Evolving offenses have forced defenses to change over the years. One change in particular is the physical traits and roles of inside linebackers. It wasn't long ago that inside linebackers were run-stoppers first and foremost. Today's modern offenses still necessitate the need for run-stopping linebackers, but now also require more athleticism to counter spread offenses. Generally speaking, they may sacrifice size relative to linebackers ten years ago, but today many linebackers post forty times comparable to receivers and running backs - not just tight ends. This position requires elite athletes more than ever.
Given that linebackers are now required to contend with spread offenses, and are defined just as much - if not more - by speed than run-stopping power, it's important to reiterate the symbiotic relationship between that position and defensive linemen. It's never been more important for defensive linemen to occupy offensive linemen since linebackers are generally getting smaller in a 3-4 defense. Look at this image:
Notice the offensive guards do not have a defensive lineman over them, and have a direct shot to the linebackers. If the defensive linemen don't require a double team then the linebackers (#50 and #94) have to avoid the block of the guard, and then make a tackle.
UK will probably have two good inside linebackers this season, Those two could be backed up by two other solid contributors; however, there are a lot of unknowns for UK's defensive line, and their play will directly impact the linebackers. UK could very well have much improved linebacker play this season, but it won't mean much if the defensive line play doesn't also improve.
Inside Linebacker Role in UK's Scheme
UK's inside linebackers go by the names of MIKE and WILL. MIKE aligns to the strong-side of the field (the side with the most offensive players or the wide side of the field) which is the side the defense judges the offense will run a play towards. Because there are two outside linebackers guarding the perimeter, the inside linebackers are primarily concerned with the interior. Using the image above again, note that if a running play comes directly towards #94 he is expected to take on the lead block - probably the offensive guard - while #50 is expected to make the tackle and vice versa.
In terms of pass coverage, both players are expected to be adept at dropping into coverage. If it's zone coverage, the two players could split the middle of the field depending on the zone coverage. If it's man coverage, one or both could be assigned a tight end or running back. There are various factors at play (which coverage is called, the offense's formation and personnel, etc.), but the key take away is both inside linebackers must be solid in pass coverage given the demands of more space to cover and the nature of new-fangled offenses that, well, spread you out.
Depth Chart Discussion
This position has been rehabilitated under Mark Stoops who inherited a roster with very few natural linebackers. In fact, many of the linebackers were converted from other positions. DJ Elliot also deserves some praise for his work with this position. There are two clear starters, and at least one clear back-up. Three other players could contribute.
|Projected Depth Chart||Name||2014 Stats|
|1||Josh Forrest (SR)||110 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 QB hurries|
|1||Ryan Flannigan (SR)||57 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 PBU|
|2||Courtney Love* (RS SO)||6 tackles, 1 TFL|
|2||Khalid Henderson (SR)||53 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 PBU|
|3||Dorian Hendrix (RS FR)||N/A|
|3||Nico Firios (RS FR)||N/A|
Forrest looks to be the latest UK linebacker to be drafted into the NFL. Not bad for a converted wide receiver. He led the team in tackles last season, and will probably do so again for the second year in a row. To put his 110 tackles in perspective, that accounted for 12% of the entire team's tackles last season which he did from the MIKE position. It's reasonable to assume Forrest will improve upon last year's totals with another year of development. He left some tackles on the field towards the end of last season due to poor tackling and bad angles.
Forrest's football career had great timing. He is the type of player who has benefited from the proliferation of spread offenses. His primary strength is his speed which helps him make tackles in space - when the defensive line spills the running backs to the outside - and support pass coverage. His ability to cover running backs out of the backfield gets taken for granted. Against at least Ohio and UT-Martin, UK even dropped him back with the safeties in a Tampa 2 look. His abilities have secondary benefits as well. His coverage abilities can allow UK the option to play both safeties deep. In other words, UK doesn't have to sacrifice bolstering the rear in order to help Forrest out underneath.
Here's an example of his speed. Notice Forrest gets to the pitch man - his assignment when MSU runs this play - so fast he short-circuits Dak Prescott's mental calculus. Forrest even seems to have surprised himself. That same speed also came in handy for UK's blitz packages allowing a more diversified array of trickery. I've taken some screen shots to illustrate.
UK used him to blitz the A gap sometimes. Other times they used him to blitz the B gap. He would also sometimes show blitz in A gap but at the snap actually blitz the B gap. Forrest can do all of these because of his explosiveness. If he rushes off the edge this season to subsidize the outside linebackers I would not be surprised.
An area Forrest will need to improve on is his play inside the tackle box. He showed improvement as the season progressed when it came to shedding the lead blocker and later making the tackle, so there's some reason for optimism. Still, there were times where he'd take poor angles (he's the linebacker to South Carolina's right at the snap), and allow opposing running backs to pick up big yards. Also keep in mind he played almost every defensive snap last season. If UK can develop a suitable back-up it's fair to assume he'll be fresher in the fourth quarter, and that would probably help reduce missed tackles.
In all honesty, Forrest would probably fit in better as an outside linebacker, but he's playing a bit out of position for UK out of necessity. I suspect he'll have another great season, get drafted next May by a team with a 3-4 defense, and move to outside linebacker.
Flannigan was a JUCO transfer last season who didn't make it to Lexington until fall camp. This set back his development, but he was playing extremely well by the end of the season and claimed the starting WILL position. He finished the last two games of the season with a total of 23 tackles. He arguably was playing better than anyone on the team as the season was ending. He'll need to build upon that momentum this season if UK's run defense is expected to at least be average.
There are many examples of his improvement last season. Let's start towards the beginning. Against Florida, he could not reliably shed the blocks of pulling offensive linemen, which was a factor in enabling Matt Jones to run for 156 yards of his total 817 yards on the season. Early in that game (the whole game is here) Florida tried to use their speed to beat UK which they discover wouldn't work, so by the second quarter they've figured out that the power-running game was the way to win. UK's competition mostly followed that pattern the rest of the season.
It wasn't just the physicality of football at this level that held Flannigan back. He was also still trying to learn UK's scheme, and probably over-thinking some things. Here's an example against South Carolina. It's 2nd-and-forever, and Flannigan runs into pass coverage at the snap assuming South Carolina is going to throw the ball instead of reading his keys in the backfield. South Carolina calls a draw that gets 30 yards, and Flannigan running himself out of the play was a factor in the defense's failure.
The thing is, he got better. You don't get those end-of-season tackle tallies without playing better football. Here he is stuffing an interior run. Here he is diagnosing the play-action, and scrambling to cover the tight end in a play that was specifically targeting him. He does a decent job with the latter, and his ability to change of direction is displayed.
Like Forrest, Flannigan is an inside linebacker with speed as his foundation. This comes in handy as offenses increasingly look to pick on slower linebackers with a variety of zone option plays, for example. Slot receiver and stud tight ends can't be allowed to pick up 5-10 yards regularly, and faster linebackers help thwart this of which Flannigan is one.
The question is will the tackling clinic he put on at Tennessee and at Louisville continue into 2015? Did he continue to improve in the off-season?
Henderson has had a pretty good career at UK, and was playing well early last season. He's averaged roughly 50 tackles the last two seasons, and did so last season despite splitting time with Flannigan. He started the second half of the 2013 season, and was the starter at WILL the first half of the 2014 season. Like Flannigan and Forrest, he is a linebacker built for speed first before punishing physicality. He's been timed running the forty in the low 4.5 seconds, so he can run with the best of them.
Perhaps the best thing for Henderson was the arrival of Flannigan who will be there to push him in practice (and vice versa). Henderson went into the off-season knowing that his competition had all the momentum, and hopefully that focused him during strength and conditioning workouts last winter, spring practice, and into summer workouts. Henderson, like the previous two, has issues stuffing the run.
Henderson projects as a role player this season, but like Jacob Hyde, he is an ideal back-up. The kind who has been in the program for several years, knows the scheme, and is someone DJ Elliot probably feels comfortably playing if need be. It's a long season and injuries happen. Henderson will get his opportunities on the field to have his best season yet.
Love is the Nebraska transfer who as of this writing is still awaiting the NCAA to clear him to play immediately this season. It's important for UK that he is eligible to play so the development of the redshirt freshmen inside linebackers isn't rushed and overall competition increases. Last season at Nebraska Love tallied six total tackles as a redshirt freshman.
The Nebraska SB Nation site Corn Nation has a few different references to Love. In summary, Nebraska was deep at the linebacker position, so his transfer wasn't expected to impact the team. It was also premature to pass judgement on the player as he was still young, and who had a lot of competition. He was named the scout team's defensive player of the year as a redshirt freshman which speaks to his potential.
In any case, he'll certainly have less competition at UK, especially in 2016 when three inside linebackers graduate.
Dorian Hendrix and Nico Firios
These two redshirt freshmen will probably see game action this season, but it will probably mostly be on special teams given they are competing against three seniors. In the spring roster that was recently published, both of these players were filed under the MIKE position, but they have likely been cross-trained at both positions since it's early in their careers. The best outcome for them will be another year of developing, learning the system, and contributing to special teams. If they usurp any of UK's three seniors then UK is having much broader issues; although, I wouldn't be surprised if by the end of fall camp they are temporarily higher on the depth chart than Love.
Josh Forrest is poised to make an All-SEC team, his running mate Ryan Flannigan was playing exceptional at the end of last season, and Khalid Henderson makes for an experienced back-up. They are all physically inclined for modern hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. That's a good starting point; in fact, a far better one that UK has had at linebacker in recent memory. The fact the freshmen got to redshirt last season is even more promising for the future. If Courtney Love is ruled eligible for 2015 things get better.
The biggest issue as I see it is the play of the defensive line. They are less of a certainty, but are critical to keeping large offensive linemen from laying hands on their teammates who, with the exception of Forrest, aren't large linebackers. If they can't do so, then it doesn't matter how much better the linebackers are this season compared to 2014.