Ryan Bass grades spring practice position by position; today he takes a look at the linebackers…
The linebacker position at Georgia Tech will probably be one of the most scrutinized positions by its fans this season. With the graduation of all three starters from 2003, even the most optimistic prognosticators have to expect some level off drop off from last year's performance at this spot. It wasn't like it was just some average starters that were here last year either. Darryl Smith and Keyaron Fox were highly ranked pro prospects both drafted in last months NFL draft. Smith was a 4-year starter and Fox was named 1st team all-ACC last season. Fox and Smith also were first and second respectively on the team in tackles with a combined total of 284. The third departing senior was the solid but less hyped Ather Brown, who contributed 30 tackles of his own.
The top returning player at linebacker did not even play the position last season. Gerris Wilkinson was going to be the 3rd starting LB last season over Brown but was needed more on the defensive line with the academic losses of Terron Pullen & Tony Hargrove. He did as good as or better than many thought he would at defensive end and totaled 47 tackles on the season. In the beginning of spring practice he returned to his former position as an outside linebacker. When the coaches had problems finding someone they were comfortable starting at middle linebacker (something I'll touch on later), they decided to move Gerris once again. Wilkinson showed once again that he's the ultimate team player and made another position change without any fuss. Gerris had to make some adjustments for a few practices but I think he performed very well by the end of spring. He's the best talent of all linebackers and has shown the ability to pass rush, tackle and cover receivers from being an OLB and DE for the past two seasons. These experiences will help for this season since he'll be called on to do a little of each. He's not yet what Darryl was at MLB but I don't believe he'll be that much of a drop off.
The next starting spot that was solidified in spring is outside linebacker KaMichael Hall. He filled in admirably in spot action last year for Keyaron Fox. He got off to a surprisingly slow start in spring though. I had seen him all year in practices and games look like gang busters so it was odd seeing him struggle some early on. A couple weeks into practices though he returned to the form I was used to seeing from him. He's tough as nails and a vicious hitter. We didn't work much on it during spring but during the season in goal line drills he was the star. Hall could be the best tackler of all the linebackers. He may still need some work in coverage but he's a guy that won't hurt you by being out there. Key Fox could do so much and was incredibly fast so I don't have those expectations from KaMichael yet but Tech will be able to plug him into the lineup and get a solid year from him. He'll likely have a pretty high tackle total this season.
Going back to middle linebacker; when spring started it appeared to be a two-man battle for that spot between true sophomore Nick Moore and our only rising senior LB Tabugbo Anyansi. Nick had a very rough go of things in the beginning of spring. He was a regular target for Coach Tenuta's verbal wrath. It seemed as though he had trouble being in the right place at the right time and that's an issue Tenuta will just not stand for. He really works hard on positioning and being in the right spots in his scheme and if you're not doing that, he'll find someone else to do it. After only about one week of spring practice Tenuta made the switch to the senior Anyansi. "T" continued to have issues staying healthy so he too was unable to hold the spot down. When he played, Anyansi would have some good practices and show flashes of being a breakout player but I don't think he has shown the consistency that we want out of our middle linebacker. That is why Gerris Wilkinson was moved to the middle, because our coaches know that MLB is an important spot to have solid consistent play. Gerris is the one player of the group they know they can count on to raise the play of the entire group. Nick Moore is solidly built and could be a good one still too but needs some reps as the backup. He'll likely be the main backup and will be just fine in that role but he could also be challenged by a certain freshman many are waiting to get a first look at. Anyansi will probably be the utility man at LB. He'll fill in at times for both the middle and outside spots.
With Gerris moving to the middle our staff made an interesting move to fill in the spot he just vacated. Hard hitting safety Chris Reis was moved to outside linebacker. Many GT fans had been anticipating and hoping for this move for sometime now and finally it was here. He's not big for a LB but everyone knows about his desire to leave and imprint on any offensive player he comes in contact with. The initial results were a little mixed on Reis' move. He made some big plays and lots of tackles as you would expect but he also had an adjustment period on being in the right spots. Additionally, he is now faced with bigger blockers who know he's closer to the line and not as much of a surprise any more. I think he started to work through some of those things but it will probably have to play out some more in fall to see how he's really going to fair at LB since it was a move done later in spring drills. The best part though about having Reis at linebacker is that it's one less personnel move Tenuta has to make when we go into more pass oriented defenses like the nickel or dollar packages. He easily drops back as the 5th defensive back and we don't have to pull a linebacker off the field. And as much as we like to change things up on defense to give other offenses different looks, Coach Tenuta usually has a place on the field where he likes to use Reis. So, he may not always be a traditional LB, he's more of a rover. The point is you'll see him on the field a lot. And as of right now, he's probably starting.
A player I really like that could challenge Reis for the starting spot on the outside is Phillip Wheeler. Honestly I really don't know what the knock is on him at all. I love the way he plays. He's got good size and speed and always seems to be around the ball. If he doesn't end up ahead of Reis, he'll no doubt be the first one off of the bench. We also like to line him up at end on some passing situations as Keyaron Fox did the past couple of years. He's as solid a backup as you could expect to see in my opinion. Rounding out the backups at LB is Kyle Pupello. Kyle moved to LB from fullback this spring. Since he's just moving over there and not made a huge impression as of yet, he could be on equal footing with some of the talented incoming players at this position. I'm sure he'll put up a good battle to keep the true freshmen on the bench in fall though.
The most anticipated of the three incoming linebackers is local product Travis Chambers. He has been to many practices himself and is all business. He doesn't usually socialize like some others do. He just intently watches practice and tries to learn the verbiage. He's a serious, no nonsense kid about football and looks ready to get out on the field and hit. I thought all along during spring that he may be the answer for us at MLB if he's all he's advertised to be. But with Wilkinson moving to that spot, if he's really staying there, then I see Chamber's chances of contributing early being lessened a good bit. Our coaches find ways to put the best on the field so if he stands out early on I guess it's always possible to move Gerris back to the outside. But I think it's less likely he could come out and start right away as I thought might be possible in early spring. One that could make an early impact though is Gary Guyton. He has great speed for the outside and we could really need some help in that area. From talking with his high school coach, I know he has worked hard with Gary this off-season to get physically ready for college football. They were working on bulking him up more to be ready to take on the rigors of the upcoming season. I think Gary has every intention of playing early and getting into the rotation. I feel like he could be the biggest gem in this recruiting class that outsiders know little about. The third in this group is Eric Williams. He too looks like a super athlete with excellent potential. He'll move to LB from the safety spot so he'll likely need a year to grow and learn the position before he's ready to enter the rotation. But he could still be on the field this season as a special teams player. In all, it appears to be a very good incoming class. With numbers the way they are currently at LB, a fine early performance for any in this group could lead to them seeing the field as true freshmen.
Linebacker is a big concern for many Tech fans, and rightfully so with the amazing talent that was just lost to the NFL. But like the Offensive Line, GT always seems to plug new linebackers in each year and seems to get by just fine. The LB play hasn't had a serious drop off with losses of Keith Brooking, Ron Rogers, or Recardo Wimbush in the past and many hope Tech will keep moving ahead with these latest graduations. This replacement group is young but all know how to hit. It should make for an interesting year on defense to follow the progress of this largely untested group.