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UK Football Position Preview 2016: Inside Linebackers

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It's Chapter Four of ASoB’s season preview. Today we preview all the new faces at inside linebacker.

The linebackers are so raw this is the only photo I could find of any of them in the SBN database.
The linebackers are so raw this is the only photo I could find of any of them in the SBN database.
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

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:

34twogap

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.

Inside Linebacker Role in UK's Scheme

UK's inside linebackers go by the names of MIKE and WILL. MIKE aligns to the field side which is the side with the most open field - or that's at least how Josh Forrest aligned, so subject to change. 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 have previously dropped 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.

That was UK's scheme in previous years, but with the graduation of Khalid Henderson and Forrest, UK may tweak things. I wonder if Laster would move to MIKE when UK goes nickel in place of Love? Would UK move a strong safety down to a linebacker position similar to BIG 12 teams on passing downs? Blind speculation is part of the fun.

Depth Chart Discussion

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Projected Depth Chart Name 2015 Stats
1 MIKE
Courtney Love (JR) 6 tackles, 1 tackle for loss*
1 WILL
Jordan Jones (SO) 10 tackles
2 MIKE
Nico Firios (SO) 1 tackle
2 WILL
De'Niro Laster* (SO) 6 tackles, 0.5 tackle for loss, 0.5 sacks*
3 MIKE
Kash Daniels (FR)
N/A
3 WILL
Eli Brown (RS FR) N/A

Mark Stoops inherited a depleted linebacker corps comprised of converted quarterbacks and receivers. Last year's graduation of three senior inside linebackers bought two seasons to recruit and develop the position, but their loss will likely reverberate in 2016. A key question: how much improvement is realistic when returning as little production?

Writing profiles for each player in the table above is possible, but a common theme would quickly emerge: little is known, so instead let's go ahead and cut to the chase. Jones looked good in back-up duty when healthy last season, and should develop into a very good player over time. That's about all we know with a medium confidence level.

Other tidbits: Firios has battled injuries while on campus, Jones and Brown are still underweight, Kash Daniels appears talented but is still a true freshman, and the transfers Laster (*since Laster is also getting work at outside linebacker he will be included in that preview too, but since he also worked WILL in the spring he's also being added here) and Love will be relied upon despite limited college careers themselves. The spring game didn't provide much cause for hope. The offense ran the ball fairly easily, and the linebackers were either too underweight to beat off blockers, or to slow to cover shallow zone areas.

At the same time, it was a glorified practice. If you don't put much stock into a quarterback throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns in a spring game, it's not consistent to put too much stock in poor play either. The defense is playing a basic scheme too, and the stakes are "nobody get themselves injured" low.

Outlook

It's not terribly enlightening to read a preview with a conclusion that's the emoji equivalent of  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Instinct says the group is the dreaded cliche "one year away" and Jones is a future star. The linebackers are light years away from their state in 2013 if nothing else. Stoops has recruited this position well, attrition has been avoided, and both factors should eventually pay off if there's personnel development. New linebacker coach Matt House could make a name for himself this season.

Going by 247's composite rankings for each of these players, the median star rating for this group coming out of high school was 0.8772 which is a moderately high three star ranking. They have solid prep pedigrees if not yet collegiate production. They've also put on modest weight comparing the spring roster to the July depth chart. There are reasons for optimism without having to squint to see it.

If either Love or Laster had notable achievements at Nebraska and Minnesota respectively this group would look better on paper for 2016. You can see the contours of growing depth matched with prep talent. This group will rely on the defensive line to soak blockers, because this season could be a long grind for the inexperienced and potentially underweight. There is no baptism like a season-long grind at the top of the depth chart facing excellent running backs in the SEC.

******

The next post in the preview series will focus on the running backs which are the strength of this team.