Linebacker was not a particular strength last season.
Inexperience was one factor: Tech entered 2008 with no returning starters at LB.
Injuries were another factor. Brad Jefferson missed games two through five with a dislocated wrist and didn’t regain his starting job until Nov. 8 at North Carolina. Kyle Jackson battled a sore Achilles (though he only missed one game). Shane Bowen’s career ended due to a neck injury. Sedric Griffin hurt his knee against Miami and missed the Georgia game. Anthony Barnes missed two games with a shoulder injury, then broke his leg against UGA. You get the point.
As a result, Tech played two linebackers and five DBs a lot. And speedy linebacker Tony Clark was used as a hybrid LB/safety called “Husky.”
We’ll see that again this season as Cooper Taylor moves from safety to what they’re now calling “Wolf.” Safety Mario Edwards, Barnes and LB Malcolm Munroe also could see time at the hybrid spot.
I asked linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary if we’d ever see Griffin, Jefferson and Kyle Jackson (the top three true linebackers) on the field together.
“We’re going to have different looks where we’ll have three true linebackers in the game,” he said. “We’ll have a bigger butt in the game — you don’t want that slender butt when people are trying to run the ball on you — so we will definitely match that.”
Griffin (53 tackles, 8 for loss, 3 sacks in 2008) has looked awesome in spring practice. You hear it when he hits someone. Jefferson is running with the first string. But don’t count out Jackson (61 tackles in 2008), who can play inside or outside, as a possible starter.
“Coach Johnson is big on competition and if a guy is outplaying another guy, we’re going to jump him in front because we want to put the best 11 out there,” Jean-Mary said. “The guys who started the Chick-fil-A Bowl are the ‘ones’ right now, but it’s an open competition.”
Here’s what Jean-Mary had to say about Jefferson: “The No. 1 thing is he’s healthier, and has a better grasp of the system, which is helping him play faster. I think he’s taking more ownership of the middle linebacker position, which is traditionally the leadership position on the defense…He’s a year wiser, a year smarter, been through the wars. He’s been up to Athens, to Blacksburg even though he didn’t play, been to North Carolina where we kind of got our noses bloodied. And he’s better for it.”
I asked who has stood out among the backups.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with Steven Sylvester. Kyle Jackson is obviously solid as usual, and B.J. Machen has made some plays, made some strides,” Jean-Mary said. “The biggest positive is we’re building some depth. We had the injury bug bite us last year. We feel like if that happens again this year, we’ll be ready for the long stretch of games guys will have to fill in for.”
Jean-Mary said he’s noticed a huge jump between Year 1 and Year 2.
“You have to remember we were going through a totally different mindset on defense, where we changed our philosophy from a blitz team almost every play to more of a true 4-3, cover 2-type of team,” he said. “But I think now the guys have hit the ground running. There’s a lot of carryover from what they did last year. You can see they’re playing faster. They don’t seem as confused. They’re not thinking as they’re trying to make a play. It’s made a big difference.”
Barnes, who could be used at the hybrid or OLB, agreed, saying “there isn’t a lot of thinking. Everybody is playing faster, playing more physical and not making as many mistakes.”
Griffin — the only rising senior in the group — said the linebackers are tired of hearing about how they were the weak link last year. He said they’re eager to prove they can lead the defense.
“We feel we can do a lot of things that a lot of people can’t,” he said, noting the speed and athleticism among the linebackers.
The unit’s added experience can’t be overestimated, he said.
“You see things that you never saw before. You learn how to attack your opponents. It’s a big advantage, playing 13 games,” Griffin said. “Even the second and third team, they’ve got retention of the plays. So everything is almost like second nature.”
So what are your expectations for this group of linebackers?