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Conference USA Preseason Position Previews: Linebackers

With half of the 2021 All-C-USA linebackers out of the conference, what does the position look like in 2022?

NCAA Football: New Orleans Bowl-Louisiana Tech vs Georgia Southern Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The highly-anticipated 2022 college football kickoff inches closer every day as we trudge through the dog days of July.

At Underdog Dynasty, it means it’s time for conference position previews. In the C-USA, there is significant turnover among the top linebackers of the conference. Only three of the six all-conference selections from last December are back in the conference for 2022. Additionally, only 11 of the 14 teams from last fall are back in the conference for 2022 due to Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss realigning to the Sun Belt.

With stars such as K.D. Davis and Tyler Grubbs leading the pack, let’s look into each team’s linebacker depth and assess which programs are in the best shape at the position for 2022 and which ones present more question marks:

Great Shape

North Texas: Mean Green faithful was on pins and needles in late June, wondering if the team’s best player was on his way out of Denton, TX. After a brief visit to the transfer portal, middle linebacker K.D. Davis ultimately decided to run it back for Seth Littrell’s squad. Davis’ value to the program is undeniable, and his impact goes beyond the C-USA-best 120 tackles he accumulated in 2021, along with 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Davis’ similarly named partner-in-crime Tyreke Davis, has graduated after ranking second on the team in tackles but North Texas is still loaded with considerable depth at linebacker. Larry Nixon III posted 70 tackles and surpassed the 7-tackle mark in five of his 11 outings last fall. Kevin Wood and Sean Thomas-Faulkner each accrued 52 tackles to their names in 2021, signifying an abundance of veteran talent at this position group. Whether it’s tackling, pass rushing, or coverage, all elements of the game are embedded in the arsenal of this North Texas linebacker group.

K.D. Davis led the C-USA in tackles in 2021. He tallied a career-best 18 tackles in a must-win contest at Rice, which sparked a 5-game winning streak needed to attain bowl eligibility.
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

UAB: Bill Clark’s program has built a reputation of fielding incredible linebacker rooms year-in and year-out. Clark is no longer with the Blazers after announcing a resignation due to health issues, but he left a talented linebacker group for Bryant Vincent and the next regime. Inside linebacker Noah Wilder has an All-C-USA selection on his résumé as well as 228 tackles and 20 tackles for loss in three seasons as a Blazer. After ranking among the top two Blazers in tackles for three seasons in a row, expect Wilder to contend for all-conference honors once again to round out a storied college career. Alongside Wilder is Deshaun Oliver Jr., who made massive leaps and bounds in his game which earned him six starts in 2021. Tyler Taylor and Kelle Sanders are other Blazers who received significant starting reps last year who should sustain UAB’s defensive excellence in the post-Clark era. But it wouldn’t be UAB without a mention of an incoming transfer. This year’s most notable transfer, Jackson Bratton, hails from Alabama and is a former 4-star recruit — rated a top 10 inside linebacker in the 2020 recruiting class by several national outlets.

UTEP: The Miners’ defense made unfathomable progress last season in their return to bowl eligibility, and much of that can be attributed to the front seven. UTEP collected two all-conference defensive selections including outside linebacker Breon Hayward. Hayward produced a team-best 108 tackles and recorded 7.5 tackles for loss in a spectacular campaign, leading the Miners to their most suffocating defense since 2004 in terms of points allowed per game. Alongside Hayward is Tyrice Knight, who also eclipsed the century mark with 101 tackles, complemented with 7.5 tackles for loss. Knight caused havoc all around the field, forcing several turnovers and deflecting four passes for a much-improved UTEP defense. The Miners run a 4-2-5, so the pairing of Hayward and Knight might serve as the best linebacking corps in the conference. Still, depth remains important but the Miners have Gary Theard (16 tackles, one fumble recovery in 2021) as a viable second-unit standout. Witnessing development from Cal Wallerstedt and James Neal could further strengthen one of UTEP’s strongest position groups.

UTSA: The Roadrunners were one of three teams to a land a First Team All-C-USA linebacker last season in Clarence Hicks, but now it’s time to replace 10.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss of production. Pass rushing is UTSA’s greatest need in its linebacking corps, but the Roadrunners’ returning starters are some of the best run stoppers in the conference. Inside linebacker Trevor Harmanson has 177 tackles and 20 tackles for loss to his name over the last three seasons in San Antonio, and he’ll be back to captain a run defense which ranked 14th in opponent yards per game in 2021. Also, the presence of Jamal Ligon makes running even more grueling for other C-USA offenses. Ligon added 64 tackles (second on the Roadrunners) along with two stops in the backfield to his already-impressive résumé last fall. The outside linebacker spots belong to the Taylor brothers — Dadrian and Donyai. Dadrian, the older of the two, leads all returning linebackers in sacks and tackles for loss, so he’ll look to fulfill Hicks’ vacancy. Donyai emerged toward the end of the season with seven tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery in his last three outings. After the success of the unit in Brad Sherrod’s first season as linebackers coach, the returning talent on UTSA’s roster suggests the Roadrunners defense is destined for another stellar season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 03 C-USA Championship Game - Western Kentucky at UTSA
Inside linebacker Trevor Harmanson ranked third in tackles for the 2021 C-USA champion Roadrunners. He kicked off UTSA’s dream season in memorable fashion with a career-high nine tackles at Illinois.
Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Good Shape

Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs are in good shape at linebacker as long as Tyler Grubbs remains on the roster. Grubbs is one of three All-C-USA linebackers to return to the conference for 2022. He posted a loaded stat-line of 97 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, and a pair of forced fumbles in 2021. However, the depth outside of Grubbs remains questionable. After the departure of Trey Baldwin and Ezekiel Barnett, Louisiana Tech must promote new outside linebackers to starting roles. The incumbent roster members who look primed for those promotions are Allen Walker and Brodrick Calhoun, who combined for 23 tackles a year ago. But the Bulldogs also addressed this need for depth in the transfer portal by acquiring a pair of Illinois outside linebackers — D.J. Johnson and Kalen Villanueva — as well as Boston College linebacker Hugh Davis. The three transfers combine for just 22 career tackles but could make instant impact under first-year defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Scott Power.

Rice: The transfer portal caused the Owls’ linebacking corps to lose its most veteran leader in Antonio Montero, who ranked first on the unit in tackles per game and tackles for loss in 2021. Additionally, emerging inside linebacker Desmyn Baker — 43 tackles and 1.5 sacks in his first season at Rice — completed an intra-conference transfer to Western Kentucky. That leaves Rice with relatively inexperienced inside linebacker depth, but the Owls are set at outside backer. Treshawn Chamberlain holds the VIPER role, which is essentially a hybrid between linebacker and safety. He was limited to four games last fall but is easily one of the elite cover linebackers in the C-USA, picking off two passes and deflecting five in his most recent full season. Also, veteran EDGE rusher Kenneth Orji returns for his fifth year as someone who has shown ability to penetrate the backfield. Back to inside linebacker, Myron Morrison recorded 34 tackles last season while replacing former All-C-USA selection Blaze Alldredge as the starter. Morrison will return to the lineup, but his co-partner has yet to be determined. It could possibly be Rutgers transfer Chris Conti, who served a special teams-oriented role in two seasons with the Scarlet Knights.

After missing significant time in 2021, Treshawn Chamberlain is back in Rice’s lineup for 2022 in his signature “VIPER” role, where he operates as a linebacker and safety hybrid.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

WKU: On offense, the 2021 Hilltoppers were primarily renowned for their explosive passing attack featuring record breaker Bailey Zappe. On defense, the primary focus was always pass rushing maester DeAngelo Malone. But the Hilltoppers are equipped with a solid veteran linebacking duo of Will Ignont and Jaden Hunter on their 2022 roster. Ignont and Hunter played alongside each other in the Hilltoppers’ 4-2-5-oriented defense last fall. But with Maurice Crum off to Ole Miss, Tyson Helton added former Georgia Southern head coach and journeyman defensive coordinator Tyson Summers to headline that unit. Summers typically implements 4-3 defensive schemes at his stops, so the Hilltoppers could see a slight adjustment in structure. Ignont is a useful building block for a first-year DC given his versatility — 52 tackles, three sacks, and six pass breakups in 2021. Hunter, who converted from defensive end, is the team’s returning tackles leader with 66 a season ago so his havoc at the line of scrimmage is certainly needed. The addition of Desmyn Baker from Rice should serve as a strong third option at linebacker, especially after the graduation of longtime contributor Demetrius Cain.

We’ll See

Charlotte: The 49ers’ defense has been a struggle for quite some time and the group has not ranked in the top 95 in stopping the run since 2018. For 2022, it will be a fresh batch of linebackers hoping to improve upon these numbers in Charlotte. The team’s leading tackler Tyler Murray relocated to future AAC rival Memphis in the transfer portal and the second leading tackler Luke Martin graduated. But those departures were certainly addressed in the portal as Charlotte hauled in Central Michigan and Kansas State transfers Amir Siddiq and Wayne Jones. While both have shown capability of playing linebacker, Siddiq primarily resides on the defensive line and Jones is most familiar operating in the secondary. Unless either transitions fully to linebacker, it’s about developing the next crop of talent in Charlotte. B.J. Turner has 31 games of experience and 35 tackles under his belt and could possibly make his first start for the 49ers this season. Former South Carolina recruit Derek Boykins joined the linebacker rotation toward the end of last season and collected 13 tackles in seven appearances. Rounding out the projected starters is Prince Bemah, who showed signs of promise in his one start last fall. In a landmark win over Duke, Bemah registered eight tackles including two stops in the backfield to capitalize on his lone starting opportunity.

FIU: The Panthers have the most ground to make up on defense in the C-USA. After posting the fifth worst scoring defense and sixth worst run defense in the FBS, FIU replaced Butch Davis with Memphis defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre as head coach. The seasoned defensive guru will likely run a 3-4 scheme in Miami with incumbent starter Gaethan Bernadel and East Tennessee State transfer Donovan Manuel manning two linebacker spots. Bernadel registered 44 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss as a freshman in 2021 and is the team’s top returner at linebacker. Manuel earned all-conference and All-American honors at the FCS level as his team’s leader in tackles. The duo should be supported in depth by North Carolina grad transfer Alex Nobles as well as sustained talent from the Butch Davis era including A.J. Mathis, Reggie Peterson, and Shaun Peterson Jr., who converted from running back this offseason.

Florida Atlantic: One thing is for sure in Boca Raton. Willie Taggart knows how to work the transfer portal. Florida Atlantic brought in a trio of linebackers from SEC and ACC programs — Jamie Pettway (Missouri), Jaleel McRae (Florida State), and Morvin Joseph (Tennessee). With Pettway in the middle and McRae and Joseph on the outsides, the transfers present a potential starting lineup for the Owls, but there will certainly be competition this fall camp against the homegrown Florida Atlantic talent. Inside linebacker Eddie Williams (44 tackles, five tackles for loss in 2021) and outside linebacker Chris Jones (29 tackles, four tackles for loss in 2021) are the main challengers for those starting spots, and both program veterans could earn Week 1 starting roles with successful summers. Another name of note in the depth chart is Warren Sapp II, the son of the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle and Pro Football Hall of Famer.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 North Texas at Missouri
Bringing in Missouri linebacker Jamie Pettway could have a massive payoff for FAU. Pettway posted 11 tackles in limited action in the SEC last fall.
Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Middle Tennessee: D.Q. Thomas, the Blue Raiders’ most influential linebacker of the past few years, is now jump-starting an NFL career with the New York Jets. Thomas’ 88 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, and two interceptions won’t be easy to replace this season, especially with Middle Tennessee’s second most productive linebacker Jurriente Davis transferring out of the program. Luckily, the Blue Raiders still hold Johnathan Butler on the roster who should provide valuable leadership from the middle linebacker position. Butler pitched in 46 tackles for a run defense which ranked 38th in the FBS last season. Raquon Hartley, who notched a pair of starts at outside linebacker in 2021, is a potential suitor for the vacancy left by the All-C-USA talent in Thomas. The other suitors hail from the transfer portal. Of all incoming Blue Raider linebackers, ex-Louisville recruit Zay Peterson and former Towson starter Christian Dixon arrive with the most experience. However, Timar Rogers from Mississippi State might be another impact player ready to sustain Middle Tennessee’s defensive success after taking a redshirt in Starkville last fall.