The Best LB Unit in the MWC?
The Heart of the Defense
A few weeks ago marked the launch of a series of deep-dives into the Falcons various position groups; specifically how they will measure up versus last year. Previously we looked at the secondary and defensive line. The last unit on the defense being covered here today, is the linebacker corp.
This is a area that will boast a lot of experience and depth this fall, despite losing three starters from 2020 to graduation. This is yet again, a group that will feature standout performers returning after exercising ‘turnback’ seasons last year. The combination of turnbacks and experienced sophomores to be make this a very intriguing positional group.
.@Chill_Monte is all business.
A LOT of reason to be excited with him returning to the field in 2021 💪 pic.twitter.com/y48o0ZsBjW
— Air Force Football (@AF_Football) May 24, 2021
The cupboards are far from bare in at linebacker in Colorado Springs. There is yet another All-Conference performer returning to the fold, in Demonte Meeks, alongside a three year starter in Lakota Wills who bring a ton of experience to the outside.
Between the two, Wills and Meeks bring nearly 50 games worth of experience, 218 tackles, 28 tackles for loss, 12 sacks and three forced turnovers. Having these two suit up for the defense this season places anchors in the middle and on the outside of a base scheme that regularly features four in the group (3-4 concept).
Demonte Meeks has already been recognized as a first team All- Mountain West Conference Team performer in 2019. He will be one of the top linebackers in the conference in 2021. Don’t be surprised if Wills also etches his name on that All-Conference list this year as well.
We mentioned experienced starters in Will Trawick, Parker Noren and Grant Donaldson moving on to graduation. However, because of the constant flux created by COVID-19 protocols and injury, there were plenty of other players who gained valuable experience in 2020.
Noah Bush and Caleb Humphrey are seniors this year, and part of the carousel of personnel to get playing time. The real intrigue is seeing which of last years group of freshman surface. In uncharacteristic fashion, Air Force featured four different freshman on the two-deep at linebacker at various times throughout last season, all acquitted themselves quite well when on the field.
— Tim Winters (@UCNCFootball) October 4, 2020
Jonathan Youngblood and Alec Mock in particular found themselves earning starts as freshman in 2020, and played like they belonged. The two garnered over 30 tackles and 3 TFL’s between them, keeping in mind it was only a six game season, of which Mock played in three games while Youngblood appeared in four.
While Mock was one of 2020’s crop of 3-star prospects, it was fellow 2-star freshman, Matt Malloy who really made the most of his reps. While Malloy did appear in three total games, he got far less playing time than the aforementioned Mock and Youngblood. But Malloy was able to collect nine tackles, a sack and an interception in limited time.
Jace Waters is another one of the Falcons 3-star prospects (2018 commit) who could surface this year. He has not seen a great deal of playing time to date, but surfaced on the 2-deep in 2020. It’s not uncommon to see an Air Force player come out of nowhere as an upperclassmen, and absolutely ball out. See Kyle Johnson and Demonte Meeks very recently.
Ethan Erickson is listed as a safety and has plenty of experience even as a starter. However, similar to Grant Thiel, Erickson may very well find himself in sub-packages at linebacker or even as the ‘spur’ as in their base alignment. This type of flexibility to cover as a linebacker is prevalent in todays game due to the evolution of offenses.
A name that probably has surfaced as a wildcard for nearly three years now is T.D. Blackmon. The Tennessee product was part of the 2017 recruiting class, and pursued by a lot of other established G5 programs, before landing in Colorado Springs with one of the highest recruit composite ratings ever by an Air Force commit. Maybe this is the year we see Blackmon lock down his spot and make an impact.
Another potential player in that hybrid mold is Brandon Gooding. Yet another former 3-star prospect, Gooding was recruited as a defensive end. However, he has seen the field as a linebacker, but as mentioned in the defensive line preview, very well could end up lining up with Jordan Jackson and crew in the trenches.
2020 vs. 2021 PROJECTED
This position group is going to replace experience with experience, which sounds a little crazy. But the reality is, what was a solid rotation in 2020 will be replacing their graduates with two studs in Meeks and Wills. There is a wealth of experienced personnel that can be plugged in to complement those stalwarts.
At the end of the day, linebacker may end up being the deepest position group on the roster. They have recruited well at this position, but more importantly they have developed the personnel within the system even better.
Ultimately, the 2021 linebacking corp shouldn’t just be an improved unit from the prior years’, which performed quite well, but they may be the most complete overall group in the Mountain West.