No position has changed more than linebacker. Gone are the days of one dimensional run pluggers with giant neck rolls. Today's linebackers have to be versatile, flexible, fast, physical, multi-dimensional hunters.
Every year the position evolves further away from Dick Butkus and morphs into a more hybrid, specialized position. Let's look at the Roundup's backers.
Travin Howard and Ty Summers are the names to know. Howard was All-Big 12 last season while Summers made 2nd team. The duo were 1-2 in the Big 12 in tackles last season. Howard is a super athletic former safety who's made the transition to linebacker over the past couple of seasons. He's considered undersized at 213 pounds, but he's suited to play a number of roles within TCU's scheme.
Summers is solid at the other side of TCU's 4-2-5 defense. He plays downhill and complements Howard well. In Gary Patterson's defense the linebackers play along with the defensive tackles to man the inside gaps. Summer is specifically gifted for inside play.
Sammy Douglas and Montrel Wilson give TCU two very capable backups. Douglas would start for a lot of Big-12 rosters. Wilson is another uber athletic option.
We've heard of the transcendent possibilities of Malik Jefferson for over two years now. He was the crown jewel of Charlie Strong's recruiting efforts and would be a Pied Piper for recruits and wins. So far the Texas linebacker has flashed potential, but not enough to live up to the hype. Briefly benched in 2016, Jefferson moves outside in Todd Orlando's 3-4 defense. If anyone can truly tap into Jefferson's ultimate abilities it's Orlando.
Naashon Hughes is penciled in on the other side at OLB. He and Jeffrey McCullough are in a battle for playing time, though both will see time regardless of the outcome of the position battle. Hughes is a rangy athlete, moves from a defensive end position to a stand up edge player will be a perfect fit for the odd-man defense.
Inside Breckyn Hager is set to move from defensive end to inside linebacker. Hager's old man was a legendary in Texas' 43 defense. He's an explosive player who can play in any of the four linebacker slots. Orlando wants him inside for now.
Texas' most productive linebacker from 2016, Anthony Wheeler, returns inside. He'll play alongside Hager and provide stability to a linebacking group that is moving a lot of pieces around. Highly rated JUCO transfer Gary Johnson checks a lot of the boxes inside. He'll push Hager and Wheeler for playing time. Redshirt freshman Demarco Boyd may also see time. The Gilmer product spent last year transitioning to full-time linebacker and adjusting to the college game.
Tackling machine Taylor Young enters his last year in a Baylor uniform having already proven he's an elite level linebacker in the Big 12. With 265 career tackles, the 5-10 225 pounder is the undisputed leader of an unproven linebacking corps.
Travon Blanchard and Raaquan Davis were counted on to contribute, but chances are neither will. Davis left the team in a mutual breakup and Blanchard is facing an indefinite suspension. Their absence gives Lenoy Jones Jr. a chance to step up to more playing time. Jones probably plays outside. He does pretty well in traffic and congestion.
In the middle Clay Johnston will get first crack at the position that was ear marked for Davis. Johnston is a versatile player who's played defensive end and outside linebacker. Depth is provided by Eric Ogor who played in three games last season before he was suspended by interim coach Jim Grobe for his attitude.
Redshirt Deonte Williams is a bigger backer who'll play in the middle. Sophomore Jordan Williams might be too good to keep of the field. Meanwhile true freshman Jalen Pitre was picking up the new defensive scheme quickly after enrolling early.
4. Texas A&M
For a period of time in the 80's and 90's the Aggies could rightfully claim title to Linebacker U. That's been a long time ago. John Chavis defense has yet to develop the type of physical athletic linebackers that his LSU units were famous for.
Junior Otaro Alaka is set to start in the middle. He's bulked up to the 240 pound range since arriving on campus. The added bulk hasn't helped Alaka stay healthy. His staying on the field will be a huge bonus for the Aggies. Sophomore Tyrel Dodson returns inside. If Alaka can't go, Dodson will. Dodson can play in the middle or outside. He may be too good to keep off the field.
True freshman Anthony Hines came out of the spring as the starter on the weak side. Hines was the jewel of the 2017 recruiting class. Justin Dunning moves from safety to linebacker and hopes to stay healthy for the first time in his A&M career. If he can, Dunning is the type of athlete that Chavis covets at the position. Three ACL tears into his career it's hard to know what to count on from the sophomore.
Four-star recruit Santino Marchiol out of IMG is the most highly regarded recruit after Hines in the 2017 defensive class. Junior Dwaine Thomas started the bowl game against Kansas State and played in twelve of A&M's thirteen contests in 2016.
The Roadrunners will field two of the better linebackers in the state in sophomore Josiah Tauaefa and senior La'kel Bass. Tauaefa erupted onto the scene as a redshirt in 2016. He registered 115 tackles and made athletic plays look routine. He's a gym rat as well and another season with defensive coordinator Pete Golding should do nothing but grow his abilities. He's also bulked up to 240 pounds which will help.
Film Study: Josiah Tauaefa
Natural, developing linebacker who's potential is vast. Excellent run fits, takes on blockers well. Needs to develop cover skills. Makes the occasional freakish athletic play to keep everyone tuned in.
Bass is a plugger and hard worker who's gotten better every year of his college career. He took a circuitous route to his role at UTSA, but he's a steady hand and brings consistency snap to snap.
Marcus Curry has played in 35 games in his UTSA career with fourteen starts. The senior from Round Rock Stony Point can play either the Mike or Will. Anthony Hickey is a senior who saw most of his action on special teams in 2016. The native of San Juan Capistrano by way of Saddleback JC will be looked to for some rotation play this season. The rest of the UTSA linebackers are green, but a couple true freshman have potential.
Houston is set to deploy another quartet of athletic aggressive linebackers in 2017. The question will be how does Mark D'Onofrio use them? Under Todd Orlando the Cougars regularly deployed 30 to 40 pressure schemes per game. D'Onofrio, at Miami, was criticized for his passive approach. Maybe a year away from the game changes that. Regardless, he has some horses he can set loose.
Matthew Adams should be in line for a big 2017. The senior playmaker started eleven games of the Cougars last season. Lining up next to Adams inside is senior D'Juan Hines out of Spring Dekaney. He made seven starts and flashed a lot of athleticism when his number was called. Jordan Milburn is the heir apparent to Adams and Hines inside. The sophomore from Galveston Ball will be a key part of the rotation.
Outside the Cougars will go to junior Emeke Egbule from North Shore. Ebgule can run, cover, and make explosive plays. The key will be consistency down to down. On the other side Austin Robinson will get a chance to start. The transfer quarterback from UTSA saw action last season on special teams.
Leroy Godfrey and Ralph Harvey Jr. will back up on the outside. Godfrey is a big, athletic player who could be a good one but his sample size is too small to be definitive. The same can be said for Harvey Jr. who saw very limited action after transferring in from the JC ranks.
7. Texas Tech
Dakota Allen was kicked off Tech's squad in May of 2016, spent last season at Last Chance U, aka East Mississippi Community College, and re-signed with the Red Raiders in February. All that and he's the starting Will linebacker heading into fall camp. Allen was the second leading tackler on the team in 2015.
As a true freshman Jordyn Brooks led the Red Raiders in tackles and was named to the All-Big 12 Freshman team as well as Honorable Mention All-Big 12. Brooks, out of Houston Stratford, returns to the middle having gotten his weight up to 24o pounds.
Fellow true freshman Brayden Stringer backs up Allen. Stringer had a lot of reps as a special teamer in 2016. At 5-9, Devonte Hinton is under tall but girthy at 230 pounds. The junior from Texas City is a thumper and plays well in traffic. Butler CC transfer Tony Jones will get a chance to contribute early. He was sought after by Louisville and Baylor among others.
Tech's linebackers will be under stress as the front four is undergoing a massive restructuring.
8. Texas State
Most of you haven't heard of Bryan London, the sophomore from San Antonio Randolph, but you need to. College coaches overlooked London as well. They made a big mistake. London ranked 3rd in the nation with almost a dozen tackles per game. He's the best defender on the Texas State roster from his inside linebacker position.
The second best defender lines up next to London in Gabe Lloyd. Lloyd a senior averaged 8.5 tackles a game. He and London started all twelve games inside for the Bobcats in 2016. Nikolas Daniels and Clifton Lewis back up Lloyd and London. Daniels played in all twelve games as a true freshman.
On the outside of Randal McCray's 3-4 Hal Vinson returns after a rather successful true freshman season. Vinson, out of South Oak Cliff, will line up opposite Frankie Griffin. Griffin is underside at 205, but started the last eight games of 2016. Skyline product Markeveon Coleman will provide depth outside along with true sophomore Kumonde Hines. Hines played in all twelve games last season while Coleman redshirted.
SMU will have some issues on the back end of their defense. They must rebuild a secondary and try to improve at linebacker. Key to those efforts will be development of Kyran Mitchell. Mitchell started all twelve games last season and led the team with 67 stops including six tackles for loss.
He teams with Anthony Rhone to form the linebacking starters. Rhone started ten games in SMU's 4-2-5 alignment. He finished with sixth on the team in tackling. Behind Mitchell and Rhone depth is an issue.
Jordan Williams is undersized at 207 pounds but he was a decent rotation player in 2016. Matt McNew saw action in all twelve games last season but registered just two tackles. SMU is pretty high on Shaine Hailey a true freshman from Bishop Dunne. He was a three star recruit who plays well in space but will need to learn to take on blocks and play inside the box.
Year two of UTEP's 3-4 transition should be better than year one. If anything the linebacking corps of the Miners should be a strength. Inside Alvin Jones and Donte Lovilette are both playmakers. Jones is as active as any linebacker in CUSA or the state for that matter. Lovilette is a downhill thumper who made a huge impact last season after transferring in from the JC ranks.
Film Study: Alvin Jones
Plays better in space. Undersized, but has long wingspan. Needs to use arms more. Relies on athleticism and not technique. Good tackler.
Behind Jones and Lovilette the Miners are scrambling a bit. Ventura JC transfer Kalaii Griffin will be counted on to provide depth. Griffin is a converted safety and we'll see how he adjusts nearer the line of scrimmage. Treyvon Hughes converts from running back to inside linebacker and tries to recover from an injury that cost him 2016.
The Miners lost both starters on the outside but look to be better athletically on the edge. Lawrence Montegut will step in on one side and the other side should be a battle between Jayson VanHook and Dylan Parsee. VanHook was named All-CUSA Freshman in 2016. He can be an explosive player, but he was sidelined this spring with academic issues. Parsee, also a sophomore, played in ten games last season.
Wake Forest grad transfer Julian Jackson will be on campus this summer and ready to contribute. Jackson is a rare edge athlete and can be an elite pass rusher. With him in the rotation, the Miner linebacking corps can go from good to dangerous.
11. North Texas
Anthony Wheeler was a big time playmaker for North Texas in his first year on campus. The transfer from Tyler JC thrived in Troy Reffett's multiple, attacking front that gives players like Wheeler the versatility to bring heat from a number of positions. He and Calvin Minor will play the "Jack" linebacker.
Inside Brandon Garner is the filling some large shoes inside after the graduation of Fred Scott and Courtney Finney. E.J. Ejiya, a senior Minnesota of all places, gets the opening nod at the Will position. Garner and Ejiya finished sixth and seventh in tackles respectively.
Behind them things get dicey. Oklahoma Baptist transfer Zack Bishop sat out last season due to transfer rules. He had a very good spring and rose up the depth chart to backup Ejiya. Likewise Garner's backup Colton McDonald came to North Texas via West Texas A&M. Neither have seen real live FBS bullets yet. Redshirt Corey Mann is another unknown on the depth chart inside.
Rice will build around All-CUSA selection Emmanuel Ellerbee. The senior from Houston Strake Jesuit is the bell cow of the Owl defense and a special player. The Owls lost Alex Lyons so Ellerbee needs some running mates and some players to fill in outside in the newly formed 3-4. D.J. Green or Nick Uretsky will play inside with Ellerbee. Both are seniors that will play a larger role than in any other time in their career.
Film Study: Emmanuel Ellerbee
Instinctive player. Plus athlete. Great run fit, plays downhill and physical. Good command of defense. At times not a steady open field tackler.
Sophomore Uzoma Akunebu is the next most experienced linebacker, which is to say he's seen the field. He played in six games and made two tackles. Who plays outside is anyone's guess. Ellerbee and Lyons carried such a huge load last season and now with the defensive switch, we'll get to see some new contributors in 2017. We look forward to meeting them.
New defensive coordinator Brian Stewart is looking for explosiveness on the edge and isn't averse making a few position changes to get there. Safety Martin Nwakamma played some linebacker in the spring. At 210 pounds he's undersized but should use his speed to an advantage. Bryan Womac and Graysen Schantz both transition from defensive end to outside linebacker. They'll be asked to set the edge as well as have more coverage responsibility.
Dylan Silcox a RS freshman from East Chambers, makes the move from safety to outside linebacker as well. Dylan James, a walk-on from San Antonio Johnson, played with the first team in the spring game. At 6-4 and 215 pounds he's the kind of rangy athlete you can build up to set the edge.