With under two months till the season opener at Tulane, let’s take a position-by-position look at the Panthers’ heading into Fall camp, which opens today.
Here’s my position preview of the linebackers.
All stats listed are for the 2018 season. Projected starter(s) are in bold.
Returning: Sage Lewis: (R-Sr.) 6-1, 240, 132 tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack
Romelo Brooks: (Jr.) 5-10, 200, two tackles
Josh Powell: (Jr.) 5-11, 195, 10 tackles, one tackle for loss
Jamal Gates: (Jr) 6-2, 225, 36 tackles, one tackle for loss and one interception
Dimitry Prophete: (Jr.) 6-1, 230, five tackles
Tevin Jones: (R-Soph) 6-4, 225, zero statistics
Rocky Jacques-Louis (Soph.) 6-3, 205, 15 tackles, one tackle for loss and two interceptions
Donovan Georges: (Soph.) 6-1, 240, one tackle
Newcomers: Nasir Carter: (Fr.) 6-2, 225, three-star recruit
Joey Maya: (Fr.) 6-0, 215, preferred walk-on
Ni’Kendrick Carter: (Fr.) 6-2, 230, three-star recruit
Chris Whittaker: (R-Soph.) 6-3, 227, zero statistics (w/Kentucky)
Tyson Maeva: (Sr.) 6-0, 230, 61 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks (w/Boise State)
Heading into Fall: It’s the Sage Lewis show at the linebacker spot entering 2019.
The redshirt senior set a program-record for tackles (132) and has racked up multiple preseason awards. He was named to the Butkus and Nagurski Trophy watch lists and was voted as the preseason Defensive Player of the Year by Conference USA head coaches.
While Lewis is arguably the top linebacker in C-USA, the rest of the linebacking core is talented but unproven.
Jamal Gates should take over the weakside spot and is a capable player who started four games at strongside last season. He’ll provide more speed and athleticism at the position compared to Ed Freeman, who was a bigger linebacker, playing at 250 pounds last year.
Rocky Jacques-Louis is an intriguing talent.
The 6-3, 205-pounder showed the ability to play in coverage, recording two pick-six interceptions last year. However, he’s still not a finished product playing against the run.
Josh Powell played a hybrid LB/DB role against spread offenses and is a valuable player because of that versatility, which allows him to stay on the field in hurry-up situations.
Dimitry Prophete, Donovan Georges, and Romelo Brooks all saw time on special teams last season.
Nas Carter and Ni’Kendrick Carter are both three-star recruits, who won’t be expected to contribute immediately.
Where it gets intriguing, is with the additions of Tyson Maeva and Chris Whittaker.
Whittaker can stand up as a linebacker and play with his hand down as a defensive end, similarly to the role that the team envisioned Fermin Silva in last season.
Maeva, a Boise State transfer, has been one of the best linebackers in the Mountain West Conference for the past two seasons, before leaving the program in March. However, neither player has graduated yet, meaning they would need an NCAA waiver to be eligible to play this season.
Summary: Having Lewis in the middle automatically puts this group in great shape. Yes, he had 132 tackles last season in part to the inadequacies against the run.
However, make no mistake about it, Lewis is a playmaker, who can make stops at the line of scrimmage and excel in coverage.
What will be interesting to watch is how new defensive coordinators Jeff Copp and Jerod Kruse use the linebackers.
The strongside linebacker was split between Tyree Johnson, Powell, Richard Dames, and Gates.
What’s noticeable about those players is that Johnson and Dames are defensive backs. The DB’s saw time in that role, because of opposing spread offenses and the need for a player who can defend receivers.
Here’s an example of Johnson in a 4-3 look, however, he’s serving as a hybrid LB/Nickel.
Above, Johnson is lined up as a linebacker in a “43” look. Below, on the very next play, Johnson lines up as a nickel corner.
How the co-DC’s will choose to counter that look will decide who holds the final linebacker spot.
Position Grade: B - Sage Lewis is an incredible linebacker.
He seamlessly made the transition back to his old high-school position of middle linebacker. Expect the same production from him in 2019 that he put out last season.
However, the rest of the group is still young and slightly unproven. That doesn’t mean they’re lacking talent. As a result, this grade could easily be higher come the end of the season.