West Virginia returns 10 of 11 starters from a top-40 defense in 2010. Despite the returning starters, the linebacker corps is the weakest group on the defense, with not much depth and experience behind the starters.
The lone starter to graduate from last year’s team is middle linebacker Reed Williams. Williams was the leader of the defense and was solid in pass coverage despite his injuries. When he missed the 2008 season due to shoulder injuries, the middle linebacker position was a weak spot, and it took the whole season for his replacements to feel comfortable in pass coverage.
Senior J.T. Thomas returns in his third year as a starter at weak-side linebacker. Thomas is the Mountaineers fastest linebacker, but also the smallest of the three starters. He does not blitz much, which is evidenced by his 0.5 sacks this past season. He was second on the team with 76 tackles. If he plays up to his ability, he should have an All-Big East season.
Pat Lazear is entering his second season as a starting linebacker. Last season, he was a starter at strong-side linebacker, but has been moved to his more natural position, middle linebacker. Lazear led the Mountaineers in tackles last year with 78. While he was an All-Big East performer at strong-side linebacker, his play should improve with his move to middle linebacker. His experience should ease the loss of Williams.
Senior Anthony Leonard will start at strong-side linebacker. As a sophomore in 2008, he started six games at middle linebacker for the injured Williams. With Williams healthy last year, he played sparingly, only to give Williams a break. He is the biggest of West Virginia’s three starters and has been moved to strong-side linebacker where he will play over the tight end. While he is not the most outstanding player, he gives the Mountaineers a solid, experienced player.
Outside of the three starters, West Virginia’s linebacker corps is very thin. None of the backups at any of the three linebacker positions have seen significant playing time.
Backing up Thomas will be redshirt sophomore Donovan Miles. He has seen very little action, playing in three games, mainly on special teams. Miles should play more than he has in previous years, but only to give Thomas a break. Should Thomas miss significant time, Miles will have to step up, which could cause problems for West Virginia’s defense.
At middle linebacker, it will likely be redshirt freshman Branko Busick backing up Lazear. Busick has reportedly looked good in the spring scrimmages, and will see action when he spells Lazear. Once again, his inexperience could be a factor if Lazear were to miss significant time. Busick’s father is former WWE wrestler, Big Bully Busick.
Backing up Leonard at strong-side linebacker will be a native West Virginian, Tyler Anderson. He is a redshirt freshman from Morgantown, and like the rest of West Virginia’s backups, he has very little experience.
In West Virginia’s 2010 recruiting class, they signed four linebackers. Depending on how developed they are coming out of high school, one or two may play this fall due to the lack of depth. It is not an ideal situation to have to rely on freshmen to contribute, but with the lack of depth, West Virginia may have to.
Should any of West Virginia’s starting linebackers miss any significant time, the defense may not play up to its ability with the lack of depth and experience the Mountaineers have at the position.