Caleb Russell stepped up to the plate in a big way this past spring, consistently causing problems for talented left tackle Luke Joeckel.  He not only earned himself respect as a legitimate option at Joker but also won the job outright. The pleasant surprise impressed Coach Sherman who described the young man, in spring as, “not in Von Millers category but very similar in that he’s very explosive”. Before spring I was aware the junior had a good burst off the snap and the speed to follow, but honestly didn’t expect him to emerge from camp on that strong of footing, and like most assumed Demontre Moore would walk away with the job.  Winning a team award for strength and conditioning, he has very good size and uses that and good leverage to win the edge.  The only knock on Caleb is that about the only players he’s on record of having beaten are Baylor’s left tackle (registering a sack on the Robert Griffin), and A&M’s Luke Joeckel and Cedric Ogbuehie.  Experience aside, Russell consistently proved himself to be the real deal, as a highly effective pass-rusher, with a great shot at holding down the job.

A side benefit of Russell’s development is the pushing of the extremely gifted but immature Demontre Moore, who didn’t make anticipated gains in spring and found himself in off-field trouble, early this summer.  If Moore can pay heed to the numerous wake-up calls he’s received, the young backer has proven an extremely high upside as a disruptive, game changing force, with a lot of flash off the edge. In addition to his size, speed, and burst, he also has the added dimension of an extremely long reach which has served him well in getting off of blocks and in batting down balls and disrupting (or at least discouraging) screens.  What’s more is he’s done this as a true freshman, and still has enormous physical and mental ceiling.  Despite his stumbles, his impressive frame has benefited from a year of Coach Kennedy’s S&C program, and if he can bring the focus and motor, can absolutely dominate off of the edge. It’s an unwanted parallel to Von Miller at about the same stage of his career, but hopefully the young talent figures it out like his predecessor.  The upside as a player is inarguably there in spades, but the next few weeks will tell a lot, as to the seriousness and desire Demontre will bring to his game and his teams success this season.

Locked in at Starter: Weak Inside Linebacker

With all the attention at middle linebacker focused on the spot next to him, Garrick Williams had a quiet and steady spring. 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.  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 proven to be a playmaker, improving his already impressive productivity in 2010 with 112 tackles (74 tackles in 2009).  Having shown improvement every year, expect the trend to continue as Williams readies to leave a big stamp on Aggieland in his senior year.

Battle for Starter & Depth: Inside Linebacker

The most experienced candidate is clearly Kyle Mangan.  He started 10 games, and racked up 70 tackles in 2009, playing 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.  I honestly think the “slowness” he showed in that game was more the product of hesitation, and biting on fakes, than athleticism or lack thereof.  Mangan has ability, and showed some brilliant flashes of what he can do in spring, but did not have the day in, and day out camp that coaches and fans had hoped for.  That said, he is progressing, has added some size and experience, and perhaps the competition will serve him well.  The junior needs to make it happen soon, because some young impressive young players are breathing down his neck, and he shouldn’t have to be thinking out there so much at this point.

Coaches and fans have anticipated Jonathan Stewart to flip his switch and this may be his time.  He’s reportedly finally figured it out and putting in the work, but we’ll get a lot clearer picture in the next few weeks if he’ll be the one to step up into the role or not.  If his instincts and system competency are on par with his natural talent and size, then the junior could very well take the spot.  He’s seems close and is a favorite in this horse race but it clearly remains to be seen.

When introducing early enrollee and true freshman Donnie Baggs last spring, I noted his intelligence.  However, he exceeded expectations by taking to the system in ridiculously short order, and put together a consistent spring (with just more than three months on campus).  What’s more surprising is the fact his more natural spot is on the outside but he took to middle linebacker quickly.  That is a great sign for a position that requires instincts and intelligence as much (or even more) that athleticism.  As Hop noted, between Baggs and Howard Mathews, Clear Springs obviously “has their players ready for the next level”.  In addition to his high football IQ, he is well above the curve physically for his age (up to about 6’2”, 225), which he brings to the table along with considerable speed.  It’s doubtful that he’ll start in the early going, but he’s demonstrated a strong grasp of the system and can make plays.  As Hop mentioned a few weeks ago, he will likely be in the rotation and could emerge as the guy by mid-season.  Having continued his efforts throughout summer, fully expect him to make noise early and often throughout fall camp.  He is a smart freshman and one that has an eight-month head start, with as good a shot as any to jump to the top of the pack.

Coach Sherman doesn’t often signoff on juco players, so when he does you know A&M needs and expects a quick return on the investment.  So far, Steven Jenkins (Sophomore), looks the part and is a beast when bringing the wood but needs to learn the system.  Obviously, his skill-set is not in question.  He has the athleticism, speed, effort, and physicality to do the job.  In addition, Jenkins excels against the run and pass, and has a non-stop motor every down.  However, he’ll play at his optimum when he mentally settles in.  When camp kicks off, he’ll have been on campus for about eight months so the early going could be telling as to how far he has come.  If he’s looking competent in what he’s doing within the system, he could immediately jump to the front of the fray.

Charlie Thomas has speed, instincts, and a nose for the ball needed at inside linebacker but gives up a lot of size.  He can get it done well enough in the Big XII’s more finesse style of play but still, he gives up so much size, it’s likely he’ll end up backing Sean Porter on the outside.  However, it’s not a done deal either way, and it will be worth tracking in fall camp.

Last August, Dominique Patterson entered his first fall camp, and after a few early days of stumbling and finding his way, showed some real promise.  With a year in the system and some added size and strength, the speedster has progressed and will push for a spot in the rotation, but barring a breakout performance in fall camp, doesn’t appear a threat to nab the coveted starting job.

Darzil Washington is another freshman that will enter the mix this August.  He’ll enter with great athleticism, size, is very active in sideline to sideline in pursuit, has good speed and accelerates well when he draws a bead on his ball carrier.  Darzil is also a very active and aggressive backer that picks through the trash and gets off blocks well with his long arms.  Further, and perhaps more importantly, he has exclusive experience in the middle, looks to be sound in pre-snap reads, and shows strong instincts, and a nose for the ball.  While that sounds great, it’s got to translate to the next level, and we’ll soon see how close he is to getting it done against a top-notch football team.

Further Joker/OLB Depth

Look for Florida native Shaun Ward, as a true freshman that promises to make a big splash early.  The Aggies were able to land him over the likes of Florida and USC.  There were concerns when Ward arrived in Aggieland on the heavy side, but with work in the weight room and with the team, he looks ready to go.  That said, provided he’s in shape, Shaun is the real deal, and 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 and cover well, and is solid against the run, which may see him line-up opposite Joker.  In addition to his attributes, he also possesses sound technique, great hands, and a varied arsenal of pass rush moves.

Having just cleared all his academic hurdles, Brandon Alexander arrives from Brenham, at 6’6’ 240 pounds, and the freshman may very well grow into a defensive end in time.  However, until then, he will bring is speed, and considerable talents to the fray at Joker or possibly left outside linebacker.  Regardless, which side he’s on, he will bring a considerable pass rushing skill set and run stopping ability off the edge.  He has impressive technique and versatile moves for his stage of development, using his hands well when rushing and in picking his way through the traffic against the run.  Brandon plays with good pad level (impressive given his height) and has a great wingspan for batting balls and grabbing running backs.  Dropping back in coverage will need work, but the young man has a strong shot of making an early impact.

Texas A&M landed a sleeper in Tyrell Taylor.  While he will eventually have a great career at A&M, he’ll likely red-shirt in 2011.  Taylor is currently about 6’4”, 200, and will need to put on some significant weight, before he begins making his mark.  With that in mind, he has great attributes and a skill set for pass rushing.  He has an excellent first step off the snap and has legitimate 4.4 speed.  His strength is pass rushing and his experience in coverage is minimal so it’s likely he’ll eventually line up at Joker.  The young man definitely has a bright future, and is well worth following in August.

Overall Position Analysis

Last season, A&M dramatically improved in just about every significant defensive category. They should continue the success, despite significant vacancies in the heart and soul of the Wrecking Crew, but will rely on a host of promising new faces and intense competition in their development over the next few weeks.  The staff feels the defense will be better in the second year of Tim DeRuyter’s system (despite the losses).  It remains to be seen, but their development the next few weeks will obviously be crucial, as the group will seek a collective approach in supplementing the key losses.

 


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