A year ago, it was supposed to be Ragin, Tandy, and Whitener as the linebacking core of the future. But two of those guys are now gone, and the Bears have had to reload that position group again with Chandler Leniu and Aisea Tongilava (and possibly Noah Westerfield?), who visited together last weekend.
Westerfield, we've already covered -- he's listed both as an outside linebacker and defensive end by various scouting services, and although he looks somewhat fast and strong, there's no tape available of him as a senior, which makes it hard to tell how or what he projects to. That makes him a kind of wild card in the class, although you'd figure that the staff actively tried to flip him for a reason.
Luckily, that problem does not exist for either Tongilava or Leniu. We have useful video to conclude things about them.
A few days ago, I posted a look at the changes up front on the defensive line, and I wanted to do the same for the linebackers, but there's almost no way to satisfactorily predict the unit. Believe me, I tried, but couldn't figure out if a healthy Nathan Broussard would jump Michael Barton for a starting spot -- remember, Coach Dykes said they were projecting him as the starter before his injury -- or if they would move Jason Gibson back to linebacker. Two of many, many dilemmas. We'll just have to wait for it to play out on the field.
We'll begin with Leniu, the 6'0, 225 pound St. John Bosco product, who by fall, should be at a ready playing weight, if he isn't already. [I'd wager he's currently 5-10 pounds short, myself.]
Hardy Nickerson should hold down the starting spot at the Mike, but if Nick Forbes doesn't make it back -- and his back spasms are no sure bet to disappear -- then a scenario exists where Leniu enters the season as the team's backup middle linebacker. I'm guessing Nathan Broussard would be the other option, since he was used at all three linebacker spots interchangeably in last year's open practices.
There's only tape available from half of Leniu's senior season, but there's enough to get a read on him. First off is his pursuit from sideline to sideline -- being a middle linebacker with range is a huge asset on defense, as it can help compensate for other players' mistakes and clean up plays that would otherwise go for long gains [4:26]. In my opinion, Leniu looks like he will eventually develop into a more fluid and mobile player than Nickerson, who had problems in pass coverage all of last year. Sure, he's not much of a big hitter, but that's fine. Consistent wrapping up -- and you'll see a lot of that here -- would be a godsend after this season.
Probably his strongest asset from the video available is his intelligence and ability to diagnose. :55 is a fantastic example of Leniu quickly sorting through the mess in front of him to make the play -- the back is trying to run a counter back toward the right side while the line pushes left, but Leniu reads it completely, stepping down into the area that becomes vacated. No gain. Although he is consistently quick in getting to the right places, another good example of that skill is at 1:21. The QB takes off on a rollout, but Leniu recognizes that's some one else's assignment and heads over to the tight end, instead. He even uses his left arm to direct traffic, signalling to the other defenders where the ball's going to go.
There isn't a whole lot of flash in his game -- both Tongilava and Porchivina are noticeably bigger hitters -- but there's a whole lot to love about Leniu.
Taking a quick perusal of the measurables, Tongilava boasts a SPARQ verified 4.59 40 and a 31' vertical, both of which are very, very nice. Yes, the bench press could use work, but I'm sure Damon will take care of that before long. He'll need that number to go up in order to successfully take and hold his ground against opposing blockers in college.
Although Tongilava is noticeably -- and as previously discussed, measurably -- quick, you can clearly tell that he has a first and second gear. When he's decisive and has a clear path to where he's heading, like at :44 or 2:41, then he thunderbolts, and the play will end pretty much right after that. It does takes him a couple of steps and a clear read to get to that point, which is something to work on at the next level.
The sequence at 4:30 is a good example of what I mean -- Tongilava runs after the wide receiver when the ball goes to that side of the field, but you don't see him truly accelerate until he's close, or sure of where things are going. I am attributing this more to inexperience and a need for refinement more than a lack of effort, but it could be an combination of the three. In his most polished form, Tongilava would play at that frightening 2nd gear all the time.
As you may also know, I am always in support of guys who play special teams at the high school level, which I always view as a plus -- guys looking to make an immediate impact as a freshman have their best chance to do so on that end. Check!
- I think Tongilava plays with nice leverage on tape, regularly positioning himself well against the ball carrier. You can see him do exactly this when he remains on the lineman's outside shoulder at 3:10, keeps the QB from escaping to the the sidelines at 3:20, and also how he forces the ball carrier wide to track down the jet sweep at 4:02. Yes, that is a remarkably busy day. Ha-ha.
- For whatever reason, Tongilava has a knack for creating fumbles. I cannot tell if all of them are actually done on purpose, but I'd take them all the same. Playmaker.
- 3:28 is an interesting clip. Here, you have our future linebacker dropping in coverage, passing off the drag route to the next defender, and continuing his drop to nearly make the interception on the slant. Because he has to consciously recognize that the drag route will be covered by the next linebacker, this play looks to me like he has a good understanding of zone principles, and this observation is backed up several other times on the tape, where you have him impressively reading/undercutting/deflecting incoming passes.
- In relation to that last point, Tongilava will need to work on his hands, although that's a luxury skill and not necessarily a necessity. Despite his good reads, he still dropped a couple sure interceptions.
- Like him quite a bit as a passrusher (seven sacks last season for O-Lu), where his speed regularly overwhelms opposing right tackles, and guards, too. Needs to add more functional power at the next level -- I don't think he'll be easily taking on multiple blockers the way he does in some of this clips -- but is plenty speedy.
Tongilava seems a bit more talented than his offer list would indicate. Like Porchivina, there's a chance we could have picked up an under-the-radar type guy here. Good nose for the ball in the passing game, good leverage, and fast when decisive. For what it's worth, Avi thinks that part of his under-recruitment might be due to his frame and weight, which is 10-15 pounds too light right now.
Finally, we get to the second QB in the class, who signed for appears to be depth related reasons. Remember, Kyle Boehm has switched to wide receiver pretty much full time, leaving Goff and Hinder as the only two scholarshipped signal callers. Does that seem uncomfortably thin to you? It probably does to the staff, which is why that number will double when Forrest and Rubenzer arrive on campus.
One of the things that the Bear Raid is currently lacking is a legitimate run threat from the quarterback position. No one's ever going to confuse Jared Goff with even, say, Ben Roethlisberger, but if he could threaten to gain some yards on the occasional zone read run, things would open up quite a bit more. Alas, we have who we have, and the offense can function fine even without a mobile QB.
However, it is a bit telling that both of Tony Franklin's first quarterbacks -- Forrest and Rubenzer -- are more in that mold, very capable of picking up chunks of yardage on the read option. Or more, if defenses are not careful. Plenty of this video is of Forrest doing exactly that. His arm is fairly strong -- the first clip in the video is of him tossing 50+ yards, although with full windup and little pressure -- but not necessarily anything to write home about.
Let's zero in on some particular plays, shall we?
- 0:50 - (20 personnel; 2 RB, 3 WR, twins left) - Forrest sees man across the board, with a single safety perched up top. Looks left for a brief moment to freeze the safety, knowing full well that the advantageous matchup is the one on one on the right side. Poor guy can't get over in time, Forrest floats in a perfect go route. Touchdown, Mater Dei.
- 1:30 - (21 personnel; 2 RB, 2 WR, TE right, twins right) - Against Bosco! I want to highlight this one for some very, very good ball placement on Forrest's part off the fleaflicker. His wide receiver runs the route -- not quite a corner, not quite a drag, so I don't know what to call it -- from the right slot deep to the left sideline, and the ball is delivered right on point, despite two trailing defenders. Similarly tough sideline throw happens at 2:31, too.
- 6:19 - (10 personnel; 1 RB, 4 WR, 2x2, Pistol set) - A rusher gets into his face and Forrest doesn't actually get to fully step into this, but you'll see him flick it about 32 yards anyway, right into the post half of a post-wheel route combination. Keeps his calm and makes something really good out of a really bad situation.
- 6:30 - (10 personnel; 1 RB, 4 WR, 3x1, Pistol set) - Nicely thrown back shoulder fade. Tough throw to defend. Not a ton to say about this one, I just really love the back shoulder fade.
I don't know if he'll ever play or if he'll be in the mix to one day, but Forrest looks like a solid pickup to me, possessing a decent arm and some skills that would play well in Tony Franklin's "System". Welcome to the gang, Chase!