By: Kyle Gibson

With Spring camp right around the corner we continue our review of the 2016 roster. You can see the other position groups here: QB/WR, RB/TE, O-Line.

Lost: Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Jarrett Grace
James Onwualu (Sr)
Nyles Morgan (Jr)
Greer Martini (Jr)
Josh Barajas (So)
Te’von Coney (So)
Asmar Bilal (So)
Jonathan Jones (Fr)
Jamir Jones (Fr)
Daelin Hayes (Fr)

One of the biggest question marks heading into 2016 will be what to expect from the linebacker corps after losing its two most important pieces. Of course some fans are quietly celebrating the departure of Joe Schmidt after many lit up the message boards seemingly every week during the season complaining about his deficiencies. Regardless what the departing Captain lacked in size and athletic ability his leadership and knowledge of the defense was invaluable as evidenced by his injury in 2014 and how little he came off the field last season despite showing some vulnerabilities. Either way, the future is now and it’s time to move forward with the team’s best player and most vocal leader now gone. Replacing those two gaping holes is just as much about ability and performance as it is about football IQ and leadership.

As you can see things look a bit thin at LB this season and it will be even worse during Spring camp with both Martini and Coney still recovering from late season injuries and the Jones duo not arriving until Summer. Freshman Daelin Hayes enrolled early but he’s been rehabbing an injury of his own and may be splitting time between DE and LB if he’s cleared for contact. While the lack of depth and missed practice time isn’t great news for this group it will be extremely beneficial for two players, Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal. Both redshirted as Freshmen last season but will be immediately thrown into the mix for major playing time in 2016. The question is where. Both arrived as prospects for the outside LB positions and that’s still likely the case although Barajas put on a good bit of weight last year which makes middle linebacker look like more of a possibility especially considering the lack of options there behind Nyles Morgan. Bilal on the other hand stayed on the lighter side but none the less physically impressive. Last season’s Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year would benefit from 10-15 more pounds on his toned frame but it may be a stretch to ever expect much more than that which is why he’ll stay at OLB. With Jaylon Smith gone and his back-up (Coney) limited at best this Spring, the Will (Weak side) LB position seems like the best starting place for Bilal. Nyles Morgan and James Onwualu will be locked into the starting positions at the Mike (Middle) and Sam (Strong side) LB spots respectively which leaves only Bilal, Barajas, and Hayes to round out the Spring depth chart. How the staff chooses to distribute reps amongst these 5 options is anybody’s guess but it will likely be a fluid situation through the Spring.

Things will get very interesting once everyone is healthy and on hand. Te’von Coney played as Jaylon Smith’s backup last season and enters 2016 as the heir apparent to take over the vacated position but Bilal or Barajas could capitalize on the big opportunity they have in Spring camp and enter the Fall with a real chance to compete with and beat out Coney for the starting role. It doesn’t seem too plausible for someone to unseat Morgan in the middle considering that he’s been groomed at the position for two seasons and even started there as a true Freshman but there’s no clear answer for who plays behind him. As it was noted earlier, Barajas may train there out of need if nothing else but Greer Martini is an intriguing option. Martini has remained somewhat under the radar but he’s been productive in the playing time he’s gotten and even shown some really good flashes. As a rising Junior in a thin depth chart now is his chance for a break-out year and he has the potential to be one of those surprise players on defense this season. He backed up James Onwualu as a physical presence at Sam LB last season and even started a few games there but he has the size to fit in nicely at Mike. We’ll have to wait until he’s healthy but he’s definitely one to keep an eye on.

The long-term future of the middle linebacker position could be incoming Freshman Jonathan Jones whom coaches have already compared his intellect and leadership to that of Joe Schmidt. He wasn’t a highly rated prospect but the coaches love him and believe he could be a big time sleeper that ends up being the captain of the defense one day. Regardless he should be a last resort option this season but with a depth chart this thin he’ll need to hit the ground running to be as ready as possible in case he’s needed. Fellow Freshman Jamir Jones will be in the same boat and his size should allow him to cross train at any LB position. It’s scary but both of these guys are only one injury away from stepping into the two deep.

Other than just replacing bodies and ability in this group there’s the strong need for a leader to emerge. With the trio of Smith, Schmidt, and Grace in the meeting rooms and on the sidelines there wasn’t much room or opportunity for any of these guys to step up. But the torch has now been passed to the veteran trio of Onwualu, Morgan, and Martini. Many tend to forget that Onwualu is entering his fourth year with the program after playing and even starting at WR his Freshman year. He actually has the fourth most starts on the team so it’s only natural that he’ll be looked up to by younger players not only on defense but from the entire team. Nyles Morgan plays in a default leadership position at MLB and now that it’s finally his time he needs to step up. Martini is a well-respected grinder and whether he’s on the field or the sidelines he can be a very valuable veteran presence just like Grace had been the past few years despite struggling to get back on the field after a horrific injury.

One of the most important things these veteran players need to provide to this group is knowledge and familiarity with the system and their place in VanGorder’s scheme. After the second year of BVG’s defense there’s a lot of talk about why talented players are still struggling with their roles. It’s no secret that it’s a complex scheme especially in the middle of the field where we’ve seen reoccurring issues with the linebackers and safeties despite there being a lot of natural ability and talent at the positions. The coaching staff isn’t oblivious to this and it’s clear that they can’t continue letting difficult schemes sideline their best players. There’s no doubt that this will be a focus point through the off season and hopefully they’re finding a way to simplify things to put their players in better position to succeed using their ability without being bogged down by thinking too much. One positive for the LB corps is the fact that BVG’s scheme is the only one they know. None of these LBs has had to relearn a defense in college and the two starters Morgan and Onwualu are in year three of being dedicated to their respective positions. If they don’t have it down this season, then nobody ever will.

One final factor that will have a big impact on the LB configuration and may make things a bit easier on the group is an increased use of dime and nickel packages that sacrifice one or two LBs in order to put more DBs on the field. VanGorder’s use of multiple formations gets a boost this season with the wealth of DBs that will be on hand after a monster recruiting class that added 7 more DBs to the roster and coaches have been on record saying that the majority of them might play as true Freshmen.

Projected 2016 LB Depth Chart

Te’von Coney 6’1 235lbs
Asmar Bilal 6’2 215lbs

Nyles Morgan 6’1 240lbs
Greer Martini 6’3 245lbs

James Onwualu 6’1 232lbs
Josh Barajas 6’2 235lbs