In comparing the Pack and Vols by position, it's uncanny how similar the two squads have been at nearly every spot. Save for the defensive end position, where State has a decided advantage in both experience and past production, each position has been marked by a few question marks raised by either lack of depth or experience (e.g. the interior lines), or, in some cases, each squad has an experienced group that is serviceable but still has room for a breakout performance or two (e.g. the offensive lines).
And then we come to linebacker, where State will have to replace its entire starting 3. UT, on the other hand, returns 2 studs on the outside and an experienced senior stopper in the middle. This matchup goes to Tennessee, and I almost want to just throw in the towel to avoid the ugly details, but in the back of my mind I hear Rocky Balboa, face deformed and spurting blood, shouting, "Don't you dare stop this fight, Mick!" So, if you have a very high threshold for pain, by all means, read on.
The Vol most likely to deliver a slobbernocker hit that swells some poor Pack ball carrier's eye shut is A.J. Johnson (6-3, 244 SO), a frosh All-America whose 80 tackles were the second most ever for a UT true freshman. Johnson, a 4-star recruit and former Georgia AAA Defensive Player of the Year, notched 4.5 tackles for a loss and led his club with 2 fumble recoveries a year ago. He is slotted for the weak side, while fellow sophomore Curt Maggitt (6-3, 227), who also made an instant impact as a true freshman, will line up outside on the strong side. Maggitt, a highly-decorated 4-star recruit out of Florida, made 56 tackles a year ago. Johnson and Maggitt finished 1-2 in the SEC for tackles by a freshman, and Maggitt added 5.5 tackles for a loss. These guys can already play, and both have the potential to take a huge step forward in their sophomore seasons.
Herman Lathers (6-0, 225 RS SR) is about 13 months removed from an ankle fracture that cost him all of last year. In addition to having a fine future of pitching soap products ahead of him, Lathers is that rare breed of SEC athlete who actually attends and passes classes. A two-time academic all-SEC selection, Lathers has notched 17 career starts and was second on the team in 2010 with 75 tackles; he added 3 sacks. Lathers will patrol the middle.
Or, perhaps Lathers will be among the middle linebackers. As noted in previous previews, the Vols have stated their intention to move to a 3-4 defense, but their depth chart has yet to change to reflect this shift. Willie Bohannon (6-2, 250 RS-SR), an end a year ago, is nowhere to be found on the DE depth chart, but he is listed as Maggitt's backup at LB. Bohannon has started just 4 games in his career, but he has appeared in 35 and has 5 career sacks to his credit. My guess is that he will be the strong-side outside backer, with Maggitt joining Lathers on the interior.
John Propst (6-0, 225 JR), Channing Fugate (6-1, 223 JR), and Christian Harris (6-2, 238 RS FR), if he is healthy, will provide depth at LB for the Vols. Propst was a consensus top-40 inside backer recruit out of high school and has played in 23 games, mostly on special teams. Fugate, a former FB, rushed for over 3,000 yards in high school and Rivals ranked him the #3 prospect in Kentucky his senior year. He has played on coverage units but has no snaps on defense yet. Harris, a Charlotte native who played high school ball in Georgia, was an all-state performer and 3-star recruit. However, he is recovering from an ACL injury and, having already burned his redshirt year, may seek a medical hardship if he is not ready to go in 2012.
Had we been talking linebackers a year ago, the Pack would have had a clear advantage, but after losing Terrell Manning and Audie Cole to the NFL, and D. J. Green for not reading the label on his GNC supplements, State finds itself desperately needing a 2012 like Tennessee had in 2011, when a couple of playmakers emerged to solidify the position. The impressively productive Cole (108 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles) and Manning (76 tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 3 INTs) leave end-of-times-sized asteroid craters to fill, but veteran backers coach Jon Tenuta does have a lot of potential hole fillers at his disposal.
The closest thing the Pack has to a sure thing at linebacker is veteran Sterling Lucas (6-2, 238 RS GR), a grad student coming back after missing all of last year with an ACL injury. Lucas has played in 36 games in his career, mostly as a reserve, but he shows occasional flashes of awesome when given playing time. In 2010, Lucas had a 5-tackle, 1-sack performance against Cincinnati. In 2009, he had 8 stops and a tackle for a loss against Maryland. Also that season, Lucas came off the bench to make 14 tackles against Virginia Tech. Lucas is unlikely to replicate Cole's QB-tossing explosiveness in the middle, but, if healthy, he won't embarrass himself or the Pack.
Lucas will be spelled by Ryan Cheek (6-1, 240 RS JR), who has appeared in 21 games, mostly on special teams, and once won the distinctive scout team defensive player of the week honor. Taylor Gentry's little bro, Zach (6-0, 227 SR), makes the organizational chart as the third-string middle backer. Zach actually had more tackles last year than any other LB on the organizational chart, as he made a team-high 15 stops on special teams.
Brandon Pittman (6-3, 216 SO) and Michael Peek (6-2, 215 SO) got their ears wet as true freshmen on the two-deep in 2011, and now they are battling it out for the weak-side starts. A Raleigh kid, Pittman tops the depth chart as of now even though he got snaps on defense in just 2 games a year ago, though he did see the field at other times on special teams. He has 2 career tackles. Peek played in all 13 games a year ago, mostly on special teams, but he had one helluva stretch on D against Clemson. Granted, it was garbage time in a blowout, but in 10 snaps Peek made 5 tackles, including a sack.
Rickey Dowdy (6-2, 240 RS JR), who according to his gopack bio got one snap for his entire career so far and one snap only back in 2010, sits atop the organization chart at strong-side linebacker. I think his bio is wrong and that Dowdy has wandered onto the field in garbage time and special teams situations a time or two, especially since his bio pic seems to show him playing in a game last year, but regardless, he is certainly untested. When you have the likes of Cole, Manning, and Nate Irving gracing the LB corps, it's entirely possible that just because a guy hasn't played doesn't mean he can't play. Let's hope that's the case with Dowdy.
Rodman Noel (6-3, 210 SO) and Mike Rose (6-4, 232 RS FR), a couple of refugees from other positions, are also in the running for time at the strong side. The undersized but athletic Noel (4-star recruit according to Rivals) is being moved to LB from safety. His older brother Jim plays at BC, while his younger brother Nerlens will suit up for the lottery pick factory that is UK hoops. That's a pretty athletic family. Rose, a track guy in high school, is also no slouch athletically and runs tremendously well for his size. He was listed as a DE a year ago, but the Pack's depth there has allowed him to switch positions. Dowdy makes sense as the front runner since he has been in the program at the position for 3 years, but I would not be surprised if one of the superior athletes on the depth chart wrestles away most of the playing time as the season progresses.
Other options at Tenuta's disposal include JUCO transfer Robert Caldwell (6-3, 235 JR), who picked the Pack over offers from Iowa and South Florida, among others, and true freshmen Drew Davis (6-3, 230) and M.J. Salahuddin (6-3, 192). Salahuddin, a Shrine Bowl selection, likely needs a year to bulk up, but Davis has stated that he de-committed from Minnesota to stay at home in Raleigh for the opportunity to play right away. Perhaps he gets it.
The best thing that happened to State in the offseason was Tenuta's decision to stay put. Tenuta more than flirted with Illinois, going as far as accepting the defensive coordinator position for the Illini before changing his mind less than 24 hours later because: "My son is a senior in high school and has signed a letter of intent to play baseball at NC State, and it is something I just don't want to miss." The only problem is that Tenuta the younger then got drafted and decided to sign rather than attend State. One wonders if Coach Tenuta is a little pissed that he missed out on the Illinois gig, but there will be plenty of other opportunities for him to be a coordinator. I wish he had last year's level of talent to work with, but there is no one I'd rather have try to turn our linebacking lemons into lemonade, so at least we've got him for one more year.