Fall Season Guide 2010 - Linebackers

The fall camp is over and game week is here! The Aggie Websider has post-camp analysis of all positions. Jeffrey Jennings takes an in-depth look here at the linebacking corps. Will Von Miller repeat last year's performance? Will the inside linebackers step up in 2010? We have it all here.

Tim DeRuyter was hired to revive and reinvigorate a once great defense that has lain dormant for a decade, and while the effort starts up front with a talented defensive line, the heart that pumps the 3-4 is the linebacking corps. While the outside linebacker spots are highly talented and go about five deep, A&M is still looking for a playmaker at the MLB spot next to Garrick Williams, but that said, the play there is solid and the Aggies post a decent five man rotation at inside linebacker as well (with the recent development of several young players). 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 2010 linebacking corps, the lifes-blood of a defense that seeks to compliment its potent offense, and do it's part in A&M's return to prominence.


Joker

With Von Miller one can safely say that all the superlatives are warranted. As the Joker 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.

Significantly better than he was at this point last year, Von set the tone this August, kicking off fall camp with what Coach Sherman said was his best practice ever, start to finish. He not only did his thing throughout camp (dominating as usual in getting to the quarterback), but made plays sideline to sideline, and covered receivers in man (showing the speed to keep up with them). Getting his feet wet with a lot more pass coverage will be beneficial for the team, and for Miller when he heads to the NFL after the season. Expectedly, Miller was a top performer in camp, but somewhat surprisingly was one of the most improved members of the team. The young man has come a long way. From struggling out of position early in his career, to overcoming off-field issues, to becoming the dominant player he has is, to bigger and better things on the horizon. As Hop said recently, "Barring injury, I have no doubt that Miller will have an All-American season and he could be A&M's first, 1st round draft pick since Sammy Davis in 2003."

Freshman Demontre Moore, checked in at 6-4 248, and considering the fact he is only 17 years old, and his substantial frame, it's scary to think what this young man is going to look and play like after a year in the strength and conditioning program. Before his arrival, Moore was expected to be a force off the edge for the Aggies in the future, but the impressive newcomer hit the ground running, setting several dominos in motion with his performance. Amazingly he established himself as Miller's backup at Joker early in camp, freeing coaches to slide Jonathan Stewart to the opposite side and immediately enhance and shore up the depth at the SOLB spot. As Hop said during camp, ". . .there was doubt he could play the Joker at 6-5, but he uses that length and wingspan to get to the edge ahead of his blocker, and he makes it difficult for the quarterback to throw a short swing pass to his side of the field."

In addition his length is deceptive and he is much quicker than he appears, getting off the ball extremely well and following with good speed. He plays with good leverage, has a long reach, possesses good lateral quickness, footwork, and good speed in pursuit of the quarterback or ball carrier. Not only will he see time behind Miller in spots, but he will also be used in some specialty schemes, as Von's opposite bookend from the SOLB spot on passing downs. The look was very effective in fall camp, often resulting in both of the blazing edge rushers converging on the quarterback simultaneously, often forcing the offense into third and long situations. Needless to say, the pass rushing specialist will get quality reps in passing situations, as he prepares to fill some very large shoes next season. Obviously it's a tall task, but if you've seen him out there and consider how much physical and mental ceiling he still has, one gets the picture of our Joker spot being just as disruptive in 2011 and beyond. That's not just the optimistic opinion of this corner, even outside linebackers Coach Toth is on record boldly saying, "Moore has the potential to be every bit as good as Von Miller before he leaves A&M.". He's clearly got work to do before earning that but it's definitely exciting and encouraging to hear a coach talk about a freshman like that.

Cross training at FB, but also finding himself in the Joker mix was 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 off-season 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, tackles well in space, and is great in coverage. As Tim DeRuyer recently said in regards to his coverage skills and what that does for the system, "has length which helps him against receivers and in defending against timing routes. . .he also gives us the ability to leave base personnel out there as he can compete against a TE or slot WR. . ." (the team doesn't have to take a LB off the field and bring out a nickel corner to help cover). Sean also has great instincts and reads QB's well. He was limited for most of August with injury but Porter clearly turned the corner this off-season and is going to have a great year, be it blitzing off the edge, dropping back in coverage, or in run support.

Jonathan Stewart (6-4, 235), arrived last August every bit the part physically, and with a brutal, well renowned Aggie conditioning program, and highly productive off-season under his belt, he is set to take his game to the next level. A&M cross-trained all of it's linebackers, trying to find the right fit, optimal speed, and talent at each spot this spring, and in that spirit, Stewart who played the 2009 season at ILB, got a look at Joker and looked really good , before the arrival and performance of aforementioned pass rushing specialist, Demontre Moore. This freed coaches to move Stewart to the SOLB spot, where he appears to have found a home, as an extremely high level backup to Sean Porter. Moore's play also served as an incentive for Stewart, and while he was having a good off-season, he really kicked his level of play up a notch when he saw how strong the young newcomer was competing. No slouch himself, he is heady and has great instincts, to compliment his size, strength and speed. Though his initial burst is a bit sluggish, once moving Stewart is ridiculously fast off the edge, looks good in coverage and in reading quarterbacks. He was talented enough to play in all 13 games as a freshman, starting seven, racking up 28 tackles (fifteen solo, one for a loss). With Sean Porter missing a lot of time in August, he really seized the opportunity and finally looks to have worked his way out of Coach Sherman's doghouse, on the way to becoming one of the most improved members of the team heading into the season.

My dark horse candidate to make a splash at outside linebacker this spring was Charlie Thomas and did he ever, racking 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. Like Sean Porter, Charlie gives A&M the equivalent of a safety blitz without sacrificing the numbers in 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, not just with him but all the myriad of blitzes this team now has the ability to carry out. Thomas was injured and missed a significant chunk of fall camp, but should be sound and productive off the bench in his role of pass rushing specialists.

For the moment, depth behind those three 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 is talented walk on, Don Bishop.


Middle Linebacker

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). Hodges has added about 10-15 pounds of needed bulk for his second season at MLB, and it has helped his physical presence in the middle. He's looked much better in run support, really stepping it up in goal line drills, and is actually driving ball carriers backwards. As mentioned, the big knock on him last season, other than physicality, was his lack of lateral quickness, but that is easily explained by the fact he began playing last season just four months off of a torn ACL. As Coach Sherman recently stated, "He wasn't ready this time last year (coming off of knee surgery), but after three or four ballgames we ended up playing him, and he was never really 100 percent. I didn't realize that exactly until we were in spring ball, where all of sudden he was showing a pretty good burst. . . But I'm excited about Mike. I think he's had a really good camp. He's very sudden. He's very instinctive and he really studies the game."

That's not to say he doesn't have a lot to prove, but I can see him doing some good things in DeRuyter's system, as one of his strengths is blitzing. Now healthy, he has good in-line speed, takes instinctive angles, and the aforementioned added bulk will serve him well. Hodges is by no means void of talent, but he's been longer on heart and smarts, and in a different circumstance would be highly respected, as a strong option off the bench option. However, that's not the situation and A&M must make the best of it. He's the starter and all indications point towards him holding onto the spot throughout the season. 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. Just how far along he has come remains to be seen but he looks much improved and given the talent in front, around, and behind him, he should do well.

Garrick Williams has worked extremely hard the past few seasons, and is a great story. He was a high school wide receiver, who 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 turned the 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). Garrick has also added good weight every year (he's up to about 235 currently). The former safety has very good speed, shows great flash while blitzing, is excellent in pursuit, has good instincts, takes on running backs well, and he can bring the wood. In addition he is great in coverage, reads the QB well, and uses his speed and quickness to break on the ball. 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 the impressive junior a look at interior linebacker this spring and it has paid off huge dividends, as he's locked the spot down, significantly raised the talent there, and elevated his game, not just playing as an effective MLB, but establishing himself as a playmaker in the middle.


Middle Linebacker Depth

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 solid performances. Mangan is a 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, but he struggled last year in run support, and there were questions if he could be a physical enough presence in the middle. He had his shoulder surgically repaired early in the off-season, and after missing most of spring, broke out in August making a lot of really good stops and hits, putting all questions about his toughness and hitting ability to bed. With more experience, learning, and development, he is going to be a good one. Mangan now has a year under his belt, and I can see him improving a great deal and playing much faster mentally, being able to react without having to think. He's starting to come on line and will be a high quality and productive backup for Hodges, with the outlying possibility of overtaking him as he progresses throughout the year.

New to the fold in 2010 is Domonique Patterson. A former halfback turned linebacker, 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. I must admit I had Dominique pegged as a long shot to work his way into the MLB depth scenario this early, but about a week in, was starting to prove he could win a spot in the MLB rotation. According to Hop, by the end of the second week, he was "not only was he working out with the second unit but rolled in several series with the first team and his performances were promising. . .he struggled the first couple of days, but he has really taken off the past week and he's now getting the most reps of any inside linebacker and he's positioned himself to play this year if one of the veterans goes down." One of the biggest surprises and clearly amongst the top arrivals, look for Dominique to provide sound depth as the fourth option at MLB, while improving as the year goes on, and laying the groundwork for a great career at a position in high need of quality personnel.

The fifth option at middle linebacker, just behind Patterson is Malcolm Johnson. 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 there, he just needs to get up to speed with the mental side of the game. A week into fall camp and Johnson began showing signs of life, and solid progression throughout camp. Malcolm gives the Ags' another good option off the bench and like Patterson, should really come along as the season progresses, and set the foundation for a promising future.

Another serious candidate who is working to get 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 good option here. For now however he's got some learning to do, and rounds out the MLB group as the sixth option. Also working at interior linebacker this August was the hard working Hondo native Kolton Thigpen. He is very athletic, has great instincts, a high football IQ, plays with good football speed (4.6 range), and lateral quickness. He is also effective in working his way through the trash, likes to hit and the former safety is good in coverage.


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 a talented group in the secondary, the improvement of linebacker play will be the deciding factor. They will also be counted on as the lifes-blood 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. At MLB there is good five deep but only one current playmaker, who could possibly make some good strides this season, as well as other strong options that will improve throughout the season. Even if the play at the one spot is not ideal, the group as a whole is far better than what the Ags' have dealt with for most of the decade. Fans can't forget, they still have an All-America caliber player off the right side, and strong enough players at all other spots, all 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 have enough juice to get the job done, barring too many injuries at the wrong spots.


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