This is the sixth in a series of articles ranking the Sun Belt Conference football teams unit-by-unit.
Several Sun Belt teams have to rebuild their linebacker groups, as all of the All-Sun Belt players at that position have moved on, except for a couple of honorable mentions. With the defensive lines at most schools also in heavy flux, linebackers will play a big part in which defenses excel or fail this season.
1. Arkansas State
Last season, injuries looked like they would derail A-State’s linebackers before the season even got underway. One year later, the additional experience makes this group easily the conference’s deepest.
Junior Demario Davis is at the beginning of the best-linebacker discussion, not only for ASU, but also for the entire Sun Belt. WalterFootball.com lists him as one of the top 10 outside linebacker prospects for the 2012 NFL Draft, and his versatility is a prime reason why.
Last season, Davis made 80 tackles, 8 of them for loss, along with three sacks from his strong side position. His greatest highlight, though, may have been his 75-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Red Wolves’ narrow loss to Iowa. He’s a former high school wide receiver who’s grown into a 6’3”, 231-pound frame.
Senior Javon McKinnon appears ready to take over a full-time position on the weak side. Injuries held him to nine games last year, of which he started five.
McKinnon made 53 tackles, but has taken criticism because he spent little time in the backfield (only one half tackle for loss) and did little to deter opponents’ passing games (no pass breakups). He’ll need to make bigger plays to avoid being the target of opponents who want to avoid Davis’s side of the field.
In the middle, the Wolves may begin with the relatively diminutive Nick Nelms. The 5’11”, 215-pound sophomore recorded 10 tackles and an interception in his reserve role last season.
Nelms’ competition appears to come from fellow sophomore Nathan Herrold. The much bigger Herrold (6’2”, 234) was performing well (41 tackles in nine games) in reserve roles all over the field before a knee injury derailed his season. He may resume that sort of versatile fill-in position while the coaches continue to assess his fitness.
Senior Darius Glover was preparing to begin last year as the strong side starter until an injury ended his season before it started. In 2008, Glover recorded 54 tackles and a sack. Now, he’ll settle in behind Davis unless coach Steve Roberts and his defensive staff can concoct a way to get both guys on the field together.
Senior Najel Byrd is expected to back up McKinnon on the weak side, but he’ll have to hold off JUCO transfer Michael Lombardo. Lombardo recorded 59 tackles, 12.5 for loss, and seven sacks for College of the Sequoias (Calif.). Byrd’s had four years in the program, but only five appearances in that time, recording two tackles.
Senior Grant Fleming will man the middle this season, sliding over from the strong side to fill the shoes of All-Sun Belt performer Antwyne Zanders. Fleming, a 6’4” 232-pounder, was second to Zanders with 89 tackles last season. With only one tackle for loss last year, Fleming’s not a threat to blow up backfields, but he should be a strong, steady signal-caller for the Cajuns’ defense.
On the weak side, senior Daylon McCoy begins his third season as a linebacker after shifting from strong safety. He was fifth on the team with 55 tackles in only nine games before suffering a knee injury. If he’s fully healthy, McCoy has the ability to disrupt backfields and improve on last year’s 4.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and team-high three quarterback hurries.
Junior Devon Lewis-Buchanan looks like he’s going to be penciled in on the strong side. Like McCoy, he was a defensive back, but in high school rather than college.
Despite being just short of 210 pounds, Buchanan made 24 tackles in a reserve role. With his build, it seems that he may be better suited for the weak side, where he would have more free space to roam.
Junior Richard Brooks made 10 tackles in only four games before suffering a knee injury. He’s a 6’2” 235-pounder with ability to make plays in the middle. There’s a possibility that if Brooks can impress the staff, he may prompt Fleming moving back to the strong side.
Redshirt freshmen Brandon Nash and Andrew Hebert are expected to play reserve roles on the outside. Nash is another undersized guided missile at 5’11” and 210 pounds. At 6’2”, Hebert has been said to have the look of a future all-conference performer.
While Nash nurses a shoulder injury that’s expected to keep him out of at least one game, junior Kyron Benoit has worked on the strong side in scrimmages. In a scrimmage a couple of weeks ago, Benoit was able to intercept a pass near the end zone for his team’s only takeaway.
Trojans coach Larry Blakeney has to replace two stars in his linebacking corps. Bear Woods and Boris Lee combined for 270 tackles last season alone, including 35 for loss. That kind of production will be difficult to replace, but the Trojans do have some veteran talent returning.
Junior Xavier Lamb will have to replace Lee’s production and leadership in the middle. He lacks prototype size, measuring only 5’9” and 220 pounds, but no one questions his toughness. Lamb recorded 36 tackles last season.
On the weak side, 235-pound junior Donnell Golden will have to fill Woods’ enormous shoes. Golden started twice last season and managed 37 tackles. His athleticism is off the page, as he holds Georgia state high school records in the 400-yard dash.
Senior Daniel Sheffield has the starting experience that Lamb and Golden lack. He started 12 of Troy’s 13 games last year, making 54 tackles. The 6’3” athlete has occasional difficulties in pass coverage, but isn’t prone to missing tackles.
Sophomore Kanorris Davis is expected to back up Sheffield after being a dangerous presence on special teams last season. Davis made 21 tackles last season and showed an ability to crush ball carriers, forcing three fumbles.
Another sophomore, 235-pound Jacoby Thomas, has shown the coaches an ability to wrap up runners in practice, but lacks game experience as part of the defense.
4. North Texas
The Mean Green defense had difficulties stopping anyone last season, but when stops were made, it was often the linebackers forced to make them. This group has some experienced athletes, and two heralded JUCO transfers are expected to add some depth.
Senior Craig Robertson was named to the preseason All-SBC team on the strength of his 107 tackles. He’s a rock on the outside, but needs to be a bit more disruptive in opponents’ backfields. He made only 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss last season.
In the middle, senior A.J. Penson started last season’s second half after Tobe Nwigwe went down to injury. Penson’s recorded 51 tackles each of the last two seasons as a part-timer, so UNT fans are anxious to see what he can do as the man for a full season.
Beyond the 220-plus-pound Robertson and Penson, there’s not much size in the group, but athleticism is in great supply.
Jeremy Phillips is expected to hold down the left side after starting the last three games there. The sophomore runs like a defensive back, which is appropriate since he’s built like one (6’2”, 200). He made 37 tackles last season, and coaches see pass-rush potential in him as well.
Junior college transfers Brad Graham and Forlando Johnson are both in the area of six feet and 210 pounds, but they both have speed, versatility, and toughness to burn. They’re both considered talented enough to work anywhere, but on the first-week two-deep chart, they’re listed as the outside backups.
Sophomore Daniel Prior is listed as the second-stringer in the middle after recording seven tackles in 10 appearances last year.
The entire group needs to make more plays on the opponent’s side of the line of scrimmage. Penson and Robertson lead the returnees with three tackles for loss in 2009, and Robertson’s 1.5 sacks are the only ones made by this season’s group.
5. Florida Atlantic
The Owls have a new defensive coordinator in longtime linebackers coach Kurt Van Valkenburgh, and his former pupils may see some serious benefit from the change. Players have praised the defensive scheme for being “simplified,” but it remains to be seen how the players will execute the system.
Senior Michael Lockley would likely have topped 100 tackles if not for a late-season illness that cost him three starts. The 6’3” 245-pounder didn’t miss a game, but was limited late in the year. Despite his 7.5 tackles for loss, there’s a feeling that he could be even more disruptive in a more aggressive defense.
Malik Eugene returns on the strong side. Eugene recorded only 34 tackles despite starting 10 games last season. A 6’3”, 230-pound senior, Eugene needs to improve either in the pass rush or against the run before the Owls’ staff finds a better option.
Redshirt freshman Alex Pattee is set to be penciled in on the weak side. The 6’2”, 240-pound athlete was recruited by schools like Arizona State and Colorado, but the starting spot appears to validate his choice of FAU. He may contribute heavily to the team’s pass rush.
After the three well-built starters, sophomore Yourhighness Morgan brings the most impressive size to the field, measuring 6’3” and 245 pounds. He’s expected to back up Pattee.
Sophomore David Hinds was the man who relieved Lockley late in the season, and will once again caddy in the middle. He made 24 tackles in his spot work.
Redshirt freshman Toney Moore is listed as Eugene’s backup on the strong side. His 4.5-second 40-yard time should be a tremendous asset in FAU’s pass rush.
6. Western Kentucky
WKU’s making a transition from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3, and the move bodes well for the linebacker depth by definition. Two starters return, one changes position, and the reserves appear likely to contribute.
Senior MLB Thomas Majors was one of only seven Sun Belt players to record 100 tackles last season, but he came up lacking in big play potential. Only three tackles for loss and one interception are numbers that need to increase for Western to increase the number in the win column.
Chris Bullard made seven starts on the outside, and the 243-pound senior may benefit from letting the ends duel with offensive tackles this year. Bullard racked up 46 tackles, but no sacks. This phrase may recur later.
Senior Orlando Misaalefua started six games at strong safety last year after moving from linebacker. Now he’s back at the second level to make plays closer to the line. He racked up 48 tackles in only eight games, but no sacks.
Mike Gothard started eight games last season and is expected to fill in wherever needed. The 6’1”, 225-pound senior racked up 39 tackles, three for loss, three forced fumbles, but no sacks.
Expectations may have been too high for 6’2”, 223-pound Tyran Golden in his freshman season. Predicted to be a frequent rotation player, Golden instead saw limited time in eight games. He recorded seven tackles, but no sacks.
Better results were attained by Golden’s classmate Josh Carter. The 6’1” 245-pounder will caddy for Thomas Majors and prepare to take over the middle next season. Last year, he rolled up 19 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and in an unheard-of development for a WKU linebacker, a sack.
7. Middle Tennessee State
MTSU may have lost more linebacker production than anyone outside of Troy. Danny Carmichael and Cam Robinson were both named second-team All-Sun Belt. Rick Stockstill’s staff, led by new coordinator Randall McCray, has to break in some inexperienced replacements.
Sophomore Justin Jones will have to fill Robinson’s shoes on the weak side. The 5’11” 210-pounder managed 26 tackles and three for loss in a solid freshman year. He can contribute in the pass rush, but may get swallowed up by big, agile blockers in the run game.
Darin Davis recorded 38 tackles in what was primarily a reserve role, except for one start against Troy. Now, the junior’s listed as the strong side starter. Like Jones, the 6’1”, 206-pound Davis will have to rely on his quickness to make plays.
The lone returning starter is former strong-side man Antwan Davis, who has the unenviable task of replacing Carmichael, the defense’s heart and soul last season, in the middle. In 10 starts, Davis racked up 52 tackles. Despite his 6’1”, 218-pound frame, Davis has proven that he can hold up against the run, and may need to provide several assists for the men on either side of him.
Redshirt freshman Stephen Roberts is the most heralded of the reserves, as several preseason analyses list him as a player likely to break out this year. He’s 6’3” and 229 pounds, and is listed as Antwan Davis’s backup in the middle.
Junior Gorby Loreus racked up 24 tackles last season, including five against Maryland. He was a prominent special teams performer, but now should be a factor at either outside LB spot.
Redshirt freshmen Craig Allen, David Jones, and Roderic Blunt are also listed on the early two-deep.
8. Florida International
FIU’s defense was the second-worst in America last season, and if there’s to be improvement, it will quite likely be led by their linebacking corps. Even though the group lost 100-tackle man Scott Bryant, they still have some experience. Health may be the biggest concern, especially if the line doesn’t improve.
Senior Toronto Smith showed ability to blow up backfields last season, turning out nine tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks among his 50 stops. If the 5’11” 225-pounder is turned loose on the pass rush, he could be a contender for All-SBC honors.
Junior Aaron Davis’s 6’1”, 245-pound frame is well-suited for the middle, and his production should be retained in the starting lineup somewhere. He finished third on the team with 59 tackles, also carding 7.5 stops for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Sophomore Winston Fraser may get the opportunity to beat Davis out for the middle position after missing half of last season. In those six games, he made 28 tackles, three for loss.
Sophomore Kenny Dillard appears likely to ascend into Bryant’s spot on the opposite side from Smith, a move based more on potential and athleticism than game production. In eight limited appearances last year, he made only two stops.
Another sophomore, Markeith Russell, produced a bit more with 17 tackles last season.
An additional option in the middle may be yet another sophomore, Larvez “Pooh Bear” Mars. Mars is attempting to recover from an injury that’s limited him in practice and may affect his previously unlimited range.
ULM knew they had one loss coming, that being co-Defensive Player of the Year Cardia Jackson. Another one came as a bit more of a surprise when sophomore DaCorris Ford, a projected starter on the outside, was dismissed from the team for rules violations earlier this week. The Warhawks now face a highly rushed patch job before their September 11 opener against Arkansas.
To replace Jackson, junior Jason Edwards has been promoted from his special teams duties, where he recorded 19 tackles last season. The 5’11” 235-pounder has the coaches’ every confidence that he can be a reliable tackler inside.
Sophomore Cameron Blakes is listed as the replacement for Ford on the outside. Blakes is expected to be solid in pass coverage. He benched 365 pounds in high school with a 455-pound squat, so coaches aren’t terribly concerned about him breaking down in run support, either.
Theo Smith is the only returning starter left, and the 6’2”, 215-pound senior could be in position to post All-SBC-caliber numbers. Racing Jackson to the ballcarriers, he still managed 57 tackles, six for loss, and 3.5 sacks. He may be capable of making plays sideline to sideline, and if Blakes and Edwards fall down on the job, he may have to.
Senior Troy Giddens, once a top recruit for LSU, has taken a circuitous route to the final season of his collegiate career. He suffered a knee injury in 2008, quit the team after one game last year, and is now back to see his career out as part of the outside rotation.
Junior C.C. Carpenter is small for the inside (5’11”, 225) but scrappy. Like Edwards, his time has mostly been spent on special teams.
Scott Henry covers the MTSU Blue Raiders on his radio show 4 Quarters, airing on WMTS 88.3 FM in Murfreesboro and streaming live at wmts.org. Podcasts may be found at Starr*Rated.
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