Spring Preview 2012 - Linebackers

The Texas Aggie football team officially kicks off the Kevin Sumlin era when the Aggies take to the practice fields on Saturday for the start of spring workouts. Aggie Websider is previewing every position. Today, we take a look at the linebacker position and the impact of switching from the 3-4 to 4-3 defense.

The linebacker position will see some significant changes as the team trasitions from a base 3-4 to a base 4-3 defense. With the old "Joker" spot now essentially a weak defensive end, three true linebacker positions will see competitive battles this spring (either for starting jobs or for more secure depth jobs and playing time behind locked in players like Sean Porter).

Depth could be an issue in spring, given injuries, but when back at strength, the unit should actually be a strong one for A&M this fall. Lets take a look at the backers that will give the Aggies a strong presence in the middle of the defense, across the board.

Middle Linebacker

It's better late than never, and senior Jonathan Stewart showed up to the party in style last fall, finally having flipped his light switch, both on the field, and in his approach to preparation. With his instincts and system competency on par with his natural talent and size, he led the Aggie defense with 98 (55 solo) tackles, 6 tackles (5 solo) for loss and three assisted sacks. Quite honestly effort and dedication have been issues, but having turned an obvious corner, I'd expect Stewart to put in a solid off-season heading into his final year in Aggieland, especially given that he's the odds-on favorite to start at MLB.

A&M landed Florida native Shaun Ward over Florida and USC, but were a tad disappointed when he showed up, heavy and out of game shape. With nearly a year of S&C under his belt, the Aggies need the ultra-talented youngster to put in a strong showing this off-season, and provides more talent and depth at linebacker. Ward has a first step comparable to Von Miller's, has good technique, a versatile set of rush moves, is a solid tackler, and is very sound when dropping into coverage. In addition, when in shape, Shaun brings an extremely tenacious motor to the fray. How well he takes to middle linebacker remains to be seen. If he has the instincts to match his size, and God given ability, he could be a great one. However, that is completely up in the air, as he may settle back on the outside, or even find a spot in the rotation at rush end, with Demontre Moore and Brandon Alexander. However, the numbers keep him here, and I like the idea. Hopefully it takes.

Donnie Baggs is more natural on the outside, but numbers may force his services in the middle, where he began his A&M career. Last spring, I noted his intelligence, and rare physical readiness for his age, but he exceeded expectations in the off-season. However, while he played well enough to burn his shirt, he really didn't make much of a dent on the field, and will certainly put in the work to make sure his efforts don't fall short this go around. Whether inside or outside, he has great quickness, speed, and uses his hands well in picking through the trash and getting to the ball. His football IQ and instincts should also help him adjust to either inside or outside linebacker. In short, talent, smarts, and versatility are his strengths, here is hoping he takes a quicker path than Stewart.

Dominique Patterson has been extremely quiet to date, and enters his second spring camp, in the middle. The speedster has instincts, but lacks size and needs a breakthrough this month to make a dent in the depth chart.

Starting Outside Linebackers

Sean Porter simply does the work and makes it matter, in an effort to cap out and play at his potential. In the weight room and on the field, he is meticulous, and it pays off every year as his production increases every step of the way. The senior to be has 195 tackles (110 solo), 35 for loss (21 solo TFL), 12 sacks (10 solo) in his three years to date, and he provides the steady leadership and consistency (so needed by a team that has undergone this much volatility). Boasting tremendous speed, and putting on good size and strength the past several seasons, Porter is versatile, and excels in all facets, be it pass-rushing, run-support, or dropping into coverage. Without question, he will be going full out this off-season, as he absorbs the new system, readies for his final year, and no doubt his future on Sundays.

Mike Sherman didn't like the juco route often, so you know when he took it, he would likely make it count, and one need look no further than Steven Jenkins. Jenkins learned fairly quickly last off-season, and his athleticism, speed, effort, and physicality landed him amongst the front of the pack. From one of Tim DeRuyter's middle linebacker spots, he racked up 61 tackles (30 solo), 3 TFL, including one sack. Jenkins excels against the run and pass, and has a non-stop motor every down. Now on the outside, he'll look to lock down the WILL spot and should round out a tough mid to right side, playing off of Jonathan Mathis and Demontre Moore. That overload possibilities and twists with those three guys, is pretty exciting to ponder, even more-so when they free up a guy like Steven Campbell to fly in a wreak havoc on occasion. Look for this sharp young man to undoubtedly take it to another level, next month and into the fall.

OLB Depth

Charlie Thomas has always been a player that could be utilized more, and in 2011 he was very productive off the bench (30 tackles, one for loss). He gives up some size, but has a good nose for the ball, and the hard hitter is capable, if not optimal, in run support. In fact his instincts are so good he got an extensive look at middle linebacker, but he is back on the edge where he belongs. Thomas is an awesome pass rushing option, as he comes off the edge like a cannon ball. A solid spring outing is a foregone conclusion for this hard working junior, who quietly takes the next step each year, providing a highly capable and consistent depth option.

Tyrell Taylor was a great sleeper pick for the Aggies, but while his impressive burst off the edge and ensuing 4.4, impressed coaches enough to burn his redshirt in 2011, he simply wasn't ready mentally or especially physically (was only about 6'4", 200). About three games into the season, the plug was pulled. He will eventually have a great career at A&M, but this off-season will be a strong indicator of his true readiness.

Summer Arrivals

Tyrell's brother, Tyrone Taylor, will join the fray this summer, and round out the outside linebacker depth, along with highly heralded stand out linebacking recruit Jordan Richmond who will arrive fairly close to the part physically. Richardson will likely begin his career in the middle but could also play on the outside. We'll take a deeper look at both young men this August.

Linebackers Overall

Though not bursting at the seams with depth, the A&M linebacking corps boasts some playmaking starters, who are knocking on the door of making the unit a team strength. A good showing by several talented up and comers, as well as new arrivals in summer, should alleviate depth concerns. Needless to say, it will be well worth following the progression of this group, in the coming weeks, through August.

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