Linebackers make or break the 3-4 defense. They’re the ones who have the most dynamic roles, the ones who cover, tackle and rush, the guys who kick butt and take names. Which is why it’s disconcerting to have so many questions surrounding the linebacking corps heading into 2005.
Is there enough experience at outside linebacker? Is there enough depth at inside linebacker? Who can put pressure on the quarterback? Will they be good enough in pass coverage? And what about that injured superstar whom Al Groh prefers not to discuss right now?
1) Ahmad Brooks (Jr., 6-4, 249)
1) Kai Parham (Jr., 6-3, 247)
2) Bryan White (Sr., 6-1, 241)
2) Mark Miller (Sr., 6-0, 222)
3) Antonio Appleby (Fr., 6-4, 240)
3) Jon Copper (Fr., 6-0, 230)
The dark cloud hovering over UVa’s defense is the health status of Ahmad Brooks . He still hasn’t practiced since undergoing “minor” knee surgery in the offseason. Though there are indications that he’ll return some time in September, if not for the season opener, the cloud won’t lift until he’s back on the field wreaking havoc.
Brooks may be the key to Virginia’s season for obvious reasons. He led the team in tackles each of the last two years. He was a Butkus Award finalist as a sophomore and is a consensus preseason All-American. He may be the most physically gifted player in the country, regardless of position, which isn’t to say he’s the best player in the country. For two years, he has relied largely on physical ability to make plays while developing a grasp of his role in the 3-4 scheme. The hope was that he would use the offseason to hone his understanding of the defense and further develop his skills, but the knee injury has delayed that progress and may have set him back. When he returns, it will be interesting to see several things – 1) Will he have the same speed and explosiveness? 2) Will he consistently play his assignments and become even more disruptive? As good as Brooks has been, he still hasn’t come close to reaching his potential. His effectiveness could determine whether Virginia has an average defense or an outstanding one.
Until Brooks returns, Parham will be the anchor of the defense. Another guy with an NFL body, “The Hammer” isn’t quite as fast or versatile as Brooks. But he is a terrific run stopper – no one fills a gap quite like Parham – who has developed into a leader, making defensive calls and playing a physical style of football. His health also is a concern – he’s had back and shoulder problems – but he’s looked good during training camp. Don’t be surprised if Parham blitzes more often this season, especially in the nickel package.
White and Miller are sharing reps with the first-team defense while Brooks is out. White redshirted last season with a back injury, which may turn out to be a blessing for the Cavs. It means he returns for a fifth year and provides badly-needed depth, either as a starter or as the main backup to both Brooks and Parham. He has good size and is solid against the run. Miller, meanwhile, is smaller and more adept in pass defense. He played in the nickel package two years ago and made 23 tackles, including two sacks, before seeing most of his action on special teams last year.
Copper, a redshirt freshman, was named the most improved defensive player in the spring and could be a valuable backup and special teams player. Appleby is part of Virginia’s future at this position; if Brooks is slow coming back, he may be part of the present.
3) Olu Hall (Fr., 6-3, 222)
Darryl Blackstock didn’t have a dominant junior season, and he had a horrible bowl game, so some fans weren’t that sorry to see him go to the NFL. But of the seven Cavalier draftees, I think he may be the most difficult to replace. A pure pass rusher like Blackstock doesn’t come around often. Putting pressure on the quarterback will be much more difficult now that he’s no longer around.
Dias has the potential to be a good pass rusher and could end up being a better all-around linebacker than Blackstock. But that will take time. Dias got his feet wet in the nickel package as a freshman, but now he’ll have to assume a much larger role. He has the speed to cover tight ends and chase down quarterbacks. He has the size to do a decent job against the run, though he figures to fill out more over the next few years. The question is whether he has the experience and savvy to avoid mental errors and handle all of the assignments tasked to an outside linebacker in the UVa defense.
Same goes for Sintim, who didn’t play at all last year. He got the starting job partly due to circumstances – Blackstock left early and Vince Redd moved to defensive end – but he also earned it with a solid spring. Groh says Sintim is the strongest outside linebacker he’s had at Virginia, so expect him to be sturdy against the run. But this isn’t an easy position for a freshman to play. Sintim probably would have benefited from a year as a backup, but the Cavalier coaches don’t have much choice but to throw him in there as a front-liner.
That’s because most of the backups at this position have even less experience than Sintim, who at least played on the scout team last year. Clark and Hall are true freshmen who are likely to see action early in the season. Groh has raved about Clark’s play during training camp. And while Hall still has a big learning curve in making the transition from defensive end to linebacker, Groh said, “Olu’s got a real good football aptitude. He sees the game very quickly and clearly. He understands the game very well. … He’s confirming for us why he was a heavily-sought player.”
In his third year in the program, Richardson has been on the field for exactly three plays – all kickoffs against Temple. But he has gotten bigger and better, following up a fine spring with a good training camp. He’s likely to play quite a bit this season.
The Last Word
Even with all the questions, Virginia’s linebacking corps could be one of the best in the ACC, if not the country. There is no better set of inside linebackers as long as Brooks and Parham are healthy. The talent on the outside also is impressive. It’s just young. You have to like White as a backup, and if some of the freshmen are ready to make an impact, this will be a position of strength. If nothing else, the linebackers should be very good against the run, filling gaps and laying wood on ball carriers. It’s the other responsibilities, like defending the pass and rushing the quarterback, that are causes for concern. Not to mention Brooks’ knee. But for Coach Groh’s sake, we won’t mention it, OK?
(For the most comprehensive coverage of Cavalier football, including the best in-depth analysis and informed opinions, please consider signing up for Sabre Edge.)