The numbers for the linebacker position were in pretty good shape heading into the recruiting season. Georgia Tech has stocked up on some good young players for a few years now and the position has youth and balance.
There are going to be a number of losses at the position as we head toward the 2009 season, though most of the losses consist of guys who weren't key contributors. The two in the group who won't be around in 2009 who were counted on for some playing time in 2008 are Shane Bowen and Tony Clark.
Both were spot starters and played in most every game. Shane's career came to an end with a medical hardship that will prevent him from continuing to push for minutes as a starter on the outside.
Tony spent most of his football career at Tech looking for the place he'd best fit in. He was initially a defensive back but was eventually moved to linebacker after his hard work in the weight room forced him to move closer to the ball. He was a strong contributor on special teams as well.
Liipfert made his way into some playing time as a walk-on and Braman was another who didn't make many contributions on game day.
A good number for Tech to focus on this year for recruiting the linebacker position would be 2-3. Tech signed three each of the last two seasons. Two of the three last year redshirted. Ideally you'd like to get one for each position in a given recruiting class but with the youth and numbers at the position, cutting one scholarship from the LB group and using it elsewhere was reasonable to expect.
Spring Practice Report:
The competition for linebacker this spring will look a lot like it did at the end of the 2008 season. Picking out the starters was actually a pretty tough task given all of the guys will be healthy and active for spring ball. Throw two highly thought of redshirt freshmen into the mix and you could have some fierce competition for every spot on the 2-deep.
Beginning with the first team, I really see four guys as starters. Anthony Barnes, Brad Jefferson, Kyle Jackson, and Sedric Griffin can all be counted on if found in the starting lineup. Who starts will depend on what scheme we come out to defend and who's healthy. The other good aspect of this group is that there is flexibility between positions.
Kyle Jackson, though I didn't list him as starter, is the key to the flexibility. He has found himself playing big minutes as all three positions. By the way he also led the group in tackles last year followed by Griffin.
Griffin is an impact player at the position. His presence is really missed whenever he is not in the lineup. As the only senior member in the LB corp, he'll be the leader of the group and the one with the potential to really change a game. Though not really tall, he's well put together and does a great job of putting pressure on quarterbacks. He had three sacks last year from the LB position.
Barnes and Jefferson are more physically imposing backers. If either puts it all together on the field this year, you could really find your breakout candidate here. Fans for opposing teams may not know much about them now but could by the end of the season. Barnes has been in the program a long time now and has shown flashes of physical dominance. Jefferson has played in each of his first two years at Tech. His progress was slowed by a broken arm early in the 2008 season. He took a while to get back to 100%. Both guys have a lot of upside.
Last year's class comes into play next as all three look prepared to push for spots on the 2-deep. Steven Sylvester is the only one of the three who didn't redshirt last season. With so many injuries to deal with, it was necessary for the coaches to burn a redshirt from this group and Sylvester was the one most ready for prime time. Steven is a ball-hawking linebacker who gets to the ball all over the field. The coaches really liked how he performed this year in practice and in the time he saw the field. He may not crack the starting lineup just yet but he could be groomed as the long-term replacement for Griffin.
The other two from the 2008 signing class are Malcolm Munroe and B.J. Machen. Both guys appeared to have college ready bodies even when they arrived last summer. With a year in the weight room both have certainly developed some more and are physically ready to perform and compete for playing time. Munroe was singled out on signing day this year as a redshirt freshman they were looked to for contributions in spring.
The linebacker group is rounded out by Albert Rocker and Osahon Tongo. Both were big-time recruits but their success hasn't happened instantly. Tongo tore up his knee on the first day of his first practice in 2006. He lost some development opportunities at such an important time early in his career that he's really struggled to move up the depth chart since. He's a great kid and it would be nice to see him start having some success in 2009.
Rocker was part of the vaunted class of 2007. He redshirted his first year on campus, so last season was his first opportunity to game minutes. He played in 10 games, mostly on special teams, and logged three tackles on the season. Sylvester, a true freshman, jumped him for minutes when injuries piled up at the position so it would appear Rocker needs to continue to improve in order to crack the 2-deep. Spring will be a good opportunity for Albert to make up that ground.
Who GT signed:
Home Town (High School): Macon, GA (Westside H.S.)
Other offers included: North Carolina State, Purdue, South Carolina, Wake Forest
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Charles Kelly
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com State Ranking: 52
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 46 (WLB)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
An incoming 5'10", 220-pound linebacker instantly makes me think of another Tech backer who was listed the same way when he enrolled in 2006. That guy is Tech's lone senior LB Sedric Griffin. If Burnett can produce like Sed has then fans will be very happy. If he can produce well and stay healthy then perhaps he could impact the team even earlier than Griffin did. Julian enters GT with a little more acclaim than Griffin did, who made a name for himself late in the recruiting process with a big performance in the Shine Bowl. In my final comparison with Sedric, Mr. Burnett also faired well in his All-Star game – the North-South All Star game.
When asked by Dale McDuffie about his all-star performance back in January, Julian had this to say, "It was a tremendous experience. I played on the same team with some future Tech teammates in Jemea Thomas, Raymond Beno, Chris Crenshaw, and J.C. Lanier. I also played against future teammates in Daniel Drummond and Izaan Cross. They are all great guys and we hit it off real good. If my official visit to Tech didn't show me I made the right choice, this did. I feel we have a great group of guys coming in at Georgia Tech. I know we are all excited about attending Georgia Tech."
Burnett caught the coaches' eyes this past summer at one of the camps. At the time the Tech coaches were not freely giving out offers as they were still trying to assess how the numbers would play out considering the good start they got off to in the 2009 class. GT continued to recruit Julian and Burnett continued to have interest in the Yellow Jackets. In another interview with Dale shortly after he committed to GT, Julian explained the situation with his offer.
"Georgia Tech and my recruiting coach, Coach Kelly, have been upfront with me from the start," said Burnett when asked why the offer took some time to materialize. "They were recruiting me very hard early on and it cooled down some over the summer. Coach Kelly called me about two months ago and asked if I was still interested in Georgia Tech and he said if I wasn't he understood, but that Georgia Tech really wanted me but was in a numbers problem and it looked like a linebacker scholarship would open up and if it did open up, it was mine for the taking if I wanted it. I told him I was definitely interested in Georgia Tech and to keep me informed. Coach Kelly stayed in constant contact with me and that showed me he was man of his word and he called one day and said the scholarship offer was mine if I wanted it."
"You Tech fans will learn quickly that Burnett is a tackling machine. He is just constantly around the football. It wasn't uncommon for him to rack up 15 plus tackles a game at Westside. He is not flashy, but he is strong, he plays well in traffic, and he just has a nose for the football. When he gets on the field, expect for his name to be called immediately."
Scott Kennedy: "An extremely productive linebacker, Burnett has a knack for reading the play and being in on every tackle he conceivably can. A little undersized at his middle linebacker position, Burnett may be better served to play outside in college. Burnett excels in run support because of his vision and anticipation. He's not the fastest linebacker, but he's usually a step ahead of others because of his instincts and anticipation."
Home Town (High School): Sandersville, GA (Washington Co. H.S.)
Other offers included: Clemson, North Carolina State
Lead GT Recruiting Coach: Giff Smith
Scout.com Stars: ***
Scout.com State Ranking: 36
Scout.com National Ranking by Position: 30 (WLB)
Scout.com National Ranking (Regardless of Position): NR
Brandon committed to Tech all the way back in March of last year. By the time spring ball came around for the Yellow Jackets, Brandon was already able to attend Tech practices (along with J.C. Lanier & Emmanuel Dieke) as an assured future team member. Like Lanier and Dieke, Watts also has impressive size for his position. It was pretty assuring as a fan to see Tech start the way they did – all guys certainly passed the initial "look test".
Watts, in fact, received his Tech offer in September of 2007 – the earliest a junior can receive a committable offer. Brandon told GoJackets.com's Jared Kimmel just after that offer, "Georgia Tech has offered me. They are the first one to offer. I went to two camps at Tech, one which was inside the stadium. I also got to see the facilities and the practice field. I liked it and all, I liked the stadium."
It's a good thing for both sides that the offer and commitment came early. It was good for GT to get in so early with Watts because some really good football programs came calling on Brandon soon after – as is customary when GT extends an offer. It was also good for Brandon because he suffered an injury early in the football season and he was locked into a verbal agreement with Tech. With some schools you may not guaranteed that same level of commitment from a coaching staff. A big deal was made about how the Tech coaches held to their word in regards to Dontae Aycock – a case that didn't benefit the player when it came to his scholarship. Here is less publicized case though where the coaches were once again upfront with a player and proved that they were true to their word. And this time it was a benefit for the player because he didn't have to worry that the scholarship would not be there.
"Watts is a football player that is best when close to the line of scrimmage. He spent a lot of time at safety in high school, but he may be best suited for linebacker in college. Watts is explosive and he moves well in space, but he is not strong in coverage. I like for him to be a physical backer at Georgia Tech."
The one who got away:
Mike Gilliard (Georgia)
It was a tough call among three players as the "one who got away." Gilliard was part of the conversation going all the way back to when he attended GT junior day. He was brought up again by fans and through rumors when his high school teammate Antonio Foster switched his commitment from Tennessee to GT. It appears that Foster put in a good effort to get Mike to switch to Tech. Indications are that Gilliard was open to the idea for a time but eventually stuck with Georgia on signing day.
The other two who received consideration as the one who got away were Chaun Gresham (South Carolina) and Nigel Mitchell-Thornton (Tennessee). Gresham committed to Tech early in the process but was swayed to switch to USC-east thanks to his uncle, and former Gamecock, George Rogers. Rogers, beat out Pittsburgh's Hugh Green and Georgia's Herschel Walker for the 1980 Heisman Trophy Award.
Mitchell-Thornton was visible around Tech's campus early on last year. He was at Junior Day and attended – though didn't participate in – one of Tech's summer camps. Nigel had Tech among his favorites list until the Volunteers eventually moved ahead and won his commitment.
Other players who have been linked to Tech in regards to getting an offer along the way this recruiting season include: Ricky Dowdy (North Carolina State), Corico Hawkins (Clemson), Jarvis Jones (Southern California), and Frankie Telfort (Southern California).
The class Tech signed at linebacker this year doesn't have the star power to build a lot of hype around but does include two solid blue-collar type of players. Burnett, as described above, is a tackling machine who'll likely have his name called a lot of times in games down the road. Watts is a former safety who grew into a linebacker. Because of an injury, we really haven't seen yet how far Watts has come in his development.
With the LB depth for Tech looking good, it may be possibly to redshirt both Julian and Brandon. If one is needed though, as Sylvester was this year, Burnett may be the one more physically ready to step in right away.
Overall, three would have been an ideal number to sign but a third one would have also been considered a luxury. It probably makes more sense to look toward the 2010 class instead of taking any chances with a third linebacker who is not a blue-chip type player. Tech coaches are already after several interesting junior linebackers including: Shawn Kitchens, Rip Rowan, Telvin Smith, and Andre Whitmire. All four attended Tech's recent Junior Day.
Thanks to Scott Kennedy, Chad Simmons, Dale McDuffie, Jared Kimmel and Rod Mackenzie for contributions to this article!