We continue our Conference USA preseason position reviews by looking at the linebackers in C-USA. The grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”
To elaborate on the grades, "We'll See" means exactly what it means. We don’t know if that position is going to turn out to be a positive due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth. At this time, there’s no way to know.
“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position but there’s still room for improvement. Depth is probably decent at the position but an injury could be catastrophic.
“Great Shape” means all-conference performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth. You definitely want your team to be here.
Linebacker appears to be the best position unit on defense in C-USA as several teams have at least one stud at the position with talented newcomers waiting in the wings.
1. UTSA: The Roadrunners have the best linebacker in the conference in Josiah Tauaefa. Tauaefa earned Freshman All-America accolades last season and beside him is senior La'Kel Bass. The duo combined for 20 TFLs and 11 sacks in 2016. Complementing them will be senior Marcos Curry who figures to see a bigger role this year.
2. FIU: Senior linebackers Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint are great run stoppers as they combined for 13 TFLs and 3.5 sacks last year. Williams and Wint finished first and second respectively in tackles for the Panthers. Butch Davis signed three three-star linebackers with one of them, Brandon James, already on campus. James was a highly coveted prospect with offers from West Virginia, Vanderbilt and USC so he appears to be destined to become an immediate contributor this year.
3. MTSU: The Blue Raiders didn’t field the best defense last year but that wasn’t due to the play of their linebackers. Juniors Chris Melton and Darius Harris, alongside senior D.J. Sanders, were fantastic at creating havoc plays in 2016. MTSU ranked 52nd in LB Havoc Rate (a stat that measures TFLs, forced fumbles, sacks, and defended passes) and could be even better in 2017 with Scott Shafer running the defense.
4. Marshall: Marshall has the most touted linebackers in the conference. Last year’s LB Havoc ranked an abysmal 105th. But joining Omari Cobb, Frankie Hernandez, and Chase Hancock are former star recruits. Former Alabama commit Jaquan Yulee should be eligible to play this year after redshirting last year due to grades. Miami transfer Juwon Young will be Marshall’s most proven playmaker and three-star JUCO linebackers Donyae Moody and Artis Johnson have already made their presence felt on the field in spring practice. There’s a ton of potential for this to be the best unit in C-USA.
5. WKU: Losing TJ McCollum as a grad transfer to Purdue really hurts the Hilltoppers’ depth entering 2017 as only Joel Iyiegbuniwe returns as a key contributor for this position. Iyiegbuniwe had 10 TFLs and three sacks in 2016. There’s still some upside here though as Masai Whyte and Daeshawn Bertram have the potential to be reliable starters but any injury will force freshmen to see significant snaps.
6. La Tech: Russell Farris and Brandon Durman combined for 10.5 TFLs and four sacks last season and with a year of experience should improve last year’s 122nd LB Havoc Rate. Behind these two is a former three-star in Devin Hamilton and a JUCO transfer in Randy Hogan Jr. who arrived on campus in spring.
7. Charlotte: Karrington King will lead an exciting group of sophomores as Tyriq Harris, Jeff Gemmell, Alex Highsmith and Anthony Butler all showed promise last season. The 49ers played those former freshmen with their seniors last year so we’ll see if the wisdom of the seniors will rub off on the sophomores this year, but with King back this group should at the least be solid.
8. UAB: Shaq Jones is one of UAB’s precious proven commodities on this roster as he recorded 12.5 TFLs in 2014. Beside him will be three-star JUCOs Noah Jones, Chris Woolbright, Craig Kanyangarara, and Zachary Williams along with perhaps the best recruit in UAB history, Thomas Johnston. Linebacker should be a strength for UAB in 2017.
9. UTEP: Jayson VanHook, Alvin Jones and Dante Lovilette were solid last year as they combined for 17 TFLs and four sacks but with Nick Usher gone they need a new starter for their 3-4 defense. These linebackers were tricky to measure as the line should free them to do damage so the Miners are going to need a lot more production than 20 TFLs combined from this group this year.
10. North Texas: As backups, Joshua Wheeler and Brandon Garner were pretty solid last year and combined for 13.5 TFLs and nine sacks. If their defensive line played better these numbers might have been better. Both will be required to hold down the fort with the departures of Cortney Finney and Fred Scott but Garner and Wheeler were both more disruptive than the players ahead of them so UNT should be fine here.
11. Rice: Emmanuel Ellerbee is one of the more underrated players in the conference as he led the Owls in tackles (94) and sacks (3.5) last year. But with the departures of Alex Lyons and Tabari McGaskey the Owls will be playing some green linebackers beside Ellerbee as rarely-used senior Nick Uretsky is the only other returning linebacker to see the field last year. I’m a bit worried for the Owls here but Ellerbee is as good as they come in C-USA.
12. Southern Miss: Sherrod Ruff and Darian Yancey combined for 16 TFLs and 5.5 sacks last year - pretty good for reserves - and will be relied on heavily to replace D'Nerius Antoine and Elijah Parker. Three-star redshirt freshmen JaCorey Morris and Racheem Boothe will have a chance to see the field this year so USM must have Ruff and Yancey seamlessly transition to bigger roles in 2017 for this unit to be as good as last year’s.
13. FAU: Nate Ozdemir was one of FAU’s leaders last year for this unit and with his departure the Owls will need Azeez Al-Shaair to step up. Al-Shaair missed spring practice due to shoulder surgery so some new players emerged in his departure. One of them was three-star JUCO transfer Carson Lydon. But with the amount of injuries suffered in spring from this group, the rotation is still up-in-the-air.
14. Old Dominion: The Monarchs must replace two stalwarts in Anthony Wilson and TJ Ricks. Isaiah Worthy and Marvin Branch saw the field in 2016 but in limited action. With Derek Wilder’s return to the team still up in the air, depth is really thin right now. Redshirt freshmen Lawrence Garner and Zach Lackman were former three-star recruits so perhaps they’re ready to take the field and be the next great ODU linebackers.