Linebackers continue to evolve as college football grows more in favor of the offense. Not only do they have to battle with 300-pound linemen, but they also have to find a way to cover guys who run 4.4-40’s downfield. It’s not easy being a linebacker, but the AAC actually has some talented players with bright futures.
1. Tulane: The star of the defense is Dorian Williams, a long and rangy linebacker who can do a little bit of everything. He will be the player bring versatility like Patrick Johnson did to the defense. Marvin Moody and Nick Anderson return at linebacker as well to bring a plethora of starting experience that this group will love having on their side.
2. Cincinnati: Linebackers Darrian Beavers and Joel Dublanko both used their extra year of eligibility. Brody Ingle, Daved Jones Jr., Wilson Huber, and Jaheim Thomas should all rotate in as well. Ty Van Fossen gets to play the Sniper position, and already showed his potential even in limited reps. Now, he’s the starter and should flourish.
3. Navy: It all starts with Diego Fagot. The tackling machine brings a fierce competitiveness to the defense, and brings back 188 career tackles (24.5 for loss). Joining him will be Tama Tuitele, who produced 51 tackles last year. Nick Straw also returns at the Raid position, and John Marshall also gets thrown into the mix in the trenches at the Striker position. They’ll need that experience with the three guys in front of them bringing less of it.
4. Tulsa: The loss of Zaven Collins would hurt many programs in a big way, but Tulsa lessens the blow by returning everyone else. Justin Wright figures to benefit the most from Collins’ absence, as he’s a tackling machine who plays the game full speed. Treyvon Reeves might replaces Collins’ STAR position, and gives Tulsa another playmaker who can rush the passer, drop back in coverage, and stick his nose in the trenches to find the ball carrier. Oklahoma transfer Jon-Michael Terry gives this defense another talented player at the second level too.
5. ECU: Xavier Smith and Bruce Bivens are natural playmakers who play the game a million miles an hour. Jireh Wilson played the linebacker/defensive back role for the Pirates, and his athleticism allows him to run with receivers and play in the trenches. He’s set to have a bright future, especially if he can produce a monster year for the defense.
6. USF: The position most stable on this team features two All-Conference type talents in Antonio Grier and Dwayne Boyles. They return as the top two tackler for the Bulls, and bring back 11.5 tackles for loss from last year. Grier and Boyles can make plays anywhere on the field, and it gives USF leadership that helps get new players into position. The depth behind them remains a question, but Demaurez Bellamy gives this group another option.
7. SMU: The Mustangs lose a veteran in Richard McBryde, but return both Delano Robinson and Trevor Denbow. Denbow also can serve as an emergency punter, and Robinson led the team in tackles last season. Shane Hailey played a role in the rotation last year, and will get a chance to be the starter. Sonny Dykes also made a splash by adding former Oregon linebacker Isaac Slade-Matauitia, who started for the Ducks all season.
8. Memphis: JJ Russell leads an experienced group. Zay Cullens, Jalil Clemons, and Thomas Pickens all saw significant playing time last year and Keith Brown Jr. can also play a big role at linebacker. There’s plenty of talent in this group, but can it transition to production on the field?
9. UCF: Eriq Gilyard returns as the leader of the defense. Tatum Bethune had a big year last year for the Knights and is back as well. The loss of Eric Mitchell hurts, but there’s a ton of excitement surrounding Gilyard and Bethune. UCF might even see a player or two emerge under the new staff’s watch.
10. Houston: Donavan Mutin will bring a hard hitter who deserves more recognition. Doug Belk’s defensive staff also moves Deontay Anderson up from safety. Jordan Carmouche, Mannie Munnery, Elijah Gooden and Malik Robinson figure to see more time this year in the rotation. JoVanni Stewart was listed as a linebacker this year, but that could be the nickel role in Belk’s system this year as Stewart is comfortable playing near the line of scrimmage.
11. Temple: William Kwenkeu returns after leading the team in tackles in 2020. Kobe Wilson is a young and rising player who can become a big time playmaker for the Owls. Transfers could play a big role for Temple’s entire team this year, so contributors are mostly up in the air at this point.