Spring Football 2001: The Linebackers
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 7/3/01
Coming out of spring football and heading into the 2001 football season, the Hokies are set at two linebacker positions, but once again, there's a big question mark at Whip linebacker, one of the most important positions in the Virginia Tech defense.
Seniors Ben Taylor and Jake Houseright, who finished 1-2 on the team in tackles in 2000 with 103 and 75 respectively, will bring the same consistency to the inside linebacker positions that the Hokies enjoyed in 1999, when Jamel Smith and Michael Hawkes were the silent stalwarts in the middle.
But at the Whip linebacker position, Tech will once again be putting a player on the field with little or no experience at the position. T.J. Jackson is the favorite to be the starting Whip in the coming season, taking his place as the latest entry in what has become a revolving door position.
Like previous spring football recap articles, this article will delve into practice reports, depth charts, and notes from the Hokies' 2001 spring football practices to find out what players are projected to step up in 2001, and what the Hokie coaches are saying about them.
Here is a look at the linebackers, position-by-position. Height and weight figures are from Gentry's Iron Palace on BeamerBall.com, and the class given for a player is the class they will be during the 2001 football season.
The Depth Chart
The latest depth chart on BeamerBall.com is dated 5-15-01 and gives the following information for the linebackers.
In the Virginia Tech defensive system, the Hokies' three linebackers are oddly named. The Mike and Backer positions are defined as inside linebacker positions, with the Mike serving as the traditional middle linebacker and usually calling the defensive signals.
The Whip linebacker is less of a linebacker and more of a defensive back in a linebacker position. The Whip position, a defensive football player's dream to play, provides run support, blitzes from the corner, and provides pass coverage responsibilities.
Both Ben Taylor and Jake Houseright were out with injuries this spring, giving their backups plenty of chances to learn the system and impress the coaches. Taylor and Houseright are both projected to be at 100% going into the 2001 season.
Mike (Inside Linebacker)
In the mid-90's, George Del Ricco put his indelible stamp on the Mike linebacker position. Hokie fans grew very familiar with the sound of Del Ricco's name being called over the Lane Stadium loudspeaker as he was credited with yet another tackle. Del Ricco had 130 and 137 tackles in 1994 and 1995, by far the two highest single-season tackle totals for a Tech defender since 1987, when defensive tackle Scott Hill was credited with an amazing 177 tackles.
Since Del Ricco left, Tech's Mike linebackers have been less visible but no less important, and last year, junior Jake Houseright (#41) emerged from fruitless freshman and sophomore seasons to finally make a big contribution to the defense. Houseright came on strong and improved rapidly as the season progressed, finishing with an impressive performance in the Gator Bowl before suffering a knee injury. Houseright's knees, and his injury status, have been touch-and-go propositions during his entire Tech career, and Tech fans' fingers are crossed that Houseright can not only return from his latest injury, but stay healthy and top last year's performance.
Brian Welch (#34), a muscular fireplug at 5-11, 232, probably would have been a multi-year starter for Virginia Tech in the late 80's or early 90's. As it is, he is a frequently-used backup, particularly in goal-line situations, who has established himself as a fan favorite (few Hokie football followers will forget Welch stopping WVU's Amos Zereoue cold in a fourth-down head-on goal line collision during the 1998 Tech-WVU game).
Welch is a coach's dream: polite, quiet, a hard worker, and a performer. He drew praise at various points during the spring from defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who told BeamerBall.com that Welch had an "all-around great spring."
And from the information pipeline comes this little tidbit: if Houseright is not 100% by fall, a redshirt is not out of the question for him, in order to allow him to completely heal and be in top shape for his senior season. The coaches have been that pleased with Welch.
But actually pulling the trigger on a redshirt for Houseright is a big step, and it's doubtful, because of the lack of experience behind Welch. Backing up Welch are Alex Markogianakis (#39),an undersized walk-on, and Chris Buie (#46), a member of Tech's 1999 recruiting class.
Markogianakis played just 6 plays from scrimmage in 2000, and Buie didn't play a single down (he was on the field for 59 special teams plays). Neither player was mentioned by the coaches during the spring football comments posted on BeamerBall.com, which is particularly curious in the case of Buie, who so far has generated no buzz since arriving on campus nearly two years ago. As a rising redshirt sophomore, he needs to impress the coaches soon if he wants to stake his claim to playing time.
Backer (Inside Linebacker)
As a sophomore in 1999, All-America candidate Ben Taylor (#40) finished third on the team with 71 tackles (including two highlight-film blasts of Temple receiver Greg Muckerson), and last year, he topped the team with 103 stops, the most since Steve Tate had 104 in 1997. Taylor is, quite simply, a "football player," a guy who plays early, plays well, and never seems to stumble.
Behind Taylor, redshirt sophomore Vegas Robinson (#6) and redshirt freshman Mikal Baaqee (#45) are fighting an interesting battle. Robinson is a piece of human sculpture and a weight room demon, a Super Iron Hokie who has a 38-inch vertical leap and the top Squat (570 pounds) and Clean (321 pounds) lifts among the inside linebackers.
Robinson is an inch-and-a-half taller and 15 pounds heavier than Baaqee, but don't count Baaqee out. The rumor mill says that Bud Foster likes Baaqee's effort and compares him frequently to Myron Newsome.
If you pore through Foster's comments on BeamerBall.com over the last few months, his high opinion of Baaqee comes through in his quotes. In early February, Foster said of Baaqee, "Very promising ... He's not that big, but he makes up for it with his aggressiveness. I'm expecting big things from him ... I expect him to push Vegas Robinson for playing time as a backup Backer."
During spring football, Foster praised both Robinson and Baaqee at various times, but Baaqee appeared to come on strong late. In Foster's closing comments after the Spring Game, he told BeamerBall.com, "Everybody's talking about Vegas Robinson, and Vegas had a good spring, but Mikal Baaqee has really come on. His last 5-6 practices have been outstanding."
Robinson played only three plays from scrimmage during the 2000 season, plus another 28 on special teams, so he doesn't have a significant advantage over Baaqee in experience.
Robinson's 40 time (4.46 seconds) is much faster than Baaqee's (4.69), but perhaps more important at the Backer position are the 10-yard dash and NFL shuttle times, which measure a player's acceleration and ability to change direction quickly. In those two measurements, the two are close. In the 10-yard dash, Robinson (1.63 seconds) and Baaqee (1.68) have the two fastest times amongst the Backers, and in the NFL shuttle, Baaqee is quicker than Robinson, 4.12 seconds to 4.17.
So it appears the Hokies have a deadlock at the backup Backer position. At one point, heading into the last practice of the spring, Baaqee slipped briefly ahead of Robinson on the depth chart, but as of mid-May, as noted above, they were list as co-backups to Taylor. Keep an eye on this position to see which player comes into the game first when Taylor goes out.
Whip (Outside Linebacker)
Pioneered by DeWayne Knight in 1993 and perfected by Brandon Semones from 1994 to 1996, the Whip linebacker position is one of the most important, most dynamic positions on the Tech defense. The Whip must possess a variety of skills, from run-stopping to blitzing to pass coverage.
But as important as it is, the Whip linebacker position has seen a steady flow of players rotating through it since Semones departed after the 1996 season. In 1997, Korey Irby was the early-season starter, but he went down to injury, and Cory Bird and Pierson Prioleau spent time at the position.
In 1998, sophomore Lorenzo Ferguson showed flashes of brilliance (intercepting three passes in the Clemson game, for example) and appeared set to take control of the position for years. Cory Bird had been moved to Rover, and Philip Summers was backing up Ferguson.
But a May 1999 arrest for breaking and entering, forgery, and larceny finished Ferguson's Tech career, and he transferred to Western Carolina. The coaches had already moved Summers to Rover to backup Cory Bird, so the Hokies suddenly found themselves with no Whip linebacker other than career backup Tee Butler.
The coaches decided to start Ben Taylor, not a natural Whip, at the position for 1999, with Butler backing him up. And in 2000, they moved Taylor to Backer and brought Nick Sorensen from safety to the Whip position.
So the 2001 season will see the fifth new starter at the Whip position in the last five seasons. It is remarkable that Tech has been able to field good defenses in 1998 and 2000 and an excellent defense in 1999 with no consistency at the Whip position. But the good news is that whoever wins the job this year could be the starter for at least two years, maybe three.
The frontrunners are junior T.J. Jackson (#23) and Deon Provitt (#3), with Jackson currently holding the top spot on the depth chart. Jackson was a member of the ballyhooed Vick-Suggs-Houseright recruiting class of 1998, and he was as decorated as any of them. SuperPrep listed him as the No. 16 player in Florida and the No. 16 defensive back in the nation, while Tom Lemming listed him as the No. 11 safety in the country.
Now he is a redshirt junior, and Jackson has seen the field mainly on special teams (54 plays on special teams in 2000, with just 3 plays from scrimmage). With the starting job dangling in front of him, he was having a good spring until he suffered an MCL (knee) sprain on April 11th that kept him out of the rest of spring practice. Prior to that, Whip linebackers Coach Jim Cavanaugh had called him a "pleasant surprise."
Jackson's injury moved Provitt up to the top Whip spot for the late sessions of spring football. The buzz is that the coaches like Provitt's football smarts ("The game makes sense to him," Coach Beamer likes to say about players like Provitt), and he may have the advantage over Jackson in that area. But Provitt, like other young players, has a ways to go. Foster told BeamerBall.com at the end of spring football, "He has all the tools you're looking for, we just need to get him going in the right direction." The bottom line is, don't write Jackson into that #1 Whip spot in ink. Use pencil instead, because there may be a battle yet to be fought there in the fall.
Behind them is redshirt freshman walk-on Brandon Manning (#30), the walk-on surprise of the spring. Manning is the latest noisemaker from the ranks of the walk-ons, a kid with a nose for the football. Cavanaugh sounded oddly Beamer-like earlier this spring when he first took notice of Manning and said, "The game makes sense to him."
Manning's 31-yard interception of a
Jason Davis pass in the Spring Game, plus his game-high 7 tackles, are indicative of his ability to make plays. He has
made a name for himself, and now he needs to just keep plugging away and keep his eyes on the players above him.
Manning's emergence, if it continues, gives the coaches more options for the Whip spot.