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Know Thy Team 2011: Linebackers

I am excited about this year's crop of linebackers because for the first time in it seems like ages we are loaded with experience at the position. It wasn't that long ago that we were playing converted players like Anthony Heygood at the position while eternally waiting for Jason Werner to get healthy. Now we have freshmen like Armstead Williams coming in and cracking the two deeps.

This is going to be a very good group, and most of the better players are pushing long-time starters for playing time. I don't see a problem with this, especially when depth at any position has been rare luxury for Purdue. If these guys can play up against the run while finally being able to figure out the third down slant over the middle our defense should be pretty solid.

Starters: Will Lucas (So.), Dwayne Beckford (Jr.), Joe Holland (Sr.)

It feels like Holland has been around forever, but that's because he has been a starter for three years already. He has seen action in all 36 games of his career and has started all but one of those. That has him moving up the list of all-time tackles leaders with 230. He's also broken up a few passes and has an interception. Holland is a former safety, so I would definitely like to see his pass coverage skills improve. He was voted a team captain and will definitely be a leader because of his experience.

Lucas was one of my favorite players to see emerge last season. He was a tackling machine at Lakeland High, one of the top high schools in the country. He came in as a true freshman (in fact, he graduated early to go through spring practice 2010) and earned his way into two starts and all 12 games. He already earned 43 tackles and emerged as a definite starter to replace Werner. In fact, I think he is already better than Werner. In his very first game he caused a fumble and he later had a pick at Ohio State. Lucas has all the tools to become an excellent linebacker.

In the Big Ten your middle linebacker is often the busiest player on the defense. He has to be able to play against the run as well as cover the middle of the field against the pass. That is where Beckford has to improve this year. Yes, he had 84 tackles in 10 starts, but we were still a sieve over the middle to tight ends and slot receivers on third downs. In 24 career games he has just two pass break ups. He should know by now teams are coming over the middle on third down because we have flat out refused to stop it before, so he needs to be prepared.

Top Reserves: Chris Carlino (Sr.), DeVarro Greaves (Sr.), Joe Gilliam (Fr.-R), Armstead Williams (Fr.), Mike Lee (Fr.-R)

We have so many reserves here that really could be starters at any time. Carlino himself is a former starter that saw his numbers diminish last year, but he is still solid on special teams. With 122 tackles and 17 career starts he definitely will have a role. Greaves was a high school teammate of David Pender and Ralph Bolden, but enters his senior season with a fair amount of experience. He has yet to start, but he has played in 30 games as a reserve and on special teams, giving us another veteran performer. He has gotten into the backfield with one career sack too.

Then you have the new blood. Gilliam, Lee, and Williams all have yet to see the field, but they come in hungry to earn playing time. As mentioned above, Williams has taken just 12 days of practice to crack the two deeps as a true freshman. Lee and Gilliam were regularly mentioned as solid scout team performers during their redshirt year, so at the very least they can be used on special teams.

Deep Reserves: Nnamdi Ezenwa (Jr.), Zack Heiniger (Jr.), Kaulana Judd (Jr.), Collin Link (Fr.-R), Jalani Phillips (Fr.)

First of all, Phillips is likely headed to a redshirt and with his size (6'4" 255) I can see a move to defensive end in his future. He is one of our biggest linebackers, but since he has not made a move like Williams he is probably looking at a redshirt.

Judd is perhaps the biggest mystery of the group. He's originally from Hawaii and was a last minute addition on signing day from Fullerton College. He was a JuCo teammate of safety Max Charlot, but with his size and the fact he is a juCo transfer he might find a role somewhere.

It's hard to figure out a role for Ezenwa. He is entering his fourth year in the program, but he has played in only one game and hasn't managed to be a special teams contributor. He's one of our bigger linebackers, but there are so many guys ahead of him I have a hard time seeing him as a regular contributor.

Finally, both Heiniger and Link are walk-ons. Link is the younger brother of starting safety Logan Link, who earned the started job a year ago and a scholarship for this season. Heiniger was a high school teammate of Carlino and made it on the field in four games as a special teamer in 2010. We can probably expect both to play in special teams roles, with Link being the more unproven of the two.

Final Analysis:

If you count Judd as a JuCo player and Ezenwa as a veteran system guy we have as many as nine linebackers ready to go. I can see us playing all nine of them at one time or another too. They are spread out among the three linebacking positions as well. Beckford and Carlino have often split time in the middle, but I want to see both improve in third down passing situations. Carlino can also play outside, while Holland and Lucas are the primary outside guys for now.

It will be interesting to see where Judd and Williams factor in. If Williams is already on the two deeps he is obviously impressive. Judd, as a JuCo was also brought in to play right away. That could push Gilliam and Lee to roles as special teamers as they continue to mature. Greaves has also played most as an outside ‘backer and could be used in pass rush situations.

Most of all, this gives us some versatility and the ability to get some favorable matchups depending on the game situation. We should also be able to keep guys fresh with constant rotations in and out, something that we can do at virtually every defensive position.