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March 21, 2013

Preview: Many options at LB

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It's going to be tough to answer the questions at the linebacker positions before seeing the unit. A whole lot has changed, including the job descriptions of linebackers, since the Red Raiders played in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

For the fourth consecutive year, there's a new defensive scheme than the year before. This year Texas Tech is moving from the 4-3 defensive scheme to the 3-4 in conjunction with Kliff Kingsbury's hiring and personal preference. Hopefully the defensive squad will be able to establish roots in the 3-4 this year and have that scheme be continued into the future.

Texas Tech is once again switching its defensive scheme, which means big changes for the team's linebackers. The Red Raiders return several players with starting experience, and players like Pete Robertson and Branden Jackson have been moved to the position from defensive end.
The Basics
Returning Starters: Terrance Bullitt (7), Blake Dees (2), Sam Eguavoen (9), Branden Jackson (2*), Will Smith (11), Zach Winbush (1)

Others Returning: Micah Awe, Chris Payne, Pete Robertson, Chase Robison, Kris Williams

Departures: None

* Jackson started two games at DE in 2012.
Notable 2012 Statistics
Texas Tech's linebacker corps did not register a single sack and logged just nine TFL.

Sam Eguavoen was the linebacker corps' leading tackler; he posted a total of 52 tackles.

Tech's linebackers did not force any fumbles in 2012; they forced four in 2011.
But that doesn't fix the learning curve the players are forced to go through yet again -- some seniors will graduate having never played the same scheme in consecutive years -- and things change arguably the most at linebacker as their will now be four of them in the front seven.

The 3-4 is an athletic defense that relies on the linebackers to be at the heart of both run stopping and the short and intermediate passing game.

Which of the four positions do the current players slated as linebackers fit? That's the big question, and there are certainly signs of positive growth to indicate depth won't be a major issue here.

Senior linebacker Will Smith was a breakout player last spring and performed so well he got assigned to middle linebacker where he anchored the defense. He's a nice cross between athleticism and bulk to stop the run up the middle.

Blake Dees, also a middle linebacker, started the 2012 season as a marginal drop off from Smith but was at times getting more reps than Smith midway through the campaign. With two middle linebacker positions, both Smith and Dees should be seeing a lot of playing time.

However, there aren't a lot of obvious options behind Smith and Dees. Guys like Sam Eguavoen, Zach Winbush, Kris Williams, Chris Payne, Micah Awe and perhaps Terrance Bullitt all look like outside outside linebackers.

At 6-foot-1 and an athletic 220 pounds, look for Eguavoen to be converted to more of a middle linebacker. Winbush is a secondary option at a Mike linebacker position.

Tech looks pretty good at outside linebacker though.

Awe is a linebacker the former coaching staff raved about. Williams will start burning eligibility after redshirting last season. Payne adds depth while Eguavoen and Winbush also could be in this Sam and Will linebacker mix.

Things get even better when you factor in guys like Pete Robertson and Chase Robison could play outside linebacker as inbetweeners from defensive ends last season. Both players could play as down linebackers which would give the defense a few four down linemen options for things like the nickel package.

There are so many directions defensive coordinator [Matt Wallerstedt[/db] and co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Mike Smith can take the linebacker unit. After sizing the unit up, there's enough depth for a solid two-deep for the 2013 season.

The trick this spring is learning who fits within the four linebacker positions and where.

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PRESSURE IS ON: Smith ended last spring surrounded by quite a bit of buzz and fanfare. He had an excellent spring, in fact. Smith adjusted quickly, wowed spectators and made plays in team situations. He didn't quite live up to those post-spring expectations in 2012. Smith wasn't bad -- he was still an improvement on the team's linebacker play in 2011 -- but was still a bit of a disappointment based on the high bar he set for himself that spring.

BIGGEST QUESTION: Who plays where? Branden Jackson, Chase Robison and Pete Robertson have all been moved to linebacker, and Matt Wallerstedt also inherits multiple returning starters from a year ago. Who are the best four in the group and how will Wallerstedt fit them all on the field?

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