Arguably, the LB is the most important position on the defensive side of the ball. These guys are most often the quarterbacks of the defense. They make the pre-snap reads and adjustments. They communicate with the DL and the DBs in order to change assignments. They also generally carry the best size/speed ratio making them freakish athletes who can dole out punishment. Many defensive schemes rely on the LBs to make plays all over the field. Because of all these factors, we can deduce that without strong LB play, a defense is in serious trouble. Are we correct?
|YEAR||LB TKL||TM TKL||PCT|
Again, because of the change in the statistician's method of recording tackles, it's hard to compare raw numbers. So, the percentage is what I think is important here. It's not hard to see that the LBs were responsible for a smaller percentage of tackles under Van Gorder than they were under Martinez. Under BVG, our defense was heralded. Under Martinez, it was maligned. However, I think there's something counter-intuitive here. See, people seem to think that the LB play was WORSE under Martinez, but looking at the team numbers, it seems that they were more productive. The LBs were responsible for a higher percentage of stops under Martinez. Now, I suppose it's possible that there are more LBs on special teams, resulting in higher tackling numbers, but that's hard for me to quantify looking only at stat sheets. Then again, I suppose the biggest complaint against the Linebackers over the past five seasons is that there weren't DOMINANT GROUPS of LBs. No one will say that Rennie Curran wasn't a dominant LB, but ESPN hasn't listed UGA's LBs as a power group in some time. So then, is it the individual personnel where we've been lacking? Let's take a look:
The complaint has been that our LBs of late haven't had the talent that the LBs in the first 4 years of Richt tenure had. Well, let's look back...the 2002 crop boasts 6 "productive" LBs, five of which made NFL rosters. In 2003, two new names hit the list, and one of them was a 1st round draft pick. 2004 saw the addition of Verdun-Wheeler, an eventual NFL draftee. With the exception of Marcus Washington (entering 2010 draft), all of 2005 and 2006's LBs are NFL LBs. The 2007 crop are as yet unproven at the highest level. Curran will be drafted. Dewberry is doubtful.
But, what I notice is this: between Odell Thurman and Rennie Curran, we really didn't have a dominant LB. We had groups of linebackers who played well. So, this goes against the common argument. The 2005 team (SEC) had four LBs register more than 40 tackles. NO other unit has matched that. 2002 and 2003 were close (SEC and SEC E, respectively) In 2007, the LBs were 4 tackles by Dent, and 5 by Miller away from having 5 LBs cross the 40 tackle mark. We were 11-2. It seems, though, that when tackling machine Rennie Curran took over, the rest of the LBs didn't live up to his ability. Actually, that's an unfair assessment. In 2008, Ellerbee was hurt, so his production suffered. Gamble quadrupled his production. Dent when up by about 30% and Curran made plays all over the field, leading the team with 115 tackles as a sophomore.
So, we fast-forward to the nightmare of a season that was 2009. Curran takes it up another 10%, stealing potential tackles from other LBs. Dowtin triples his production. Gamble and Dent suffer a bit. Dewberry returns to his 2007 level of production. But, Curran has more than twice the production of the #2 tackling LB on the team. In 2008, it was similar. At no other point has the leading LB come close to DOUBLING the output of the second-best LB. Yet, in each of the past few seasons, we see some LBs stepping up, and others faltering. So what in the world is going on?
Preferably, what you will see is a player crack the list near the bottom in his first year, move up in the second and be one of the top in his junior and senior (if he stays) years. It doesn't seem to have been working that way as of late at UGA. Players seem to be bouncing all around in the productivity category. Look at Gamble - bottom of the list in 2007, 2nd in 2008, then 3rd behind Curran and Dowtin (2008's bottom) in 2009. Could it be that Dowtin just REALLY stepped up? It could be. Maybe that's why Gamble and Dent remained back-to-back, but simply slipped down in the rankings.
I find it hard to agree with those who say we haven't had quality linebackers over the past few seasons. True, we haven't had a plethora of "marquee" LBs, but then again, we didn't have that in the BVG days either. Kendrell Bell was gone before Richt came in. Witherspoon (2001) was a high-quality guy, as were Boss Bailey and Tony Gilbert...but I can't say that Tony Gilbert was grossly more talented than Dannel Ellerbee, or that Witherspoon was far and away better than Tony Taylor or Marcus Dowtin (and I love Spoon..he's one of the nicest men I ever played with). It just seems that these guys haven't made the SPLASH that they did years ago. Ellerbee was the best in recent years at stopping guys behind the line. In fact, his 22 TBL in 2008 are tops for any LB since 2002...and let's not forget, he got hurt against AL and missed a good bit of that season. If only, if only, if only. Damn, 2008 coulda been good.
Any way I slice it, I can't say that UGA's LB corps is to blame for our lack of success as of late. The LBs have increased their tackling production, they've been marginal on turnovers...but in 2002 and 2005, they really didn't get many takeaways (0 and 3, resprectively) anyway, so I can't say that's been a problem. And hey, in 2006 (another awful year), they had 11. I guess the LB ain't the thing.
But, I am VERY interested in seeing what these guys do under the new 3-4 of Todd Grantham. At the moment, it seems that Dowtin and Gamble are the leading candidates for the two ILB jobs, and I can't argue with that. They were 2nd and 3rd in LB tackles last season, with Dowtin making a HUGE jump from 2008. The question now becomes, with only two ILB positions, and most of the LBs from the old 4-3 scheme fitting more into the ILB than OLB style of player, how will the development of players like Michael Gilliard, Christian Robinson and Richard Samuel come along?
And what can we expect from the new OLBs? Well, I guess we should look at them next...Fabris was fired, and perhaps for good reason. We've been complaining since 2007 about a lack of a pass-rush from UGA DEs. Could it be that THIS has been where our defense has been failing. Could it be that the DE is the thing that brings a title? We'll see!