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Mountain West Football: Spring Practice Linebacker Rankings


Mountain West Football: Spring Practice Linebacker Rankings


Nearly every Mountain West football team is looking for a new anchor or two within the middle of their defenses this spring.


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Who could be the best athletes in the middle?

12. Nevada

Projected starters/depth: Naki Mateialona, Josiah Bradley, Davion Blackwell, Drue Watts, Marcel Walker, Adam Weynand

With Lawson Hall and Trevor Price gone after graduating and Jordan Lee and Lamin Touray leaving via the transfer portal, the Wolf Pack have more of a hard reset on their hands here than at any other position. That’s not to say the likeliest candidates to replace them don’t have experience — Mateialona, Bradley, and Blackwell are all either juniors or seniors — but it remains to be seen how they’ll handle larger roles.

Bradley, in particular, is someone worth keeping an eye on now that the former four-star recruit may secure a starting spot. With so many unknowns, however, it’s mostly a wait-and-see game to see how things progress into the fall.

11. Hawaii

Projected starters/depth: Penei Pavihi, Isaiah Tufaga, Demarii Blanks, Riley Wilson, Wynden Ho’ohuli, Steele Dubar

The Warriors will definitely miss Darius Muasau, who left for UCLA through the transfer portal, but they aren’t starting from scratch. Pavihi and Tufaga aren’t the flashiest options in the Mountain West, but both have previous starting experience that Hawaii may need. Their standing atop the eventual depth chart may not be a given, however, considering the team has 15 linebackers on the current roster, including Nebraska transfer Ho’ohuli or junior college transfers Blanks and Noah Kema. This group could take a while to sort out.

10. Utah State

Projected starters/depth: Anthony Switzer, AJ Vongphachanh, Kina Maile, Kaleo Neves, MJ Tafisi

The Aggies are also replacing a lot of last year’s talent in this unit, but it’s easy to give them the benefit of the doubt, after how well things came together in 2021, that they’ll figure things out.

At a minimum, Utah State has pulled together an interesting mix of established veterans like Vongphachanh, impact transfers like Switzer and Tafisi, and young recruits like Maile who look ready for a bigger role. It’ll be a tall task to be as disruptive as the front seven was down the stretch last season, but the Aggies have beaten the odds before and this ranking could look silly by December.

9. New Mexico

Projected starters/depth: Ray Leutele, Reco Hannah, Syaire Riley, Dion Hunter, Cody Moon

This is a group that got a lot of practice battling through unenviable situations last year, which means that there might be a lot of breakout potential should the New Mexico offense hold up its end of the bargain more consistently next fall.

Hunter, in particular, could be emblematic of this unit’s promise. The redshirt freshman from Rio Rancho made his first career start in last year’s regular season finale against Utah State, where he promptly racked up eight tackles and finished the year, according to Pro Football Focus, as the team’s top-graded linebacker. However it shakes out, the Lobos can also say they are loaded for bear at the position with sixteen players listed there on the current roster.

8. San Jose State

Projected starters/depth: Kyle Harmon, Alii Matau, Matthew Tago, Jordan Cobbs, Rahyme Johnson, Soane Toia, Bryun Parham

Harmon is a tackling machine with few peers within the Mountain West, but what really made the Spartans potent last year was that this unit got more disruptive overall, which made the defensive end duo of Viliami Fehoko and Cade Hall more effective, as well. Five SJSU linebackers had at least four tackles for loss in 2021 and two of them are gone now, so there’s an expectation that role players like Tago, Johnson and Parham can shore up some of those losses.

7. Wyoming

Projected starters/depth: Easton Gibbs, Shae Suiaunoa, Connor Shay, Cole DeMarzo, Tommy Wroblewski

When it comes to replacing NFL talents here, this isn’t Craig Bohl’s first rodeo. Gibbs was quietly pretty good in his own right as Chad Muma’s wrecking crew partner last season while Suiaunoa, Shay and DeMarzo could provide the right amount of depth to keep coordinator Jay Sawvel’s 4-2-5 defense humming along.

6. Boise State

Projected starters/depth: Demitri Washington, Ezekiel Noa, D.J. Schramm, Isaiah Bagnah, Brandon Hawkins, George Tarlas

The Broncos have a lot of strengths upon which they’ll be able to depend heading into 2022, but their linebacker play in recent years has been more good than great. That’s not to say they can’t re-establish some level of dominance next year, but it will depend on getting more out of the EDGE position, in particular, where Bagnah (two sacks vs. UCF last year, three vs. Nevada) and Washington (4.5 sacks as a freshman in 2019) have flashed potential but haven’t yet become Curtis Weaver-level difference makers.

Noa and Schramm, meanwhile, at least give Boise State a pair of experienced high-floor performers at middle linebacker. Tarlas, a sixth-year senior transfer from Weber State, is an intriguing wild card to keep an eye on after he picked up eight tackles for loss, five sacks, and four forced fumbles for the Wildcats in 2021.

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5. Air Force

Projected starters/depth: Vince Sanford, TD Blackmon, Alec Mock, Bo Richter, Johnathan Youngblood, Julian Williams, Matthew Malloy

Sanford was one of the Mountain West’s biggest breakouts last year, which makes his return a good thing for a unit losing key veterans like Lakota Wills and Demonte Meeks. If he can stay healthy, Blackmon might be in a position to do the same after collecting five tackles for loss and the second-best overall PFF grade of any conference linebacker (78.4) in just nine games.

Beyond that duo, a trio of juniors (Richter, Mock, and Youngblood) provide plenty of needed experience for the 3-4, so while the Falcons may be short on all-conference-caliber players here, you’d be hard pressed to identify potential weak links, too.

4. UNLV

Depth chart: Adam Plant Jr. (RUSH), Brennon Scott (STUD), Kyle Beaudry (WILL), Austin Ajiake (MIKE), Isaiah Sayles, Jordan Eubanks, Tyray O’Dell, Fred Thompkins, LeShaun Bell

If Jacoby Windmon hadn’t left the Rebels for Michigan State, this unit would have a very strong argument as the best in the conference. As is, though, the returning pieces were better than you thought last season and it all starts with Scott, who came on very strong in his first extended action, and Plant Jr., who was a strong pass rusher in his own right when he wasn’t banged up.

Ajiake, meanwhile, graded out as the Rebels’ top linebacker according to PFF (71.8, fifth among Mountain West LBs) and averaged over nine tackles per game before injuries cut his season short in November. In his stead, Beaudry collected 8.5 tackles per game in the team’s last four games. The key for this group, then, is whether newcomers like Sayles and youngsters like Bell can give UNLV the depth and production it needs to be truly dangerous.

3. Fresno State

Projected starters/depth: Levelle Bailey, Malachi Langley, Tyler Mello, Tanner Blount, Zeke Branham, Raymond Scott

The Bulldogs got exactly what they needed out of their linebackers in 2021 and only have to replace Tyson Maeva among last year’s major contributors, so the good news for the Red Wave is that they may actually be deeper this time around. Bailey and Langley give them a solid 1-2 tandem with upside while Mello got more playing time down the stretch and figures to be a key depth piece with more reps on the horizon.

Meanwhile, Scott only started a handful of games for the USC Trojans but he also contributed on special teams, so his arrival from the transfer portal gives them exactly the kind of veteran presence that could a championship-caliber team over the top.

 

2. San Diego State

Projected starters/depth: Caden McDonald, Seyydrick Lakalaka, Michael Shawcroft, Cooper McDonald, Vai Kaho

The Aztecs are best known for replacing defensive backs without issue seemingly every year, but don’t be shocked if it seems like those who step up in Segun Olubi’s and Andrew Aleki’s stead do so without much fanfare. It helps that McDonald, Lakalaka, and Shawcroft are a talented trio that could probably start anywhere in the Mountain West, though whether any of them can get back to collecting double-digit tackles for loss is a question that could determine just how strong SDSU is on defense next fall.

If not, at least there’s no question they have the depth to keep attacking and making lives miserable. The arrival of Cooper McDonald from Washington, as well as the continued development of those like Kaho and Darrell Masaniai, should make Aztecs fans comfortable that it’ll be business as usual on the Mesa.

1. Colorado State

Projected starters/depth: Dequan Jackson, Cam’ron Carter, Tavian Brown, Mohamed Kamara, Bam Amina, Brandon Hickerson-Rooks, Sanjay Strickland

The Rams imported a huge amount of talent, but Jay Norvell and defensive coordinator Freddie Banks had the luxury of standing pat at linebacker since Colorado State was already stacked. Jackson, Carter, and Kamara were the only trio of linebackers anywhere in the Mountain West to collect at least 7.5 tackles for loss each, Brown started five games last year and both Hickerson-Rooks and Strickland have provided depth over the past two seasons. Most of the early attention showered on Jay Norvell’s Rams have come on the offensive side of the ball, but these guys could be special next season.

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Story originally appeared on Mountain West Wire