The WILL linebacker position is easy to figure out: Nick Bolton will start and a grab bag of underclassmen will be backing him up and vying to take over when he inevitably goes pro after this season.
The MIKE linebacker position is a little more uncertain.
As we collectively learned last year, it’s good to have some viable backups in case injury strikes, and when Cale Garrett went down for the year, three other guys got extended auditions without any really showing enough to for-sure have the position on lockdown.
In case you were curious...the MIKE (or Middle) linebacker tends to be the bigger, slower dudes of the linebacking corps whose main responsibilities are to play the run and destroy any back who’s able to squirt through the defensive line. They can play the pass as well, but are much better utilized to hit hard and frequently. As such, the leading tacklers of most defensive units are the MIKE linebackers.
Let’s take a look at the MIKE linebackers who could see starting time this season:
The (Presumed) Starter
I was honestly surprised that Devin Nicholson finished as the starting MIKE over the last five games. The freshman from Detroit’s Cass Tech wasn’t a big splash recruiting win or a name that popped during fall camp but he slowly worked his way into the starting role, siphoning the position away from more established guys like Cameron Wilkins and Jamal Brooks. Clearly the dude practices well, and now he’s had a year in the program - and the weight room - to be ready to start at the MIKE. Whether he does, though, with a brand new coaching staff and new position coach, is up in the air. Clearly, he demonstrated an ability to be relied upon last year, so I think it’s fair to expect him to get starting snaps against Alabama.
The Other Possible Starters (?)/Backups
Cameron Wilkins and Jamal Brooks
Wilkins was the first one to replace Garrett and notched two starts last year, including a career day against Vanderbilt. But as the year went on, he was rotated out with Nicholson and Brooks, so whether that’s his stock falling or Nicholson’s stock rising (or both), it’ll be interesting to see where he’s deployed early in the year.
Brooks, on the other hand, had very little defensive playing time but managed to achieve volume tackles in the handful of games where he was at the MIKE. Both of these guys are older - and Brooks could feasibly be back next year due to the eligibility freeze - but it would be best for the team if some younger guys overtook Wilkins and Brooks on the year. However, if they bust out with huge performances, that’s obviously also great.
The Assorted Freshmen
Jamie Pettway & Will Norris
Pettway is a redshirt freshman while Norris is a fresh baby-faced freshman, but these two are essentially starting from the same spot. Whereas Will was busy being awesome at Columbia’s Rock Bridge High School in 2019, Jamie had to have knee surgery early in fall camp and missed all of those practices, plus the season. So, these two are inexperienced at the college level and haven’t played in the SEC at all. If one of these two starts seeing consistent snaps, that is a very good thing for both them and the defense. But, realistically, any contributions they make will be small for 2020.