Our position series rolls on as we head into the linebacker group. LB is a huge position in college football as defenses are designed for these guys to make tackles and produce negative plays to put offenses behind the chains. Here we’ll tell you where each Sun Belt program stands going into 2017. Make sure you check our previews for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends, offensive lines, and defensive lines. Let’s ride!
Top of the Food Chain
Idaho: Production and Versatility
Offense was the biggest key for Idaho’s turnaround season last year, but the linebackers were the biggest reason the defense stayed competitive. The Vandals ranked 98th in the country on defense, which was good for 8th in the Sun Belt per S&P+. The biggest reason for this was the play of the backers and coordinator Mike Breske gets some dudes back in 2017. Tony Lashley, a 6’1” 239 lbs. junior from Kansas City, was the leader of the group as he recorded 107 tackles and an impressive 70 solo stops. Meanwhile, junior Ed Hall was nearly as productive as the Alaska native recorded 70 total stops. But the biggest impact performer of the group was junior Kaden Elliss. Elliss made plays all over the field as he accumulated three sacks, five interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and three forced fumbles. The Salt Lake City native has tremendous range and caused headaches to offensive coordinators all over the league. Depth is a concern, but this starting group is the best in the conference.
Appalachian State: A Stud in the Middle
The Mountaineers had the best defense in the Sun Belt last season and in the middle of all that was inside backer Eric Boggs. Boggs, a 6’3” 235 lbs. senior from Belton, SC, led the team in tackles and was the leader of the defense. The Mountaineers have some questions at their other LB positions in this 3-4 scheme, but having Boggs back should cover a lot of holes. Outside linebacker Devan Stringer returns and he is quite the athlete. The undersized 200 lbs. LB recorded 71 tackles last season and it would not surprise me if he led App State in stops this fall. Anthony Flory, a 6’2” 235 lbs. junior, will join Boggs inside while sophomore Akeem Davis should step in at the other outside backer position. Rashaad Townes should be a productive contributor off the bench.
Arkansas State: A Stud and Youth
Kyle Wilson, the senior from Wichita, Kansas, returns to Jonesboro after an impressive year where he recorded 79 tackles and 15.5 tackles for loss (TFL). Wilson will get all-conference looks, but we’re not quite sure who his running mate will be. Trent Ellis looked promising in a backup role as a freshman while redshirt sophomore Tajhea Chambers should backup Wilson. In Arkansas State’s 4-2-5 scheme, not many linebackers will see the field so depth may not be a concern. JUCO Ronheen Bingham is coming in and expected to compete with Ellis at the position opposite of Wilson. With an impressive defensive line in front of them, this group will be expected to make a lot of plays.
Texas State: Youth Movement
A lot of position groups are pretty ugly at the moment in Everett Withers’ Texas State rebuild, but linebacker is not one of them. Brandon Lloyd II, a 6’2” 232 lbs. sophomore, was tremendous for the Bobcats as he totaled 141 tackles. The Converse, Texas native should be even better this season and he has some help returning. Gabe Lloyd, a 6’2” 232 lbs. senior, will join London inside in Texas State’s 3-4 scheme. The St. Louis native also put up triple-digit tackles in his first season over from JUCO. Behind these two, a bunch of young guns were thrown to the fire early as Nikolas Daniels, Frankie Griffen, Kumonde Hines, and Hal Vinson all received snaps. Griffen, a 6’0” 205 lbs. junior from Spring, TX, should start on the outside with sophomore Hal Vinson, a Dallas native. The numbers were brutal for the Texas State defense last year, but with this talent at LB we should see some improvement from the Texas State defense in 2017.
Room For Improvement
New Mexico State: A Lot Of Tackles Returning
The Aggies were brutal on defense last year as coordinator Frank Spaziani, former Boston College head coach, had a hard time getting his unit going. However, we saw improved linebacker play in NMSU’s 4-3 scheme. Returning for the Aggies in 2017 will be a pair of triple digit tacklers. NMSU gets back junior Terrill Hanks and senior Dalton Herrington who combined for 216 tackles, 19 TFL, two sacks, two picks, and three forced fumbles. You will be hard pressed to find a more productive duo in college football. Middle linebacker Rodney Butler is gone and he leaves a big void in the middle. JUCO newcomers Lui Fa’amasino and Leon McQuaker figure to fit into the rotation somewhere. Returning from a 2016 injury, Javahn Ferguson will be apart of the mix as well.
South Alabama: Solid Combo
Looking at the USA defensive roster and the Jags have some intriguing personnel in 2017. Linebacker is no different as junior Bull Barge and senior Darrell Songy return to Mobile. Songy, the senior from New Orleans, started his career at Oregon State before moving over to JUCO. Songy was awesome in his first season at USA as he recorded triple-digits in tackles and pitched in 7.5 TFL. He will spend 2017 next to the junior Barge in USA’s 4-2-5 scheme. Barge had 54 tackles as a sophomore and should be much better with another offseason of development. Behind them are some question marks, however, and we’ll see what development the staff can do this fall. Incoming freshman Kendrick Haynes was South Alabama’s highest rated signee and he’ll have the opportunity for immediate playing time.
ULM: The Entire Two-Deep Is Back
The Warhawks, in Matt Viator’s first season, were brutal on defense as they finished second to last in the Sun Belt and 126th overall per S&P+. However, there was some positives to come out of this as coordinator Mike Collins’ defense gained a lot of experience. They get all of their production back at linebacker and contain one of the best Sun Belt’s LB two-deep. David Griffith, the junior from Plano, Texas, is a very impressive looking prospect. The 6’0”, 211 lbs. LB recorded 78 tackles, 12 TFL, and four sacks in 2016. Meanwhile, sophomore Chase Day is not far behind as he had 9.5 TFL and two sacks. Cortez Sisco, Jr. is a very capable backup and the sophomore from Southaven, Mississippi should get plenty of playing time. With a couple of three-star linebackers coming in, Rashaad Harding and Tralon Thomas, the future is bright in the middle of ULM’s 4-2-5 base.
Georgia State: Panthers Will Be In Bad Shape If a Starter Goes Down
Georgia State returns most of their starters off an impressive defense last year and linebacker is no different. Starters Trey Payne and Michael Shaw return to be two of the leaders in the 3-4 scheme of new coordinator Nate Fuqua. Payne and Shaw have been very solid in their careers in Atlanta and they’ll be counted on for big production in 2017. The duo combined for 142 tackles and two INTs. However, Shaw was really disruptive as he tacked on 12 TFL. In a reserve role, junior Chase Middleton showed some big play potential as the Lilburn, GA native had 2.5 TFL and two sacks. This group is fairly big, all weighing at least 225 lbs., so they could struggle with offenses that go lateral and try to stretch the field down the seams. JUCO transfer Jalen Wade should play right away.
It’s Still Ugly
Troy: Replacing Everything
The Trojans defense relies on safeties to make a lot of tackles and that showed up in 2016 as the squad’s second and third leading tacklers came from the secondary. However, linebacker produced the first, fourth, and fifth spots on the Troy roster and all three of those players are gone. There is talent there for Neal Brown’s program, but Troy enters 2017 with an unknown at linebacker. Troy Folsom and Sam Lebbie, both seniors, return and I could see them platooning at the inside backer position. The two combined for 43 tackles in 2016, but Lebbie was the most disruptive of the two as he recorded 4.5 TFL and three sacks. At the bandit spot, a player will be situated at outside linebacker but will spend a lot of time lining up across from the opposing offensive tackle. This individual will be expected to set the edge and occasionally rush the passer. This year, Troy will be leaning on sophomore Zo Bridges to fill this spot. Bridges, a 6’2” 214 lbs. sophomore from Opelika, Alabama, was a solid as a freshman and the coaches have really high expectations for him. Look for true freshman Kevin Nixon to be thrown into the fire early.
Coastal Carolina: Plenty Of Returning Production
Coastal Carolina will enter Sun Belt play pretty comfortable with the linebacker position. The Chants return seniors Kerron Johnson and Shane Johnson and they should lead the way for Coastal in 2017. Shane Johnson will be the leader at middle linebacker in Coastal’s 4-3 scheme and will be looking to improve on his 66 tackles from 2016. Joining these two is the starting lineup will most likely be sophomore Laqavious Paul. The sophomore from Lake City, Florida had a nice rookie season as a reserve and will be counted on for an impact in 2017. The Chants have plenty of guys for experience as upperclassmen Jarius McMillan, James Patterson, and Fitz Wattley have all received playing time. The depth should be solid, but I question Coastal’s talent level at this position.
Georgia Southern: Eagles Are Thin
Tyson Summers came to Statesboro as a defensive guru and he’s going to have to come up with some magic to fix this linebacker group. Southern lost all of its 2016 production and will be very green at the second level of their 4-3 scheme. The Eagles do return senior Chris DeLaRossa, a senior from Longwood, Florida, who recorded 33 tackles last season before injury and he should be serviceable at middle linebacker. After that it gets ugly for Georgia Southern and sophomore Todd Bradley will be leaned on. JUCO transfer Tomarcio Reese will likely be a starter at outside backer.
UL-Lafayette: A Lot Of Questions
The Cajuns were very solid at linebacker last year in their 4-2-5 scheme as Tre’maine Lightfoot and Otha Peters were wrecking balls and the Cajuns finished 5th overall in defense in the Sun Belt per S&P+. However, not much depth was developed in 2016 and Lightfoot and Peters have no more eligibility remaining. Behind the best defensive line in the league, it’s an obvious worry for this unit to be a glaring weakness for Mark Hudspeth’s program in 2017. UL-Lafayette will return senior T.J. Posey and he’ll be counted on to do a lot. The Cajuns really need sophomore Terik Miller to step up after playing sparingly on special teams as a redshirt freshman. JUCOs Brayden Bailey and Julius Perkins will get a golden opportunity for playing time.