March 15, 2008

Spring Preview: The Linebackers

OUTGOING PLAYERS: Paul Williams, Kellen Tillman, Chad Hill

2007 SEASON STATS: Williams (68 tackles, 6.5 tackles for losses, one sack, two pass breakups, one forced fumble); Tillman (29 tackles, one tackle for a loss, one sack, two pass breakups, one quarterback hurry); Hill (13 tackles, one tackle for a loss, one sack)

MOST DIFFICULT QUALITY TO REPLACE: Experience

THE STARTERS: Bront Bird (SLB), Brian Duncan (MLB), Marlon Williams (WLB)

THE COMPETITORS: Tyrone Sonier (SLB), Victor Hunter (MLB), Sam Fehoko (MLB), Blake Collier (WLB), Julius Howard (WLB)

THE OUTLOOK: Like most units on the squad, the linebackers suffered no major losses owing to graduation. Paul Williams was the starting middle linebacker, but he was constantly in and out of the lineup with injuries, and consequently Williams' chief backup, Victor Hunter, played a bundle of snaps. Indeed, Hunter notched more than one-third as many tackles as Williams. Kellen Tillman and Chad Hill were spot players, so, for all intents and purposes, this group returns intact.

The linebackers are a very young cadre, but are more experienced than their youth would suggest. Brian Duncan and Marlon Williams are returning starters, and the aforementioned Hunter played a great deal. Weakside backers Blake Collier and Julius Howard also saw the field. That said, there are no seniors among the linebackers, and only three juniors in Williams, Hunter and Collier. The remaining players, therefore, are underclassmen.

Although experience may be a bit of a question mark, talent among the presumed starters is not. Duncan started as a freshman and finished as the fourth leading tackler on the team. At 240 pounds, he has the size to hold down the middle of the defense, and he has all the mental and personality intangibles. Expect Duncan to blossom into a very fine linebacker in 2008.

Marlon Williams started as a sophomore, and after a slow start, finished the season strongly. He is probably Tech's fastest linebacker, and is very good in pass coverage. And like Duncan, Williams is a cerebral player.

Bront Bird is still a bit of a mystery. He shocked many by avoiding a redshirt year and playing significant snaps in the 2007 season. Defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill clearly likes Bird because he moved Duncan to the inside and elevated Bird to the starting position at SAM. Based upon very incomplete data, Bird is a big, rangy linebacker who rarely gets caught out of position.

Depth, however, will be a concern. Bird's backup, Tyrone Sonier is a redshirt freshman. And Marlon Williams' understudies, Blake Collier and Julius Howard, while familiar with the defensive scheme, have not done enough to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that they could fill in for Williams if he went down with an injury. Collier is fast and Howard has shown flashes in practice, but until they show that they can consistently do the job under live ammo, the jury will remain out.

THE PREDICTION: Brian Duncan is a star in the making and will begin to shine in earnest next season. Eventually, he should develop into Tech's best linebacker since Zach Thomas. Look for him to handle the transition from SAM to MIKE with aplomb and become a force against the inside run. If that prediction holds true, then the Red Raiders will have shored up what has historically been their greatest weakness.

Expect Marlon Williams to make some waves as well. There is no reason whatsoever for him not to continue the improvement he demonstrated over the second half of the 2007 season. Hopefully, he will develop into a big-play linebacker who can make stops behind the line of scrimmage and create turnovers in the secondary.

If Duncan and Williams develop as expected, then Bird will merely need to hold his own to be effective. Nobody expects him to be Jack Lambert right out of the chute, but as long as he does not make many mistakes and become an exploitable weakness, he will have done all one can ask of him.

In summary, as long as this unit does not suffer excessively from injury, it should be more than adequate and a significant upgrade over the 2007 linebackers.


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