As Tommy Bowden searched for candidates to replace Rodney Allison last winter, one name continually popped up - David Blackwell. When the announcement was finally made late last January, many claimed it was the best decision Bowden could have made. Blackwell came from Pitt with a reputation as a good linebacker coach and great recruiter. With contacts throughout the state and Southeast, it seemed he would hit the ground running. Clemson fans better hope the self-described hard worker lives up to his billing because he has a very tough task ahead of him.
Blackwell inherits a group with a lot of promise and youth. The losses of Brandon Jamison and Kelvin Morris quickly changed the nature of Blackwell's task. Jamison, in all likelihood, would have been the starter in the middle. Morris played Rover most of last season but replaced Eric Sampson at Whip for the Tangerine Bowl. Despite the disappointing team performance, Morris had a very solid game and was expected to be the starter at that position this year. Of the eight players listed on the post spring depth chart (Morris was the ninth), there are four redshirt freshmen and one redshirt sophomore to go along with one redshirt junior, one junior, and one senior. It's a near certainty that at least one of the two incoming freshmen will be counted on to provide depth this year. Add to that the fact that three of the eight returning players are playing linebacker for the first time and you can see why Blackwell has an opportunity to genuinely earn every penny of his salary.
Note: Lionel Richardson is listed as a Jr. on the most current roster but I have chosen to list him as an R/So. because I do no think he actually saw action in both of his first two seasons.
Mike is another name for the middle linebacker position. Of the three linebacker positions, the middle linebacker may be the last to truly evolve in order to fit today's game. It seems as if more and more teams are putting an emphasis on speed at this position. Gone are the days of the thick-necked, hard-nosed guys that are in there to stop the run. A middle linebacker today has to be able to cover the pass as well. As such, more and more of them are guys that runs like a safety and hit like a truck.
Leroy Hill (6'1", 220 - Jr.) heads into the fall as the starter. Although one of the elders of the group, a majority of his game experience has come through special teams play. He only saw 47 snaps at linebacker while backing up Sampson, 29 of which came in the Maryland and Texas Tech games. He accumulated 21 total special teams tackles to lead the team by 11. Hill has decent size and speed for the position. His experience at Whip last year allowed him to spend a lot of time working on his coverage skills. This will help, as he will be asked to cover running backs at times. He spent his freshman year backing up Chad Carson in the middle so he's no stranger to the position. His size and speed are more than adequate. His athleticism isn't the biggest question. Rather, it will be his ability to shed and get through blocks. If he can do this and do it consistently, he will have a surprise season.
Hill's backup will be Roosevelt Nelson (6'2", 214 - R/So.). Like Hill, Nelson saw most of his action as a special teams player. He participated in 11 games and saw some action as a linebacker in the Tangerine Bowl. He, too, has played the position in the past and has an understanding of what it takes to get the job done.
The third man at Mike is Charles Bennett (6'4", 235 - R/So.). The former defensive end played the final 11 games of the 2002 season, but only saw action as a defensive end in four. In all likelihood, he is still adjusting to the switch and will spend most of the season getting a feel for the position. His experience at defensive end should help in regards to getting off of blocks. Once he gets used to playing out of a two-point stance and dealing with blockers from all sorts of angles, he should be able to contribute in some form or fashion because he has good athletic ability.
Whip is the weak side linebacker. I've heard one coach refer to this position as "nothing more than a souped up strong safety." As a general rule, weak side linebackers are not as big and physical as the other two, but they normally have a little more speed and athleticism. In most pro-type sets they line up away from the tight end. In most zone defenses they take a zone drop like the other two linebackers. Their main responsibility is more often than not a running back.
According to the depth chart, Brian Carr (5'11", 200 - R/Jr.) is the starter. He has no game experience at linebacker and little if any on special teams. He has the necessary speed and athleticism to play the position. After a summer of bulking up for the position, he should be better suited from a physical standpoint. His time in the secondary should help him with his coverage skills. The biggest adjustment he will have to make is getting used to the big bodies of linemen and blocking backs. If he's going to contribute, he will have to find a way to use his speed and quickness to get off of blocks.
Lionel Richardson (6'0", 205 - R/So.) is Carr's backup. Richardson initially came to Clemson as a walk-on running back. He had a great year as a sophomore at Hanahan, but a pre-season knee injury his junior year caused him to miss the entire season. He had a good senior campaign, but the injury scared off many big schools. He turned down a few offers from very small schools to accept an academic scholarship to Clemson. He is athletic enough for the position, but he has to learn how to play linebacker after all of those years at running back. Look for him to be a solid contributor on special teams.
If you have not guessed by now, Tack is the strong side linebacker. These are typically big guys that run well. They are run stoppers that must have good coverage skills. Besides having to deal with linemen, they have to be physical because there are times when they will walk up to the line of scrimmage and play head up on the tight end. The speed is needed because they will generally have the tight end or a running back in man coverage. Depending on the coach, the Tack is the guy that will set the defensive front as the offense comes to the line simply because he is in charge of finding the strong side. They will also make the Omaha call (used to signal a blitz is off) because of a shift in the offensive alignment.
John Leake (6'1", 240 - Sr.) is one of the defensive leaders and the starter at Tack. Heading into his third year as a starter, he has an opportunity to put his name on the list of top five tacklers in Clemson history. His numbers have been very impressive the past two seasons after being a special teams player his freshman year. His 13 tackles per game average last year were fourth best in the country. Leake has been receiving a lot of preseason publicity as a potential All-ACC performer. Based on the numbers alone, it is well deserved. However, he needs to step up his level of play.
There is more to being a good linebacker than just racking up a high number of tackles. Leake has to do a better job of getting off of blocks and disrupting the running lanes. He must focus on how he can use his size, strength, and speed to get in a better position to deliver fierce blows. Too many of his tackles have come four, five, and six yards off the line of scrimmage. He also appears to make a lot of arm tackles. He summed it up best at the recent ACC meeting when talking about the infamous Greg Jones run just before the half of last year's game. He said he misjudged Jones' speed and took a bad angle that resulted in his feeble attempt to push Jones out of bounds. Clemson fans know all too well the result of the play. The point is that linebackers do not push people. Their sole purpose on the field is to put the fear of God into opposing players. The best way to do that is by attacking with speed and power in an effort to crush the ball carrier. Pushing and arm tackling does not get the job done. Leake has a tough task ahead of him in backing up all of his talk. His attitude is perfect for a linebacker, but it will mean nothing if he does not increase his level of play.
Anthony Waters (6'3", 235 - R/Fr.) will be the first man off the bench if Leake needs a breather. Waters is a kid that will surprise a lot of people in the next few years. Even though he has yet to play a down, the resemblance to Levon Kirkland is uncanny. They are both from top Class A programs in the same general area of the state, entered Clemson without receiving much publicity, and reported at roughly the same size. Don't misunderstand the comparison; everyone knows it is a stretch to say he is the next Kirkland. It will take a lot of hard work, dedication, and excellent play before he will even earn the right to be mentioned as that type of player. The point is that Waters is very athletic and has worked hard thus far to improve his size. He has begun to fill out and now has the look of a college linebacker. Playing behind Leake will allow him to learn the game as he slowly works his way onto the field. He is the type of kid that will push himself and do everything asked of him in an effort to make himself a better player and help the team. Simply put, Clemson needs more players like him.
Nigel Vaughn (6'0", 215 - R/So.) is the third man in the group. The walk-on and brother of Khaleed Vaughn participated in the final 12 contests last fall as a special teams player. He was arguably one of the best special teamers on the squad as he displayed good speed and a nose for the football. He will have a hard time working his way onto the field as a linebacker, but should continue to improve as a player. He will be one of the leaders on special teams, and a player fans should watch when he is on the field.
The linebacker corps will receive a big boost if Eric Sampson (6'2", 205 - Jr.) does return to the team. Although an official announcement has not yet been made, it appears that will be the case. If so, it is almost a sure thing that he will line up as the starting Whip against Georgia. He was a very solid player last year that has more than enough athleticism and speed for his position. He is an excellent coverage linebacker that could use some work on his run support. He will need to display less of the on-the- field antics that he showed throughout most of last season, and it is something he needs to lose if given a second chance.
Freshmen Maurice Nelson (6'2", 206) and Nick Watkins (6'2", 215) come in with a chance to earn a spot on the depth chart. Based purely on recruiting hype, Nelson appears to be a Whip and Watkins a Tack. Many fans have more easily noticed Nelson, as he is a South Carolina native and brother of Roosevelt Nelson. He is a very good athlete with nice speed. However, Watkins may be the surprise of the two. Reports from a recent all-star game in Louisiana are that he was all over the field making plays. It would seem as if he, too, is very athletic with lots of speed. If one or both of these players were good enough to come in and provide depth, David Blackwell would have to feel much better about the direction of his group. Each player will be given every opportunity to prove himself during the preseason.
Like the running backs, there is a lot of potential in this group. Unfortunately, potential is only good for playing the game on paper. Leake and Sampson have lots of experience and can be counted on. Hill is a relative unknown in the middle. He needs to have a very good preseason in order to establish himself as the man at Mike. Waters is bursting with potential. If he can prove himself throughout the early part of the season and the coaches feel comfortable playing him, do not be surprised to see him on the field with Leake and Sampson. Either Waters or Leake could possibly move to the middle if Blackwell feels the best chance to win is with both of them out there. If Waters continues to get bigger, a move to the middle may be one that comes naturally. At least one of the backups and one of the incoming freshmen will need to step up and provide depth. The starting three should be pretty solid but depth will be what makes or breaks this group.
The linebackers have to do a better job of being physical and playing smart. They know how to tackle properly and need to carry that over to the playing field. Missed tackles have been one of the most obvious concerns the last couple of years. The other big concern is getting off of blocks. This cannot be stressed enough. It is an absolute must. An extra quarter to half a second is all an offensive lineman needs in order to spring a running back. The linebackers have to find a way to prevent that.
Look for them to have more fire and tenacity. Blackwell is fiery guy that will do everything in his power to have his guys playing at full throttle. He is also a young, enthusiastic coach that will get along very well with the players, but will be quick to jump them when they are not playing up to their ability. It will be a learning experience for everyone involved, as this group could very well be the key to the team's success. Blackwell needs to find a way to limit the mistakes that will inevitably occur because of the youth. As long as the mistakes are made at full speed and they are laying someone out, Blackwell can live with them. Coaches can deal with this because it shows the right attitude and mentality for the position. Teaching a kid the proper assignments is the easy part. You cannot teach a guy to be a linebacker. They are born that way. It is the coach's job to harness those instincts and ability and put them in a position to succeed. Until the season starts and they prove they are capable of doing this, fans should view the linebacker corps with very cautious optimism.
Current Clemson Linebacker Depth Chart
TACK 45 John Leake 6-1 240 Sr.
90 Anthony Waters 6-3 235 *Fr.
55 Nigel Vaughn 6-0 215 Jr.
MIKE 43 Leroy Hill 6-1 220 Jr.
49 Roosevelt Nelson 6-2 214 *So.
86 Charles Bennett 6-4 235 *So.
WHIP 38 Eric Sampson# 6-2 205 Jr.
11 Brian Carr 5-11 200 *Jr.
44 Lionel Richardson 6-0 205 *So.
#pending return to team