Part four in a seven-part series previewing the Cougs' offensive and defensive units.
There's a certain amount of debate in football circles about just how important it is to have strong linebacker play, relative to other parts of the defense. Without adequate big fellas occupying blockers up front, it can be difficult for the guys to do what they do. Last year was certainly a testament to that. And when that happens, everything else breaks down, as guys try to do too much, leaving their assignments to try and make a play for a defense that's going down the toilet -- with predictable results.
Ah, but last year also was a testament to what these guys can do when the line in front of them is doing its job. One need look no further than the Apple Cup. With the defensive line turning in a yeoman's effort behind resurgent Toby Turpin, linebackers Greg Trent, Andy Mattingly (moved back to linebacker for the game) and Louis Bland combined for 23 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss. Bland, a converted safety, was particularly effective roaming free, repeatedly slicing into the backfield to disrupt plays. Additionally, these guys finally started to trust each other as the year wore on, and it showed in the results.
And there's the rub for this year. If there's one unit that could give the running backs a run for their money in terms of talent and depth, it's these guys. When a guy was a third team freshman all-American and the Apple Cup hero and isn't currently slated to start despite looking pretty healthy coming off a knee injury (Louis Bland) that says a lot about what the unit has going for it. Mattingly is back where he belongs at outside linebacker, Jason Stripling looks to finally be ready to fulfill the projections many had for him when he came north from Texas, and a trio of talented young guys in the middle are champing at the bit to fill the void left by Greg Trent.
But will they get stout enough play in front of them to allow these guys to do what they do best? That will be the key.
Projected Depth Chart
|Pos.||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|SAM||Andy Mattingly (6-4, 255, Sr.)||Louis Bland (5-10, 202, So.)||Hallston Higgins (5-11, 222, Jr.)|
|MIKE||(6-1, 236, #So.) -Ellis||Darren Markle (6-1, 224, Fr.)||Mike Ledgerwood (6-0, 224, So.)|
|WILL||Jason Stripling (5-11, 225, #Sr.)||Louis Bland (5-10, 202, So.)||Jarred Walker (6-3, 213, #Fr.)|
Mattingly. Two years ago, he was an all-Pac-10 honorable mention at outside linebacker, thanks to 11 sacks and 91 tackles. The new staff decided the best use of his talents was at defensive end, and it turned out to be a colossal mistake. Mattingly struggled to get off blocks and posted less than 40 tackles from that position before the staff decided to move him back to outside linebacker for the last two games. The move is now permanent, and if Mattingly can fulfill the potential he showed as a sophomore -- making plays from his feet in space and in a stance on obvious rushing downs -- it will be a huge boost to the defense. Mattingly is one of precious few proven playmakers on the defense, and they will need him to make plays.
He has been struggling with a little bit of a nagging groin injury in camp, but it doesn't appear to be serious.
Biggest Question Mark
Who steps up for the departed Greg Trent? The top two guys on the depth chart are a duo who have yet to play a down of college football, so this is a BIG question mark.
Hoffman-Ellis has ascended to the top spot, and could be a revelation after his redshirt year -- he flew under the radar after only playing one year of high school ball and then heading off to junior college for a year. But it's undeniable that Hoffman-Ellis is athletic, a sideline-to-sideline player who possesses good enough size to battle inside, so if the team can survive the inevitable mistakes from him, it could be set at middle linebacker for some time.
Markle, a true freshman, might have something to say about that, however. He has ascended to the second team just 10 days into camp, and while he doesn't seem to have the same pursuit speed as Hoffman-Ellis, he is undoubtedly going to be strong at the point of attack, important when playing behind a suspect line. (How strong? Check these two videos of Markle lifting ... during his junior year.) Also, don't sleep on Ledgerwood, who saw limited action last season as a freshman.
One of these guys is going to have to step up to fill Trent's void, not just in production, but in leadership.
Best Case Scenario
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: Mattingly is disrupting other teams' plans from all over the field, Stripling is finally over the injury issues that have plagued him so much, Hoffman-Ellis is a quick learner and a sideline-to-sideline maniac, and Louis Bland 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
The defensive line is still not good (for whatever reason). The trio not only is consistently getting engaged by linemen, but they're once again in the position of not trusting each other. Gap assignments are forgotten, guys are trying too hard to make plays again, and 60- to 80-yard runs become the norm again. We look back on Andy Mattingly's career as one of the great disappointments in Cougar history. What could have been!
The defensive line is better, but still not good enough to allow this unit to fully realize its potential. However, after a year of the coaches being their ears, the trust in the system -- and each other -- is vastly improved, and the big gains are cut down thanks to assignment sound football. In fact, the linebackers are able to make a number of games look an awful lot like the Apple Cup, doing their part to bend but not break. Mattingly is back on the all-Pac-10 team.