Take a couple of minutes and go read my buddy, classmate, and former Notre Dame football player Kevin Carretta's piece on the linebackers over at Blue & Gold: Big Hole to Fill. I spoke with Kevin the other day about his article, and while he was not as family-friendly in his comments to me, I think his article makes some very good points about our safeties and linebackers.
I watched a few more practices than Kevin this year, but I don't have his pedigree and experience in evaluating talent, and I think he makes some excellent points. Especially regarding our safeties.
Although I should be waxing poetic about our amazing wide receivers right now, I thought that in light of Kevin's article, I would take a few minutes and preview the linebackers.
Part VI - Linebackers
Travis Thomas, Senior - Will (weak side) Linebacker
Travis Thomas is a converted running back, who has shifted to linebacker this year to improve the athletic talent at a position that Willingham left paper thin. He is one of the best all-around athletes on the team, and I think that long-term, he will be a very good liinebacker.
I agree with Kevin Carretta's comments about Travis Thomas fighting through blocks. He hasn't shown the ability or strength to take on blockers. However, what I've seen Travis Thomas do several times during practice is run around blocks. Thomas has great speed (Coach calls it recovery speed), and while he may be out of position at times while trying to avoid blocks, his position on the weak side of the formation places him in the best position to be successful by relying on instinct and athleticism rather than technique.
Maurice Crum, Junior - Mike (middle) Linebacker
Maurice Crum is a great athlete. He is fast, he can hit, he has good fundamentals, can cover receivers, and really just generally flies to the ball. Which is why it's a waste to put him at middle linebacker. The middle linebacker is supposed to be the anchor and leader of the defense, and Crum's leadership abilities are not in question. However, he would be better suited to the Sam linebacker position, and he doesn't have the size to be the dominant force needed at the Mike position.
Anthony Vernaglia, Junior - Sam (strong side) Linebacker
Mitchell Thomas, Senior - Sam (strong side) Linebacker
Both of these guys are fairly veteran guys who have the potential to step up and become a big-time playmaker at linebacker. Problem is, neither one has. They both appear to be going through the motions out there in practice. They don't make mistakes, they don't miss tackles or find themselves out of position, so they will be fairly good players to fill in at linebacker. Problem is, to be the strong side linebacker, you have to want to be the man on every play. You have to play with fire and intensity and intimidate opposing running backs. You have to be going full throttle every down, every play. And these guys don't seem to have that fire yet. If either one steps up on gameday and starts playing with some drive and passion, they will probably take over the starting position. Until then, the Sam linebacker will be OK, but not great.
Backups to Watch:
Toryan Smith and Morrice Richardson, Freshmen
Coach Weis got a couple of kids in last year's class that have loads of raw talent, but need to learn the speed and complex systems of the college game to get a shot at playing time. Expect them to make some noise on special teams this year.
My take on the linebackers as a whole:
[Wherein I become long-winded and make many assumptions about the role of linebackers in Coach Minter's defense, which I have no training or other credentials to do, other than thinking I'm smart enough to analyze so complex a scheme from watching a couple of practices and last year's football games. Please, dear god please, don't take anything I say here as the god's honest truth. It simply reflects my understanding of the basic roles of linebackers and how they match up with the our available talent.]
The weak side linebacker's primary responsibility is to take on runs to the weak side, where often the linebacker takes on the running back one-on-one or has to fight through the block of a tight end or fullback. The defensive end has responsibility for containment, taking on the offensive tackle, and trying to get upfield to force the play inside. When containment fails, the will 'backer is supposed to attack the running back and keep him from bouncing outside and getting the corner for a big play. Thomas will excel at this, because his speed and burst will contain all but the fastest running backs, forcing the back to cut back into coverage, where it becomes the mike 'backer and safeties' responsibility to make the tackle.
The weak side linebacker also is responsible for the check-down receiver on most passing plays, usually the running back in the weak-side flats, and almost all screens. Most short passing plays go to the strong side, however, which is the quarterback's front side. At this, Travis Thomas will excel as well. He has great burst, a nose for the ball, and doesn't often miss tackles in the open field, a result of his extensive special teams play.
Where Thomas is going to struggle is on inside run support. When a team runs between the tackles, Thomas is most often going to be dealing with an offensive guard. On inside running plays, Thomas will be largely ineffective. Which is why having Crum in the middle could be a problem.
The Mike linebacker is supposed to be the biggest, strongest, baddest mother f%#$er on the field. He has to be able to cover short crossing routes and slants to receivers and tight ends, while also being the primary tackler on every running play from tackle to tackle. He needs to be able to ignore blockers at will, and impose his will on the offense. Toryan Smith might be able to grow into this role in the future, but I can understand why Coach Weis and Coach Minter don't want a true freshman anchoring the defense.
As Carretta said in his piece, Crum is an excellent outside linebacker. He is going to be a middling inside linebacker. He will struggle fighting through double-team blocks and taking on bigger pound-em type backs. When it is 4th and goal on the 1 yard line, I hope Coach Weis isn't counting on Crum to stop a charging fullback up the gut. He doesn't have the size or toughness for it.
Crum should be playing the Sam (strong side) linebacker, who has to be the most disciplined and athletic player on the defense. That position, manned by both Mitchell Thomas and Anthony Vernaglia, has the responsibility for the majority of the plays an offense runs. Usually, the offense has an extra blocker on the strong side, and the Sam 'backer has to take on blocks, shed them, and then accelerate to the ball carrier. The Sam backer also has responsibility for most of the short passing plays, as well as dual responsibility for the scrambling quarterback and his short receiving options on that side of the field. Which is why Crum should be playing the Sam 'backer, where he can utilize his talents the best.
M. Thomas and Vernaglia are both good linebackers, but it worries me that neither has claimed this position as their own. Carretta is high on Mitchell, and I think that he has the better athletic tools for the position, but he freelances more than I'd like to see. Vernaglia is more disciplined, but not as athletic.