Cal Football Spring Position Battles: The Linebackers

It's always a concern when you have to replace senior linebackers with inexperienced players.  The last time we lost a couple of star seniors, (Follett, Felder) the whole defense really suffered for it. Mike Mohommed obviously leaves behind the biggest shoes.  The other OLB spot was filled by committee last year with mostly underwhelming results.  It's going to be an interesting competition between the older, more experienced reserve players and the younger, more talented former US Army AA's.  With so much talent on the D line, one might wonder if we might play more 4-3.  However, some of the more knowledgeable and football savvy posters have pointed out that it's highly difficult to teach a whole new set of assignments per formation, especially at the college-level.  We'll just have to count on the young guys living up to their accolades and hope that the coaching staff gets them up to speed sooner rather than later.



Linebackers:
Ryan Davis(Sr, OLB) - Former JC transfer was brought in as a pass-rushing specialist.  However, he's struggled with his conversion from DE to OLB.


DJ Holt(Sr, ILB)
- Made huge strides last year in his 2nd campaign of starting.  Really improved his ability to read plays and to drop into coverage.  Should be a rock in the middle for us all year.


Mychal Kendricks(Sr, OLB) - Shook off a injury-plagued sophomore campaign to come back strong last year.  Although he hasn't flashed pure pass-rushing ability yet, he probably has the most big-play potential of all our LB's.  If he can be a Pain Train-like star this year, it will do wonders for the defense.


JP Hurrell(Jr, OLB) - Strong special teams performer.  Inconsistent in his limited snaps backing up Browner last year.


Robert Mullins(Jr, ILB) - Came back from a tough injury last year to turn heads in camp.  Very instinctive.  Backed up MikeyMo last year with mixed results.


Steve Fanua(So, ILB) - Labeled the "firebrand" by Cam Jordan, he's an emotional player with great speed.  Unfortunately, his inexperience worked against him last year when subbed in for Mohammed.


Kameron Krebbs(So, ILB) - Transfer from Oregon State.  Has a knack for being around the ball.  He's been turning heads in spring workouts.


Lucas King(So, OLB) - Coming off a greyshirt and redshirt years to provide practice squad depth.  Should also compete for special teams.

Nick Forbes(So, ILB) - US Army AA, contributed early on special teams last year, but had to shut things down due to injury.  Could push for time this year.


David Wilkerson(Fr*, ILB)
- Showed enough as a true frosh to get moved to OLB just so they could find snaps for him on the field.  Ended up redshirting with a broken hand.  One of the early favorites to start with Holt and Kendricks.  Great instincts and speed.

Chris McCain(Fr, OLB) - Greyshirt from last year who has spent the off-season getting stronger and bulking up.  Will be in the mix as a pass-rushing threat.

Cecil Whiteside(Fr, OLB)
- Ineligible last year, he's reportedly cleared and ready to go.  Has gotten himself up to 230lbs and has been terrorizing spring workouts.  The other favorite to start with Holt/Kendricks.  Another US AA honoree, some experts liked him better as an all-around player than the departed Chris Martin.


Nathan Broussard(Fr, ILB) - Tall and strong.  Has the speed/range of a linebacker, but is stout enough to fight off blocks and hold the edge.  Will redshirt.  Enrolls in the fall.


Jalen Jefferson(Fr, OLB) - Fast and versatile.  Can drop into coverage or rush the passer.  Seems very quick to recognize plays.  Disciplined enough not to bite on fakes.  Will redshirt. Enrolls in the fall.


Brennan Scarlett(Fr, OLB) - Explosive player.  Pretty darn spooky for such a big guy to be so fast.  Sheds blocks with a combination of strength and quicks.  Once he reads a play, he has a violent burst to the ball carrier.  Might demand early playing time.  Could also play DE.  Enrolls in the fall.

Jason Gibson(Fr, OLB)
- Extremely fast right off the line.  Great off the edge, but shows enough hand strength to take on blockers and still disengage to make tackles.  Athletic enough to avoid being cut.  Looks really instinctive - not just an athlete, but seems to read plays very quickly.  Enrolls in the fall.



Projected Depth Chart:

OLB - Wilkerson/Davis
ILB - Kendricks/Fanua
ILB - Holt/Mullins
OLB - Whiteside/McCain

Overview: 
The biggest concern here is who takes over for Cal Big Game hero, Mike Mohammed.  When he was hurt last year, the defense just wasn't the same.  And there's still the troubling issue of finding a consistent pass-rushing threat off the edge.  Without having any players who can get to the quarterback on their own, we were overly reliant on our blitz packages last year.  It was exciting when it worked (Colorado), but when our guys weren't able to get there in time...well, bad things happened. (AZ, UW) 

Unfortunately, reasonable expectations might be the theme song here.  No matter how talented the young guys are, it takes time for LB's to adjust to Pac-10 offenses.  We'll see our share of big plays along with some faceplant-worthy blown assignments.  Even so, I expect the OLB opposite Kendricks to be an upgrade based on addition by subtraction.  I'm more than willing to deal with growing pains from talented young players than endure another year of head-scratching under-achievement from "steady" veterans.

One potentially interesting development is the early news that Kendricks might be moving inside.  If so, we have a really nice tandem of Holt/Kendricks at the ILB spots, but will be relying on two new starters on the outside.  I'm already worried about misdirection and play-action exposing us on the edges, particularly if our smaller corners aren't able to fight off blocks.  On the other hand, we'll have a lot of speed on the field from our linebacking corps if they can learn to temper their aggression with discipline.

Biggest questions:  Can anyone fill MikeyMo's shoes?  Will a pass-rusher please step forward?

CGB Roundtable here.


Next up:  The Cornerbacks and Safeties

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