No one will ever confuse Missouri for a linebacker factory of sorts, a moniker that deservedly belongs to schools like Penn State and USC, but the Tigers have produced their fair share of solid playmakers at the position over the past few years.
Sean Doyle was an all-conference performer for three straight seasons from 2000-02; James Kinney garnered All-American buzz and Butkus Award candidacy during his senior season of 2004; and Dedrick Harrington made the switch from safety to earn All-Big 12 honorable mention as a linebacker in 2006.
And as the program has grown under Gary Pinkel, the linebacker position has steadily become infused with more and more talent.
Entering a season in which so much uncertainty abounds, the linebacking corps in 2009 will bring at least a semblance of familiarity. Two starters return from 2008, at the weak side and in the middle, leaving an open casting call at fall practice to determine who will occupy the strong side.
Depending on how you choose to look at it, the battle for that final spot could be a real plus. The linebacking corps is as deep as it's ever been in Columbia, which means that whomever emerges with the starting strong side job will be supplemented by an assembly of capable backups.
Linebacker should (emphasis on should) be one of the stronger areas on the entire Missouri team in 2009.
Pinkel knows what he'll get out of tackling robot Sean Weatherspoon, and junior Luke Lambert has the look of a star getting ready to break out. As far as the third spot goes, you could plug in any name from the depth chart and this would still be a solid corps, which is a testament to the position's depth.
But the best news? With the exception of Weatherspoon, who will be a sure-fire first-round pick next April, every player on the depth chart should be back for 2010.
Sean Weatherspoon (6'2", 245 lbs., Sr.)
It will be a sad day when Weatherspoon plays his final game in the Black and Gold. After receiving a favorable evaluation from the NFL following his junior campaign, "Spoon," arguably the best linebacker in school history, decided to improve his draft stock and return for his senior year. That's when all the preseason accolades started to accumulate.
Weatherspoon (12) is the vocal leader of the MU linebacking corps (Stl P-D)
A consensus preseason All-American selection, Butkus Award candidate, and All-Big 12 pick, Weatherspoon is not only the most talented player on the Tigers' defense, he is its most outspoken. He plays with a passion and a fire few can match, and he will not hesitate to transfer that energy into telling his teammates when they are doing something wrong.
Setting up camp at his familiar weak side linebacker spot, Weatherspoon will be entrusted by defensive coordinator Dave Steckel to make a majority of the pre-snap reads and adjustments.
Versatile enough to play the pass just as effectively as he does the run, Weatherspoon—who has averaged 136.5 tackles and four sacks each of the last two seasons—should benefit from Missouri's switch over to a 4-3 defensive alignment, which will allow for a considerable amount of freedom on the edges of the defense.
Weatherspoon is the face of the Tigers' defense. In fact, some may contend he has taken over as the leader of the team, with a close runner-up being sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert. That's debatable, but this is not: After last season's debacle, which has consequently led to many national publications predicting Missouri to finish in the bottom half of the division, Weatherspoon has set the tone for 2009 by placing an enormous chip on his shoulder.
If he gets enough help around him, it's conceivable that Weatherspoon could post one of the best seasons for a linebacker in college football history, which would certainly make him MU's first-ever All-American linebacker and all-time leading tackler.
Luke Lambert (6'3", 235 lbs., Jr.)
Unfortunately for him, Lambert was often brought to the sideline when the Tigers employed a five-man secondary last year, giving way to Weatherspoon and Brock Christopher. But that's not to say the junior from Brookfield, Mo., is short on talent.
Like Weatherspoon, Lambert figures to benefit from the new 4-3 scheme, an alignment that is constructed to keep three linebackers and a pair of two-deep safeties on the field for a majority of the game.
When Lambert did see the field, he showed why he was one of the more highly touted recruits from the state of Missouri in 2007, posting a sack to go along with 46 tackles last season, including a season-high eight against Colorado.
Penciled in as the starting middle linebacker for 2009, Lambert, though slightly smaller than his predecessor, Christopher, is tough enough to take on bigger blockers at the point of attack and quick enough, with his 4.6 speed, to run outside the hashmarks.
Andrew Gachkar (6'3", 230 lbs., Jr.)
Flanking Lambert on the other side will likely be Gachkar, who is currently listed atop the depth chart at strongside linebacker because of his speed. While being recruited out of high school in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2007, Gachkar recorded one of the fastest shuttle times in the country, even outperforming a large number of wide receivers.
It's that kind of speed that has the Missouri staff excited about Gachkar's ability to turn and run with receivers downfield, which he'll be asked to do frequently in Steckel's defensive plans.
Of course, much could change between now and the Sept. 5 season opener, especially during the waning moments of preseason camp, when one or two unexpected players always seem to creep up from the far reaches of the depth chart. But, as of now, the job belongs to Gachkar.
Josh Tatum (6'1", 235 lbs., Jr.)
If you enjoy falling victim to hype, then Tatum is your player. Entering his first season in the program buried on the two-deep, a scenario that was compounded by injury in the spring, Tatum holds all sorts of promise for the future. The only issue is that his body has prevented him from showing it.
Juco transfer Josh Tatum takes instruction from Dave Steckel (Col.Tribune)
With the exception of Weatherspoon, the 21-year-old Tatum just may be the most seasoned defender on the Missouri roster—and he hasn't even played a down of Division I college football. Originally a member of USC's 2005 recruiting class (he also received offers from Miami, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Oregon), Tatum—rated as the nation's No. 7 outside linebacker prospect—redshirted his freshman season at Los Angeles while rehabbing an injury to his knee before transferring to San Francisco City College, where he became of the best junior-college linebackers in the country.
When Missouri showed interest, Tatum soon bit, signing a letter of intent last December. A player with tremendous strength and blazing speed, Tatum figured to be shoo-in to make the Tigers' roster almost instantly, but a nagging back injury prevented him from participating in a majority of spring drills.
As has been Gary Pinkel's mantra each summer, players pursuing starting jobs will have to earn them, regardless of talent level, and Tatum is no exception. Unfortunately for Tatum, however, it appears likely he'll have to wait at least a year to show his prowess.
Head coach Gary Pinkel announced on Aug. 10 that Tatum may be forced to file for a medical redshirt for the upcoming season due to complications from back surgery in May. This is surely a setback for Tatum, who was expected to contribute at least on special teams, but he will still have two seasons of eligibility left in Columbia after 2009.
You can find more of my positional breakdowns of the 2009 Missouri Tigers at Examiner.com.
Lead photo courtesy of Columbia Daily Tribune