Returning: Rick Gamboa, Drew Lewis, Akil Jones, Derek McCartney, Terran Hasselbach, Michael Mathewes, Sam Bennion
Departing: Kenneth Olugbode, Jimmie Gilbert
Incoming: Shamar Hamilton, Jon Van Diest, Dante Sparaco, Carson Wells, Nate Landman
Linebacker is the most “football” position in football. In a game full of big and fast men hitting each other, linebackers are both big and strong, and they’re usually a little crazy. More importantly, they are the most cerebrally demanding position other than the quarterback. Linebacking involves the mental side of football as well as the physical. A great linebacker is seemingly impossible to gameplan around. My favorite ever, Junior Seau, affected the game every play. He was at every tackle and seemed to know what the offense was doing before they did. Linebackers just personify football.
It’s good, then, that CU has traditionally had fantastic tacklers. Two Butkus award winners and two runners-up as well. Addison Gillam looked to be the next in a great line, but injuries derailed his career. Filling in him for him was a small redshirt freshman named Rick Gamboa. He always seemed a step slow or an inch small for a Pac-12 backer. But he kept making tackles. He led the team that year... and has stayed their ever since. Gamboa is back again, ready to lead this unit.
(PSA: I am not counting Buff Backers — a hybrid position you’ll see Ryan Moeller play — in this preview. They are more safety than LB to me.)
Last year, this unit overperformed according to almost everybody. Kenneth Olugbode went from solid starter to one of the conference’s best. Jimmie Gilbert went from fringe pass-rusher to terror off the edge (and the first double digit sack guy since Abraham Wright). The unit, under Jim Leavitt, stepped up and delivered. Next to Olugbode was either Gamboa or Gillam, which gave CU depth and the ability to mix and match. Opposite Jimmie Gilbert was originally Derek McCartney, but after he tore his ACL, the position morphed into the Buff Backer spot. A great adaptation and one that will be fun to watch in 2017. The seniors in last year’s linebacking cops, like the seniors everywhere else, surprised people with their level of play. But they’re gone now. In their place is the next guys up.
Let’s start from the middle and work our way out, like a reverse bagel or Tootsie Pop. At the two inside linebacker spots we have Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis. And like good Mike or Will linebackers, they are very different from each other. Rick Gamboa is basically a quarterback, except he likes to hit people more often. He reads the offense extremely well, gets the defense in the right position, and directs the flow at the line of scrimmage. He is essentially a Jedi using the Force to see slightly ahead of anyone else. Gamboa is now another year older and wiser, and has taken his leadership role to heart. He will never confuse anyone for an elite athlete, but when you know where the ball is going to be before the offense does, you get a little less time to get there. If he can shed his blocks (or occupy blockers for Lewis), he will be successful. If he can do that AND read the offense like we have seen him do, he will lead CU in tackles again. Next to him is a relative unknown in Drew Lewis. He was featured on Bruce Feldman’s “freaks” list for his crazy athleticism. He jumped higher and farther than most linebackers that were drafted last year. He has size, at 6’2, and speed. He can also leap over tall buildings in a single bound. But he hasn’t played significant snaps for CU yet. To me, he is one of the most exciting pieces on this team. He can cover the middle of the field with quickness, a necessity in the Pac-12. Lewis can also execute my favorite blitz of all time, the A-gap blitz. With a true nose tackle in place, the A-gap blitz is deadly. A linebacker will speed right past the center (who will be occupied by the tackle) and have a clear shot to the quarterback. Someone with Drew Lewis’s explosiveness and speed should be flying downfield every play. Behind these two starters there is a lot of unproven talent. Akil Jones is physically ready to play after redshirting, and he figures to factor in on some snaps. He is fast, relentless and likes to rush the line of scrimmage. After that, it’s all freshmen. Jon Van Diest, Carson Wells, and Nate Landman all have a chance to play, and CU will need one of two of them to step up. Landman and Van Diest are both polished and thick, so they could be next in line. Landman in particular is big enough for P5 football, so if he can get his head in the game, he will be a player. He loves to attack the line of scrimmage and lived in the backfield in high school.
We move to the outside linebackers. Much like the inside ‘backers, after the starters, there is very little proven depth, but a lot of potential. Well, I say “starters”, but I mean “starter”. After the rousing success of the Buff S/LB position, the coaches decided to permanently go to one strong side OLB. That man is Derek McCartney, a perfect fit for the role. A 5 1⁄2 year senior, McCartney is a captain, a leader, but most importantly, he’s totally jacked. A solid 6’4 and 240 pounds, McCartney possess an almost combo of skill set and size for his position. He can push the pocket, sure, but he can also set the edge against the run and, occasionally, cover a tight end. He’s a large man who has some wiggle, and he’s smart enough to read the situation correctly. Derek is great at recognizing the type of play he’s facing — if it’s a run, he engages blockers and frees up other second-level playmakers. If it’s a pass, he bends the edge or bull rushes. He will be asked to a lot this year, more than Jimmie Gilbert was asked to do. But that makes him more unpredictable. Backing him up is a whole lot of ???? After N.J. Falo left the team (with the option to rejoin in 2018) and Shamar Hamilton had season-ending knee surgery (though he was a redshirt candidate regardless), CU is left with Terran Hasselbach, Michael Mathewes, and freshmen. Hasselbach is a more traditional 3-4 OLB than McCartney. He is there for one main purpose - pressure the quarterback. And he’s really good at it. One of the strongest players on the team pound-for-pound, Hasselbach surprises OTs with the punch he packs on his 6’1 frame. He is slight enough and fast enough to sneak around them, too. A true pass-rushing specialist that will be asked to do more this year. If you want to get a feel for his game a bit, go ahead and rewatch the OSU game last year. He made plays that game. Joining him is another experienced backup, Michael Mathewes. He has moved from 4-3 DE to 4-3 DT to 3-4 DE to 3-4 OLB, finally. I have always been a huge fan of his game and I think his motor really pays off. He is one of the bigger OLBs on the roster, so hey may be used against run-heavy teams more often. Sam Bennion is an unknown. He came in as a 20 year old freshman after taking a Mormon mission and reshirted. Now he’s a 21 year old freshman. Give him another year to adjust and we may be talking about another hidden gem. Out of high school, he had great size and speed for a 4-3 DE. He will need to translate to an OLB spot. Finally, we land to Dante Sparaco. The highly touted freshman is as physically ready as any. He has been in Boulder since January, and he was already big. At 6’5 and a solid 245ish, Sparaco will get his chance to play early. He shows a special motor (CU recruits to that) and fantastic ability to stop the run from his spot. He is a more natural replacement to Derek McCartney, and he will play early and often.
Of course, I’m missing a big name. The DAY I post the defensive line preview, it was announced that Tim Coleman is working at OLB and not DE as originally thought. sigh He belongs in this article, but I put him on D-line. OLB suits his skill set as a pass-rusher, and his plus size gives CU more heft. He and McCartney will play the most in the group, with Hasselbach and Sparaco giving them pass rushing options. Gamboa has the middle locked down, and Drew Lewis may be the X-factor that strikes fear into the offense’s hearts. This is an intriguing group if they can put it together.