OSU SPRING PREVIEW: The Linebackers

JOEL SKOTTE

CORVALLIS -- Oregon State marches into spring ball with two linebacker spots comfortably filled by D.J. Alexander and Michael Doctor - veterans of the Beavs impressive 9-4 run in 2012. Depth? Not much of a concern here. But in light of that silly little thing called graduation, Feti Unga left the MIK spot wide open for 2013 – or did he?

The Good
The thing is, currently there does not seem to be much question as to who will fill the void left by Feti Unga in the middle of the tackle box. Joel Skotte, a 6-2, 235 soon-to-be sophomore out of Bend is my candidate for that gig, hands down.

Skotte saw game time as a true freshman – all 13 games worth of it. Sure, he only notched four solo tackles, three of them against Nicholls State. But he had on-field experience in 2012 comparable to fellow backup Rueben Robinson. As a sophomore, Skotte is younger and relatively fresh but his speed and football IQ should complement to that presented by Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander. Also, bear in mind that he has been under the tutelage of Trent Bray for more than a season now.

Still, competition is good, and Shaydon Akuna may be able to deliver. Akuna will be a junior in 2013, and he has taken a stab at every position in the linebacker corps. Akuna didn't see much action last season as a backup – a mere two games adding just one assisted tackle to the stat sheet. But when I observed him in the fall and during Texas prep, he was a workhorse. He frequently traversed the line slotting on the strong and weak side with the scout team, and occasionally saw some work with the 2's, where he performed well.

And in this corner – coming off a rock-solid 2012 campaign with a combined 139 tackles and 18 TFL - you have Doctor and Alexander.

On top of those imposing statistics, Doctor notched an interception and five deflected passes in 2012 and Alexander gathered 1.5 sacks and two deflected passes. Doctor returns as a senior right side ‘backer who led the Beaver defenders with 83 tackles last season. I'm in the camp that sees Doctor as a bona fide team captain in 2013.

To sum up - When taken at face value, not much is wrong for the Beaver ‘backer platoon. There is depth, good coaching and veteran leadership in the form of Doctor and Alexander.

The Bad
If one wanted to nitpick, they could say that Skotte is too young, perhaps too inexperienced to be named a starter after a quality player like Unga held down the position for the majority of two seasons. If Skotte doesn't get the nod, it will be very interesting to see who steps up and makes an impression when spring ball kicks off at Oregon State in a little over three weeks.

Coaching
Speaking of Bray, he made the ascension from graduate assistant to full on linebackers coach at the culmination of the 2012 regular season - he must be doing something right.

The Beavers success in shutting down the run against the likes of Montee Ball, Jonathon Franklin and Marion Grice was due largely in part to Brays efforts with the linebacker corps – and of course strong defensive line play had a little something to do with it.

Question to Consider
Is Joel Skotte a shoe-in for the middle ‘backer position in 2013?

Answer
With college football retaining its highly competitive qualities and Rudy-esque storylines, it can often be hard to gauge whether or not a player is actually destined to fill an opening – especially at a position as fluid as the MIK. The good thing is, Oregon State has Skotte, and the youngster possesses some serious talent.

He is leaner and a bit quicker than Unga – probably won't hit as hard, but great vision and he gets his hands up. Linebackers at the college level often struggle with passes defensed, it's almost become a lost art. Skotte can track the QB with near hawk-like precision, and likes to knock passes out of the sky. Signs point toward him being the starting middle ‘backer in 2013 if he puts some hard work in during the spring.

But will he be able to stop the run? That is a question to be answered in the spring.

In the Wings
As spring draws ever closer, questions about depth – and more importantly talent at depth – always tend to arise. All the hypotheticals start popping up. What if X gets hurt? What if Y breaks an arm in practice? What if Alexander experiences another ankle injury? Oregon State has skilled players going more than two deep in the depth chart - this is an area where the Beavs are quite stacked looking ahead to the spring.

Dyllon Mafi may still have a chance to make some noise during his senior season, depending on whether or not a bar brawl from way back in December removes him from the esteem of the coaching staff. Mafi only played in two games last season, managing three tackles.

Jaswha James and Charlie Gardner both redshirted in 2012, and spring could see both of them running with the 2's, most likely alongside Akuna. James saw work backing up both Doctor and Alexander during fall camp and Texas prep, with Gardner making more of a pronounced effect toward the latter portions of the year with some hard work on the 2's and scout team.

Caleb Saulo and Rommel Mageo were quiet overall this past season, and I am hesitant to label them sleepers when it comes to making a big impact defensively in 2013. Most of the work these two saw was with the scout team, and their size doesn't scream ‘big hitter'.

Speed is their strength however - can it translate into playing time or at least a shot at a solid spot on the 2's?

Also, I'm going to be keeping a close eye on Jabral Johnson as well.

He is another guy who has the raw talent to be an impact player in certain respects. Look for him, along with the likes of Charlie Gilmur and Josh Williams to have a roll on special teams at the very minimum.

BF.C's Projected Pre-Spring Depth Chart – The Linebackers
1's
ROLB – Michael Doctor
MIK – Joel Skotte
LOLB – D.J. Welch

2's
ROLB – Jaswha James/Shaydon Akuna
MIK – Shaydon Akuna
LOLB – Dylan Mafi

** Akuna may well end up being the handyman of the linebacker squad – He's long filled in where needed in practice, and it could translate into game time in 2013.

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