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Big East Bloggers: 5 Thoughts on LBs
Bearcat J.K. Schaffer
CFN's Big East Bloggers put the conference's linebackers under the microscope
Jon Berke: On who are the Big East’s best returning linebackers?
The Big East saw a significant amount of linebacker talent graduate this past year, with five of the six All Big-East team selections leaving campus, degree in hand - four of them drafted by the NFL (plus UConn senior Greg Lloyd, Jr.). Those five were the third-best conference total in the 2011 draft (behind the Pac-10 and Big-10, both of which had 6).
As such, many Big East defenses will feature new leaders in their linebacking corps. Yet, there are still certainly several excellent, experienced players returning this fall. Guys such as Max Gruder from Pitt, Steve Beauharnais from Rutgers, Daniel Brown from Louisville, and Sam Barrington from South Florida all have the skill and production from 2010 to justify mention as top returning LBs.
However, two players have elevated themselves higher than even that excellent group. Sio Moore and J.K. Schaffer are the only two Big East returning lettermen that had more than 100 tackles last season, and in our opinion the only two players truly in contention as the best returning Big East LB.
Moore, the UConn standout on the outside, brought extraordinary talent onto the field every week in 2010. You don’t get 110 tackles without a surplus of strength and skill. However, his effort level was nowhere near consistent, particularly in regards to positioning and defensive game-planning. He could explode in some games, like the oft-mentioned 17 tackles and 2 forced fumbles he inflicted upon West Virginia in a defensive slugfest, where his performance was key to the Husky victory. But if there's a knock, it's that he needs to do it week in and out.
He has a nose for the ball and loves bringing the lumber - hard. His 11.5 tackles for loss last season - the highest total of any non-lineman - give evidence to that fact. But his game still needed work on other aspects, such as coverage and positioning.
Schaffer, meanwhile, did it all for Cincinnati last season. Schaffer is the only LB for either the First or Second All Big East teams to return to campus this fall (he was a 2nd-teamer). He too finished many a play, with his 111 tackles good for second among middle linebackers last year.
But he was quite capable in coverage as well, bothering backs and tight ends with surprising range for a sizable MLB. Because of his overall skill sets, Schaffer would likely get the nod as the best returning LB in the Big East. Among returning conference linebackers, here are his numbers in the following categories:
Tackles: First, with 111.
Sacks: Tied for second, with 3.
Tackles for loss: Third, with 9.5.
Passes defended: First, with 6 (the only linebacker in the top 20; tied for 12th).
Fumbles Forced: Tied for first, with 2.
Both players should be extremely entertaining to watch in 2011. It will be particularly interesting to see if Schaffer can finally raise his teammates up to his lofty level, or if Moore can bring his all-around game to match the sheer violence of his hitting ability.
Marc Basham: On who will be the conference's next breakout LB?
As Jon noted above, the Big East has a lot of large shoes to fill in the upcoming season at linebacker. While each team in the league has its share of quality talent to fill those slots, Syracuse and South Florida may be the home to the next great talent in this position.
Marquis Spruill, Syracuse - During the resurgence of Syracuse football in 2010, the defensive, which helped to pull the Orange out of the basement of Big East play, was backed by an experienced corps of linebackers led by Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue. In 2011, Head Coach Doug Marrone will look to sophomore Marquis Spruill to carry the defensive load in upstate New York.
While Spruill is no stranger to Big East play, his increased role in the defensive lineup at Syracuse makes him a prime candidate for a breakout season. With a phenomenal freshman campaign under Spruill’s belt, where he recorded 51 tackles and nine tackles for loss starting in the outside linebacker position, this hard-nose player is shifting his focus in 2011, moving into the middle linebacker slot. Questions remain about his size and ability to make the big play in necessary situations, but if the transition goes well look for Spruill to be an enigma for defensive coordinators in 2011.
DeDe Lattimore, South Florida – Some may say that sophomore South Florida linebacker DeDe Lattimore experienced his breakout season in 2010. After all, young Lattimore finished second on the team with 69 tackles and proved to be an impact player that first year coach skip Holtz could count on in late-game situation.
However, a shift of focus to the outside linebacker position has proven to be just what Lattimore needs to make him a household name among Big East fans. Reports out of Tampa this past spring indicates that the coaching staff is expecting great things in 2011. While 2010 may have been his coming out party, look for 2011 to be the year Lattimore makes his full impact on the conference, and a major push towards a successful NFL future.
Randy Gyorko: On which team has the most riding on the LB position?
When having to research an entire league in order to come up with one answer to a very open-ended question, it usually helps to have an answer that jumps off the page. Fortunately, there's one clear answer for this question: the West Virginia Mountaineers.
West Virginia is the answer here for one simple reason: the mysterious 3-3-5 Stack Defense it employs. Hey, it works - once every leap year.
No defense in the history of college football has asked its linebacking corps to shoulder so much of the responsibility. There's a Winston Churchill joke in there somewhere, but the WVU LBs are too busy to find it.
Sure, they have three guys in front of them to take up blockers. Wait - remember the offense will have a minimum of five guys to take care of your three down lineman. Often the offense will have six to your three. This means that on nearly every single snap, your MLB is going up against opposing guards with a head of steam on running plays, or waiting for him in pass protection.
We're not sure of any school in the country that has a 300 pound middle linebacker (unless Levon Kirkland has a son playing at Clemson). But we'll guarantee at least 80 schools with a 300 pound guard. Have you ever tried to push 300 pounds anywhere? (Clearly, you’ve never been cow tipping, or gone to a Sorority Formal in Blacksburg, VA.)
Due to the constant attention WVU's linebackers command in the 3-3-5, it’s no wonder everyone in Morgantown (including Defensive Coordinator Jeff Casteel) is apprehensive about this year’s unit. They are extremely talented, and they are inordinately green. Only Najeh Goode returns from last year’s squad. A unit that helped the WVU defense rank in the top 10 in most defensive statistics nationally (including third in Total Defense).
Goode is the jewel of the 2011 linebacking corps. His 47 tackles were good for seventh on the team. He also was second on the team (behind the insanely talented and equally hyped Bruce Irvin) with 8.5 sacks. How Goode responds to being the leader of the unit will play a huge factor in how this year’s linebackers stack up to last year’s decorated group. Goode will stay outside and will be joined by sophomore Doug Rigg or senior Casey Vance. The middle belongs to sophomore Branko Busick. (Can you think of better name for a middle linebacker - other than perhaps Dick Butkus?) Incoming JUCO transfer Josh Francis should also get some quality snaps.
So, don’t be surprised if you see plenty of highlights of Jeff Casteel shaking his head, IF his linebackers are unable - or unwilling - to step up their game.
Matthew Peaslee: On which Big East school is today’s LB U?
Up until this year, West Virginia could have been known as the “Linebacker U” Mountaineers. Anthony Leonard, JT Thomas, Pat Lazear were all monsters at the position and made up the most feared corp in the Big East.
Now, WVU faces the task of piecing together a young new crop of linebackers.
In the meantime, the South Florida Bulls have risen to become the class of the Big East in the linebacking department.
The tandem of Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore are, hands down, the fiercest LBs in the league. What’s intriguing about these two is their untapped potential which will be unleashed this year.
With 40 solo tackles a year ago, Barrington becomes one of the premier backs for his junior year. Lattimore was second on the team with 69 total tackles. In his second year of full collegiate football, he already has a successful year under his belt and could receive some greater observation from the higher ups in the NFL.
The Bulls have a notoriously touted coach overseeing them, too. Mark Snyder, former head coach at Marshall, is in his second year as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Under his tutelage, 22 defensive players have made the NFL, and already we are seeing that the number could rise in his current position.
Even then, before the Snyder era linebackers have always been solid for USF. The school’s career tackles leader, Kawika Mitchell, has gone on to have the most accomplished tenure as a professional with the Kansas City Chiefs. Mitchell played in the early 2000’s and could be attributed for helping to recognize the program on the national scene.
A few years later, another linebacker, Ben Moffitt, aided USF’s transition to the big leagues of the Big East. Moffitt’s leadership and poise was unmatched in the school’s history and could be considered the most dynamic player in the new Big East era. He solidified the legitimacy of South Florida among FBS programs and showed that the Bulls were here to stay.
Now, it’s up to players like Barrington and Lattimore to follow the paths lead before them by the great linebackers from South Florida.
Scott King: On who will be the conference’s next first round NFL linebacker?
The Big East is a conference full of solid linebacker play, but solid linebackers rarely get picked in the first round of the NFL draft. This year, even above average linebackers didn't get picked in the first round of the NFL draft. Texas A&M LB Von Miller was the only first rounder. The Big East didn't have a linebacker picked until the firth round, when Syracuse's Doug Hogue was drafted by the Lions.
As for the current crop of Big East linebackers, none are projected to be first rounders according to the various extremely early mock drafts for 2012.
One of the players getting the most draft buzz is hybrid linebacker/defensive end Brandon Lindsey from Pittsburgh. Some of the projections have Lindsey playing LB in the NFL, so he fits here. The senior had 51 tackles and 10 sacks last season, mainly from defensive end. Lindsey also led the Big East in tackles for loss with 18. He stepped up a whole lot when Greg Romeus went down. If he can have a big campaign, he could sneak into the first round.
The cream of the crop at linebacker in the Big East is Connecticut's Moore. Even with Lawrence Wilson tackling everything in sight, Moore racked up 110 tackles, had 11.5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks and an interception. Moore led the Huskies in solo tackles with 72, one more than Wilson. Moore is entering his redshirt junior season and definitely has the talent to be an NFL draft pick. Should put up big numbers for a second straight season, maybe he has a shot for a high round. Even so, he'd have to shoot the moon to make the first.
As for the rest of the league, it looks like a bunch of middle round picks. The next first round Big East linebacker crystal ball is very murky indeed. Lindsey is the best prospect for a high pick, but in a way, he doesn't really count. If he's excluded, the next first round linebacker from the Big East is waiting to be recruited.
Please follow Matthew Peaslee on Twitter @pittpeaswv, Scott King@BearcatsBlog , Jon Berke @jonbcfn, and Marc Basham @marc_b.
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