Without a doubt, the most fluid, interesting and perhaps important position area to key on this spring session will be linebacker. Some may disagree. No it's not as desperate as finding candidates to fill the free safety spot next to Trent Hunter and depth for both spots (all of which I'll hit on in my next piece) or perhaps as anticipated as the young but talented offensive tackle development, but given our history of recent and prolonged deficiencies, the current level of talent, the coaches who now seek to utilize that talent, as well as the fact they have essentially put up all four spots as a wide open, cross-training audition and you've got the ingredients for one of the most exciting spring camps to date. At long last, the Ag's should have a stable capable of swarming to the ball and making plays sideline to sideline.
The group will be capable of facilitating the arrival of Tim DeRuyter and his aggressively attacking 3-4 base-defense as it sets to make its mark in AGGIELAND. It's a far cry from the uphill battle our coaches have faced for years, as they were forced to put guys in a position to optimize the limited options on campus rather than force the hand of opposing offenses and gone are the days when Aggie coaches' implore a base defense because there are literally only two guys on the roster capable of handling the LB job (a sincere thank you to Misi Tupe and Mark Dodge for their brief yet valuable time here).
The Aggie's were closer last year but obviously on the young end and now that talented crop of backers that arrived last August almost has a year under their belts (with some of them gaining valuable seasoning on the field as the others at least got the weight room work and reps on the practice fields). Simply put the linebacker position in no longer dire and depleted. There are plenty of fast and talented bodies to go around and in this system they will have every opportunity to shine. The emphasis is speed and talent and while it is true the middle of the corps needs players to emerge (hence the cross- training audition of OLB's and MLB's) A&M has a slough of puzzle pieces that the coaches will be able to fiddle with and find a fit for. Sure it may be an Aggie puzzle in some cases, in which they have to use scissors and a hammer, but rest assured there is enough there to find a fit without it being to noticeable as the Ag's have plenty of talent returning and developing on this roster that I fully expect to see a very solid lineup take shape by springs end and carrying into August.
As Coach Sherman stated in the signing day press conference:
". . . We have a number of options at linebacker. We redshirted some linebackers last year that are going to be a factor for us this year. We have numbers at the linebacker position and we have quality at the linebacker position. I think this system is going to allow those guys to advance even faster. There are some guys in recruiting that may be recruited as defensive ends that may end up playing an outside linebacker position in this scheme. When we get them in off-season and get a chance to work with them, it's going to be exciting to try and find the right spots for these guys. I don't feel like we're deficient in that area in any shape or form."
We're witnessing the rebirth of the Wrecking Crew and even casual Aggie football fans with a decent grasp on our history will, or at the least should, be drawn to this. Aside from the new scheme and coaches (A big Whoop! for Tim DeRuyter and Dat Nguyen), the most exciting part of this spring will be seeing which guys are moved to what spots and where they shake out. As we head into spring ball, lets take a look at the candidates likely to contend and push veterans (and the group as a whole) closer to the standard of what seasoned Aggie fans expect from our linebacking corps. Some of them are established, some are simply waiting for their chance, and some new faces are simply looking to step up to the challenge and show Aggie fans that Wrecking Crew defense will soon be reborn. Some will shake out at the top, some in the middle and some honestly may be have a tough road ahead but let's take an in depth look at what each player brings to the fray.
(As I mentioned in the defensive line piece, please keep in mind the positional projections presented here are as current and researched as possible but this intentionally is a very fluid positional area this spring. There may well be guys listed at OLB who shake out at MLB and vice versa.)
Spring Camp Preview 2010: Outside Linebacker
It has been a long time since Texas A&M has had a player whom one can safely say that all the superlatives are warranted. Von Miller is that player and while the fluidity at linebacker is going to be all over the place it is safe to assume he will be the only unquestionable starter at a given spot. In this case it will be at the ROLB or Joker spot previously known as the "Jack". It's essentially the same role he served last year. He will be called on to play the run and drop back into coverage but like he did so well last season, his primary role will be to wreak absolute havoc off the right edge of the defense.
Following a struggle at linebacker his sophomore season he was absolutely brilliant in his new role in 2009. Skeptics rationalized that his success last spring and August were due more to the weak left tackle situation on A&M's offense than is was Miller's playmaking talent. However as the season wore on they were silenced by his game-to-game presence. He posted 48 tackles (31 solo), 21.5 tackles for loss (including 17 sacks for a loss of 115 yards), broke up five passes and had four forced fumbles. Yes there were tougher opponents that kept him off of their quarterback in a handful of games but even when he wasn't making left tackles look silly and drilling signal callers in the back, he was a constant disruption and a guy every team had to account for. Once the ball is snapped Miller (who stands 6'3" 245, and boasts a 4.5 forty time, as he's proven not just track speed but football speed) explodes out of the blocks with a ridiculous first step, he immediately gets into his blocker and uses his strength and hands. Once he gets that inch of separation, his quickness, balance, burst and speed take over as he follows his bead to the quarterback. Beyond that, he has so many ways to beat his blockers it's unreal. If the left tackle is talented enough to push him off his path he has done his job but when they fail, Miller has too much body control to over pursue his target. Even though we'll primarily be in a 3-4, Von in the Joker role (much like the Jack last year) gives coaches the flexibility to occasionally slide into an even front (4 down linemen) with base personnel. Cleshayed as it is, many aspire to greatness but few achieve it. Miller staying put and forgoing early entry into the draft was a wise move, not just from the standpoint of a selfish fan and the Aggie's but for the benefit of a pass-rushing machine that simply needs to polish the finer points and round out his game for the next level.
As I mentioned A&M will be cross-training all it's linebackers trying to find the right fit and optimal speed and talent at each spot. In that spirit, Jonathan Stewart played the 2009 season at ILB but he will be getting a look at OLB this spring. Stewart arrived last August every bit the part physically and with a brutal but well renowned Aggie conditioning program and off-season under his belt, he should be set to take his game to the next level. He is heady and has great instincts to compliment his size, strength and speed. So much so that he was able to step in as a freshman and gain invaluable experience last season. The sophomore-to-be, played in all 13 games and started seven, racking up 28 tackles (fifteen solo, one for a loss). Keep a close eye on him and where he shakes out. Whether it's on the inside or outside, he is a favorite to lock down one of the four spots.
Sean Porter has to be another serious candidate to push for a starting job in the linebacking corps. While he lacked size as a newcomer in 2009, he made up for it to a good degree with great instincts and was another freshman that not only stepped in immediately but proved serious contributor with 42 total tackles (23 solo, four for loss, including one sack). Already gaining respect from his teammates as a hard worker, his body is catching up as he's up to about 225 (from about 210 when he arrived). Porter is quick off the ball and has a good motor to match his great speed. He's an effective pass rusher, good in coverage and tackles well in space.
If he can come back from injury Malcolm Johnson has huge upside and that's not just empty words. He was clocked in high school at 4.46, and though he's added about twenty pounds of beef and is coming off of injury he was recently clocked in the mid 4.6's (still blazing fast for a 230-pounder). In addition his pass rushing and coverage skills, as well as his tenacious motor, football smarts and ability to tackle in space clearly make him a great option. It's unknown where he currently is recovery-wise and when he returns if he can remain healthy, but if he can get back in form he is going to be a very dangerous linebacker and a perfect fit in Coach DeRuyter's system (and possibly one of the strongest candidates to fill the void when Von Miller departs for the NFL following the 2010 season). Also finding himself in the outside linebacker mix is Andrew Weaver. He comes in with good size, strength and has room for much more physical growth. Off the ball, Weaver 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. One of my favorite dark horse candidates to make a splash at outside linebacker this spring is Charlie Thomas. Even after putting on about 20 pounds his redshirt freshman year, Thomas is only up to about 210 but is blazing fast (he was a high school track guy and even played at HB in addition to his defensive duties). The hard-hitting speedster reminds me of the prototypical R.C. Slocum spun down safety. A long shot and unlikely an every-down player but could easily be a great option in passing situations given his safety background and his pass rushing abilities.
Spring Camp Preview 2010: Inside Linebacker
Garrick Williams has worked extremely hard the past few seasons and after stumbling through the learning process of linebacker (where he was moved upon Coach Sherman's arrival in 2008) early on, he really turned a corner starting last spring and stepped it up considerably with a solid season at outside linebacker. Williams started eleven games last season and racked up 74 tackles (47 solo, 8.5 for loss including one sack, one interception and a forced fumble). The former safety has also added good weight every year (he's up to about 240 currently). Williams has very good speed, loves to hit, is solid in coverage, has good instincts and takes on running backs well (and all ball carriers in space for that matter). Trying to build on his development, momentum, and taking advantage of his football smarts (as well as trying to find some answers on the inside), A&M coaches will be giving Williams a good look at interior linebacker this spring. Keep a close eye on this one because if it pans out the Aggie's will have seriously upgraded the talent level of one of its MLB spots.
In his first active season Kyle Mangan came along well. He started in ten games and tallied 70 tackles (29 solo, 6.5 for loss with 2.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, seven pass breakups, a forced and recovered fumble). There were moments when his inexperience was exposed but he also had some really solid performances. He is a very good athlete, has solid speed, and looks really good in coverage. All in all Mangan did well considering it was his first year, but he simply needs more experience, learning, and development. Unfortunately that probably won't come this spring as he comes off of shoulder surgery. Though he may never be a difference maker, if Kyle can recover from his injury and continue improving, he'll be a solid option at ILB the rest of his career.
Michael Hodges came out of nowhere last off-season and thankfully so as he proved a solid contributor at ILB (he started nine games, had 31 solo tackles, 67 total tackles, five tackles for loss and one interception he returned for 28 yards). He's not an ideal starter but had he not come on last year, the Aggie's would have been in pretty bad shape at ILB. Logically, the Air Force transfer has great football smarts and instincts and has a knack for finding himself at the right place at the right time. Unfortunately once in position to make the tackle, he often lacked the strength and size to bring the ball carrier down immediately and other times appeared to freeze or get juked in open field situations. Hodges has decent quickness but he lacks flat out speed and acceleration (as was evident in a few of those big runs by Colt McCoy). He's by no means void of talent but he's longer on heart and smarts and though it's likely Hodges will be replaced as starter, he gives the Aggie's a very solid option in the rotation off the bench.
A player with the potential to shake things up this spring at MLB will be Ricky Cavanaugh. The speedy and hard-hitting sophomore can be a disruptive defensive presence and has solid pass rushing capability. He's definitely a player to keep a close eye on in the next few weeks. Injury kept him out of the fray last season as well as what appeared to be his struggling with the mental side of the game (as evidenced by the fact he seemed to be Coach Kinas' favorite chew toy by anyone who was at the open fall camp practices last August). If he can pick up that side of things he has the physical tools for a solid presence in the middle. Another serious candidate who will be getting a look on the outside and the inside will be Aaron Arterburn. Arterburn is good at reading and reacting to quarterbacks and running backs alike and he has the football speed and motor to move in on them. With good size, strength and instincts he should be a very disruptive force at some point in the future for the Aggie's linebacking corps. Michael Lamothe will be getting a look on offense at H-Back (TE/FB) but the hard working and athletic Lamothe may be back on defense if it doesn't work out so he bears mentioning here. He is quick off the ball, follows with a strong motor, as well as sound technique in both getting off of blocks and getting to the ball carrier. The young man is also good in coverage and is physically the part.
A Brief Look Ahead to August 2010: New Linebacker Arrival(s)
The Aggie's linebacker class was very small this year but the Aggie's will welcome Dominique Patterson to the fold in August. At 210 pounds he can stand to add some weight but he runs a sub 4.5 forty and should grow into a good one at some point down the line. Damontre Moore is listed at DE but may get a look at the traditional rush DE or LB once on campus. Since we are looking ahead and this year's crop of LB's is thin we might as well look a little further ahead. At the end of the 2010 season the attrition at linebacker will be very low. Yes the Ag's will lose an irreplaceable Von Miller but other than that the only other attrition will be Michael Hodges. That leaves a lot of talented and experienced bodies at linebacker in 2011 to continue what's shaping up to be A&M's return to prominence.
This spring will be a busy and crucial one for Aggie coaches and players as well as an extremely exciting one for fans eager to see the return of the Wrecking Crew. That's not empty words or hollow promise. The pieces are coming together rapidly and a significant part of the puzzle will be the fairly large crop of relatively experienced and impressive talent cross-training amongst the linebacker area. No one knows who is going to shake out and where, not even the coaches or players themselves, but one thing is certain, it's going to be a blast to follow the next few weeks.