Mountain West Football: Post-Spring Practice Linebacker Rankings
Nearly every Mountain West football team is looking for a new anchor or two within the middle of their defenses after this spring.
Who could be the best athletes in the middle?
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.
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.
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.