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Position Preview: Linebackers

The strongest, singular unit on this football team is undebatable. Clearly, it is the linebacking core, one of the best in the country and, clearly, the best in all of the Big 12. The starting trio is special, with Mortensen and Rivera both having All-Big 12 First Team potential and, just maybe, All-American potential. Oh, and James Holt is one of the fastest LBs in the Big 12, and is one of the better "third" LBS in all of the country. Honestly.

This unit couldn't get much better. The problem, of course, is that they are all seniors, meaning that we will be playing with a brand spankin' new linebacking core next season. So, that should be fun. However, we have plenty of atheltes (six of which are discussed here) to fill the holes created by the graduating trio, namely Steven Johnson, Justin Springer and Dakota Lewis. Oh, and don't forget Arist Wright. Or the physical specimen that is Josh Richardson, although he shouldn't be ready to play for another two years-or-so. And that isn't even mentioning Drew Dudley. Honestly, while it sucks to lose three tremendous LBs all in one year, we have more than enough bodies to fill in.

With that said, here is the three year depth chart:

2008 2009 2010
OLB1 Mike Rivera (rsSR) Arist Wright (rsSR) Dakota Lewis (rsSR)
OLB2 James Holt (SR) Dakota Lewis (rsJR) Steven Johnson (rsSO)
OLB3 Arist Wright (rsJR) Steven Johnson (rsFR) Josh Richardson (rsSO)
OLB4 Dakota Lewis (rsSO) Josh Richardson (rsFR) EMPTY
OLB5 Steven Johnson (FR) EMPTY EMPTY
OLB6 Josh Richardson (FR) EMPTY EMPTY
MLB1 Joe Mortensen (rsSR) Justin Springer (JR) Justin Springer (SR)
MLB2 Justin Springer (SO) Drew Dudley (JR) Earnest Norman (rsFR)
MLB3 Drew Dudley (SO) Earnest Norman (FR) Drew Dudley (SR)

--- Italics denote projected redshirt year

--- Bold denotes EMPTY space on depth chart

There is plenty to talk about, so let's get down to it. I'm not positive that Dudley is a MLB, but he has the size, so I'll run with it. I'm really excited for Steven Johnson and Josh Richardson, they both have potential through the roof. Plus, I didn't even put Schermer on here, who is almost certainly ahead of Richardson, at least, on the outside. However, I can't spend all day just previewing the linebackers, and he didn't quite make the cut.

Player-by-player previews after the jump...

Mike Rivera :: #40 :: rsSR :: OLB1

Honestly, I'm not as big on Rivera as most. He has improved a bunch since moving over to the outside, where his missed assignments and tackles aren't as painful, but he still is a little too inconsistent for my taste. That's not to say he isn't a great linebacker; there is a reason he is the best OLB on one of the best units in all of college football. He has NFL potential, for real, and has an incredible amount of potential to get even better. A lot better.

In fact, I will go as far as to predict that this year, he will take a big step forward. He has all the tools, has experience at this position now, and is a fifth-year senior. If he wants to make the jump to the NFL, he's going to have to improve somehow, either now or in the NFL.

Plus, he slaps JoeMo in the face before every game. For real. That has to motivate you, right? I mean, who wants to make a mistake when you have Mortensen to answer to? I think that is reason #1 why Rivera makes a big step forward this year in consistency.

James Holt :: #12 :: SR :: OLB2

James Holt, on the other hand, is one of my favorite players on the team. He isn't nearly as good as Rivera is, nor as physically gifted, but he seems to always be in the right place. Of course, he probably makes more mistakes than I think, and Rivera less, it's just that Rivera's mistakes seem to be more magnified, with the higher expectations and the higher athletic ability, making it look worse. He isn't the world's best tackler, and certainly missed on some against Missouri, for instance, but he is plenty good enough to be third fiddle on an excellent LB crew. His main positive is his crazy speed; he is fast enough to be a safety. On an incredibly fast LB crew, he is probably the fastest of them all.

However, according to some reports, Holt is going to miss tomorrow's game with an injury. No fun. Still, it is "just" Florida International, and as long as he is good for the rest of the season it's no biggie. Being the weakest of the trio, Holt is often targeted. He needs to have just as good of a year as last year, where he made enough plays on that side to make the offense look ridiculous for focusing simply on that side of the D. He doesn't have to be stellar, just good enough to make the D respect him. And of course, that is once he can actually play. 

Arist Wright :: #41 :: rsJR :: OLB3

He was the only player unavailable for the Orange Bowl last year, and this year he looks to be missing the first two games, at least according to the aformentioned report that he is missing the first two games of the year, not just one. He is a really good special teamer and a solid, in-the-case-of-injury backup, although he is obviously having trouble with his spine, which is what kept him out of last year's Orange Bowl.

If he can stay healthy, he will likely be given the first chance next year of replacing Holt/Rivera, although that 'if' is getting larger by the day. He is more of a Holt-type, a smaller, scary fast, type of LB as opposed to the physical specimen that is Mike Rivera. Even with his injury proble, I bet he starts in Holt's place next year, for one year, before either Steven Johnson or Josh Richardson takes over for him.

Dakota Lewis :: #51 :: rsSO :: OLB4

With both Holt and Wright injured, Lewis could stand a chance to start the season opener tomorrow as the highest available LB on the depth chart. However, he is a larger LB, like Rivera, and the staff might not prefer to have two of the same OLB out there at once. Still, whether he starts tomorrow or not, he is clearly the favorite to take over for Rivera next season.

He has been a great special teamer in the past and figures to be the same this year, for one more season, before he gets the bump up to first-team. He isn't as big as Rivera, not by a longshot, but he is the same type of player, from what I've read.

Steven Johnson :: #52 :: FR :: OLB5

The surprise of fall camp was, without a doubt, Mr. Steven Johnson, who came from nowhere to play on the second team for a couple of days. And, with injuries to both Holt and Wright, he has a pretty good chance at seeing a decent amount of snaps tomorrow night, not to mention a chance at starting the game. There is a chance he redshirts this year, sure, and I even "predicted it" in my three-year depth chart, but he could find himself an active member of this team as early as this year. Seriously. Of course, Mangino could also just choose to start Jake Schermer, a fourth-year junior who would bring experience to the table, and redshirt Johnson, keeping his eligibility for an extra year. Whatever the case, I figure that Johnson and Richardson will compete for the starting slot once Wright graduates in 2010.

For a kid who simply walked on, he is about as talented as they come. Of course, he would have been a scholarship player (and was offered a scholarship by KU IIRC) were it not for an injury his senior year, which scared everyone off. Not a bad deal for Mangino and Company, who picked up quite a linebacker for free, scholarship wise.

Josh Richardson :: #38 :: FR :: OLB6

There is no way Richardson is, right now, even #6 on the depth chart. He is an incredibly raw player out of Ohio who, before Kansas came-a-calling, was going to a MAC school. He has crazy speed, is incredibly athletic and has incredible potential; the problem is he is only 200 pounds, and that is after some rigorous weight lifting as he came to Kansas barely pushing 180. He won't be ready to play this year, not by a longshot (IMO), but by 2010, he should be ready to compete for a starting slot. And he could be a scary-good starter, if he can combine all of his physical tools (namely, safety-speed) and become a fundamental player. 

Joe Mortensen :: #8 :: rsSR :: MLB1

Where would we be without JoeMo? Honestly. Where? You could make a case that he is the most important player on this defense, as he is forced to stop the running game, rush the passer and cover the pass. Obviously, almost all LBs have to do all three of those things. The difference? JoeMo is pretty much the only MLB, right now, who could even come close to performing at the level he does. Sure, Justin Springer has a bunch of potential and all, but he likely isn't ready to start playing just yet. That is what makes Mortensen incredibly important to our defense, and what makes him coming to Kansas such an awesome story.

For that, you have to thank Bill Callahan. You see, Mortensen had decided he wanted to be a Blackshirt, to play in Lincoln. Frank Solich had recruited him, he had chosen them, it was all happy faces. And then, in a decision that the Cornhuskers are still paying for, Nebraska decided to fire Solich and to hire, of all people, Bill Callahan. Callahan didn't want Mortensen. Why? Who knows. But Callahan wans't a fan, and pulled his schollie offer. Even if he didn't turn out to be anything, that wouldn't be a good idea. But, of course, he did turn out to be something; to be an All-Big 12 First Teamer and a potential All-American.

Gotta love Callie.

Justin Springer :: #45 :: SO :: MLB2

Justin Springer is going to be really good. Maybe not JoeMo good, and definitely not JoeMo scary (in terms of "I'm scared he's going to kill me" fear), but he could be another All-Big 12er. He has all the size you could possibly ask for in a MLB (6'4" 242), the speed, the talent, the ability. The sky's the limit, man. For realz.

He won't see much of any action this year, except on the special teams units, but he still figures to be a crucial member of the future. Like, next season, when he will be the starting MLB.

Next Up: Cornerbacks

On Deck: Safeties