With the loss of starting middle linebacker and leading tackler Elliott Coffey and the movement of starting weakside linebacker Rodney Chadwick to a backup role, the middle of the Bears defense will have two new faces featured in prominent roles, to go along with the Bears best defensive player.
Along with the change in players, there could be some changes in personnel packages as well. The Baylor defense last year varied very little from down to down, and usually featured 4 down linemen, 2 linebackers, 1 nickel back, 2 cornerbacks and 2 safeties. However, in the spring, we started to see a 3-man front that seemed to have another nickel back closer to the line of scrimmage, more of a 3-4 type defense.
With that much change, there are a lot of questions about what Bear fans will see against SMU in September. The one thing you are guaranteed to see is a lot of Ahmad Dixon. The returning starter at the nickel back position, Dixon will be a featured player for the Bears defense in 2012. Finishing with 89 tackles in 2011, the Bears expectations are high for the junior defender. I expect we will see Dixon asked to do quite a bit more this year, and from different areas of the field. In the first few practices this fall, Dixon was even rushing the passer, something he did not do often last year.
Behind Dixon on the depth chart is another former 4-star player, though his results at Baylor have been much less. Prince Kent played at strong safety his freshman season, but really has struggled to find his place on the field since then. He is bigger at 220lbs, and brings some tremendous athleticism to the nickel back position and special teams.
Along with Dixon are the two truer linebacker positions. The middle linebacker position has seen a rotating cast of one-year starters since Joe Pawelek graduated after the 2009 season. With Elliott Coffey getting the nod last year as a 5th year senior it is up to a new face to fill the position. Sophomore Bryce Hager is the first candidate to get a shot this year, and has been the started since spring and through the fall. The former 3-star recruit played special teams last year with a few snaps on defense, so there are still a lot of questions about his ability. In the spring game, I saw a linebacker with a little more ability to attack the football, rather than let the ball carrier come to them. He seemed to read run plays well and has a bit more strength than Coffey.
Backing up Hager will be the starting weakside lineback from last season. Chadwick enters his senior year after taking over for Brody Trahan at that position in conference play. He has 11 starts under his belt (6th most on defense) and hopefully will be able to bring some experience to the position. He is the only linebacker on the depth chart that has been at the school playing linebacker for more than 2 years.
Taking over for Chadwick at the weakside spot will be junior college transfer Eddie Lackey, who came to Baylor in December, and has emerged as the starter. While undersized, he brings great instincts and speed to the linebacker position. He really attacks the line of scrimmage and knows how to get guys down. He struggled with shedding offensive lineman and getting off blocks, but if the defensive line can keep him clean, he could make a huge impact. Backing up Lackey is Brody Trahan, the former quarterback and starting weakside backer. Trahan struggled to start the 2011 season with reads and coverage. It was a tough position to put a player in, as Brody only started playing defense a few months prior. Hopefully, Trahan can continue to learn the position and provide depth for the Bears. His major impact this year should come on special teams.
With a senior and two juniors in the two-deep along with Bryce Hager, there are a few opportunities for younger players to step up, especially in the coming years. The Baylor coaching staff took advantage of that and got several highly touted guys to commit in the 2012 class. Leading that class is a player that we are going to have to wait a little bit longer to arrive in Waco. Brian Nance, a 3-star linebacker coming off of a major knee injury, has not qualified and will attend a prep school for a year to see if he can get his grades in order. He is a star caliber player and if he can get his grades in order, look for him to make an impact on defense quickly.
Two players from the 2012 class will be joining Lackey on campus though. The higher rated of the two is Kendall Ehrlich, a big and strong linebacker who has tons of potential at the middle linebacker spot. He is a kid that I am a big fan of, as he has a great frame to put on 25-30 more pounds and keep his athleticism. Though the future is bright for him, I expect him to redshirt this year. The other newcomer to the squad will be one of those sleeper recruits that we have had some success with. Shamycheal Chatman was a late qualifier, but is an excellent athlete. Since he was a late qualifier, he did not receive much attention from colleges, but the kid has some excellent tools.
With the 2013 class having very few spots left, the spots for linebackers is more than likely full, as the Bears have 4 recruits committed. Leading the way is the 24th ranked middle linebacker in the 2013 class, D.J. Green. Green is a tenacious run stopper and does a great job of taking on blockers and winning the point of attack. He also has the athleticism to play on the outside as well.
Along with Green, the Bears are bringing in a trio of guys that could play either the outside or the nickel spot. Raaquan Davis is the highest rated of the three and probably is the most physical of the recruits. He is more of an all-around linebacker, being able to play in coverage better than Green, but not quite as adept in run defense. He will need to put on some weight, and I think he can and will play the weak side position.
The future of the nickel back position is in another recruit’s hands. Travon Blanchard has all of the physical tools required. He has great height and is probably the most fluid athlete of the commits. The final commit is Xavier Phillips, a player with tremendous speed and athleticism. He has played defensive end at Al Saints Episcopal in Fort Worth, and has shown an ability to rush the passer. That is a skill in high demand, and something the Bears have missed from the linebacker position recently.
While the Bears already have 4 commits, there is one recruit that they are holding a spot for. Mike Mitchell of Prestonwood Christian is a 4-star stud with a Baylor offer. I highly doubt that the Bears have any other offers that they would accept out at this point to linebackers, but for a guy like Mitchell, you make room.
1. Bryce Hager – 6-1, 245, SO.
2. Rodney Chadwick – 6-0, 240, SR.
1. Eddie Lackey – 5-11, 220, JR.
2. Brody Trahan – 5-11, 220, JR.
1. Ahmad Dixon – 6-0, 210, JR.
2. Prince Kent – 6-2, 220, JR.
1. Kendall Ehrlich – 6-1.5, 215, 3-star (34th ranked MLB)
2. Shamycheal Chatman – 6-2, 215, 2-star (Not Ranked at OLB)
3. Brian Nance* – 6-3, 210, 3-star (31st ranked OLB in 2012) (*Did not quality, attending prep school in 2012, hopeful to join squad in January 2013)
1. D.J. Green – 6-1, 215, 3-star (24th ranked MLB) COMMIT
2. Raaquan Davis – 6-2, 195, 3-star (47th ranked OLB) COMMIT
3. Travon Blanchard – 6-2, 185, 3-star (79th ranked OLB) COMMIT
4. Xavier Phillips – 6-2, 220, 2-star (Not Ranked at OLB) COMMIT
5. Mike Mitchell – 6-4, 215, 4-star (3rd ranked MLB)