THE FRONT SEVEN- Linebackers

This is the next installment of a multi-part series analyzing every facet of the 2001 Vanderbilt Commodores. The series analyzes the personnel, coaching, and intangibles from each functional unit of the team, and will culminate in an overall analysis and season prediction. Today, I'll break down the linebackers and my thoughts on our front seven overall.

DEFENSE -- THE FRONT SEVEN

by: Golden Hammer

linebackers
Outside Linebackers

No.NameHeightWeightClassHometown
40Nate Morrow6-4248R-Sr.New Concord, OH
42Marty Morgan6-3220Fr.Canton, MS
47Hunter Hillenmeyer6-4232Jr.Nashville, TN
50Libnir Telusca6-3225R-So.N. Miami Beach, FL
51Luke Hammond6-3220R-Fr.Wetumpka, AL
52Jovan Haye6-2240Fr.Fort Lauderdale, FL
57Andrew Gardella*5-11219Jr.Charlotte, NC
95Eric Byrum6-4235Fr.Grove City, OH

* walk-on

Inside Linebackers

No.NameHeightWeightClassHometown
34Mike Adam6-3235Jr. Hales Corner, WI
38Moses Osemwegie6-0205Fr.Nashville, TN
39David Meadows6-2221Sr.Hoover, AL
41Antuain Bradford6-0 231Sr.Batesville, MS
44Pat Brunner6-3246R-Fr.Cincinnati, OH
46Otis Washington5-11220Fr.Saginaw, MI
59Paul Meadows6-2225Fr.Birmingham, AL
90Doug Wolford6-3241R-So.Lexington, KY

The Breakdown

  • 14 scholarship players excluding walk-ons and Wolford, who could be unavailable pending the results of his legal situation
  • 5 upperclassmen (one includes David Meadows, primarily a long snapper)
  • 9 underclassmen (8 are freshmen or redshirt freshmen)
  • 2 of 4 returning starters
  • Only 4 of 9 have who are eligible to do so have redshirted, and one of those is Hammond, who was forced to use it after his falling accident
  • 5 have seen action at this position

Analysis

When breaking down our linebackers, one really must begin with the two stalwarts of the group, seniors Nate Morrow and Antuain Bradford. Morrow has become the unquestioned leader of the defense through the winter, spring, and summer programs. On the field he has been instructing, encouraging, exhorting, chastising, and generally taking charge of not only the linebackers, but the rest of the field. Reports are that he has been doing the same thing in the weight room and during individual workouts as well. Needless to say, he has been filling the role as a team captain superbly. Though his vocal leadership is somewhat new and necessitated due to the departure of Jamie Winborn and Matt Stewart, his leadership by example has always been present. Despite his prototypical size, Morrow came into the program relatively unheralded. Yes, he had offers from other D1 schools, but he was very much considered a "regional recruit" by the scouting services and self-proclaimed recruiting gurus. He took his redshirt year, and ever since that time he has improved with each season. Over this time he has gotten bigger and stronger, to the point that he is one of the most finely conditioned players on the team. He has improved his technique, which is most readily noticed in his improved tackling ability (an area in which he struggled some initially). Morrow should be a rock of consistency for this defense, both on the field and off. Though he is a greatly different player, Bradford has been on a very similar track as Morrow, except for a redshirt year. Bradford, who for a short time played fullback, has shown steady improvement throughout his career. He quietly compiled quite a junior season, as one of the team's top tacklers and pass rushers. Bradford has a similar style of play as a Jamie Winborn, and he will need to raise his aggressiveness to an even higher level to overcome his lack of size and the defense's need for an additional playmaker. Bradford is tough enough to fill that bill.

Solid experience and leadership fill one inside and outside position, but there are gaping holes at each of the open spots. Hunter Hillenmeyer filled in quite admirably at times last season on the outside, and he absolutely shined during stretches of the win at Kentucky. Hillenmeyer was making key plays during the game's high-pressure fourth quarter. He cannot be expected to completely fill the shoes of Matt Stewart, but he should be expected to be competent with tremendous plays sprinkled in during his junior season. Maybe the most critical hole to be filled on defense is the inside or "Mike" linebacker position. We know it is gaping hole, because we faced the same situation for the first two games of 2000, due to Jamie Winborn's suspension. Losing a superstar of Winborn's caliber was not something the defense was able to overcome. The outcomes were losses in two very winnable games, and surrendering an average of 31 points for both games, one of which came from a sub-par Alabama offense. The main difference is that there was not even a full week to prepare for this eventuality, as NCAA restrictions on practice time make preparing backups to locked-up positions very difficult. Mike Adam was forced into playing before he was ready, and as a result raised questions about his ability to compete in the SEC. Since that time Adam has been preparing for a probable starting role, and part of that preparation has been the loss of about 10 pounds. Before last season Adam was pushing towards 250 pounds, and though it was almost 250 pounds of densely packed muscle, it was probably too much for him to carry and maintain enough quickness on the field. Adam is now slimmer, and hopefully quicker. Beyond his physical attributes, Adam must show the ability to be in the correct position at the correct time. This was a major weakness for him in his two starts, but it was something he was much better at later in the season. Adam seems to have all of the physical tools needed to succeed, and now he must demonstrate his knowledge of the defense, instincts, and mental toughness. Adam is in a neck and neck battle with big Pat Brunner. Brunner is an imposing figure on the inside, who wreaked havoc on the scout team as a true freshman, but excelling on the scout team and contributing in the SEC are very different things. Brunner is a solid tackler, and would likely do a good job plugging running lanes on the inside. However, he does lack the experience that Mike Adam was able to gain in 2000.

Backing up the inside will be Moses Osemwegie, David Meadows, Otis Washington, Paul Meadows, and Doug Wolford. There are no sure things amongst this group. Wolford may or may not see a snap of action this year, due to his summer run-in with a Northwestern football player. Wolford is big and aggressive, and if he is available, he will certainly be a capable backup. David Meadows is a senior who has only seen special teams action. While he has proven to be an excellent long snapper, he cannot be counted upon to add depth to the inside. David's brother Paul is a true freshman, as are Osemwegie and Washington. Irrespective of their talent levels, it is quite risky to count of true freshmen to serve as the linchpin of the VU defense, as VU inside linebackers are expected to be. Washington does have enough size to function at this time, and Osemwegie has the motor. However, neither appear ready to step in at this time.

If there is uncertainty about the capability of some starters there is more amongst the rest of the backups. A prime example is the fact that the fate of one of the team's finest athletes is currently in doubt (though nothing is final the team does not expect him back). Outside linebacker Brandon Walthour has been praised ever since his move to linebacker two years ago. His talent and blazing speed are unquestioned, but questions always seem to surround him. He has been suspended for a full year, dismissed from the team, reinstated as a walk-on, and now he is appealing his latest dismissal due to academic problems. Walthour would add a modicum of experience to the group and a world of talent. His abilities in rushing the passer are irreplaceable. If eligible, Walthour would have started at times, but would have certainly seen many snaps per game. As the situation stands, we must and are assuming that he will have to be replaced. The most buzz this preseason has surrounded true freshman, man-child Jovan Haye. Haye certainly does not look like a freshman, and he has not performed like one thus far. Haye is strong and rugged enough to stop the run, and athletic enough to exert pass pressure from the edge. He will see time right away, but his playing time will initially be spot duty to spell starters and in pass rush situations. Libnir Telusca created a similar buzz during his freshman year, which set expectations for his redshirt freshman year unrealistically high. He possesses wonderful athletic ability, but his knowledge of the defense lagged behind his athletic talents. Thus far he has shown a knack for rushing the passer, but deficiencies in positioning and covering receivers. As a positive he has seen spot duty in SEC play, including the down the stretch against Tennessee last season.

The other key backups to this group are just as untested. Luke Hammond is second on the depth chart one year after falling 120 feet down an elevator shaft, which is absolutely stunning to ponder. Hammond is a redshirt freshman, but he did not have the opportunity to go through much of the fall preparations in 2000, though he does have the advantage of a completed spring practice. Hammond was turning heads last fall prior to his accident, and hopefully he can return to provide solid depth. The only other players on the roster look to be headed for redshirt seasons. Marty Morgan and Eric Byrum are both true freshmen, who will likely only play unless injuries or other types of attrition thin the ranks at outside linebacker.

Outlook

Quite honestly, on paper this appears to be Vanderbilt's weakest group of linebackers since Woody arrived at Vanderbilt as Rod Dowhower's Defensive Coordinator in 1995. The group has never seen this much uncertainty, inexperience, and lack of depth under Woody's watch. That is not to say that the group is without talent. There is some talent in the experienced starters, and from all appearances the freshmen seem to have talent. But playing as a true freshman in a defense as complex as VU's is a tall order. Injuries to any of our experienced linebackers could be disastrous for the position, as depth comes mainly from players who have yet to encounter a single snap of college football. These facts are quite scary when most of the defense's production is supposed to be generated from linebacker. I think Morrow, Bradford, and Hillenmeyer are on track for good seasons, but there is not a superstar/tackling machine in that mix. Ideally, a situation without injuries, this group can be a middle of the pack group of SEC linebackers. That would be a step down from the dominating units we have featured since 1996. If one were to look at the situation pessimistically, injuries and lack of depth could hamper this group against defending both the run, especially inside, and in the short passing game.

FRONT SEVEN Overall

Analysis

There are plenty of causes for concern when considering the possibilities of the front seven. For instance returning starters and significant contributors account for fewer than half of 2000's tackle total for the front seven. Things get even worse when you isolate that statistic to linebackers only, who are the focal point of any 3-4 or Woody Widenhoefer defense. Returning linebackers tallied only 163 of 381 tackles made by linebackers last season. Bradford and Morrow enjoyed solid junior seasons, but inexperienced players and questionable depth will make up the other half of our linebacking corps. With the heavy emphasis placed on linebackers at VU, this is a scary proposition.

On a positive note, this group could have a significantly improved pass rush. Crosby, Conyers, and Morrow are legitimate threats rushing from the outside. Antuain Bradford has also been effective coming through the middle of the offense for pass pressure. He lead the team in quarterback pressures and also brings with him the highest number of sacks from 2000, when his numbers equaled that of Jamie Winborn. Though they may improve the pass rush, it will need to see great improvement to equal that of our SEC peers.

I see stopping the run as a continued problem for this group, especially in the later stages of games. It is likely that the inexperience that dominates this group will limit the rotation of linebackers and defensive linemen, which will not go unnoticed by SEC offensive coordinators and gameplans. In close games, we should expect to see offenses test our front seven's stamina, and the more physical teams should be able to exploit this weakness throughout the course of a game.

Crosby, Morrow, and Bradford have an established record of improvement and consistency for the most part., but in order for this group to rise above its poor 2000 season and the losses of highly important players the following things will need to happen:

  • The open inside linebacker spot will have to be covered at least by committee.
  • Hunter Hillenmeyer will need to build on the momentum he gained in his excellent performance at Kentucky.
  • Wally Conyers must complete his game to be an effective run stopper. This will create a more flexible and less predictable rotation at defensive end.
  • Brett Beard must live up to the accolades given him by the coaching staff.
  • At least one freshman linebacker must prove he knows the scheme and is capable of playing in practice at the inside and outside positions.
  • Avoid injury to Crosby, Morrow, or Bradford.
  • Overall tackling must improve, especially at linebacker.

One thing is for sure, this unit's margin for error is razor thin.

Predictions

  • A more solid secondary will allow for more risk taking by the front seven, and a return to the aggressive VU style of defense we have seen in the past, such as more blitzing, stunting, and disguised formations.
  • This more aggressive style will mask the departure of Nicoll, Winborn, and Stewart in the flashy categories such as sacks and tackles for loss, but factors such as over pursuit and a lack of back up tacklers after the initial wave will expose the defense's weakness in stopping big plays from opposing running games.
  • The VU defense will eclipse last years low sack total and produce closer to 25.
  • The starting seven will miraculously slide through the season without a season-ending injury to a starter, due to improved conditioning overall.
  • We do not see a substantial improvement in rushing defense. Opponents will gain approximately 175 yards per game on the ground.
  • Bradford leads the team in tackles and Hillenmeyer jumps into the top 5.
  • Doyle Crosby triples his output in sacks to 6, and increases his tackles for loss from 2 to 8.

Comments on this column? Contact me at goldenhammer@vandynation.com


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