Unlike some years prior where the likes of Patrick Willis, Karlos Dansby, and Demeco Ryans led Western Division defenses, Eric Norwood, Rennie Curran, and Brandon Spikes have moved linebacker conversations among the Southeastern punditry out of the Central Time Zone. Of course, this is not meant to denigrate linebacking corps in the West, but simply to observe that at the start of 2009, the flashy linebacking names are not the Western Division. Nevertheless, there are some exceptionally strong overall squads.
The Tide have a pair of solid linebackers, both of whom have continuing eligibility after 2009, in Dont'a Hightower, a sophomore, and Rolando McLain, a junior. The two combined for 159 tackles in 2008. Of course, there's nothing quite like a Sugar Bowl replay to remind us all that 'Bama lacked some depth at linebacker in 2008 (and continues to do so). Tim Gayle of The Montgomery Advertiser expects Nick Saban to turn to one of three newcomers - Nico John son, Tana Patrick or Petey Smith - to fill the third spot and the others to contribute to improved depth. The fact that he still has two hypothetical years of eligibility, coupled with the fact that Alabama may well start a true freshman at linebacker for the second straight year, is why this is still so funny.
Hog fans are excited about the young Jerry Franklin, the freshman All-American, who pulled down 87 tackles in 2008 at middle linebacker. Franklin returns along with Wendel Davis and Freddy Burton, who were each in the Top 50 in overall tackles in the SEC. In fact, no SEC linebacking corp returns the experience that Franklin, Davis, and Burton have. Then again, most of their experience was less than uplifting. Dead last in rushing defense. Dead last in total defense. Dead last by almost a touchdown in scoring defense. Franklin was at Media Days and said, "You're going to see the same players out there, but not the same players." If he means what one might think he means (and is not just exercising typical Arkansan grammar), these boys might be the leaders of the SEC's worst-kept secret turnaround.
Year-in, year-out, Tommy Tuberville's Tigers were the most reliably tough defense in the conference, so it is a bit of a jolt to read where one of the writers at Track 'Em Tigers exclaims, "Auburn's linebacking situation scares me to death[.]" Similarly to their in-state rivals, Auburn has some top returners in Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes, but is still trying to figure out the third spot. Scout calls the linebacking corp one of the strengths of this defense, though, and expects JUCO transfer Eltoro Freeman to fill a spot outside and calls sophomore Adam Herring the "unsung star on the rise." Defense, obviously, was a regular focus of development and recruiting under Coach Tuberville, so anyone expecting a big step backwards under former Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik will likely be disappointed.
Talk about a shuffle. Harry Coleman, moved out of an LSU secondary deeper Dead Sea oil wells, is moved to OLB from safety. A stocky 6'1" 240-lbs Perry Riley returns on the other side. Kelvin Sheppard, who led among the linebackers in tackles (behind Coleman) seems to have been shuffled out. And Jacob Cutrera, the senior with two starts in his career, takes over for Darry Beckwith in the middle. Les Miles, though, said he really sees himself as having four starters, since Sheppard will likely see significant time in the middle AND on the outside. This is where the other folks in the SEC start wondering if Les is willing to share some of the wealth.
K.J. Wright is the returning star for the Maroon and White, who are being told to sit patiently and pretend that 2009 is not really happening. Linebackers, though, will be that bright spot on Scott Field (no, not the "lighter" spot on Scott Field where Bully "does his business). Jamar Chaney, who received an extra season of eligibility because Mississippi State continues to draw of its "Croom Good Will" Points with the NCAA he had ankle problems, is the leading returning tackler. Chris Low expects State to rely on Chris White, JUCO transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast, to contribute to the third spot. The fact that he enrolled in January and participated in spring practice contributes to the comfort level Carl Torbush has with this group.
If anyone wants to be able to keep calling Red Cup Rebellion a homer blog, turn back now. Linebackers is not the strongest unit for the Rebels. Stacked up against each other, the Rebels' best linebacker (Patrick Trahan?) is not better than the best linebackers at the divisional rivals. In fact, Ole Miss is the only school in the division not to return a linebacker in the Top 50 in overall tackles in 2008. So, it is fair to say that there are no "stars" in the group. Further, while the Top 4 linebackers - Trahan, Jonathon Cornell, Allen Walker, and Lamar Brumfield - are all SEC-caliber athletes, the rest of the depth chart is less than inspiring - people like Trey Trip, who has three career stops (if you include Spring Games). Jason Jones, who posted a team-high six stops in the Grove Bowl, and Marques Jenkins are the best hopes to fill out the depth chart.
On a conclusory note ... perhaps the pre-assessment was more negative than necessary - though not from Oxford, it was not. While maybe not full of all the sexy First-Team All-SEC players (Patrick Benoist thinks you are a confusing inclusion, Rolando McLain), the West has solid players and even a few units that will be the strength of their defenses.
Somebody call the Hogs and tell them they're not last in something!