Monday, July 18, 2011
Preseason position reviews: Linebacker
By Ted Miller
The Pac-12 welcomes back a number of good linebackers this fall, including five who earned spots on the watch list for the Butkus Award: Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict, USC's Chris Galippo, Oregon's Josh Kaddu, California's Mychal Kendricks and Stanford's Shayne Skov.
But just about every team, other than the Sun Devils, has questions.
So how do things stack up? Read on.
Vontaze Burfict leads a deep group of Arizona State linebackers.
Arizona State: All three starters are back, including preseason All-American Vontaze Burfict, who might be the nation's best linebacker. Further, there's experienced, capable depth.
Stanford: The Cardinal, who run a 3-4, lost two good LBs in Owen Marecic and Thomas Keiser, but Shayne Skov on the inside and Chase Thomas on the outside are all-conference talents, and Max Bergen, Alex Debniak and Blake Lueders have experience and talent. While we don't like to include incoming freshman in this evaluation, we've seen film of James Vaughters and, well, he's good and may end up starting.
California: Two starters are gone from the Bears' 3-4, including mainstay Mike Mohamed, but D.J. Holt and Mychal Kendricks are an outstanding combo inside, while hopes are high on the outside for David Wilkerson and Cecil Whiteside. And there's intriguing young talent, including top guys in an incoming recruiting class.
Utah: Utah loses one of three starters, but standout Brian Blechen moved from safety to "stud" linebacker and looked good this spring. Further, Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez are a good returning combination, and the potential return of former starter Nai Fotu, who was suspended after a DUI arrest in February, makes this a position of strength for the Utes.
Oregon: Sure, Oregon lost multiyear starters Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger, but a regular rotation of backups the past two seasons means there's plenty of experience surrounding returning strongside backer Josh Kaddu. Junior Michael Clay is a budding star, and Boseko Lokombo, Dewitt Stuckey and Derrick Malone are also going to see action. The wild card is MLB Kiko Alonso, a big hitter who had a great spring but is presently under indefinite suspension for a criminal mischief arrest in May.
Arizona: The Wildcats were an interesting case at LB in any event: They began spring with three quality starters back but almost no depth. Then Jake Fischer went down with a knee injury. Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo are a nice tandem, but after them things are murky.
UCLA: The Bruins have plenty of potential here, despite the loss of Akeem Ayers. Patrick Larimore has flashed all-conference ability at in the middle -- a shoulder injury ended his 2010 season -- while Sean Westgate has been a steady starter on the outside. Glenn Love and Jordan Zumwalt are competing for the strongside spot. Redshirt freshman Aramide Olaniyan, Isaiah Bowens, Eric Kendricks and Ryan Hofmeister are also in the mix. A caveat: The Bruins were terrible against the run last year.
Colorado: Leading tackler Michael Sipili is gone, but the guy who would have led the Buffs in tackles -- Jon Major -- is back after suffering a knee injury midway through the 2010 season. Patrick Mahnke and Liloa Nobriga have experience, while Douglas Rippy had an outstanding spring at middle linebacker.
USC: The Trojans lost two of three starters, and Devon Kennard moved back to defensive end, but Chris Galippo is back in the middle. Shane Horton has some experience, but he's competing with impressive redshirt freshman Hayes Pullard, as are Dion Bailey and Marquis Simmons on the strong side. Depth is an issue.
Washington: Cort Dennison is back in the middle, but things are unsettled outside, where Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa made a lot of plays. The post-spring depth chart list seven youngsters at the two outside spots separated by an "or."
Oregon State: Outside LBs Keith Pankey and Dwight Roberson are gone, and it's uncertain if Rueben Robinson will again start at MLB, as he's being challenged by Tony Wilson and Kevin Unga. That said, hopes are high for Cameron Collins and Michael Doctor on the outside. A former safety, Collins has 13 career starts, though only two at LB. Doctor is an impressive youngster with a nice motor.
Washington State: On the one hand, Alex Hoffman-Ellis, C.J. Mizell, Sekope Kaufusi and Mike Ledgerwood give the Cougars an experienced foursome at the position. But after ranking 115th in the nation in run defense, the only option is to wait and see. On the plus side for Cougars fans, this looks like a position that could be dramatically improved this fall.