With 8 days left until KICKOFF, 'The Forty' is back in business and going to run down the top 19 questions for the upcoming year.
#7: Can the linebacker play improve?
The Longhorn linebackers took a lot of heat for their play in 2006. While they did not necessarily perform terribly, it just seemed like there was a lack of big plays from the linebacker position. There were missed tackles and it seemed that at least one linebacker was out of position on almost every play. Despite the perceived under performance, the backers did play a big role in Texas top ranked rushing defense.
Rashad Bobino, Robert Killebrew and Scott Derry received the starts for the most part in 2006 with Roderick Muckelroy as the man backup. While the 3 returning starters will get a lot of playing time, look for Muckelroy and talent group of youngsters to challenge for playing time and eventually the starting jobs. I look for Muckelroy to be a starter by the time mid-season rolls around.
The young guys vying for playing time are Sergio Kindle, Jared Norton and Dustin Ernest. While Kindle is the most talented of the group, he will be sitting out the first 3 games of the year, serving a suspension for an off-season DUI charge. This will surely put Kindle at a disadvantage since the first games are usually a proving ground for young players looking to make an impression on coaches. However, Kindle is talented enough to overcome the lack of early playing time to become an active participant on defense later in the year.
Bobino is the statistical leader for the group (127 tackles in 2006) while Killebrew is the emotional leader. Killebrew has gotten himself into some trouble, however, with his aggressive play. At times his emotions take over and usually end up costing the defense a 15 yard penalty. Derry is just one of those guys you can't really figure out why he plays so well. He doesn't look athletic, but some how he gets it done. Not expected to be a big contributor last year, Derry took over the starting spot and recorded 70 tackles on the year. Unfortunately for Derry, if there is a young guy looking to take a starting role, it will probably be his spot in the line up.
Another thing to consider this year is the new defensive scheme brought in by Larry MacDuff and Duane Akina. One criticism of Gene Chizik's defense was that there was not enough pressure put on the quarterback and in the offensive backfield. That is not going to be a problem this year as MacDuff brings his Arizona "Desert Swarm" style, attacking, blitzing defense. One thing is for sure it that there will be blitzes and there will be linebackers in the backfield. Look for the sack numbers to rise dramatically for the linebacker spots. Getting pressure on the QB is going to be a must this year to help out the young and inexperienced secondary. Texas' linebackers will improve this year. Tackles and sack numbers will go up and look for a generally more aggressive attitude that will serve this deep core of linebackers well.