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Spring Ball Position Preview: Linebackers

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Welcome to the first position preview for the 2009 spring ball session. It is definitely an exciting time and I can't think of a better way to kick it off than to cover the linebackers. Words like high potential, depth, possible elite group in the Big 12 come to mind when I think of the guys in the middle of the defense. Coach Brian Cabral has got a core of players this year that he could mold into one of his better linebacker groups, something that is a serious statement when you think about the linebackers Colorado has had over the years. Below is a first look at the guys who will be in black and gold next year at the linebacker:

Roster:

Vitals 2008 Stats
No. Name Pos. Wt. Yr. GP Tackles Sacks TFL
45   Smart, Jeff ILB 215 Sr. 12 118 1 1
47   Mohler, Shaun LB 220 Sr. 12 97 0 4
10   Sipili, Michael ILB 260 Jr. 7 19 0 0
59   Beatty, B.J. OLB 220 Jr. 8 18 1 3
52   Stengel, Bryan ILB 225 Sr. 9 13 0 0
54   Burton, Marcus ILB 260 Sr. 10 8 0 0
55   Hartigan, Josh OLB 220 So. 1 2 0 0
44   Gouin, Brandon ILB 210 So. 0 0 0 0
58   Ahles, Tyler ILB 245 So. 0 0 0 0
62   Goldberg, David ILB 245 So. 0 0 0 0
31   Major, Jon ILB 225 RFr. Redshirt
49   Katoa, Lynn ILB 220 RFr. Redshirt
51   Rippy, Douglas LB 235 RFr. Redshirt
57   Sergent, Guy LB 210 RFr. Redshirt
   *Farley, Zackary OLB 210 So. Walk on
   *Toppa, Joe LB 195 Fr. Walk on

Webb, Derrick LB 210 Fr. Incoming Freshman

Nobriga, Liloa LB 211 Fr. Incoming Freshman

See the breakdown after the jump...

Overview:

Like I said above, there is a sense of excitement around this group. Are there questions? Of course, a few things need to happen before we get to realize all the fruits of this group but undoubtedly, the talent looks good on paper. Most people get excited for the three players who redshirted last year which was one of the best linebacker classes in the 2008 recruiting cycle. But don't forget about the veterans. CU returns their two leading tacklers from a year ago in Jeff Smart and Shaun Mohler. Smart was named to the second team All Big 12 by the AP last year as he led the Buffs with 118 tackles and was fourth in the Big 12. Many hope that Smart is dethroned this year from his seat in the middle due to a number of reasons (not a downhill player, missed tackles) but 118 tackles is 118 tackles. That production is hard to replace.

Last year, Shaun Mohler was a Ralphie Report favorite and quickly became a fan favorite after hearing his story and dedication to qualify academically to attend the University. My only wish is that we would have got him out of high school. Like Smart, Mohler is a senior after transferring in last year from Orange Coast Community College. Mohler, not a starter at the beginning of the year, quickly entered the lineup in the second game and never relinquished the position. There is no doubt in my mind that he would have been the leading tackler if he played extensively in the first two games of the year and didn't get hurt in the Iowa State contest. He was one of the better "downhill" linebackers the Buffs had last year, finding a way into the backfield and making tackles behind the line of scrimmage, something Colorado needs to improve on next year if they hope to be a dominant defense. Mohler was named Honorable Mention in the Big 12 last year. Don't be surprised if Smart and Mohler are mainstays in the lineup in 2009.

Next comes an interesting trio of veterans in BJ Beatty, Michael Sipili and Marcus Burton. BJ Beatty may be able to fill "the Brad Jones role" in 2009 as he was often a rush end last year. Beatty's propensity to make plays and stand out on the screen makes him a player that will be hard to keep off the field. He was slowed by injury at the beginning the year but with him healthy, he is going to be in the running for a starting spot. I kind of group Sipili and Burton together as they are bigger, "Levon Kirkland" style linebackers who will probably see time this year in a flex position, playing on the rush edge/run stopper spot. Many thought Sipili might be the next great linebacker at Colorado but with off the field problems and injuries, Sipili never hit full stride last year and hasn't produced much on the field. He has the talent so it will be interesting to see how he performs this year as a junior. With Mohler and Smart both gone next year, Sipili will be in a position to play a big role in the defense if he can show consistency both against the run and the pass. Same goes for the senior Marcus Burton. You look at this guy from the sideline and you see a big athlete who passes the eye test. He wasn't really a factor in 2008, much to my surprise. We will have to wait and see after spring as to what role he will play in '09.

Now to the guys that get you excited about the future of Buff linebacking: Jon Major, Doug Rippy and Lynn Katoa. When I mentioned "the few things that need to happen for this group to be great above," these are the players I am talking about. All three redshirted last year with Major and Katoa being highly touted recruits and Rippy having the "most ready college body" of the trio. I remember watching Rippy run around last fall, not knowing where he was going half the time, but looking damn impressive doing it. Major's freshman campaign was cut short by a torn ACL in fall camp while Lynn Katoa ran into some trouble off-the-field and in the classroom. Rumors have been swirling about Lynn and whether he will ever play a down for the Buffs. The predictions change by the week as to his status but for now, all we can go by is Hawkins comments that he is still enrolled in Colorado and they are working with him everyday to be a contributor both on and off the field. As for Rippy, he is one of the players I can't wait to see come fall. I think he has got the upside to be a special "downhill" linebacker making plays on the opponent's side of the line of scrimmage. As for Major, lets just hope he recovers fully from his injury because he, too, has all the talent in the world to be a special Buff. Tons of potential with these three redshirt freshmen.

Need to Replace:

OL/Rush End Brad Jones. Jones was the Buffs most consistent pass rusher last year, leading the team with seven sacks and an equal amount of tackles for loss. His ability to get the quarterback was a big help for a weak defensive line last year. Look for B.J. Beatty to display similar pass rushing ability in 2009.

Players to Watch:

I sort of envision "players to watch" being guys who could jump into a starting spot or a guy that didn't start last year that may see extensive playing time. The obvious choice for me as a potential starter is B.J. Beatty, who was on the cusp of being a regular until his injury last year. He played a more situational role in 2008 but with him being healthy, I believe he is on a short list to claim the open spot. My other player is Doug Rippy. He wasn't hurt last year, was able to participate in practices and physically, he just has it. I like what he brings to the table. A guy that won't get recognized much but I thought did a heck of a job filling in for Shaun Mohler last year in the Iowa State game was Josh Hartigan. Watch for him to play a key back up role.

Top 3 Question Marks:

Unfortunately, like most Buff position groups, there are still some unanswered questions around the linebacker position.

  1. Can the Buffs LB's reach their potential and start playing in the opponents backfield? One of the biggest pet peeves of most Buff fans last year was the inability to get to the quarterback. With Brad Jones gone and an unproven defensive line, the linebackers may be facing more debris than ever. Finding a way to make the linebackers go into attack mode will be key this year. Play on the other side of the line!
  2. Can the redshirt freshmen emerge or will their be setbacks? Rumors still swirl about Katoa and his status on this team. Will he ever be a Buff? Major will be limited in spring ball because of his ACL injury from last fall. Will he recover properly to be a factor? Is Doug Rippy ready to take the next step and be a contributor? Tons of talent, tons of questions. 
  3. Does Michael Sipili re-emerge as the player we thought he was going to be? No explanation needed here. Is Sip a guy we can count on for 2009?

First Game Starting Lineup Prediction:

Shaun Mohler, Jeff Smart, BJ Beatty