Countdown 2007: Linebackers

With veteran leaders Mark Dodge and Misi Tupe, and several young blue chip recruits preparing to take over in 2008, the Aggie linebacker unit has more depth than it's had in a long time. Aggie Websider takes a look at a position that Aggie fans have long associated with the Wrecking Crew.

Although the old "Wrecking Crew" defenses at Texas A&M sported their fair share of standout defensive linemen, and more than a few stellar defensive backs, no position on the field was more closely identified with, nor more emblematic of, those daunting defensive units than the linebackers. From the days of Roper and Holland to those of Buckley, Mitchell, and Ngyuen, the Aggie Wrecking Crew was known for dominant linebacker play in A&M's deadly 3-4 defense.

Today's Aggie defense may have a few tweaks to be made before reclaiming that hallowed title for itself, but for the first time in a long time, the Aggie defense is fielding linebackers with the speed, quickness, and nose for the ball reminiscent of their Wrecking Crew predecessors.

Despite the loss of Justin Warren, the Aggies will sport an improved linebacker unit with some quality depth.

"We've got older leader guys returning at linebacker with guys like (Mark) Dodge and Misi (Tupe), but certainly Matt Featherston is another guy who's going to show up there."

It all starts with seniors Dodge and Tupe, both former JUCO transfers who played their first season with A&M last fall. The two combined for 105 tackles, and Tupe was named Big XII Defensive Newcomer of the Year. While their inexperience with a new system was evident at times, both players grew more visibly comfortable in their position with each passing week, getting stronger and more effective with each game. Tupe appeared to acclimate to his role in the 4-2-5 fairly quickly, and by season's end Mark Dodge was grabbing headlines—and footballs.

During late-season contests against Nebraska and Texas, it seemed that wherever the football went, there was Mark Dodge, as well. Dodge picked off Zac Taylor late in the fourth quarter of a comeback effort against the Huskers that fell just a bit short. Against Texas, Dodge was part of two crucial plays that helped seal the Aggies' first win over the Horns since 1999, and their first win in Austin since 1994.

Dodge made another huge play when the Longhorns attempted to convert a 4th and 1 near the Aggie ten yard line. Dodge cut through the line and slammed huge Henry Melton to the ground for a loss, turning back Texas' first scoring opportunity and changing the dynamic of the game early on. Dodge provided another late-game interception when he picked off Colt McCoy as the Horns tried to rally after falling behind 12-7. Dodge's interception allowed Stephen McGee and the Aggie offense to burn the clock down to less than 30 seconds before allowing the Longhorn offense to attempt a desperate final drive that ultimately fell short.

Dodge said that right before that Nebraska game, he came to a realization about recognizing routes.

"After the Texas Tech game, it really hit me that there's only so many route combinations that teams can run," Dodge said. "In the Nebraska game I knew exactly what play was coming because they had trips to one side and they ran an out. I knew if they ran an out, they were going to run a drag behind me so I was able to step in front of it (for the INT) and it was almost the exact same play in the Texas game (for the INT). You can tell what route is going to be behind you by what route's in front of you."

That kind of ability to make reads is one reason why Dodge's best days are ahead of him. Reports coming out of Spring drills indicated Dodge had made significant improvement over 2006 in reading/reacting to offensive sets, and great things are expected of him this fall.

While Dodge and Tupe will provide senior leadership at the linebacker position, Aggie fans can expect to see much more of Matt Featherston, a sophomore who saw action in every game last season, recording 26 tackles and a fumble recovery at the goal line against Texas Tech. At 6'3" and 233lbs, Featherston has size to go along with his impressive speed.

Another sophomore who will likely garner plenty of attention is Anthony Lewis, who came to Texas A&M as a #8 nationally ranked recruit out of Haltom City, Texas. If any of the Aggie linebackers are cut from the old Wrecking Crew mold, the 6'2" 245lb Lewis is the guy, and he will push those ahead of him as he fights for playing time. Texas Football magazine tabs Anthony Lewis as this year's breakout player for A&M, labeling him the type of playmaker the Aggies haven't had in seemingly "forever."

Junior tight end Martellus Bennett said earlier this week that the only player on defense that hits as hard as Lewis is Tupe.

"When Anthony gets the chance to bring the wood, he brings it," Bennett said.

Additional depth at the linebacker position may be provided by incoming freshman Derrick Stephens, one of the most highly touted signees of the Aggies' 2007 recruiting class, and a top-rated linebacker prospect in the state of Texas.

Fans should see the Aggie linebackers involved in some different blitz packages this fall, as the defense continues to evolve under second-year Defensive Coordinator Gary Darnell. Darnell installed his 4-2-5 system last year as a means of countering offenses in the pass-happy Big XII, and after giving the personnel a year to get comfortable, he plans on mixing up the blitz packages a bit in 2007.

Overall, this linebacker unit has solid veteran leadership along with some serious blue-chip talent in backup roles. While it may still be too early to dust off the Wrecking Crew moniker for this defense, don't rule out the possibility just yet. With this year's defensive line and linebacker units, Darnell appears to have to two pieces of the puzzle firmly in place.

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