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2020 Missouri Football Position Previews: WILL/Weakside Linebackers

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Nick Bolton is cool and good, but...uh...is there anyone else that can play the weakside spot?

Missouri v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Before we dive into the WILL/Weakside linebacker preview...I was perusing the Missouri football roster last week (as one does), and noticed an interesting factoid:

The reason I find this interesting: In a defense that has four defensive linemen — such as a 4-3 alignment or Ryan Walters’ 4-2-5 alignment — the pass rush typically comes from the defensive ends on the far ends of the four-man line that have their hand in the dirt. In a defense that utilizes three defensive linemen — such as a 3-4 or a 3-3-5 — the pass rush comes from an outside linebacker that is standing (rather than hand-in-the-dirt) and can move freely around the formation. So a defensive end in a 4-3 defense is an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Make sense?

That’s why I found this interesting: Jatorian Hansford, Sci Martin, Jr., Z’Core Brooks, and Tre Williams are considered pass rushing defensive ends and are now designated as outside linebackers, as if they’re playing in a 3-4 or 3-3-5 defense. So what does it mean? No clue! Maybe that Walters is having a more multiple approach? Or just flipping designations so that they play a heavier defensive line — think three defensive tackles plus a defensive end — more consistently and bringing in a pass rushing specialist in the linebacking position? Regardless, because the four aforementioned defensive end/outside linebackers were previewed last week, we’re focusing only on the guys are designated as purely “linebackers”, starting with the WILL - or weakside - linebacking position.

Last explanation, I promise! The weakside linebacker is the most athletic of the linebacking positions since it has to play the pass as much as provide run support. The WILL (designation for weakside) tends to play on the “backside” of the play, or the direction in which the play doesn’t go. So the WILL doesn’t have to face a lot of linemen, meaning they can be lighter and faster than the MIKE (middle linebacker). WHEW! Ok, lets dive into it.

The All-American

Missouri v Arkansas
Nick Bolton
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Nick Bolton

Nick Bolton Career Stats

What’s your favorite title of the SEC’s leading tackler in 2019? An SEC Defensive Player of the Week...SEC’s top graded linebacker at 91.1...1st Team All-SEC...3rd Team All-American...Academic Honor Roll...and on the 2020 Butkus and Nagurski Watch Lists to boot. The dude has been incredible in a short amount of time, and if he’s able to repeat or improve on his 2019 performance, he’ll be happily gone and making money in the NFL after this year. His 17.5 havoc plays led the team last year while his 7.5 tackles for loss and 2 interceptions were both second overall on the defense. Bolton did everything he could on every play of every game, especially once his bash brother, Cale Garrett, went down with injury. In theory, his 2020 partner will be a little more experienced this year, but Bolton is by far the most talented. It’ll be nice to see his backups since he’ll probably be a pro next year, but barring injury or COVID, it’ll be tough to get him off the field.

The Backups

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 Georgia at Missouri
Gerald Nathan, Jr.
Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Chad Bailey, Aubrey Miller, Jr., & Gerald Nathan, Jr.

Chad Bailey & Aubrey Miller, Jr.’s Career Stats
Gerald Nathan Jr.’s Career Stats

Missouri only has two true linebacker spots and 9 guys to play those two spots. So, yay, there’s depth! But also...boo, most of these guys are either a.) special teamers only, b.) super young, or c.) both. That’s basically going to be true for today’s preview and for the MIKEs as well.

Chad Bailey was a rare (for the Odom staff) 4-star out-of-state recruit in 2018, but has 9 games and no stats to show for it. The coaching staff has mentioned several times being impressed by Bailey so far in camp, but talk is talk until you see him on the field.

Aubrey Miller has been a vocal leader on the team since his freshman year of 2017, where he (apparently) was a loud presence in rallying the team after the terrible start to the year. Again, that has translated to 4 career tackles while mostly playing special teams, though he has been hit by the injury bug in his career. Bolton probably won’t be giving these two a ton of opportunities to show anything at the WILL, but it would behoove Drink, Walters, and linebacker coach D.J. Smith to work these guys in so they can be prepared when Bolton is gone.

Nathan, similarly, has tons of special teams experience, but nothing from a defensive standpoint. He’s been a bit lost in the wash, especially as the lightest of the linebackers. He could probably make the switch to safety if he/the staff wanted to, but for now, he’s designated as a LB. Where he ends up and how he makes an impact is yet to be seen, but remember, good special teams play has a quality all on its own as well.