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Conference USA Position Previews: Linebackers

Which C-USA teams return the strongest linebacking groups for the 2021 season?

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

College football is roughly two months away. It’s been arguably the busiest offseason in the sport’s history due to the passage of NIL legislation and discussions about tripling the College Football Playoff field.

Still, the on-field product remains the classic game of football we know and love, and when it comes to football, hitting is the most important aspect of the game. Prior to the 2021 season ushering in, here is an assessment at how each C-USA team is in the hitting department and where each program’s respective linebacking corps currently stands:

Great Shape

UAB: The Blazers happily return First Team All-C-USA tackling machine Kristopher Moll... except he transitioned to safety this offseason, thus leaving a new batch of linebackers to follow in his footsteps. But a fresh face enters the field from Death Valley after sitting 2020 out with a redshirt. Outside linebacker Justin Thomas started one game for the 2019 LSU team that finished 15-0 with a national championship. Second Team All-C-USA selection Noah Wilder will control the heart of the defense, where he managed 50 tackles and 4.5 TFLs last fall. Former All-C-USA Freshman Alex Wright will be another key returner, as he has made a name for himself pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Rounding out the stellar group is Deshaun Oliver Jr., a rather inexperienced inside linebacker who managed to force one fumble in limited 2020 action.

Louisiana Tech: Skip Holtz’s Bulldogs are the lone C-USA team running it back with two all-conference linebacker selections. Middle linebacker Tyler Grubbs was one of the best true freshmen in the FBS at any position last year, starting all 10 games for Louisiana Tech and contributing a team-best 96 tackles. The Freshman All-American is joined by outside linebacker Trey Baldwin, a 2020 Second Team All-C-USA selection and one of the better coverage linebackers in the conference. Completing the unit with Ezekiel Barnett (49 tackles, 2 interceptions last fall), Louisiana Tech looks to rattle opposing offenses with one of the strongest linebacking corps in the conference.

Florida Atlantic: FAU’s defensive stalwart Leighton McCarthy is pursuing his NFL dream and is no longer with the Owls, but there is plenty to be excited about in Boca Raton. All three leading tacklers from the 2020 season are back to start at linebacker for a defense which ranked ninth in the FBS in points allowed per game. Caliph Brice, Chase Lasater, and Ahman Ross all chipped in to create one of the C-USA’s elite defenses last fall. The greatest question regarding the unit is who replaces McCarthy as the outside linebacker on the opposite side of Ross. Chris Jones started his first game as an Owl in the 2020 Montgomery Bowl and he exhibits some of McCarthy’s game. In limited action, Jones totaled 3.5 sacks and a handful of QB pressures one season ago.

Caliph Brice recorded 55 tackles and 2 forced fumbles for FAU last season.
Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rice: The best player on the Owls over the last two seasons was Blaze Alldredge, who leveraged his First Team All-C-USA status into a likely starting gig at Missouri via the transfer portal. However, the Owls return three of four starting linebackers from a defense which ranked 12th in the FBS in scoring defense and had considerable success stopping the run. The leader of the unit is inside backer Antonio Montero, who excelled with 83 tackles and 5 TFLs two seasons ago. Returning talent Treshawn Chamberlain and Kenneth Orji hope to stimulate the pass rush from the outsides, but the x-factor of the group is the newcomer to the lineup, Myron Morrison, who steps in to fill the void left by Alldredge.

Good Shape

Marshall: It was bound to be a bittersweet day in Huntington when Tavante Beckett finally graduated. After serving as a force for some of the FBS’s most stingy defenses over the past few years, it’s time to look at the new guard. Middle linebacker Eli Neal rises to become the new centerpiece of the group after ranking second on the unit with 75 tackles last season, finishing strong with 32 in his final three outings. Abraham Beauplan is the other returning starter, accumulating 55 tackles and three forced fumbles on the nation’s No. 1 points per game defense. Marshall’s front seven was dangerous as one of four teams to hold opposing rushing attacks to under 96 yards per game. Stepping into Beckett’s role to sustain that defensive dominance is likely Charlie Gray, a former JUCO signee. Head coaching changes often lead to positional coach house cleanings, so the trio will operate under Shannon Morrison, who served as Marshall’s linebackers coach in the mid-2000s.

UTSA: The Roadrunners have a veteran linebacking group returning from arguably their best team in program history — a group heavily comprised of transfers. The outsides are manned by seniors Clarence Hicks and Charles Wiley, the latter of which invaded backfields for an impressive 10 TFLs in 2020 after coming over from Ole Miss. The inside linebackers, Jamal Ligon and Trevor Harmanson, combined for 145 tackles and 16 TFLs a year ago. Ligon particularly made a mark in the pass rushing facet of the game, checking in second on the team with 4.0 sacks. But the Roadrunners are filled with some of the best depth in the conference at linebacker, especially after adding Denzel Feaster and Dru Prox as transfers from Kansas.

Southern Miss: This is one of the more unsung units in the conference. While the Golden Eagles were bound to struggle in a season that was doomed by a litany of coaching changes, the performance of the linebacking corps gave the team a sense of stability. Hayes Maple (team-high 91 tackles and 8.5 TFLs) locked up an All-C-USA selection due to outstanding play as a strongside linebacker. Middle linebacker Santrell Latham proved to be the most vital piece of Southern Miss’ pass rush with 4.5 sacks as a blitzer. Pass rushing and wreaking havoc in the backfield were also elements of outside linebacker Swayze Bozeman’s game two seasons ago, when he forced a pair of fumbles and handed opponents 4.5 sacks as a major contributor.

Middle Tennessee: Middle Tennessee’s defense didn’t produce the numbers it would have preferred last season, but there is a lot to like about this group, especially at linebacker. D.Q. Thomas has been one of the best in the conference for three years running, notably producing 8.0 sacks and 14.5 TFLs in 2018. With his aggressive rip technique, forced fumbles are bound to be plentiful when Thomas is scavenging the field. Former community college product Johnathan Butler molded well into an FBS starting role last year, and Cody Smith completes the unit after a team-high 8.0 TFLs in 2020.

Middle Tennessee v Florida Atlantic
DQ Thomas has now rattled off three-straight seasons with at least 65 tackles and 7 TFLs.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

We’ll See

Charlotte: It seemed like we never got acclimated to the 2020 Charlotte team due to weekly COVID-19 cancelations and an entire November schedule that featured nothing but postponements. With more continuity in 2021, the defense aims to return to the level of execution from the latter half of the 2019 season. Tyler Murray, an ex-Troy Trojan linebacker, enters his second season with the 49ers after posting a team-best 48 tackles in 2020. Another established linebacker followed in Murray’s footsteps and transferred from Troy this offseason — Justin Whisenhunt. He’ll compete for a starting role to play alongside his former Sun Belt teammate as well as Luke Martin, a seasoned program veteran who seeped into a starting role last fall.

North Texas: The Mean Green ranked in the cellar in nearly every defensive category last season. North Texas allowed 40+ in seven of its 10 games — a feat which it cannot afford to replicate if it hopes for bowl eligibility in 2021. Stopping the run was quite the calamity as opponents stomped on the Mean Green for 270 yards per game. In order to fix that, they hired journeyman coach Phil Bennett to run the defense and Jim Gush to coach the linebackers. Middle linebacker K.D. Davis led the team in tackles in 2020 and he’ll be expected to do the same at the heart of the defense. Outside linebacker Larry Nixon III finished third on the team with 53 tackles and is expected to retain his starting role. The other slot in the 4-3 scheme is likely reserved for Tyreke Davis or Jordan Brown, who split time at outside backer during the COVID-riddled season.

FIU: The shortened 5-game 2020 season is one FIU faithful hope to forget. The run defense was particularly a disaster, and it was exposed in the worst ways by archrival Florida Atlantic in a Friday night showdown to the tune of 381 rushing yards at 7.3 per carry. FIU fortified the linebacking unit this offseason by snagging UCF transfer Eric Mitchell and Texas State transfer Hal Vinson, who should both compete for starting roles on the defense. The primary name to watch of the returning Panthers is Jamal Gates. Utilizing his second senior season of eligibility, Gates shined for FIU with 85 tackles in a 2019 season which featured a more powerful Panther defense.

UTEP: Head coach Dana Dimel hails from a Kansas State program which built an empire off of JUCO and community college players. Now he’s aiming to achieve similar success with such players in El Paso. UTEP’s linebacking corps features a variety of JUCO transfers, including Tyrice Knight — the program’s returning tackles leader. Other potential starters Gary Theard and Connor Helsius, endured a similar route. Two other names to watch for starting gigs include Marshall transfer Breon Hayward and Cal Wallerstedt (son of defensive line coach Matt Wallerstedt). There isn’t much on-field experience within this group, but we’ll see some fresh faces as UTEP enters year two of running a 4-3 scheme under Dimel.

After the departure of Stephen Forester this offseason, Tyrice Knight returns to lead the Miners linebacking group.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Old Dominion: Remember Old Dominion football? After being the lone non-independent program to shut down its 2020 season, the Monarchs return to the gridiron for 2021. The team experienced a massive overhaul in personnel the past two years as Bobby Wilder’s long stint at head coach finally ran out of steam. Even with a new defensive coordinator in Blake Seiler taking over, Old Dominion continues to operate with its standard 4-2-5 defense, a scheme which Seiler coached at Kansas State. Estefano Feliciano Jr., who first stepped on campus in 2017, is expected to take one of those two linebacker roles after playing limited action as a reserve in 2019. The other spot belongs to the talented run stopper Jordan Young, who has consistently thrived as a starter since 2017.

WKU: Defensive coordinator Clayton White continues to utilize the 4-2-5 scheme, lessening the impact of the linebacking corps for this defense. Still, the Hilltoppers need to find a solid duo in order to sustain its solid defense from 2020. Tennessee transfer Will Ignont, North Carolina transfer Matthew Flint, Nebraska transfer Niko Cooper, and JUCO product Christian Gomez all arrive on the scene to battle returning veterans Nick Days and Bryson Washington for the starting spots. The Hilltoppers field the least experienced linebacking depth in the entire conference, so there should be plenty of experimenting early on in the season.