Part one in an eight-part series previewing the WSU football 2010 offensive and defensive units.
For the past two years, the knocks on the WSU linebackers have been many. Too small, too slow, too inexperienced -- it all plagued these guys in one way or another. In some ways, the inexperience was the most damning problem; whenever one of the upperclassmen got hurt, he was replaced by someone seemingly seeing their first substantial Pac-10 action. At best, that led to hesitation and slow reaction times; at worst, it led to blown assignments that turned into big plays.
It appears those knocks have finally been addressed. At any given time, there should be speed to burn and/or size at at least two of the three spots, and most everyone on the two deep (with one notable exception we'll talk about in a second) saw extensive time a year ago. Yes, the unit is hurt by the loss of touted redshirt freshman Andre Barrington (academics) and probable loss of Louis Bland (knee surgery recovery), but there's still plenty of talent here.
With what figures to be a dramatically improved defensive line in front of them, there's really no reason why this unit shouldn't begin to shine this year.
Projected Depth Chart For Sept. 4
# = Has used redshirt. This is our best guess based on the preseason depth chart and published reports.
|Pos.||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|SAM||(6-0, 209, #Sr.) yron Beck||Hallston Higgins (5-11, 210, Sr.)||
Darren Markle (6-1, 224, #Fr.)
|MIKE||Mike Ledgerwood (6-1, 231, Jr.)||Hallston Higgins (5-11, 210, Sr.)|
|WILL||(6-1, 241, #Jr.) -Ellis||Mike Ledgerwood (6-1, 231, Jr.)||
Arthur Burns (5-11, 206, #Fr.)
Whoever plays middle linebacker. If competition makes everyone better, then this is Pete Carroll's dream.
With Hoffman-Ellis moved to the outside -- presumably to make better use of his otherworldly speed and size that should give him the ability to rush the passer -- there's quite the battle going on for who takes over in the middle. There's Ledgerwood, who has the most experience; Mizell, who is raw but rivals Hoffman-Ellis for the title of "best athlete" in the entire group; Higgins, who is an undersized but steady Texan who's waited four years to make his mark; and Markle, who was so strong a year ago that he made some noise that he might force a burn of his redshirt.
The bet here is that Mizell eventually wins the job -- if not for the opener, then somewhere down the road. After taking a year off out of high school last year, it's going to take him some time to get reacclimated to full-speed football, but once he does ... watch out. My guess is Ledgerwood starts the year there, given that the junior should provide the most steady, assignment-sound performance early on. Look for Mizell to be phased in as the season moves along, unless injuries force him into immediate action.
Biggest Question Mark
Is the experience really going to translate into improved play?
Of course, one could argue that's a big question for every unit. But with so much of effective linebacking coming down to the ability to quickly read and react, logic dictates that experience should make a huge difference for a group that isn't perhaps as athletically gifted as the Pac-10 offenses it will be facing.
If it turns out the experience didn't make much difference and these guys just can't play ... well, skip down to the Worst Case Scenario.
Best Case Scenario
I'm just going to clip my Best Case Scenario from last year and replace the names -- it still applies.
The defensive line is much improved, allowing these guys to do what they do best -- fly around and make plays. In stark contrast to last year, the front seven trusts each other and it shows: Hoffman-Ellis is disrupting other teams' plans from all over the field, Mizell is a quick learner and a sideline-to-sideline maniac, and Ledgerwood proves to be a valuable situational player. The rush defense is much improved, limiting opponents to "just" 4.5 yards per carry.
Worst Case Scenario
Experience hasn't made a lick of difference because, as it turns out, these guys just aren't good linebackers. They continue to blow assignments and overcommit, leading to severe depression amongst Coug fans at the realization that we're just a lot farther away than we thought.
The defensive line is a lot better, and the experience really does pay off. These guys are assignment sound, and the rush defense is vastly improved. C.J. Mizell forces his way into the lineup by the time conference play gets rolling, and proves to be the one of the best young defenders in the Pac-10. They make some big plays on a defense that is good enough to keep the Cougs in some games.