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2011 Walkthrough: Linebackers

All photos via Bill Carter, naturally.
All photos via Bill Carter, naturally.

Say hello to the Missouri linebacking corps ... where the only thing higher than the ceiling is the probability of injury ... and the probability that we will compare current Missouri linebackers to former Missouri linebackers.

Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Offensive Tackles
Offensive Guards and Centers
Defensive Ends
Defensive Tackles

Of all the things we wrote in last year’s unit walkthroughs, we were perhaps most assured and excited about Missouri’s extreme depth at the linebacker position.  Four rather proven, starter-quality LBs in Andrew Gachkar, Zaviar Gooden, Will Ebner and Luke Lambert?  And exciting, high-ceiling backups like Donovan Bonner and Josh Tatum?  With a steely-eyed veteran like Jeff Gettys, and some in-the-wings redshirt freshmen in reserve?  And multiple incoming freshmen entering the picture?  Sign us up!

Of course … Bonner was quickly lost for the season.  Gettys and redshirt freshman Adam Burton too.  And Tatum never got up to speed after back injuries.  And Lambert only played a few games before getting shut down for the season and getting a medical redshirt.  And Ebner got hurt, then suspended, then hurt again, limping ineffectively through a large portion of the season.  In the end, Missouri’s 2010 linebacking corps consisted of Gachkar (playing at an all-conference level), Gooden (hinting at the same level for future seasons), a little bit of Ebner, a lot of Wilson, and whatever backups they could scrounge up.

Injuries may have wrecked Mizzou’s LB depth, but the position still maintained a solid level of play.  And as is usually the case, injuries help you in the future tense almost as much as they hurt you in the present tense.  Now, Gooden looks ready to take The Leap, Ebner and Bonner are healthy (for now), Lambert should return to 100 percent soon enough, and Wilson is very experienced for a sophomore.  If Mizzou can absorb the loss of Gachkar and actually avoid 117 injuries, things are looking great for 2011.

Zaviar Gooden (6’2, 225, Jr., Pflugerville, TX)

2010: 67.5 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 1 FF, 2 FR, 5 PBU
2009: 25.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 PBU

RPT: When I think about just how much I’m going to miss having Andrew Gachkar on the field, that sadness is quickly offset by the realization that Zaviar Gooden has two years of eligibility remaining. And while Gachkar was one of the conference’s most unappreciated players, Gooden has the kind of ability that can make Big 12 coaches actually take notice. His 40 times were the stuff of legends in Missouri circles last offseason, but what’s incredible is that we saw that kind of "track shoe" speed actually translate into how he was able to perform in live action. His closing speed, especially in coverage, was something to behold in 2010 –  just ask Landry Jones.

Bill C.: Damn you, Dave Matter.  In his recent linebackers piece (our cranking these out at a "once per two weeks" clip allowed him to catch up to us … or should I say, it allowed us to steal ideas from what he’s written), he had to go and compare the sophomore seasons of Gooden and Sean Weatherspoon.  ‘Spoooooooon made more tackles, but in the play-making departments, they were quite similar.  That doesn’t establish high expectations or anything, does it?

The staff talks a lot about finding top notch athletes first, then worrying about their position later.  Gooden is a perfect example.  He is a phenomenal athlete who moved from the safety to the linebacking corps before his redshirt freshman season.  One’s initial fear when that switch is made is that the player is in a "too slow for safety, too light for linebacker" ‘tweener situation.  With Gooden, that was not the case.  He’s taken to the position beautifully.  If there is anything upon which we should hope Gooden will improve this coming fall, it is the down-to-down consistency.  Again, the only thing separating him from Spooooon-like numbers is the raw volume of tackles.  He makes plays … now if he’ll just stop a few more plays, he’ll be incredible.

Will Ebner (6’1, 230, Sr., Friendswood, TX)

2010: 34.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 1 PBU (10 games)
2009: 62.0 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 PBU
2008: 18.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU, 1 Blocked Kick

RPT: The statistics alone indicate that Ebner took a step back in 2010. And the number of immediately memorable moments of impact from Ebner in 2010 compared to 2009 might show the same. But if Ebner was nothing else in 2010, he was a warrior. Come November, it seemed like Pinkel would always lead his weekly injury report with news that Ebner would be day-to-day in practice, saying that Ebner would barely be able to step on the field on Tuesday and Thursday but then always turned it on when Saturday rolled around. At this point, his career injury log includes a torn labrum, torn meniscus, and the dancer’s fracture in his foot that lingered in 2010. Luke Lambert’s return takes some of the pressure of Ebner to stay healthy, but it’s about time we see if Ebner can avoid the bumps and bruises for a full season.

Bill C.: For a while, I was convinced that Will Ebner was extremely unlucky when it came to injuries.  They just keep happening!  But then I remembered … Will Ebner runs as hard as he can and hits as hard as he can at all times.  He is the definition of a max-effort player, and sometimes when you play with no regard to your own well-being … your well-being suffers.  IF Ebner can stay healthy for a full 13 games, his ceiling is off the charts.  But really, Mizzou fans should just be hoping to have either Ebner or Lambert healthy at all times.  That alone will make for a solid LB corps, even with continued injury frustration.

Luke Lambert (6’3, 230, Sr., Brookfield, MO)

2010: 12.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU (4 games -- medical redshirt)
2009: 16.5 tackles (6 games)
2008: 44.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 PBU
2007: 25.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF

RPT: Speaking of middle linebackers who can’t avoid the injury report...

Bill C.: Perhaps the most random, interesting subplot of August practices will be this: Can Luke Lambert win the captaincy for a second straight season?  It would clearly be a unique feat considering that Gary Pinkel and staff only makes seniors available for such an honor.

When healthy (we’re saying this a lot, and we’re only to LB No. 3 on this list), Luke Lambert is the most nondescript excellent linebacker you can imagine.  He doesn’t miss tackles, he breaks up passes, he doesn’t get fooled much or caught in the wrong position … really, he is the perfect complement to Will Ebner’s whirling dervish routine.  It really would be neat to see them available at the same time every now and then, eh?

Andrew Wilson (6’3, 225, So., Peculiar, MO)

2010: 33.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks

RPT: I’ll be honest with you – I thought Wilson and Adam Burton were going to toil in relative obscurity for the majority of their careers at Mizzou. Going into 2010, I thought Wilson’s ceiling was as a special teams guy who could contribute occasionally in spot situations on defense. But when the Great Linebacker Attrition of 2010 started its two reigns of terror in September and November, Wilson completely proved me wrong. Though he remains a fantastic special teams weapon for Mizzou (absolutely destroying his teammates on the program’s Big Hits board), he became almost like a young Van Alexander when called upon last season.

Bill C.: Some linebackers are play-makers, some are play-stoppers.  Andrew WIlson is the latter.  You aren’t going to see him forcing fumbles and wreaking havoc in the backfield.  You are going to see him stopping a run for three yards instead of eight.  Wilson was a beautifully sound linebacker in terms of fundamentals and positioning as a redshirt freshman.  He is more Luke Lambert or Brock Christopher (or Van Alexander) than Will Ebner or Zaviar Gooden, and the presence of a reliable option like Wilson will allow defensive coordinator Dave Steckel to take more risks with other players.

Donovan Bonner (6’2, 245, So., Dallas, TX)

2010: Medical Redshirt
2009: 8.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks

RPT: Bonner had two primary factors that led to playing time as a true freshman: his athleticism and his nose for the ball. A torn knee ligament won’t rob him of his instincts, but I’ll be anxiously awaiting reports about his explosiveness and lateral mobility this Spring. Hopes were very, very high prior to his injury that he was the heir apparent to Sean Weatherspoon on the weakside. I’ll be curious to know if he’s still on that track.

Bill C.: Clearly we are expecting pretty good things of the Missouri linebackers in 2011, but if it turns out this unit was great instead of just "pretty good," the main reason will probably be Bonner.  He really does have too many ‘Spoooooon components to count right now -- unheralded recruit, aforementioned nose for the ball, high-ceiling size-and-speed combination, Twitter presence … we sometimes forget about players when they are lost to injury, but assuming health (and from all accounts, this was your rather standard knee injury, with rather standard rehab and recovery), we won’t forget about Bonner for long.

Adam Burton (6’2, 240, So., Lee’s Summit, MO)

Bill C.: Adam Burton needs a nice spring, if healthy.  The fact is, he had blended into the scenery enough last spring and summer that I didn’t actually know he had suffered a knee injury until Dave Matter revealed it in his recent LBs write-up.  I just assumed he was suffering from a strong case of thirdstringitis.  With two exciting redshirt freshmen and three incoming freshmen looking to pass him on the depth chart, Burton could be forgotten quickly if he doesn’t assert himself.  From our limited exposure to his style of play, consider him a combination of Will Ebner and Andrew Wilson.  He is a big, likely middle-oriented ‘backer with a mean streak.  And he might be running out of time.

Darvin Ruise (6’2, 220, RSFr., Glen St. Mary, FL)

RPT: Given both the state of the linebacker position and the words of the coaching staff last year, it truly seems amazing to me that Darvin Ruise’s redshirt stayed intact. Ruise practiced in the rotation at linebacker, and Gary Pinkel hinted several times that Ruise might sneak his way onto the field at some point. The emergency call up, to steal a baseball term, never came for Ruise, in part thanks to Jarrell Harrison’s versatility. But if Ruise was that close to seeing significant playing time a year ago, there’s no reason to think he can’t somehow factor in at linebacker in 2011.

Bill C.: I’m not sure any recent Missouri player has had a bigger impact on me than Sean Weatherspoon.  Every year, with every incoming recruiting class, I quickly seek out "this year’s ‘Spoon," the less-than-highly-touted athlete who could force himself into Missouri fans’ consciousness whether they expect it or not.  In the 2009 class, it was Donovan Bonner.  In the 2010 class, it was Ruise.  That might not be fair, though -- the converted safety likely still faces at least a small learning curve after the aforementioned redshirt season, making him a much more accurate comp with Gooden than a more natural LB like ‘Spoon.  Of course, Dave Matter likened Gooden to ‘Spoon, so … what was I talking about again?

Jared Parham (6’2, 220, RSFr., Some Place Called Coppell, TX)

RPT: At this point, I’m not sure we know what we have in Parham. He was used primarily as a pass rusher in high school, and I don’t recall hearing much in the way of his development in practice a year ago. Whereas Ruise was the darling of the freshman linebacker class, Parham entered the program fully expecting to redshirt and hoping to pick up the position. Special teams ought to be a good way to test what we can expect from Parham moving forward.

Bill C.: Dammit. I placed a large bet on that Ross would sing the Coppell High fight song in his Parham write-up.  Now I’m out twenty grand.

INCOMING: Kentrell Brothers (6’0, 210, Fr., Guthrie, OK, ***)

RPT: Kentrell Brothers excites me in a manner different from that of most Missouri linebackers. For better or worse, I tend to generalize Mizzou linebackers as speedy defenders whose best asset is usually pursuit. With Brothers, it’s his strength that excites me most. Rather than running around blockers, Brothers seems to show no reservation in engaging his blocker directly. The result is a linebacker with end-style skills. He was fantastic at keeping his arms extended and shedding blocks at the high school level. Of course, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be strong enough to successfully continue that type of play at the Big 12 level. But if his game translates, Mizzou may have just found its run-stopper of the future.

Bill C.: Brothers is from Guthrie, a high school that has played my alma mater Weatherford before.  So ... does that give me license to sing Weatherford's fight song?

INCOMING: Clarence Green (6’0, 200, Fr., Clute, TX, ***)

RPT: Clarence Green is pretty much everything I expect from a Texas diamond-in-the-rough linebacker. He’s explosive, looks pretty comfortable in space, and can lay the wood when given a head of steam. He also seems like a bit of a Pat Ivey project -- how much weight can he carry without sacrificing any acceleration?

Bill C.: You know what’s coming here.  Unheralded … fast … quotable … Clarence Green is my ‘Spoon candidate for the 2011 class!!

INCOMING: Brandon Durant (6’0, 205, Fr., Copperas Cove, TX, ***)

RPT: Durant’s a former track athlete who was versatile enough to play both safety and outside linebacker at a very good Copperas Cove program in the state’s largest classification. He may not be strong enough at the moment to win one-on-one battles with blockers, but his ability to track plays down from behind along the line of scrimmage is intriguing, particularly for a spot on the weakside.

Bill C.: Durant is this class’s tweener, a player with safety size and linebacker instincts.  Really, you have to love that Missouri recruited three linebackers in the 2011 class that seem to complement each other just perfectly.

2011 vs 2010

Of the five players above who have seen the field, we used the "if healthy" qualifier for four of them.  And we used it again with Adam Burton.  If Missouri has a bit more luck in terms of injury -- just a bit -- this unit is the deepest on a mostly deep Mizzou defense.  Gooden is a potential star, Ebner and Lambert are a nice highlight-reel-and-steadiness combination, Bonner is high-ceiling wildcard, Wilson is steady, steady, steady, Ruise is exciting, Parham is strong, Burton is … something … lots of options and lots of reason to be excited.

Of course, of all the things this unit has, they won’t have Andrew Gachkar.  If injuries still play a role, or Bonner needs another year of learning/recovery, then they might just be happy to match last year’s LB production instead of exceeding it.