The Bulls have both youth and experience at linebacker and may have the best group in the Big East. Can they become more than just reliable and transform into impact players?
There are four weeks left until the South Florida Bulls open their 2011 football season at Notre Dame, which gives us just enough time to present a complete USF Football Prospectus. Each Thursday, we'll review one segment of the team -- looking back at its history, studying how it performed in 2010, and talking about what to expect from it in 2011.
So far we've covered the entire offense, including the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and the offensive line. Last week we reviewed the defensive line, and today we'll take a look at the linebackers.
USF'S LINEBACKER HISTORY
While USF's history at linebacker is not filled with a lot of home-grown talents, it has produced a few of the school's most notable NFL players.
Demetrius Woods might be the most remembered linebacker from the early years, and not for the right reasons. Woods was the most talented of a group that included Vassay Marc and Jason Butler, but he was also the Bulls' first real disciplinary case and ended up being thrown off the team right before the 1999 season began.
Fortunately Kawika Mitchell joined the program from Georgia for the 1999 season and became one of the Bulls' best players ever. By his senior year in 2002, Kawika was a 6'2", 260-pound wrecking ball who had a phenomenal game in USF's first national TV appearance against Oklahoma. He had two seasons with over 100 tackles and is the school's all-time tackle leader with 367. Kawika was drafted by the Kansas CIty Chiefs in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft, and started for the 2007 Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Stephen Nicholas also stepped on campus for the first time in that 2002 season. He played right away, ended up taking a medical redshirt season, and then became another of USF's most decorated players. He is third all-time in tackles at USF (326) and trails only George Selvie in tackles for loss (53.5). Nicholas was a first-team All-Big East selection in 2006, a year after making the second team as a junior, and he's one of only two players to ever win USF's Defensive MVP award twice. Nicholas was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 and recently signed a new five-year contract with the team.
Lined up next to Nicholas for most of his career was Ben Moffitt, who finished his career in 2007 with 335 tackles (second in school history) and a spot on the 2007 first-team All-Big East squad. He twice won national player of the week honors -- once for his performance in USF's surprising blowout of #9 Louisville in 2005, and for his two interceptions and touchdown in the Bulls' win over #5 West Virginia in 2007.
Recently, some junior college players and transfers have made an impact. Tyrone McKenzie transferred from Iowa State to play the 2007 and 2008 seasons in Tampa, and he holds two of the three top spots on USF's single-season tackle chart, including the school record of 121 in 2007. (As many of you know, McKenzie now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is on track to become only the second former Bull to play for Tampa's NFL team.) Kion Wilson and Jacquian Williams each came from junior college, and led the team in tackles the past two seasons before moving on to the pros -- Wilson as an undrafted free agent with the San Diego Chargers, and Williams as a sixth-round pick by the Giants in his year's draft.
USF'S LINEBACKERS IN 2010
The Bulls fielded experience at this position with seniors Williams and Sabbath Joseph, while also working in a pair of underclassmen in Sam Barrington and Devekeyan "DeDe" Lattimore. As always, USF had a fast, sure-tackling group, and playing in a new system, they were counted on to make more plays near the line of scrimmage. Williams led the team with 11 tackles for loss. Barrington and Lattimore had 6.5 apiece, Joseph added six, and backup Michael Lanaris chipped in 3.5. The linebackers were also able to blitz the quarterback effectively and helped make up for some struggles by the defensive line to get to the passer. (Nine of the Bulls' 30 sacks last season came from linebackers.)
One area where the linebackers were not strong was in forcing turnovers. Opposing offenses only fumbled the ball 10 times all season. Maybe this was extra ball security, or just bad luck, but the Bulls were unable to get support to ball carriers to try and rip the ball out and recover it. Collectively, the linebackers only had three interceptions, though this included a marvelous one-handed pick of Stephen Morris by Williams that set up USF's first touchdown in their win at Miami.
OUTLOOK FOR 2011
Barrington, a junior, and Lattimore, a redshirt sophomore, have plenty of promise. They might be the best linebacker tandem in the Big East, and should only improve with another year of Mark Snyder's defensive system. They're both draft-eligible after the season, so if either or both of them put up big stats or make a name for themselves in a big TV game, we may need to keep an ear to the ground to see if either of them garner any draft buzz.
The third linebacker spot is up for grabs. Senior Curtis Weatherspoon has the experience, but he's being pushed by redshirt freshman Reshard Cliett, who was recruited as a safety before learning the strong-side linebacker position last fall and during spring practice. Both are a bit undersized, but they will also be called on to help defend backs and occasionally pass receivers in spread offenses. Other players who will see playing time include Lanaris and Mike Jeune, a junior college transfer who is also switching from safety to linebacker. While the Bulls bring in three linebacker recruits in Antoine Pozniak, Zack Bullock, and the fabulously-named Edsel Caprice, all are likely to redshirt.
The linebackers will benefit if the defensive line is able to generate more pass rush on their own, something they had problems with in 2010, and reduce the need for them to blitz. But the challenge for the linebackers will be to step beyond filling their roles, like they did last year, and to really make a difference. We know they're fundamentally sound, they can tackle, and they help slow down the run. Now they need to set a tone for the defense -- lay some big hits, force more turnovers, and dictate play to the opposing offense. Those impact plays are what separate a good defense from a championship defense.