Clearly no position area on the Aggie roster will be as wide open as linebacker. While reflecting on that point and the fact that referring to even a "handful of established starters" would be a gross stretch, an understandably logical and dismal conclusion can be drawn. However, the other side of the coin must be considered here. While it in no way negates the lack of established and experienced players in place, the Aggies' greatest influx of speed and talent in over a decade will be taking the field at the position in fall camp, and will look to take their first steps in resurrecting what was once the signature position of Texas A&M Football. They will join a small group of players who, while not entrenched as starters, have worked hard in the off-season to get a leg up on the aspiring newcomers. The long anticipated competition will serve all of them well, individually and collectively.
In an anti-Makovician gesture by Coach Sherman (to Coach Kines) and as one of the better off-season moves, RS-FR Kyle Mangan was switched from fullback to linebacker and had a great spring. He is a very good athlete whose play recognition, instincts and overall football I.Q. helped make him a highly touted high school linebacker and perhaps the A&M player who finds himself on the most solid footing at the position heading into fall camp. A potential playmaker, he's a solid run-plugger in the middle and he looks to have improved his coverage skills in the off-season a great deal as well.
Senior Anthony Lewis played too heavy last year and it showed. He now looks to be in much better shape but is still big and lacking ideal speed. Though not a sideline-to-sideline player, Lewis is great between the tackles and has very good instincts, and can bring the wood. His skill set isn't terribly conducive in Big XII ball but the once highly heralded recruit will contribute in the middle during his senior year. To what extent, observers and fans will have to wait and see.
The very speedy sophomore Garrick Williams spun down from safety last spring and though he struggled while finding his way last year, he has a season starting the position behind him. Williams looks to be much more comfortable and is playing faster mentally as he showed this spring. He has put on some good size following a strong off-season and while he'll have to fight to keep a hold of it, the versatile athlete won't be a pushover for his starting job.
A potentially disruptive defender and pass rusher off the weak side, the speedy and hard-hitting sophomore Ricky Cavanaugh is a guy to keep a close eye on throughout camp. Though a little on the small side, he may have his hands full with the talented newcomers but if he can pick up the mental side of the game he has the physical tools for a solid career in maroon and white and at the very least should provide us with some quality depth.
With good speed and instincts junior Michael Hodges is a squad player worth mentioning, given his performance this past spring. Though a long shot at starter, if he consistently continues to impress through fall camp, he may legitimately land a spot in the two deep.
Jonathan Stewart arrives at A&M physically ready, yet still with a high ceiling for growth. Possessing good strength, Stewart does a great job of reading and reacting, showing a good nose for the ball as he works through traffic, while shadowing and then taking down ball carriers. He also has very good physical attributes and a skill set for defending the edge and looks to be good in coverage. It remains to be seen how quickly he'll pick up his role and Joe Kines' system but the young man will be amongst the odds-on-favorites to land a lot of playing time if not a starting job early on.
At about 6'3" and just over 200 pounds, the athletic Sean Porter has plenty of room to fill out once in the Aggies' strength and conditioning program. Quick off the ball, Porter has a good motor to match his speed and instincts. Like Jonathan Stewart, he's a good pass rusher but also does a good job of using his skills and attributes to work through the shuffle and get to the ball carrier. Another strong candidate, keep an eye on this young talent this fall camp and throughout his early development, as he'll likely be seeing the field soon.
Hard working and athletic, Michael Lamothe also has a lot of room to grow. Lamothe is good off the ball, follows with a strong motor, as well as sound technique in both getting off of blocks and shadowing backs and corralling them to the sideline. Also good in coverage and physically pretty close to looking the part currently, his development will be interesting to follow.
Perhaps more of a project at linebacker, Charlie Thomas is still an exciting newcomer. He is a hard-hitting, converted safety who will be spun down to linebacker. (Essentially the old R.C. Slocum Wrecking Crew prototype LB.) Obviously, given that, he brings great speed and athleticism to the table as well as the ability to cover. However, on the downside it may take him a year of working out to add some beef and transition to the position.
Aaron Arterburn is another athletic freshman that seeks to hit the field early. Arterburn can stand to add some mass and like most of the other young candidates, has plenty of room on his frame to do so. He is good at reading and reacting to quarterbacks and running backs alike, and also has the football speed and motor to move in on them. Bringing his attributes and instincts to the edge, he should be a very disruptive force at some point in the near future for the Ags'.
Unfortunately for him and the Aggies', the best speedster of all the candidates, Malcolm Johnson is coming off of injury and will redshirt the 2009 season. In that time he will also be adding some size to his frame and learning along the way. It is a disappointment though as he would have been a great instant impact for the Aggie defense. He is a true sideline-to-sideline linebacker with athleticism, intensity and block-shedding technique to match his ridiculous track speed. Johnson should be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks in the future.
I've already covered Andrew Weaver in the "Jack" section of the defensive line piece, but I figured it would be prudent to cite that blurb here in case he is shuffled back to a true linebacker spot. Weaver comes in with good size, strength and has room for much more physical growth. Off the ball, he displays a strong initial burst, decent hand technique, sound footwork and continues his efforts with a non-stop motor and very good football speed; all of which should eventually aid him as an effective pass rusher off the edge and in his run stopping efforts. He will be a player to watch this camp and during the season for that matter as to how rapidly he can bring the mental side of his game along to match his physical attributes (which as previously mentioned also have a good ceiling). When the two meet he'll make a very good defender.
It was painfully obvious so many times last season that our inexperienced linebacking corps were just all over the place; whether trying to do too much and over-pursuing or abandoning their gap responsibility. On both sides of the ball this off-season coaches' have stated emphatically that they will be simplifying things so the team can play with a better tempo. Given that and a year of this system under the belts, the veteran linebackers for all their other imperfections looked much more confident in what they were doing this past spring. Only time will tell how quickly the freshmen pick up their roles but the simplification should make things cleaner than what we saw out there last season. Hopefully they will come along quickly, as a program that once prided itself on its linebackers has been greatly disappointed the last decade (with few individual exceptions).
Regardless who shakes out, the most wide-open competition on the team should yield a much-improved unit for the Aggies'. Don't get me wrong, counting on this many freshmen to step up to the plate isn't a healthy proposition, and will often times be ugly, but A&M clearly has no choice at this point but to trade young mistakes for an upgrade in raw talent.
Fall Camp Preview 2009: Linebackers
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