Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Linebacker Rankings

Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Linebacker Rankings

After lots of turnover, which Mountain West teams look to be in top form at linebacker after spring football practice?

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Lots of new anchors in the middle of defenses.


OverallQuarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver/Tight End | Offensive Line | Defensive Line | Linebacker | Cornerback/Safety | Kicker/Punter

Note: Italics denote projected starters.

12. Colorado State

High ranking in group: 6th | Low ranking in group: 12

Projected depth: Chase Wilson, Drew Kulick, Justin Sanchez, Aaron Moore

The Rams are dealing with the departures of both Cam’ron Carter and Dequan Jackson headed into 2023, so while Wilson and Kulick appear to be the next men up — they played over 500 combined snaps last year — the major task will be to prove last year’s flashes of potential are for real: Wilson ended the year with a 2.5-sack performance against New Mexico while Kulick finished the year with 43 tackles in part-time duty.

Colorado State also recently brought in Cal transfer Trey Paster to shore up depth. With a full year in Freddie Banks’ system behind them, don’t be surprised if the Rams end up vastly outperforming their standing here.

11. Hawaii

High ranking: 3rd | Low ranking: 12th

Projected depth: Logan Taylor, Isaiah Tufaga, Noah Kema, Demarii Blanks

The top three in the middle of this defense seems clear cut, but the major question facing Hawaii at this point is how they’ll fill out the depth chart to replace Kolby Wyatt, Noa Kamana, and Penei Pavihi. Blanks was a junior college All-American in 2021, but the other five players listed on the roster are sophomores and freshmen who have yet to see the field for more than a handful of plays.

Regardless of who steps into the breach, one point of emphasis should be cleaner tackling: According to Pro Football Focus, Taylor and Kema were two among just eight Mountain West linebackers with a missed tackle percentage above 25% while playing at least 100 snaps.

10. Nevada

High ranking: 4th | Low ranking: 11th

Projected depth: Drue Watts, Naki Mateialona, Eli’jah Winston, Jackson LaDuke, Maurice Wilmer, Marcel Walker-Burgess, Davion Blackwell

The Wolf Pack faced a major overhaul here in Ken Wilson’s first year at the helm and, while year one didn’t develop any all-conference performers, his initial crop of linebackers had their moments: Watts had a tackle for loss in eight straight games at one point and he and Mateialona each had eight quarterback hurries each.

At a minimum, Nevada now has one of the most experienced linebacker corps in the Mountain West with LaDuke the biggest new import from Oregon. With both the defensive line and secondary replacing some major pieces of their own this time around, it could be this group’s turn to create some surprises in Reno.

9. Utah State

High ranking: 5th | Low ranking: 12th

Projected depth: MJ Tafisi, Max Alford, Gavin Barthiel, Cole Joyce, Josh Williams

The Aggies have undergone a major shake-up on nearly every front, including linebacker, thanks to the transfer portal: AJ Vongphachanh, Kaleo Neves, and Sione Moa are all gone, leaving a major dent in the overall two-deep.

What’s left isn’t all bad, though. Tafisi’s first year in Logan was a very good one which saw him lead the team in tackles per game and rack up nine tackles for loss while Alford started the last four games and held his own as a true freshman (the two even finished second and third, respectively, among conference linebackers in run defense grading). Barthiel’s arrival from Washington State could be a timely one though his on-field experience thus far has been limited, as is Joyce’s, but this unit is another with a decent chance to come out much better in retrospect.


High ranking: 6th | Low ranking: 10th

Projected depth: Brennon Scott, Kyle Beaudry, Fred Thompkins, Elijah Shelton, Jackson Woodard, LeShaun Bell

Replacing Austin Ajiake will be a tough task for new defensive coordinator Michael Scherer, but we probably said the same thing about Javin White a couple of years ago and that worked out just fine for the Rebels. Scott’s return from an injury that wiped out his 2022 season could be huge because, in case you forgot, he was the only freshman in the Mountain West to tally double-digit tackles for loss back in 2021.

Whether this group is just fine or truly breaks out may depend on how well Thompkins steps in to replace Ajiake and how much more damage Shelton can do as a pass rusher. Interestingly, Thompkins had the lowest missed tackle rate (7.3%) of any Mountain West linebacker who returns for 2023 while Shelton matched Adam Plant Jr. with 17 quarterback hurries despite playing roughly 100 fewer snaps. If things come together, watch out.

7. New Mexico

High ranking: 4th | Low ranking: 12th

Projected depth: Syaire Riley, Ray Leutele, Dmitri Johnson, Alec Marenco, Mihalis Santorineos

Stop us if you’ve heard this one: The experience in this group took a hit when Cody Moon and, more recently, Dion Hunter elected to enter the transfer portal. Taken in tandem with Rocky Long leaving Albuquerque for Syracuse, you might be tempted to think the Lobos are in serious trouble.

Keep in mind, though, that this unit was hit hard by the injury bug in 2022: Leutele missed five games at mid-season while Marenco and Riley each had season-ending ailments. Head coach Danny Gonzales and new defensive coordinator Troy Reffett also seem to have taken a liking to the juco tandem of Johnson and Santorineos, both of whom started with the first-team defense during UNM’s Spring Showcase back in March. If health is on the Lobos’ side and their track record of developing underrated defenders remains strong, they could be stingy.

6. San Jose State

High ranking: 1st | Low ranking: 10th

Projected depth: Bryun Parham, Jordan Pollard, Elijah Wood, Jordan Cobbs, Matthew Tago, Noah McNeal-Franklin

The Spartans are another Mountain West team undergoing a reset here with the graduations of Kyle Harmon and Alii Matau, but unlike some other teams in the conference this group returns a lot more experience than you realize while adding some interesting new pieces.

In the former group, Parham is a breakout candidate after making ten starts as a sophomore and finishing behind Viliami Fehoko with the second-best PFF overall grade on the Spartans defense (72.8). Cobbs is worth remembering, too, as he made five starts in 2021 and began last season as a starter before an injury derailed his senior campaign. Among the latter contingent, McNeal-Franklin starred up in the North Bay for a time at Contra Costa College and is another juco arrival worth keeping an eye on.


Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Overall Rankings

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Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Defensive Back Rankings

5. Wyoming

High ranking: 1st | Low ranking: 11th

Projected depth: Easton Gibbs, Shae Suiaunoa, Connor Shay, Cole DeMarzo, Nic Talich, Read Sunn

There’s a case to be made that Gibbs and Suiaunoa were the busiest pair of linebackers in the country last year: Among the 26 Group of 5 linebackers who played at least 800 snaps in 2022, Wyoming’s duo was one of five within that cohort. It might sound strange to say considering they combined for 194 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks, but there may still be plenty of growth left for the pair of juniors.

If, that is, they remain in the starting lineup. Shay turned a lot of heads in the spring and could make a significant play for more time on the field as a result. Given defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel’s track record, the odds look good that they’ll figure out how best to deploy their productive athletes and remain as dangerous as ever.

4. Fresno State

High ranking: 1st | Low ranking: 12th

Projected depth: Levelle Bailey, Malachi Langley, Raymond Scott, Tanner Blount, Tyler Mello, Phoenix Jackson, Tuasivi Nomura

This unit got overshadowed a little by an excellent secondary and strong individual performances on the defensive line, but the whole was greater than the sum of its parts and the Bulldogs return every major player for 2023.

Bailey’s decision to return for a super senior season was a big one: He led Fresno State with 88 tackles a year ago and paced all Mountain West linebackers in passes defended after tying for the conference lead in 2021. Langley, his primary running mate, is a savvy defender in his own right who snagged two interceptions and set a career high in tackles while Blount, Jackson, and Scott (when healthy) provided useful depth. While the stats don’t jump off the page, these linebackers will be key to holding onto last season’s second-half gains.

3. Air Force

High ranking: 2nd | Low ranking: 9th

Projected depth: Bo Richter, Alec Mock, Johnathan Youngblood, Matthew Malloy, Jalen Mergerson, Cole Palmer, Osaro Aihie

No Vince Sanford or TD Blackmon? No problem. As usual, the Falcons look ready to restock the cupboard with a healthy dose of veteran production to lead the way. Mock missed two games to injury last season but led the team in tackles per game and, according to Pro Football Focus, is the highest-graded returner in this group (76.9) while Richter started both inside and outside and seemed primed to take on Sanford’s mantle as a pass rusher as he was credited with 11 hurries on only 334 snaps throughout 2022. If younger contributors like Palmer and Aihie are ready to take on larger roles, this defense could just as good as last year’s.

2. San Diego State

High ranking: 1st | Low ranking: 5th

Depth chart: Cooper McDonald (SLB), Zyrus Fiaseu (MLB), Cody Moon (WLB), Brady Anderson, Vai Kaho, Trey White

This ranking might come as a surprise after the Aztecs lost Caden McDonald, Seyydrick Lakalaka, and Michael Shawcroft to graduation, but the younger McDonald and Fiaseu split time at the SAM position in 2022 and Moon represents one of the most significant in-conference transfers anywhere in the Mountain West. Kaho and White both got to play a bit last season, as well, so the major question facing this group is who will be able to step up and contribute to the front six’s pass rush.

That was a job done primarily by Shawcroft and Caden McDonald over the last few seasons (20.5 sacks from 2020-22), but with the loss of big contributors on the defensive line, too, they’ll need every last bit they can get from this refreshed unit.

1. Boise State

High ranking: 1st | Low ranking: 5th

Projected depth: Demitri Washington (EDGE), DJ Schramm (LB), Andrew Simpson, Dishawn Misa, Ty Tanner, Gabe Hunter, Kivon Wright

It was big news in January when eight Broncos announced their intent to return as super seniors in 2023 and no unit benefitted more from that collective decision than this one. Washington has been just fine off the edge for a defense that ranked 35th in the country with a 7.6% sack rate, though the pressure may be on to increase his production with the departures of both George Tarlas and Ezekiel Noa.

In the middle, Schramm had a monster all-conference year in which he led the Broncos with 107 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss and, per Pro Football Focus led the Mountain West with 59 stops. Simpson and Hunter each had their moments in the sun, as well, and they’re joined now by the Boston College transfer Wright and Misa, who took a redshirt in 2022 but came to Boise as the top recruit in that year’s class. The more things change, the more they stay the same on the blue.

More Mountain West Football!

Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Quarterback Rankings

Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Defensive Back Rankings

Mountain West Football: 2023 Post-Spring Practice Wide Receiver/Tight End Rankings


Story originally appeared on Mountain West Wire