Linebacker is a position with huge question marks coming into the season. A few new faces, some old, but the fact of the matter is, a lot of it is speculation. Linebackers Coach Tyson Veidt has his work cut out for him this year.
The linebackers have already been dealt a short stick due to attrition and injuries in the offseason. Three of the four starters last year all had eligibility in 2016 –- and two hung up their cleats (Luke Knott and Levi Peters), while another transferred (Jordan Harris).
What that left was a gaping hole, and quite possibly one of the most important communicators at middle linebacker up for grabs.
Also different from last season is the switch from 3-4 to a 4-2-5 scheme, which displays two traditional linebackers as well as one hybrid spot called the STAR position. This hybrid position must have the speed and quickness to cover in the slot, but also the strength to stop the run. The other option, used more for run-heavy teams, is the standard third linebacker in a 4-3 base set, called the SAM or strong-side linebacker.
The two positions that are filled out in ink are a redshirt sophomore and a journeyman backup. Sophomore Willie Harvey has been raved and ranted over by the coaching staff. He has made massive strides from last season and firmly supplants the weakside linebacker spot.
At the MIKE we have Kane Seeley. Kane and I have never been best friends. I may or may not have put money into the swear jar when he took over for an injured Jevohn Miller halfway through the season two years ago. Seeley was out of position time and again, and unable to grasp the speed of the game. Looking at it with the glass half full, maybe the light has finally turned on for him, ala Jevohn Miller and Jeremiah George, who both took four years to become competent.
But the jury is still out on that one.
At the STAR position, we have Tennessee transfer D’Andre Payne, who fills the hallways in the Jacobsen with smiles when he is mentioned among the staff. Payne is only 5-foot-10, but can pack a punch, and also utilizes his closing speed to cover the slot or TE position. He can be used in exotic blitz packages and will roam the field as a poor man’s Tyrann Mathieu.
At the SAM spot we have Bobby McMillen III, who is a redshirt freshman and has bulked up to 230 pounds. We will see a lot more of him in the Iowa, Kansas State, and Texas games, when teams line up in more of a tight set with two in the backfield, or even more in goal-line situations.
Surprisingly, I feel the depth is capable, as there are some higher ceilings waiting in the wings. Reggan Northrup is a bit undersized at 205 pounds, but showed flashes of brilliance last year, as he backs up Harvey. I could see him playing some of the STAR spot as well.
Backing up Seeley is redshirt junior Brian Mills, who is a faster version of Seeley, but maybe hasn’t taken in the playbook yet. If Seeley’s short leash is broken, I could see Mills on the field, as he is very good at creating space and getting downhill fast.
Behind Payne is JUCO transfer Thadd Daniels, who has a bigger body and can cover the field. We all know Campbell will not turn down defensive back recruits, and in this conference, the more defensive backs, the better as far as I’m concerned.
Another name that’s being thrown around is incoming freshman Tymar Sutton. The man already has the frame to play on Saturdays, but I don’t know if he’s ready for the mental grind. The possibility of him burning the redshirt is 50/50 at this point.
Stacking Up Against the Big 12
Most Big 12 defenses run a very similar base defense with two linebackers and a nickel back. TCU is the poster child of college football’s 4-2-5 defense and does it better than anyone. You can read more here. The Horned Frogs brings back a bevy of hybrid linebackers from injuries a year ago, and look to be a stout run defense. They are led by Travin Howard and Montrel Wilson.
The preseason Defensive Player of the Year resides in Austin, Texas, and his name is Malik Jefferson. The highly touted sophomore will be playing on Sundays. Oklahoma lost six of their top 10 tacklers from a season ago, but returning is experienced linebacker Jordan Evans. Kansas State also has preseason All-Big 12 LB Elijah Lee as they thrive in their 4-3 package.
ISU ranks somewhere at the bottom with a huge question mark at the MIKE spot. I mean, at least we can say they’re better than Kansas.
Kane Seeley’s play is what will make the difference moving forward. If he can make the right calls and be in the right spots, then this defense will be competent in the run game. Willie Harvey and D’Andre Payne are big talents, but it all comes down to the main man in the middle.
I see a big year out of Payne, as he can be used as a jack-of-all-trades type of player, with his speed and athleticism. Look for a lot of blitzes from his side, and a chance to create turnovers. If there is one thing this team needs to do better in 2016, it’s takeaways.
Thadd Daniels is just too good to be sitting on the sidelines. Once the playbook comes to him, he will see the field more, as will Brian Mills.
This linebacking crew will have their work cut out for them this year. Let’s hope they come through.