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2015 Position Preview: Outside Linebackers

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Chapter Three in the position preview series looks at a position with some massive shoes to fill.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

We are going to split the linebacker preview into two sections, and this post will focus on the outside linebackers. This group was left with a void when Bud Dupree graduated to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. Luckily, it returns some experience, and is helped out by the timely transfer of a JUCO player. Before we discuss the projected depth chart, we should talk about scheme. Whereas which personnel will start and contribute is meaty conversation, the scheme is potentially even more intriguing heading into the 2015 season given returning personnel and perceived skill sets.

Bud Dupree allowed UK to do a lot of different things last year given his abilities. This season, there are no outside linebackers returning who saw the field on most passing downs in 2014. Jason Hatcher left the field when UK went to their nickel package, while Bud and Za'Darius Smith moved to rush ends and brought pressure off the edge. This season could be very different in terms of pass-rush. How different is a significant knowledge gap. Presumably, all the outside linebackers will work together, and no single one will stand-out, but that doesn't tell us much about the scheme - just the personnel.

Another factor that will impact this group is the hiring of Andy Buh. I've often wondered which assistant coach was responsible for UK's outside linebackers. Did DJ Elliot coach Jason Hatcher, Bud Dupree, and Jabari Johnson since he's the linebacker coach? Perhaps it was Jimmy Brumbaugh since UK's OLB's play like 4-3 defensive ends in passing situations? Both? The technique for OLB's can be very different than that of defensive ends, or even inside linebackers, so were resources being pulled in too many directions? Could that have contributed negatively to player development at the position outside of a freak like Bud Dupree?

Buh's arrival gives this position their own dedicated position coach with a long experience coaching linebackers, and hopefully that pays off in player development. The fact he was hired as an outside linebackers coach, and not the safeties coach, may lend credence to my theory. Stoops mentioned he wanted another defensive-minded coach in the office to help with game-planning. That aspect follows his pattern of hiring Bradley Dale Peveto and Craig Naivar too.

Depth Chart Discussion

This group returns starters Jason Hatcher and Jabari Johnson who shared starts last season opposite Dupree. After those two, this group is filled with the unknown and unproven. This projected depth chart is even more tentative than the previous ones.

(Projected) Depth Chart Name Year 2014 Stats
1 Jason Hatcher JR 28 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks
1 Jabari Johnson SR 20 tackles, 4 TFL
2 Denzil Ware RS FR N/A
2 Alvonte Bell JR N/A
3 Daron Blaylock SR N/A
3 Kobie Walker RS FR N/A

Jason Hatcher

If there is a sure-fire starter out of this group, it will probably be Hatcher. Hatcher entered college with a whole host of unfair expectations. Entering his junior season, his public perception has shifted somewhat from overrating his ability to contribute as a freshman to now underrating his ability to contribute as a junior.

He did improve last season. Take these two examples: here is a power-running play Florida used running towards the weak-side in which a pulling guard has little problem kicking him out. Hatcher attacked the block, temporarily squeezing the hole, but then was driven out of the play. It's not exactly the same, but this play against UofL in November shows better technique.

UofL shifts it's 7th round draft pick tight end to Hatcher's side to run away from UK's strong call. Hatcher maintains good leverage, importantly keeps his outside shoulder free, and forces the running back to cut into the teeth of the defensive support. Hatcher delaying the kick-out block gives time for his teammates to respond for a gain of one yard.

The coaches expect an even more improved Hatcher this season as Mark Stoops thinks he'll rise to the challenge:

[Hatcher] has done a nice job...we really have to work with them a bunch because you're asking them to do a lot of things and something that's not real comfortable to them. It takes some work.

His schematic role this year is a bit of a mystery. Hatcher may be used similarly to how UK used Dupree. He'll be asked to play a stand-up outside linebacker at times - which includes: keeping contain on the edge, protecting his gap, and dropping into coverage, among other things - while also spending some time rushing the quarterback.  You can see why it's a difficult position, and UK has been somewhat spoiled because Dupree often made it look easy.

A mystery: will Hatcher stay on the field for UK's nickel package, like Dupree, and rush the quarterback? The post-spring depth chart hints at the possibility as it lists Hatcher at Dupree's old position of strong-side outside linebacker ("SAM" henceforth).  This position typically faces more power-blocking from positions like the tight end, H-back, or pulling offensive linemen.  He showed progress in this regard towards the end of last season as the videos above suggest. A move to SAM this season would be an upgrade in assignments. Then again, post-spring depth charts aren't necessarily suicide pacts, written on stone tablets, and then carried down from atop Mount Sinai.

Jabari Johnson

Johnson, like several recent UK players in the past year or two, started to be a reliable contributor by midway through his junior season. Johnson's best skill was being dependable against the run last season. In this example, he reads the down block from the offensive tackle, steps down, takes on a pulling guard while squeezing the hole with is notable girth, keeps his outside shoulder free, and makes a tackle for loss (this is ideally how Hatcher would have handled the pulling Florida guard). His teammates on the defensive line slanted inside - by design or otherwise - and he was forced to make that play on his own and succeeded. Pardon the language, but this is a badass play.

This hit against UofL is really a missed assignment by the pulling linemen, but dang, it's fun to watch (as is Coach Chad Scott's reaction). It speaks to his physicality at the point of attack if he's going to be left unblocked. Like an orca violently tossing a seal around. Watch it again and let the catharsis wash over you.

Johnson missed spring practice with an injury, and so it's a bit harder to know where he places on the depth chart when the season starts. Given his relative strength against the run, as opposed to his competition in 2014,   wouldn't be surprised to learn he inherits either Bud's SAM position or Hatcher's weakside outside linebacker position on rushing downs, but either way is subbed-off when UK goes to its nickel package.  Regardless, like many players in UK's front seven, Johnson will be expected to do things this season that he wasn't asked to do in 2014.

Denzil Ware

Ware is largely an unknown to the public, but he is very important to this unit's overall success. If he can be a reliable contributor he will provide much needed depth as Hatcher and Johnson inevitably will need respite over the course of the season. He reportedly spent his redshirt season bulking up, had a good spring, but still showed some youthful mistakes, according to Mark Stoops:

[Ware] needs those valuable reps because he made some mistakes today that are going to be great to see on film and great teaching tools for him and we need more of that. He’s got the ability, it’s just the experience. We’re asking him to do a lot. He’s used to putting his hand in the dirt and going after the quarterback and now he’s got to do a lot of things. He did lose leverage a few times a few times that I noticed right away that we’ve got to get fixed

It's hard to judge if Ware will be a starter heading into this season given Johnson's injury in the spring. He likely has a higher ceiling than Johnson based off comments of his athleticism, but as Stoops points out he's still very inexperienced. Better athleticism means little if assignments and technique aren't followed.

At least at the beginning of the season Ware will likely be used in a way similar to Hatcher the previous two seasons. He'll be asked to play to his strengths which is to say bend the corner and sack the quarterback. It's hard to imagine he'd be a better run defender than Johnson or Hatcher at the beginning of the season, but that is an aspect of his game he will very likely grow into over time. If it's by the end of the season that will be extremely valuable to a position that doesn't have a lot of depth. He may already surpass Johnson in terms of pass coverage. That's another unknown of his game.

For now, expect UK to use him in a way that plays to his strengths.

Alvonte Bell

Bell's journey to UK was a weird and winding one. In Joker's last class, Bell was one of his highest-rated commits. Stoops seemed willing to honor his commitment, but Bell went on to play JUCO for the last two seasons where he added to his frame. He certainly has the kind of size that Stoops seems to favor in his defensive personnel. Given the lack of depth at this position, it was incredibly important for UK to sign a JUCO outside linebacker. Now we wait to see how early Bell can contribute. Unlike JUCO transfer Courtney Miggins, Bell may be forced into action unless other players projected lower on depth chart have surpassed him by early in the season.

Bell's frame probably projects him as a SAM . His highlights display a player who was asked to do the various things outside linebackers are asked to do. The odds say he'll struggle with these aspects in his first season at UK. The arc of the college football universe is long but bends towards JUCO's not contributing much their first season. Yet, he'll have a dedicated position coach which may expedite his much-needed development at this thin position.

"Known Unknowns"

To paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, there are some things "we know that we don't know" for the players at this position. Presumably, the coaches have a far better idea, but we, the public, are largely in the dark - especially prior to the season. Here's a few "known unknowns" for your consideration.

  • Which of these players will be the stand-out performer?
  • Can Hatcher and Johnson both improve upon their 2014 seasons?
  • Will Ware be a starter by the end of the season?
  • Can Bell contribute this season?

Outlook

This group is somewhat unproven but certainly thin. The former isn't their fault given who they played behind, and the latter is a lasting echo of roster mismanagement by the former regime. Yet, the top three players seemingly have incomplete games for outside linebackers (i.e. stop the run, rush the passer, and drop into coverage) based on, admittedly limited, public information. They may each do one or two things well, but none have so far demonstrated a consistent ability to do all three well. It's unfair to expect any of them to have the ability levels of Dupree, but without off-season development this group could be a weak spot for the 2015 defense at the start of the season.

The coaching staff can adapt to the personnel to some extent. It's part of why they make the money that they do. If two of the players can stop the run reliably, but only one is an above average pass-rusher, then you know who is coming out on passing downs. I think some variation of a rotation scheme is the most likely scenario for at least the first half of 2015. For example, a possible scenario would be Johnson playing SAM on running downs while Hatcher plays the weakside OLB. Then on passing downs Hatcher switches to SAM, and Ware comes on the field to fill Hatcher's previous spot.

That scenario is just one, and there are undoubtedly others the coaching staff has considered. Regardless, I am confident in assessing that any scenario's success hinges on Ware being able to contribute early, and Bell joining him by mid-season. If those things happen, this unit could, I stress could, be an example of addition by subtraction.