Position breakdown: Linebackers
Defensive coordinator Wally Burnham is and has been a linebackers coach, so having experience anchoring the middle of the defense is always a key for the Bulls. This fall, USF must make up for the graduation of Ben Moffitt, but has two returning senior starters leading what should be a strong position.
THE STARTERS: By USF's calculations, senior Tyrone McKenzie has more tackles in the last two seasons than anyone in college football. His 121 tackles last season were a school record, all the more impressive when you consider he came off the field in USF's nickel defense. Another year like that and he'll be a first-team all-conference selection and potentially an NFL Draft pick. The original plan was for McKenzie to move to the middle, taking over for Moffitt, but a week into preseason drills, he was moved back to strongside.
Stepping in at middle is junior Kion Wilson, a junior college transfer who missed much of the spring with injury but made up for it in August. Wilson's playmaking ability is not in question, so it's just a matter of how quickly he can learn the defense and pick up the reads, since the middle linebacker is typically the one who makes sure everyone is in the right place. (Senior safeties Carlton Williams and Danny Verpaele will help with that this season). Williams told me what he likes about Wilson is that he never seems to get tired, even covering as much ground as he does.
Returning at weakside linebacker is senior Brouce Mompremier, who had never had more than five tackles in a season until he stepped in as a starter last year. He finished with 83 tackles, including six for loss, and he and McKenzie will be leaders on a defense full of multi-year starters.
THE SECOND TIER: Jim Leavitt and Burnham have both talked about how they have six linebackers they intend to play, which could mean more substitution than last season, when the three starters took a huge amount of the reps in games. Leading the second three is sophomore Sabbath Joseph, who had the starting strongside linebacker job to lose at the start of preseason camp, but was bumped out when McKenzie moved back outside. He can back up all three linebacker positions and should improve on the 14 tackles he had as a redshirt freshman. Another sophomore, Alonzo McQueen, is the top backup in the middle and should see significantly more action than he did last year. Junior Chris Robinson is something of an enigma -- he starred at the end of 2006, shifting from end to linebacker, but never was the same last season, slowed by injuries. Leavitt said this summer he was a key to the defense, someone who could grab a starting job and run with it, but it never happened. He's now working at weakside as Mompremier's backup and could help at end as well.
THE REST: First, we'll mention three scholarship true freshmen who are headed for redshirts -- Mike Lanaris, Armando Sanchez and Quavon Taylor. The only one you've heard about is Taylor, who managed to forget about a practice and solidify a spot in Leavitt's doghouse. Linebacker's really a position that requires a redshirt year to pick up the complexities of Burnham's defense. ... Linebacker is a position that meshes well for special-teams work, and some of the walk-on LBs should be leaders on special teams. Junior Houston Hess has been a top special-teams tackler the past two seasons, sophomore Lucas Darr is another special-teams ace and freshman LaDre Watkins has shown enough that he'll play as a true freshman, starting on several kick and punt units. Two other true freshman walk-ons, Chase Geaney and Chris Breit, are headed for redshirts.