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LSU Spring Football 2011 Position Preview: Linebackers

Linebacker is easily the most uncertain position on the team. Just nine total with three set to graduate in 2012 and just one newbie coming in (although Trevon Randle appears to be quite beastly and I expect him to get on the field quickly). Don't be surprised if LSU takes anywhere from five to seven of them in the coming recruiting cycle. Also, watch for an influx from other positions as well - Karnell Hatcher mentioned a move to the strongside (Sam) linebacker position a few weeks back via his Twitter.

Middle Linebackers:
46 Sophomore Kevin Minter - 6'1, 225: 15 tackles.

52 Sophomore Luke Muncie - 6'3, 223: 2 tackles in 6 games.

31 Freshman D.J. Welter - 6'0, 223: redshirted in 2010.

 Kevin Minter started to get some buzz in last year's spring game with a 14-tackle performance, but it didn't really translate as well as people would have hoped in the regular season. When Ryan Baker broke his jaw, Minter was given every chance to crack the starting lineup (John Chavis is always willing to shuffle the positions round to get the best three on the field) but couldn't quite break through, and he just seemed to lag behind guys like Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones when it came to rotating in. Part of it might have been Kelvin Sheppard's value - the defense wasn't going to get better with him off the field. But Minter is one of the few linebackers on the team with decent size - he needs to make a statement this spring and lock down a job.

Luke Muncie probably doesn't remember his only notable play from last season - he caught a squib kick and got absolutely blasted against Ole Miss, resulting in a fumble and a concussion. But that doesn't change the fact that he made enough of an impression as a true freshmen to get on the field quickly, even if it was almost exclusively on special teams. If there's a dark-horse to crack the starting lineup, either in the middle or outside, it could be him. He has some pretty impressive highlights and, as Paul noted last summer, really fits the mold of what Chavis likes in a linebacker.

D.J. Welter redshirted and is probably the most natural "Mike" ‘backer  of the group, and his high school highlights reminded me a lot of Jacob Cutrera.

Outside Linebackers:
22 Senior Ryan Baker - 6'0, 227: 87 tackles, 11 TFLs (7 sacks) and one forced fumble.

37 Senior Karnell Hatcher - 6'2, 212: 64 tackles, 1.5 TFLs and one forced fumble, all as a safety.

23 Senior Stefoin Francois - 6'1, 215: 37 tackles, 2 TFLs (1 sack).

57 Sophomore Lamin Barrow - 6'2, 221: 18 tackles, .5 TFLs and one fumble recovery. 

58 Sophomore Tahj Jones - 6'2, 205: 6 tackles.

39 Sophomore Josh Johns - 6'2, 206: 2 tackles in 3 games.

Baker wound up being one of the defenses best playmakers (rhyming groan, properly induced), and turned into one of the SEC best blitzers. But the former special teams cannonball needs to keep working on that aim. As many big plays as he made (he did lead the team in sacks), he was involved in a lot of the ones that were given up against teams like Ole Miss and Arkansas. He all too often got sucked in by play-action or misdirection, and a 6-foot (probably more like 5-11), 230-pound linebacker's not going to do too well once a guard or a tackle gets their hands on him. That same aggression also hurt him in coverage against backs and tight ends. Without Sheppard gone, Baker will be looked to step into a leadership role. There's even some thought that he could slide from the weakside ("Will") to the middle. But that probably depends on how some of the other ‘backers shape up.

The Hatcher-to-linebacker move has been talked about since last year, and it's still not confirmed but it makes a lot of sense. The Harry Coleman move was outstanding two years ago. The Stefoin Francois move last year, not so much. The strongside ("Sam") linebacker spot has a lot of coverage abilities on tight ends, running backs and occasionally slot receivers - and defenses used all three of those to attack the Tigers last season. Hatcher was pretty much the fan base whipping boy at safety, not unjustly (see: Arkansas, Cobi Hamilton, 80 and 85 yards). But he was the team's third-leading tackler, and might have actually outgrown Francois.  

If there's some shuffling among the positions, Lamin Barrow might get on the field at the Will spot. He didn't fare well against North Carolina while Baker was out, but he filled in well on special teams through the rest of the year. He's a solid athlete and one of the few outside linebackers with any appreciable size.

Tahj Jones and Josh Johns both need some more weight-room work, and luckily with the depth chart as is, they have some time for that.

Conclusions: Baker is probably the only sure thing in terms of starters, and ideally he'll stay at Will. There's enough depth that any combination of Minter, Hatcher, Francois, Muncie or Barrow could fill in at the other two spots. In terms of pure competition, this will be one of the more interesting positions on the field. Given the prevalence of the 3-2-6 "Mustang" package last year, at least two clear-cut starters need to be found. But if Hatcher does wind up at the Sam spot, that could go a long way towards helping the run defense by allowing LSU to use more base against three-wide packages.