USF preview: Talent, depth for Bulls at linebacker
Despite losing starting strongside linebacker Jacquian Williams to the NFL Draft, linebacker might be USF's best position in 2011, with three proven players in juniors Sam Barrington and Mike Lanaris and sophomore DeDe Lattimore returning to lead a deep group.
Add in senior Curtis Weatherspoon, converted safety Reshard Cliett and junior transfer Mike Jeune, and USF has (at least) six linebackers to rotate onto the field in different defensive packages. Finding the best combination of linebackers and keeping legs fresh for the end of games is the challenge presented to defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who also oversees the linebackers.
Barrington and Lattimore were first-year starters in 2010, stepping up with 65 and 69 tackles as USF's primary middle and weakside linebackers, and Lanaris had 29 tackles as the backup middle linebacker. Barrington and Lattimore each had 6.5 tackles for loss. In trying to replace Williams this spring, Snyder considered two different options, initially sliding Barrington to the outside and having Lanaris as his starting middle -- literally Sam at Sam and Mike at Mike -- then finished the spring with Barrington back in the middle and newcomers Cliett, Jeune and Weatherspoon getting long looks at strongside.
With new offenses at Pittsburgh and West Virginia, there will be more passing in the Big East in 2011 -- Dana Holgerson's offfense at OSU had nearly twice as many passing yards (4,496) as it did rushing (2,267), and Todd Graham's offense at Tulsa racked up 3,753 yards on 469 pass attempts, which works out to 36 pass attempts per game. That puts a premium on speed on defense to match up with more receivers running more routes downfield, and speed is a strength of USF's linebacker unit.
USF has smaller, quicker options in Weatherspoon (215 pounds on spring roster), Jeune (216) and Cliett (210), and some of the incoming freshmen are even smaller -- January enrollee Antoine Pozniak is 210, Zack Bullock is 206 pounds and Edsel Caprice is 195. (The other freshman, Corian Hamilton, is the biggest of the class at 224; redshirt freshman Hans Louis is 227) Pairing those quick types with bigger linebackers that can stop the run -- Lanaris is 237 pounds, Lattimore 237 and Barrington 235 -- should give USF's defense strength and versatility in the middle of the field.
There's considerable upside in the group -- Weatherspoon is the only senior, and Cliett had as much buzz as any player this spring after coaches liked him enough to move him in from safety. Jeune has been close friends with Barrington since they were teammates in Jacksonville, and fans can be excited at the thought of them arguing which one is faster.
ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson ranked USF as having the best linebackers in the Big East, with Barrington and Lattimore strong candidates for all-conference honors. Finding ways to spell those two early with USF's depth to give them more in the tank at the end of games could be the difference between a good Bulls defense and a great one.