GREENVILLE, S.C.–The position the Southern Conference has been known perhaps the most for on the defensive side of the football, is linebacker. With names like Dexter Coakley, Kota Suttle, Josh Cain, Dino Hackett and Chad Nkang some of the greats from the past who made names for themselves in the league.
But it’s Appalachian State’s Coakley that embodies what it means to be in the a linebacker in a league that has been among the most physical in FCS football over the years. After all, it’s Coakley is the only one to have won the Buck Buchanan Award twice in a career, when he claimed the top individual defensive honor given to a defensive player when he did so in the 1995 and ’96 seasons. All Coakley did was finish his career with 616 career tackles, which ranks as the most in school and FCS history.
Appalachian State has had the most success when it comes to having linebackers pan out the next level as well, as Coakley, who now has his number retired at Appalachian State, was a two-time All-Pro with the Dallas Cowboys. Dino Hackett, who was another great for the Mountaineers and a 1985 All-America selection by the Associated Press, went on to be drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round (37th pick).
The Southern Conference certainly lost some great linebackers to graduation from the 2012 season just upon a quick observation of the nine SoCon teams’ depth charts from last fall. From Appalachian State, Jeremy Kimbrough has departed after finishing a stellar career in 2012, which saw him finish among the school’s top five all-time leaders in tackles.
Samford lost all three of its three starters, including veterans Keith Shoulders and Darion Sutton, while Georgia Southern had middle linebacker and leading tackler John Stevenson depart as a result of graduation. Furman lost two of three starters with the departures of Matt Solomon and All-SoCon outside linebacker Mitch McGrath, and Wofford must replace All-SoCon ‘backer Mike Niam and outside LB Phillip LeGrande.
Finally, Western Carolina must replace Rock Williams in the middle of its defense as a result of graduation, and in many ways, he was the Rock of the Catamounts’ defense each of the past couple of seasons, including finishing the 2013 season with 108 tackles, which averaged out to a league-leading 12.0 tackles-per-game. This article will initially look at the top linebacker contingents in the league heading into the season, as well as ranking the top individual linebackers 1-10 heading into the 2013 season.
Ranking The Top SoCon LB Contingents:
1. Chattanooga–It would be hard to bet against the Chattanooga Mocs as having the top contingent of linebackers returning for the 2013 season, as two of three starters return to the corps, including two of the league’s premier players at the position, in Buck Buchanan Award finalist Wes Dothard (94 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FFs), as well as fellow senior ‘backer Gunner Miller (45 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 INTs).
Dothard heads into the campaign as the active leader in the SoCon in total tackles, heading into the season with 224 stops, and has been named to one of the All-SoCon teams each of the past two campaigns. Some publications even had Dothard as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year heading into 2012. Muhasibi Wakeel (12 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 FF) and Andrew Glaize will compete to replace Shane Heatherly who has graduated, leaving an opening at strong side linebacker.
The Mocs were the second-best defense (308.4 YPG) in the SoCon last season, trailing only Wofford in that respect. Individually, Dothard’s 94 tackles last season, which ranked him seventh in the SoCon at season’s end in tackles per game, averaging 8.5 tackles per game. The Mocs have had a tradition of great linebackers, including Josh Cain, Blaz Ruzic, Ryan Consiglio and Jason Thornton since the turn of the millennium.
2. The Citadel–Though The Citadel was young at linebacker last season, the Bulldogs acquitted themselves extremely well at the position, which is why the Bulldogs find themselves ranked second among the nine linebacking units heading into the 2013 season. Rah Muhammad (46 tackles, 2 FFs, 1 FR) and Carl Robinson (54 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 FR). Both were exceptionally talented and instrumental last season to the Bulldogs’ defense, which lost the likes of Rod Harland and Tolu Akindele from the 2011 corps, and both went down with season-ending injuries. At the time Robinson went down with his season-ending injury, he was leading the team in tackles.
Another pleasant surprise of the linebacking corps was James Riley (43 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks), who saw action in four games last year after Muhammad went down with a season-ending injury. In Riley’s debut in the starting lineup in a narrow loss at Wofford, he was exceptional, posting 12 tackles and a sack. Freshmen Brandon Staton, Preston Durham and Joe Crochet also look to figure into the rotation at linebacker this fall for the Bulldogs.
3. Appalachian State–The Mountaineers will be without Jeremy Kimbrough and Brandon Grier in the middle of that Black and Gold defense this fall, however, will look to Karl Anderson (39 tackles, 1 FR) and Jamal Ware (13 tackles, 3.0 TFL) in the teeth of that unit this fall. Also a player that could figure into a role at one of the two inside linebacker positions for the Mountaineers in 2013 is Brandon McGowan (3 tackles).
Perhaps the most impressive player at middle linebacker this spring has been John Law (2 tackles). The redshirt freshman was highly sought after by some FBS schools, including Cincinnati, and he came to ASU with some pretty impressive accolades.
As a junior, Law garnered first-team Atlanta all-city honors after making 140 tackles with three sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2010. He is a tremendous athletic presence, and was one of the most physical players on the defensive side of the football for the Mountaineers this past spring.
Outside linebacker Michael Frazier (6 tackles) will be back at his natural position after switching from linebacker to fullback two springs ago. There’s a chance Frazier could still be used in short-yardage situations, but will likely be used primarily on the defensive side of the ball this season, and could find himself in a starting role, along with Blalock at outside linebacker this fall with Joel Ross (46 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR, 2 TDs, 2 PBUs) moving back to defensive back. Also in the fold at outside linebacker will be Patrick Blalock (63 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2 FRs, 4 PBUs, 2 INTs) , who moves up from safety.
4. Wofford–Two of the league’s top linebackers will be in Spartanburg suiting up for the Terriers in 2013, with the return of both Alvin Scioneaux (70 tackles, 14.0 TFL, 7.0 sacks, 2 INTs, 2 FFs) at outside linebacker, while Mike McCrimon (76 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INTs) returns at inside linebacker. Scioneaux will likely be an outside candidate for preseason SoCon Defensive Player of the Year honors and led the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss, while McCrimon is coming off a season, which saw him lead the team in tackles en route to garnering all-league plaudits.
The two major departures out of Wofford’s linebacking corps for the 2013 season are Mike Niam and Phillip LeGrande, who both have graduated leaving the door open for a pair of talented junior linebackers, in Travis Thomas (33 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) and Kevin Thomas (47 tackles, 5.0 TFL).
5. Elon–Elon heads into the 2013 season with a talented corps of linebackers slated to return to the starting trio, and two of three starters return for the upcoming campaign, but the Phoenix did graduate Blake Thompson, who was an instrumental part of the defense and finished second on the team in tackles.
The leading returnee to that linebacking corps for the 2013 is Jonathan Spain (120 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks), who led the Phoenix in tackles last season and was an All-SoCon selection. Spain, who will enter the season as one of the league’s top middle linebackers will be flanked by junior Odell Benton (47 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 PBUs) and senior Quinton Lightfoot (3 tackles, 1.0 TFL), who will fill the role vacated by Thompson at weakside linebacker.
6. Georgia Southern–Georgia Southern must replace its top linebacker from a year ago, with the graduation of John Stevenson, but experience returns in the form of Kyle Oehlbeck (51 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) at middle linebacker, while Patrick Flowe (38 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FR), who was a member of the freshman All-SoCon team, is also back. Flowe backed up Oehlbeck last season, but may move to one of the outside linebacker positions this season because of his athleticism.
Antwoine Williams (32 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 3 PBUs) is also back after he played the ‘BUCK’ linebacker position last season, and like Flowe, is an excellent athlete. The biggest development, however, is the return of Josh Rowe (75 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 FF in 2011), who was academically ineligible last season, and was one of the top linebackers in the Southern Conference.
7. Furman–Furman has maybe its most depth on the defensive side of the football at linebacker, as several young stars began to emerge last season in that Furman linebacking corps, including rising sophomores Corey Magwood (10 tackles, 1.0 TFL) and Carl Rider (18 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 FR, 1 TD) emerging as two potential game-changers for that Paladin linebacking corps.
The Paladins will basically have three new starters at linebacker in the fall, with Wilkins moving to one of the defensive end positions, while Matt Solomon and Mitch McGrath have both graduated. Furman fans at least got a glimpse of what the future holds in that Appalachian State game last season, with Rider’s performance being one that sticks out most in the minds of those who follow the program.
In that 33-28 loss at Appalachian State, Rider posted five tackles, a tackle-for-loss and a fumble recovery and subsequent 27-yard return down the far sideline for his first-career TD.
There is a slew of redshirt and incoming freshmen expected to make an immediate impact at linebacker this fall, including redshirt freshmen T.J. Warren and Preston Flurry, as well as true freshmen Brad Minter, Nic McBride and Byron Johnson. Don’t be surprised if big-hitting safety Jairus Hollman sees some situational action at linebacker this fall as well.
8. Western Carolina–The Catamounts return one of the most talented individual linebackers in the Southern Conference this fall, with Courtland Carson (97 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) returning to anchor what should be a solid unit this season. Carson will be asked to anchor a linebacking corps that lost its top linebacker to graduation last season, in Rock Williams, who finished the season ranking fifth in the SoCon in overall tackles, posting 108 tackles last season.
Slated to join the All-SoCon Carson at linebacker this fall for the Purple and Gold will be junior Christon Gill (9 tackles) and De’Von Richardson (37 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF), who will flank Carson at the weakside and strong-side linebacker positions, respectively. Both Gill and Richardson saw playing time last fall, but will essentially be two new starters at linebacker this fall for the Catamounts. Richardson registered three starts for the Catamounts last season.
There is also some talented depth returning for the Catamounts, with some young talent waiting in the wings at linebacker for the Purple and Gold heading into the fall.
A pair of redshirt sophomores return for the Catamounts, in K.P. Hicks and Jeff Lucas also return to give the Catamounts’ linebacking corps solid depth entering the 2013 campaign.
9. Samford–No team was hit harder by graduation at linebacker than the Samord Bulldogs, who must replace all three of its starters at linebacker from last season.
It will be a proving ground for some of the programs up-and-coming linebackers heading into the 2013 season, such as Hans Rice (9 tackles, 0.5 sack), Justin Shade (70 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) and Josh Killett (19 tackles).
Shade will obviously be the veteran leader of this unit coming up in the fall, and will likely start at middle linebacker for Pat Sullivan’s Bulldogs this fall.
There are some young linebackers waiting in the wings that should see some significant action for the Bulldogs this fall, such as redshirt freshman Chad Jones and Tate Rogers.