Fall Camp Guide 2010: Linebackers

Without a doubt, one of the most interesting and important position area to key on in August will be linebacker. Tim DeRuyter is here to revive and reinvigorate a once great defense that has lain dormant for a decade. While the effort starts up front with the defensive line, and the Aggies have a unit capable of getting the job done, the heart that pumps the 3-4 is the linebacking corps.

Without a doubt, one of the most interesting and important position area to key on in August will be linebacker. Tim DeRuyter is here to revive and reinvigorate a once great defense that has lain dormant for a decade. While the effort starts up front with the defensive line, and the Aggies have a unit capable of getting the job done, the heart that pumps the 3-4 is the linebacking corps.

Before dwelling on what A&M lacks at the position area, let's look at what it's got. At the Joker (basically the WLB or rush linebacker) the Aggies have a truly great one in Pre-Season All American Von Miller, a pass-rushing phenomenon that will also drop back into coverage. Behind him is a high quality backup in Jonathan Stewart (SO). On the other side at SOLB is talented and relatively experienced sophomore, Sean Porter who is poised to have a good season and will likely be Miller's heir apparent after the season. He is backed by a lightening fast Charlie Thomas (RS-FR), who the new coaches were immediately excited about when they saw him on the field this spring. Garrick Williams (JR) stepped up to the plate in a big way during spring camp giving A&M a great answer to the WILB spot (weak inside linebacker, that plays next to the Joker), backing him is young and unproven depth from two talented and promising players that have been on campus for a year. It is definitely a concern until one of the two prove they can back him this August.

Next to Williams at the SILB is where you see a slight drop off at starter. Take nothing away from Michael Hodges who has been rock solid and earned his way from a walk on to starting inside linebacker (and received an honorable mention All Big XII as voted by the leagues head coaches) but he is simply not an ideal starter at the position. He is backed by a talented up and comer Kyle Mangan (RS-SO), who will look to push him for the job, and a true freshman looking to push his way into the mix.

There is a slight lull in overall talent at one of the ILB starter spots, and lack of proven depth in the middle is a concern, but starter for the most part is very strong and depth on the edges is not extensive but very talented. If they can remain relatively healthy, it's the most talent that has started at LB for the Aggies in some time, and the group will be capable of facilitating the arrival of Tim DeRuyter and his aggressively attacking 3-4 as it sets to make its mark in AGGIELAND. At long last, the Ag's should have a stable of linebackers capable of swarming to the ball, making plays sideline to sideline, and in this system they will have every opportunity to shine.

Let's take a closer look at the LB corps position by position, and the players who look to make and their mark during camp as candidates for the "August Surprise". As I mentioned in the defensive line piece, our staff doesn't hesitate to move players around, fill needs and find the right fit for the unit (and the individual), so there will likely be some fluidity in fall camp that deviates from this positional outline.

Joker

With Von Miller one can safely say that all the superlatives are warranted. The Joker spot will essentially be like the Jack spot he played last season. 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 were more effective in their double teams to keep 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. 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. 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. This spring he got his feet wet with a lot more pass coverage and he did well with it. It will be very beneficial for the team but for him when he heads to the NFL.

A&M cross-trained all it's linebackers, trying to find the right fit and optimal speed and talent at each spot this spring and in that spirit, Jonathan Stewart (6-4, 235), who played the 2009 season at ILB got a look at Joker and looked really good 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. Though his initial burst is sluggish, once moving Stewart is ridiculously fast off the edge and looks good in coverage as well. He was talented enough as a freshmen to play in all 13 games, starting seven, racking up 28 tackles (fifteen solo, one for a loss). I'd like to see him get a look back on the inside because he has good size and experience, but he'll enter camp as a high quality backup for Miller.

Freshman Demontre Moore, who checked in at 6-4 248, is going to be a force off the edge for the Aggies in the future. He plays with good leverage, has a long reach, posseses good lateral quickness, footwork, and decent speed to pursue the quarterback. Given the depth in front of him it's likely he'll redshirt. Cross training at FB, but also finding himself in the Joker mix is redshirt freshman Andrew Weaver. He has good size (6-2, 240), strength, and has room for much more physical growth. Off the ball, Weaver displays a strong initial burst, decent hand technique though he lacks top end speed. He had a decent spring and got some pressure on the quarterbacks but his development has been silent to date.

SOLB

Sean Porter had a great spring, was a top performer, and consistently earned the praise from coaches and teammates alike as he locked down the SOLB spot. 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 also proved a 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 220 (from about 210 when he arrived), though he still could stand to add some pounds. Porter is quick off the ball and has a good motor to match his great speed, giving A&M a dual pass rush threat, from each side, on any given play. He's an effective pass rusher, good in coverage and tackles well in space. Sean also has great instincts and reads QB's well, making a lot of pics and PBU's this spring. Look for the second year player to have a solid year off the left side.

My dark horse candidate to make a splash at outside linebacker this spring was Charlie Thomas and did he ever, racking up tons of sacks and consistently harassing the QB's. 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. He needs some more weight to be an every-down player (though he's showed a good nose for the ball and tackling ability in run support), but is a great option in passing situations, given his safety background and his pass rushing abilities (and luckily for him he plays in the pass happy Big XII where he'll get plenty of opportunity to shine behind Porter). Charlie gives A&M the equivalent of a safety blitz without sacrificing the numbers and coverage, and when he is sent it's like firing a cannon ball at the quarterback. He has great speed, the knack for taking a perfect line, and the feet to adapt when it's impeded. I can see him not only being used to blitz, but telegraphing the rush and then dropping back into coverage and picking the quarterbacks pocket, earning his share of takeaways. Just having him out there opens up so much. They'll be aware he's there, but if a defense tries to account for him off the edge, while already trying to account for Von on the opposite side, they are going to find themselves in trouble with DeRuyter sending any number of unknowns to overload the blocking scheme. It's pretty exciting to contemplate.

For the moment, depth behind them is unproven and in the hands of Keon Furtch. He's kind of cut from the same mold as Thomas, a spun down safety now up to about 210 pounds that could be strong off the edge. He was once a promising recruit and though he's yet to letter, he could bring his great speed off the edge and do well in coverage, with his strong ball skills. Also looking to fill depth at OLB, are talented walk ons, Don Bishop and talented, hard working Hondo native Kolton Thigpen (two squad LB's in the 220 range). Bishop is a Katy native that has played in 22 games the last two years. Thigpen has great instincts, high football IQ, plays with good football speed (4.6 range) and lateral quickness. He is also good at working his way through the trash, likes to hit and the former safety is good in coverage.

Strong ILB

Though not an ideal starter, had Michael Hodges not come on last year (out of nowhere last off-season), the Aggie's would have been in pretty bad shape at ILB and would be even more desperate for quality numbers currently. The fact it almost didn't happen is a testament to his toughness and grit. After tearing his ACL, following a great overall camp performance, in the final day of spring ball in 2009, he fought and clawed his was back in time for the second game of the season (an amazing 4 month recovery) and proved a productive starter 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). Logically, being an Air Force transfer, he plays smart, has good instincts (racks up tons of PBU's and INT's in practice) and has a knack for finding himself at the right place at the right time. Unfortunately once in position to make the tackle, he's often lacked the strength and size to bring the ball carrier down immediately, and other times his lateral speed got him outplayed in space (see the UT game last year with Colt McCoy in the open field). Reportedly Hodges has added some needed bulk for his second season at MLB but his lateral speed is still likely going to be an issue. That said, he is playing admirably and I can see him doing some good things as well in DeRuyter's system, as one of his strengths is blitzing and he'll be afforded plenty of opportunities for it. He has good in line speed, takes good, instinctive angles, and the aforementioned added bulk will serve him well. Hodges is by no means void of talent, but he's longer on heart and smarts, and in a different circumstance would be highly respected as a strong option off the bench. However, that's not the situation and A&M must make the best of it. He's the starter for now and may well hold onto the spot heading into the season unless a talented young player emerges soon. Regardless, I'm hopeful fans remain respectful of a guy that's gone the hard road to give A&M his best and playing his tail off to give us a good option at linebacker.

In his first active season, Kyle Mangan came along well and was very productive. 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 very solid performances. Mangan is a very good athlete, has solid speed, and looks really good in coverage. All in all, Kyle did well, considering it was his first year at the spot. With more experience, learning, and development, he is going to be a good one. He missed most of that valuable learning time in the spring, and will look to jump back into the mix this August. With a year under his belt, I can see him improving a great deal and playing much faster mentally, being able to react without having to think. With Garrick Williams locking down one of the ILB spots, Mangan will look to rest the other away from Michael Hodges over the next month, in what could turn out to be productive battle.

New to the fold in 2010 is Dominique Patterson. A former halfback turned linebacker (in fact he's dual auditioning for FB currently), the new arrival has really good speed (4.5-forty) and has filled out to almost 230. The young man is an instinctive, sideline-to-sideline player, and has good lateral speed. Boasting very productive numbers, Patterson is strong against the run and pass, and could thrive in Coach DeRuyter's blitzing schemes. It will be a long-shot for a freshman MLB to come online this soon (in fact he probably wouldn't be getting a look at FB if coaches thought he would be jumping into the much needed MLB fray this soon), at the level A&M needs, but Dominique is a smart player and should be a good one down the line. It will be interesting to follow his progress this August and throughout the year for that matter.

Interestingly Tommy Dorman, former quarterback, who just had a fairly productive stint after just moving to TE in spring, is being thrown in the ILB mix. Obviously this further highlights the desperation at the position but it will be interesting to see what the athletic young man can do. I don't expect too much from him but he the athletic former QB has filled out nicely, has good speed, and lateral quickness, as well as smarts which will aid him in the switch. To be brutally honest, there is no telling where he is at with instincts and tackling ability at linebacker. I'm not sure if it's a case of throwing spaghetti against a wall to see what sticks or if the coaches know something we don't but I'm not terribly optimistic on this one (though I'd love to be proved wrong).

Weak ILB

Garrick Williams has worked extremely hard the past few seasons and is a great story. He was a high school wide receiver, that struggled at safety in 2007 as a freshman. Upon Sherman and Co.'s arrival, he was moved to OLB and understandably stumbled there for a year in 2008, before turning on the light switch in 2009 and thriving at the spot. He really turned a corner last spring and has stepped it up considerably ever since. 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 235 currently and has also stepped it up and made some noise in the weight room recently). 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 gave Williams a look at interior linebacker this spring and it paid off huge dividends, as he's locked the spot down, and significantly raised the talent there. Garrick has great instincts, is excellent in pursuit and coverage, reads the QB well, and uses his speed and quickness to break on the ball, is great on blitzes (again this system affords a lot of those chances for guys that excel at it) and he can bring the wood. Look for the junior to raise the bar and increase production at on of the MLB spots in 2010.

Another serious candidate who will be getting a look on the inside will be Aaron Arterburn. The sophomore 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, instincts, and smarts, he should be a very disruptive force at some point in the future for the Aggie's linebacking corps. Aaron looked really good in spring and is physically close (still needs to add some good weight) but still has learning to do before he can play up to speed. If the young man can elevate his game sooner than later, he'll be great option here. For now however he's got some serious learning to do. This August will at least give fans and coaches an idea of where he is in his development.

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 clocked in the mid 4.6's in early 2010 (still blazing fast for a 230-pounder coming off of knee surgery). In addition, his pass rushing and coverage skills (which he excels at with the aforementioned speed and his instincts), as well as his tenacious motor, football smarts, and ability to tackle in space clearly make him a great option. He is going to be a very dangerous linebacker and a perfect fit in Coach DeRuyter's system. The strength staff says he is just about back to full speed coming off of his knee injury and that he's made great strides since the spring. Now that he's physically back he just needs to get up to speed with the mental side of the game. Like Arterburn, the next few weeks will give us an indication of where we are at with Johnson.

Other Potential ILB Candidates

Also entering his first fall camp is Mister Jones, who A&M coaches were able to land out of Colorado. At 6' 2" 210, he is put together amazingly well for such a young player. He will be given an early look at linebacker but given what he brings to the table in short yardage situations and the fact he'll be very green on the defensive side of the ball, it's very possibly he'll end up back at running back. The young man is pretty laidback and while not overly enthused about playing an unfamiliar spot on defense is showing a good team attitude and more than willing to do what the staff feels is best for him and the team. His defensive measurable are unknown but he has very good in line speed and likes contact. I'm curious to see how he does on this side of the ball in camp, and while the experiment could be short lived, it's well worth it at the moment as A&M searches for answers in upgrading the physical talent here. Michael Lamothe is currently on offense at H-Back (TE/FB) but the hard working and athletic young man 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. Ricky Cavanaugh has been slow in his development, so much so he didn't even appear on the extended depth chart. He has shown flashes throughout his short time here, but struggles with the mental part of the game. He may eventually get there but it's unlikely and it certainly won't be soon.

Linebacker Overall

A&M's defensive efforts must improve significantly if they hope to make headway in the win column this season. With a strong defensive front and what looks to be a highly talented group in the secondary, the improvement of linebacker play will be the deciding factor. They will also be counted on as the lifeblood of Tim DeRuyter's attacking 3-4. The Aggies will bring pressure from all angles but they are going to be the primary source of that. The OLB's are highly talented and easily go two deep, however with only one high level and two serviceable middle linebackers, (with no proven depth) the Aggies have a potential issue. That said there are several candidates strong enough to shore up depth and possibly take the position up a notch. Even if the play at the one is not ideal the group as a whole is far better than what the Ags' have dealt with for most of the decade. If it remains a lull, A&M should still have enough to overcome it, but it will definitely be a spot to watch as several young contenders battle to emerge as what would easily be the best "August Surprise" Aggie fans and coaches could hope for. If no one comes out shining there, they still have an All America caliber player off the right side, and strong enough players at all other spots, most of which are capable of playing off of a strong defensive line and wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks, making plays, and setting up our talented defensive backs to be successful. Make no mistake, they are thin but they have enough juice to get the job done barring too many injuries at the wrong spots.


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