This is apparently your starting linebacker corps for the 2008 football season. We have two new starters on this group. From left to right above we have sophomore #11 Kelvin Sheppard, the weak side linebacker, senior #48 Darry Beckwith, the middle linebacker, and junior #56 Perry Riley, the strong side linebacker.
Unless you're new to LSU football, you know that Darry Beckwith is the leader of this group. He's entering his 3rd year as a starter, and he has a future in the NFL. He has been our best linebacker each of the last two years, and he's back for his senior year. While I believe he plays out of position as a middle linebacker, his experience there is invaluable. I would love to see LSU move Perry Riley inside and allow Beckwith to play his natural position at strong side linebacker.
We know what we have in Darry Beckwith. We have a talented, tough, and intelligent linebacker who will be the anchor of this unit. If there is any shortcoming in Beckwith's game, it is that he is injury prone. If he can stay healthy, he is an All-SEC performer.
Flanking Beckwith, we have two former high school teammates from Georgia. Both Perry Riley and Kelvin Sheppard were part of the 2006 recruiting class. Riley played as a true freshman while Sheppard redshirted.
We have seen Riley and Sheppard mostly on special teams so far in their careers, but both show impressive athleticism. Riley in particular has shown himself to have a high upside. Unfortunately, Riley was injured in the Spring and ended up missing most of Spring Practice. He should be fine by now, but he could have used the missed practice time to gear up for the season.
Of course, LSU takes a linebacker off the field about half the time in favor of a 5th defensive back. As of right now, we don't know who will be the man taken out.
With the loss of two starting linebackers, there is little experienced depth at this position. In fact, Jacob Cutrera (left) is the only other linebacker on the roster who has gotten any substantial playing time at all. He is a junior who has started a few games in the absence of Darry Beckwith. He figures to back up Beckwith again this year, and possibly Riley as well. Shomari Clemons (right) is a redshirt freshman who has been converted from safety. He figures to be the backup weakside linebacker.
Linebacker is a position where one or two true freshmen figure to play. The depth just isn't there unless Miles is willing to use a walk-on, which may be what he does if all he needs is a garbage-time minute-eater.
If the coaches decide they need to take the red shirt off of a true freshman, there are two serious options, I think. True freshman Kellen Theriot has a leg up because he was here for Spring Practice. Unfortunately, he's a converted high school quarterback and still has a lot to do to learn the position, and he may be in for a position change regardless. The real best-bet is Ryan Baker, one of the headliners of this class.
I think that even though we lose two starters, there should be little if any drop-off at this position. Former strongside linebacker Luke Sanders was mostly a role player. Perry Riley should plug right in and perform up to that level immediately, and should eventually prove to be an upgrade. Losing Ali Highsmith hurts, but if there's one thing we learned from the draft hoopla, it's that Highsmith's athleticism was not what most fans assumed it was. Highsmith was a good gamer, but he had a lot of trouble covering backs and receivers in the passing game. If Sheppard can improve on Highsmith's game in that area, we won't miss Highsmith quite as much.