Friday, December 21, 2007

2007 Review: Linebackers

If there was one unit on the Irish team that epitomized the good, the bad, and the ugly, the LB corps was it. For Irish LBs, it was a year in which some guys flashed incredible potential, others showed their physical limitations, and still others were downright mediocre.

In the switch to a 3-4 scheme, you simply cannot survive with mediocre or even average LB play. Those guys absolutely have to be your backbone and your playmakers. They have to take on and shed blocks, set the perimeters of your defense, and be sure tacklers. The Irish didn't get nearly enough of that this year from their LBs and it cost them. I think it would have cost them significantly more if not for the absolutely dominating year of Trevor Laws, who covered up a number of deficiencies. The other word I will use to describe the LB play was inconsistent. Some of the inconsistency was understandable and attributable to the young playmakers the Irish were breaking in at the position. However, older guys Like Mo Crum were also extremely up and down. Let's take a look at some individuals:

Mo Crum: Whether fans realize it or not (and many don't) Mo Crum is a guy that a ton of Irish defenders look up to as a mentor. He plays hard, he is smart, he cares a ton, and he is one of those guys who is always looking to bring along the younger guys. I respect that. I like Mo Crum as a player. However, I think it is fair to say that he had a very up and down season. The first thing that stood out to me when I watched Mo play this year was that he looked like he was not carrying his added weight well. What I mean is that he looked heavier than his frame was built for and a step slower than what I remembered. That is sort of a double edged sword, though, because Mo needs that added weight and strength to play in the middle in a 34 defense. Mo had some great performances this season (see UCLA) but he also really struggled in others. In many cases, he took poor angles to the ball carrier in rush defense and his tackling was poor. Because of where he is physically, Mo has to be a fundamentally sound football player because he is not one of those guys who can get by with speed and athleticism. He has to be a sound fundamental guy. He wasn't this year. He will have to be next year for the Irish to improve.

Joe Brockington: Joe had a productive, if unspectacular, season. Playing hurt for much of the year, Joe turned in a gutty performance. Joe is not the most physically gifted football player, but I thought he came pretty close to reaching his ceiling and realizing the potential he does have this season. I would call him a productive, decent football player.

Anthony Vernaglia: I just don't think Anthony ever found a position on the football field that was his. At LB, he often looked like he was thinking too much. Plagued by the label of being "soft," I think Anthony made a conscious effort to prove people wrong, but in doing so, he often found himself caught out of position. At LB, Anthony was really a 1 tool guy -- rushing the passer. However, the Irish had other guys who could do that as well, or better, than Anthony so he wasn't often able to show up. He would have been a depth guy had he come back in 2008 and I understand the decision not to do that.

John Ryan: This kid took an awful lot of heat from Irish fans this year. Was he great at OLB? No. However, that is not a natural position for the kid. He had been a hand on the ground DE throughout high school. He certainly struggled, but at the beginning of the year when Kerry and Brian were not ready to play yet, John had to man that position. He certainly struggled this year, but I thought he competed hard. John is really a tweener in this defense, not fast enough or athletic enough to play OLB but not big enough (right now) to man a DE spot. This offseason, the Irish coaches will have to decide whether they want to bulk John up to transition him to DE or they want to work on his speed and agility and keep him as added depth at OLB. I will be interested to see which they choose.

Kerry Neal: The future. A beast. The sky is the limit for Kerry Neal. I simply can't wait to see what this kid is going to do in his career as he develops. As a freshman, he lacked the size and strength to star, but that will be remedied in the offseason. Unlike several of the other LBs on the Irish roster, Kerry is so athletic and so physically gifted that it is scary. I think starting next year, you will see Kerry moved all over the field on defense to create matchup nightmares for opposing coaches. I think he will slide between a standup LB position on the outside and putting his hand on the ground as a rusher from the DE position.

Brian Smith: Perhaps my favorite returning player on the Irish defense. Brian has leader and future captain written all over him. A late addition to last year's recruiting class, Brian is going to pay huge dividends. He is not the fastest guy at LB, not the most athletic, not the most talented, but man does he play hard and man is he instinctive and smart at that position. Even as a freshman, you could tell that he had been around football for a while and understood the defensive scheme. Corwin Brown even went so far as to say Smith could finish his sentences in meetings. How many times do you hear that about a freshman??? He also brings a fire and vocal personality to the defense that the Irish have been sorely lacking. I think it will be interesting as he develops to see if he stays at OLB or moves to ILB. With his intelligence and instincts, I can see him playing inside and quarterbacking the defense making calls in the future.

Others, such as Scott Smith, Toryan Smith, and Morrice Richardson played meaningful minutes, but did not have a tremendous impact this season. As with many other positions, the reinforcements are coming with this recruiting class, so there will be immense pressure on guys who have not nailed down spots to improve. The development of Toryan Smith, who is a ferocious hitter, when he wants to be, will be a huge key this offseason. The coaching staff has to find a way to unlock his potential and get him to bring that ferocity every down and has to work on his pass coverage skills.
Your thoughts?

Next Up: Secondary


Sir John said...

Very well done Glory.

Face Mask said...

I agree ,this position is wide open.I expect to see this position foucused on in the off season and as a result I think we will see some very good play at this position next year.