Five Spring Thoughts on the Linebackers — The linebackers have been an interesting position because of both recruiting and the one player that is supposed to make a huge difference in 2015 after sitting out all of 2014. Add to all of this is the idea that Texas Tech is replacing three starting seniors from last year and you’ve got a position that is teeming with potential.
1. One and One. A lot of you have already raised this question, which is the idea that the coaching staff secured one linebacker commitment in the 2015 class, D’Vonta Hinton, and one linebacker in the 2014 class, Dakota Allen. That’s not normal. It’s not the end of the world as the coaching staff took a slew of linebackers in the 2013 class, but there’s questions about pretty much every one of those players (see below). The coaches have said that they don’t want to reach for players, and maybe this is the most applicable at quarterback and at linebacker, where I am sure that there were players out there to be had, but Texas Tech really didn’t pursue any other that Arthur McGinnis. The staff had their sights set pretty high and we don’t know everything that went on, but they certainly didn’t settle for just anyone at linebacker. I think that Texas Tech can expect some pretty big things from Allen and Hinton, although I think it might take Hinton some time see the field. He’s going to have to work through that depth chart pretty much from the bottom.
2. The 2013 Class. I think this item #2 and item #1 need to be read together in that the staff didn’t reach in 2014 and 2015, but could we make the case that the staff did reach in 2013? Texas Tech took four linebackers in that 2014 class: Malik Jenkins, Zach Barnes, Jacarthy Mack and Kahlee Woods. What we do know right now is that right now, only Jenkins and Mack show up on the two-deep, while Woods has been leapfrogged by Allen and Barnes sits behind Robertson and Barnes at that rush-end or outside linebacker spot. I suppose there is a thought that this is the natural progression of each of these guys as they are playing their way into the rotation and at the very least, they should provide some really nice depth at some point, but . . . I don’t think we’ve heard the coaching staff really talk about any of these players a whole lot and that’s always a bit discouraging. Maybe it will be a bit different this spring and summer, but it’s something to really watch as we move forward, which is if there is a player of this group that’s going to make a jump. The odd thing here is that the one guy that I thought would have the toughest time getting on the field because he weighs 203 pounds, Jacarthy Mack, is backing up Sam Atoe. Oh, and Mack is 6-2, so he’s pretty undersized.
3. A Lot Riding on Mitchell’s Shoulders. There may not be a player with more riding on him being an impact player more so than Mike Mitchell. Mitchell is right there with Breiden Fehoko as being the most heralded (let’s just say modern day) of any defensive recruit that I can remember and there is this expectation, perhaps unfairly, that Mitchell will not only need to be on the field, but he’s got to excel. The one thing that this defense has always lacked, at least for the last decade or so, is a true game-changer on the defensive side of the ball. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always been good players, but not difference makers. Pete Robertson is one of those guys that has developed, slowly but surely, into that playmaker, but I really get the sense from fans that Mitchell is “going to be” terrific. Almost as if there is no doubt that he will be terrific. The reason why Mitchell has to be a replacement level starter for this team from day-one is that this team graduated three starters at linebacker, Austin Stewart, Sam Eguavoen and V.J. Fehoko. This was still a bad defense, but that’s a lot of snaps to replace and the only linebackers that really saw much (excluding Robertson), if any time, was Awe. There’s really not any other choice than for Mitchell to be great or there’s a better than zero chance that this defense could be worse.
4. Robertson’s Impact. I’m including Pete Robertson here with the linebackers because I still really consider Robertson an outside linebacker as well as Kris Williams and Zach Barnes. Robertson’s progression has been really fantastic and the only gripe about Robertson has been something that he doesn’t really have any control over, which is that he can’t really weigh more than 235 or so pounds and he can’t shed 330 pound tackles. That’s not his problem so much in that there aren’t just a ton of players that can do that. I do think that Mike Smith really accentuated the positive with Robertson and by the end of the year, I think our collective thoughts about Pete’s play were much different than at the beginning of the season. My hope with Robertson is that he’s not playing every play and that there are some times where he’s taken off the field so that there can be a more sizable defensive end there, maybe someone like Andre Ross or Talor Nunez or something like that. So, I’m looking at David Gibbs to make Robertson just a bit better by getting him off of the field as the situation dictates.
5. Guys in Right Spots. So many of you thought that when the initial depth chart was released that the oddball spots that we would find these defensive players were in odd spots and maybe sometimes these guys were square pegs in round holes. But with the release of the depth chart, there seemed to be a collective, “Yeah, I get that.” with each position. Mitchell at weakside linebacker makes a ton of sense, Sam Atoe at strongside is totally cool, while Micah Awe at middle maybe isn’t enough size, but with Allen (234) backing him up and Woods (231), if Awe can’t stick, then you’ve got some size back there to plug in if necessary. So, these positions really make sense and the only spot that I think has some real issues to work out is that if Robertson goes down with an injury, then we are going to find out if Kris Williams is fully back from injury and if Barnes can even play. Robertson has played so much, we just don’t even know if they can play.