We continue our Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews by looking at the linebacker position. 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 have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus 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 this unit to improve. Depth is above average to good, with a player or two having the potential to make an All-C-USA Team.
“Great Shape” means all-conference performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth across the board. You obviously want your team to be here.
1. Marshall: Chase Hancock is the leader, as the senior led the team with 128 tackles and 9.5 tackles last season. Fellow seniors Frankie Hernandez and Artis Johnson also return. Marshall is so deep at LB that they are flirting with the idea of moving Juwon Young to the defensive line. Marshall ranked 27th in LB Havoc Rate (a stat that measures tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and tipped passes) and returns every significant contributor from last year’s team.
2. FAU: Azeez Al-Shaair made First Team All C-USA after a phenomenal 2017 season and is the team leader. Rashad Smith also had a great season alongside him in Chris Kiffin’s 4-2-5 defense. The duo combined for 22.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, 20 run stuffs and 9 pass breakups. Improvement could be made here if new coordinator Tony Peccaro brings over his attacking defense from Southern Miss. FAU only ranked 99th in LB Havoc Rate in 2017.
3. Southern Miss: Racheem Boothe was one of the best freshman in the conference last season with 3.5 sacks, 9 TFLs and 22 run stuffs! Paxton Schrimsher was productive too as he chipped in 11 TFLs and 5.5 sacks. Sherrod Ruff returns to a deep group as he had 11 TFLs in 2016 before missing last season with an injury. Jay Hopson promoted Tim Billings to defensive coordinator after Peccaro’s departure and hopes Billings will be able to retain Peccaro’s attacking tendencies.
4. Middle Tennessee: Khalil Brooks emerged as a star last season with 17 TFLs, 14 run stuffs and 7.5 sacks. Chris Melton and Darius Harris combined for 12 TFLs and will have bigger roles with the departure of D.J. Sanders. With Scott Schafer running the defense you can count on MTSU having a solid unit.
5. Old Dominion: Senior Marvin Branch Jr. and sophomore Jordan Young return as ODU’s stalwarts. Young had a fantastic freshman season with 6 TFLs and 12 Run Stuffs. Branch Jr. had 3.5 TFLs and 13 Run Stuffs. Depth isn’t the best though; behind Branch Jr. and Young are a host of LBs who saw the field sparingly in 2017.
6. North Texas: Seniors E.J. Ejiya and Brandon Garner are the returning starters. Last season Ejiya and Garner combined for 18.5 TFLs and 9 sacks. Sophomore Joe Ozougwu had his moments last season and looks primed for a bigger role in 2018 but like the defensive line, UNT lacks proven depth.
7. UTSA: Josiah Tauaefa is still a stud but injuries really derailed his 2017 season. As the only returning starter, the Roadrunners will look to a host of former three-star linebackers in redshirt freshmen De’Marco Guidry and Donovan Perkins to pick up the slack if senior Les Mauro can’t hold down the starting spot next to Tauaefa.
8. Charlotte: The 49ers struggled mightily on defense in 2017, but it wasn’t because of the linebackers. Charlotte returns four of their top five linebackers as Juwan Foggie, Tyriq Harris, Jeff Gemmell and Anthony Butler combined for 24 TFLs and 27 run stuffs. Good enough to rank 42nd in LB Havoc Rate.
9. UAB: There’s huge shoes that need to be filled as Tevin Crews and Shaq Jones were fantastic last season. Former four-star recruit Thomas Johnston will have ample opportunities to live up to the hype this season as a sophomore. Fitzgerald Mofor and Chris Woolbright saw the field and were solid, though they weren’t too great at causing havoc plays.
10. Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs had some pretty lackluster linebacker play last season as they ranked 104th in LB Havoc Rate. Russell Farris was solid but he won’t return due to graduation. Senior Dae’Von Washington returns after leading the team with 57 tackles and 11 run stuffs. A crop of unproven linebackers figures to see significant snaps this season as Holtz brought in three JUCO linebackers; two were three-star recruits.
11. FIU: Tackling machines Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams are now gone. Four of FIU’s six LBs won’t return due to graduation, making this one of their most unproven position groups on the team. Junior Sage Lewis is the only returning starter. Alongside him could be some youngsters in former three-star recruits Jamal Gates, Brandon James or Romelo Brooks. Defensive coordinator Brent Guy experimented with moving Fermin Silva from DE to OLB during spring practice so we could see Silva move here full time during the fall.
12. WKU: With Joel Iyiegbuniwe off to the NFL, this is a group that lacks a proven contributor who can create havoc plays. Senior Masai Whyte returns after compiling 49 tackles, 4 run stuffs and 1 TFL. Ben Holt figures to be the next man up. If he’s not the answer, former three-star Demetrius Cain could be.
13. Rice: Anthony Ekpe is Rice’s top statistical LB. Ekpe recorded just 9 tackles in 2017 as a freshman. Rice’s top three LBs are gone. Yikes. Mike Bloomgren did sign three-star Kebreyun Page but depth is a major concern. Prepare for a youth movement here.
14. UTEP: Just like Rice, the top three linebackers are gone from what was a pretty bad defense and that was with Alvin Jones. Jayson VanHook will be back though as he had a great debut season but missed 2017 with an injury.