Other than the quarterback position there is not a position group on this year's Iowa State team that is more in flux than the linebackers. The only spot close to locked up right now in the three man group is that of Alton Meeks, a redshirt freshman who will be holding down the MIKE spot for hopefully the foreseeable future. Meeks has some high upside, but he could be pushed b JUCO linebacker Jordan Harris if he gets a firm grasp of Wally Burnham's system.
In a strange twist I'm ranking the linebackers on this year's Iowa State defense higher than the secondary. As we discussed in the comments of the secondary preview, it has a lot to do with experience now and not necessarily long term potential. Guys like Meeks and Luke Knott have good ceilings, so why can't the upside of this group be on par with that of the secondary?
Despite all the potential this group has there are a few trouble spots on the depth chart. As of yesterday, Jared Brackens has yet to win back the starting SAM/N spot, and is currently losing out to walk-on senior Drake Ferch. That's not to say Ferch isn't capable of playing, but Brackens is regarded as one of the fastest, most athletic guys on the team, and the fact his mental struggles are keeping him from beating Ferch is troubling.
Jevohn Miller still holds down the starting WILL spot over Knott and Levi Peters, and you know how most of us feel about Miller in these parts. Rhoads has said Miller has improved significantly since last season, but until those memories of Miller's flailing against UNI are erased we'll remain skeptical.
|DEPTH CHART: LINEBACKERS|
|1st String||SLB/N||Drake Ferch||RSr||5'11"||209|
|2nd String||SLB/N||Jared Brackens||Sr||6'1"||213|
|The Rest: Jordan Harris (MLB - Jr), Levi Peters (WLB - RSo), Brian Mills (WLB - RFr), and more freshmen that won't see the field this season.|
The linebackers are facing the same issue as the secondary where there's no clear cut leader to rally around. Could that guy be Miller? Is it someone like Meeks who will step up and do more than someone his age should be asked to do? Is it Knott? Is it Mountain Man Levi Peters? We're not sure, and I'm not sure the guys on the field are sure.
If I had to pick someone to build around it would be Meeks. Prototypical size, sweet flow, and the athletic ability to be just as good as any of the other MIKEs under Wally Burnham. However Meeks is a redshirt freshman that cannot be asked to lead a group of older, more experienced players. It's never too early to start, but when the chips are down the team has to count on someone to rally the troops and I think this is the first year under Rhoads that a person like that doesn't readily jump out at you.
The X Factor
The WILL spot as a whole is the X factor this season. Either Miller has improved enough to imitate something resembling Jake Knott, or Knott's little brother Luke gets healthy enough to make a bigger impact than he did in his five starts last year.
There are some concerning factors at the SAM/N spot but I firmly believe Brackens' talent will win out in that battle and he'll show up on gameday like in the past. It's key as Brackens is the most experienced linebacker on the roster with 12 career starts, and his role is often tasked with working out in space, which he is more than capable of doing.
However, if the WILL position is not improved upon this year the whole defense will break as teams in the past have made it a point to isolate Miller both in the running and the passing game. Improvement has to happen here, and if it doesn't there won't be a Jeremiah George or Jacques Washington to cover up mistakes.
The New Guys
Harris is the most notable new guy to the rotation after joining the Cyclones last spring, and it's possible he could still win the MIKE job with a great two weeks to close camp. At this point it's safe to guess Harris has struggled with Burnham's system, but if the light bulb comes on then his experience will absolutely allow him to see the field.
Potential contributors Ferch and Peters played primarily on special teams last season.
The Key to Success
The expectations here are fairly low. A.J. Klein, Jake Knott, and Jeremiah George aren't walking through that door tomorrow, and it's hard for the linebacker play as a whole to get worse than 2013. The definition of success for this group in 2014 is pretty simple: improve over last season.
Improve as players, improve as a unit, improve against everyone you play. There were times last season that Burnham had this defense looking functional despite its weaknesses, and we know he's capable of doing it again. What we don't know is how the players will react, who will step up, and how that makes an impact on the field.
Marginal improvement from this unit should be expected, and if they can do more than that then the defense might even shine in spurts.