2005 Position-By-Position Preview: LBs

The verdict on the Longhorn defense is that a relatively green linebacking corps will be its weakest link in 2005. But nobody with a brain beneath his helmet would want to get leveled by headknocking MLB Aaron Harris, or by hard charging WLB Robert Killebrew for that matter. As for SLB? Well...

Sophomore Drew Kelson will train at both SS and SLB this month, head coach Mack Brown said. Kelson will challenge RS-sophomore Eric Foreman, who finished the spring atop the depth chart at SAM linebacker. Senior Eric Hall was the starting SLB in 2004, entered the spring as the starting WLB, and then watched as a nagging foot injury kept him out of the action for the latter part of March. Now, coaches believe they'll need Hall's pass-rushing skills more at DE. It means the battle for starting SLB will be waged between two sophomores and probably won't be decided until after a couple of scrimmages in pads.

"We're trying to find a SAM linebacker," Brown said, "but we're further along because the secondary's a year older. We've got some depth (in the secondary), so our issues are only at linebacker."

At issue is the fact that Butkus Award winner Derrick Johnson will be playing Sundays in a Kansas City Chiefs uniform after staking his claim as Texas' finest linebacker since Tommy Nobis. The loss of a two-time All-American with 41 career starts cannot be measured by mere statistics. Johnson was a coach on the field for the younger Longhorns. His 65 career TFLs are a school record, but it's how and when he made those plays that the defense will miss most.

"(Johnson) made dramatic plays," Brown said. "He made game-changing plays. He made momentum-changing plays for us."

Now, that mantle of leadership falls to Harris who is one of the Big 12's top MLBs. The senior is the team's leading returning tackler (118), trailing only D.J. in stops last season. Harris started all 12 games at MIKE in 2004, posting 10 TFLs, six QB pressures, nine PBUs, two forced fumbles, two sacks, one fumble recovery and one INT on the way to second-team All-Big 12 honors.

Harris went on a tear at the midway point of last season, notching 32 tackles (32!) during a two-game stretch (career-best 18 against Oklahoma followed by a 14-tackle effort against Missouri). Harris was named the 2001 Texas 5A Defensive Player of the Year while a senior at North Mesquite and has since seen action in 38 career games (18 starts) with 191 tackles at linebacker and on special teams.

In spring, the battle for Harris' top backup was waged between sophomore Scott Derry and RS-freshman Rashad Bobino, but Bobino appears destined for the WILL spot this fall.

Derry has the size (6-3, 230), the intelligence (2004 first-team Academic All-Big 12 honoree) and the athleticism to play DE or all three linebacker positions. He took snaps at both LDE and MLB this past spring as coaches want to shore up depth at both positions. Derry played in all 12 games last season at linebacker and on special teams, tallying 21 tackles.

Yet, SLB remains one of the more intriguing story lines this August since that spot is the most wide-open on the entire team. Foreman returned to defense after spending 2004 as a redshirt, backup QB. He asked to be moved to the relative obscurity of Texas fourth-team QB following a subpar performance against Arkansas in 2003. There's no question that he has the physical gifts to play SLB, but does he have the mental edge? Foreman saw action in 12 games at SLB during the 2003 season, posting 18 tackles, including nine solos and one TFL. He was also credited with five QB pressures and one fumble recovery.

Kelson appeared in one game at SS last season while seeing action in nine contests on special teams. The 2004 Parade All-American is too explosive and versatile of an athlete to keep off the field.

"We're going to look at Drew Kelson at safety and at SAM linebacker," Brown said. "We've got to figure out what our best combination at linebacker will be."

Hall will still get a look at SLB but that battle will likely come down to the pair of sophomores. RS-freshman Nic Redwine will add to the depth at SLB.

WILL linebacker is just as inexperienced but the competition there is not as wide-open. RS-sophomore Robert Killebrew will have some growing pains, but he enters the fall as Derrick Johnson's heir apparent. Killebrew is a hard-hitting, third-year player who recorded 13 tackles in limited action in 2004, while adding a pair of stops on special teams. He posted a personal-best four tackles against Baylor but his best outing (in terms of actual contribution when the game was still on the line) came two weeks later against Missouri. A banged-up Johnson had to take a seat while Killebrew played the entire fourth quarter. He recorded two key tackles down the stretch to help preserve a 28-20 Longhorn win.

You gotta love it when your WILL linebacker bears a tattoo that simply says 'KILL'. It's not so much a directive as it is a nickname, but it is also indicative of the killer instinct Killebrew brings to the field. The first-team Texas 5A all-stater (at DE) packs the attitude, but much of his development this season has to do with appropriately harnessing his natural aggression. In other words, coaches want him to play with discipline, controlling his emotions, while not losing the ears-pinned-back intensity that he brings, day-in and day-out.

Bobino, at 5-11, 235-pounds, is like a fire hydrant in shoulder pads. Coaches spoke highly of his work ethic this past spring. The LaMarque product received 4A Defensive Player of the Year accolades by the Texas Sports Writers Association.

"He'll really step up this year and he's ready," Harris said of Bobino, his "little brother" on team. "He's going to be a really good addition to our linebackers. I hope he gets his chance. He'll shine."

Behind Killebrew and Bobino, fifth-year senior Braden Johnson and RS-freshman Jeremy Campbell are on hand.

But when predicting the depth chart at all the LB spots, keep in mind that Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik cross-trains his linebackers so that the next best available guy can step into any position.

"Coach Chizik wants all of his linebackers to be able to play all of the positions," Harris said. "That way if somebody gets hurt he can always put somebody in who plays WILL, for example, at SAM, or something like that."

True freshmen Roddrick Muckelroy and Christopher Brown will also get a close look during August camp. Both contributed stand-up performances (in spot play) during the Texas High School Coaches Association All-Star game last month. Muckelroy was an AP first-team Texas 4A all-state selection during his senior season at Hallsville while Brown is a 4A second-team all-stater out of Texarkana.

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