While the 2018 NFL season is about to get underway with training camp and the preseason, the 2018 college football season kicks off in a little more than a month and so begins the path to the 2019 NFL Draft.
Over at NFL.com, Lance Zierlein had a positional preview looking at linebackers both inside and outside. Given how much we’ve discussed the linebacking corps for the 2018 Los Angeles Rams, I thought it would be a fair entry point for starting college football discussions.
With ESPNU running down their top 25 games of 2017, there have already been a couple of these names in action (they showed the LSU- Troy game featuring LSU ILB Devin White pictured above as well as Kentucky OLB Josh Allen in action against Florida). Worth keeping these in mind over next two weeks in case you catch any of these guys.
Here are a handful of linebacking prospects I’m eager to see this year as potential future Rams with the watchlist for the Butkus Award, awarded to the best linebacker in college football, to be released today:
Alabama OLB Anfernee Jennings, ILB Mack Wilson
Alabama’s linebacking corps last year was hit hard by injuries by season’s end, and perhaps none loomed larger for 2018 than Jennings who hurt his knee against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and thus didn’t play in the national championship against Georgia. He underwent surgery soon after and by all accounts has healed in fine condition since. He’ll be the tenured leader on the linebackers as Alabama sent both of their inside backers to the 2018 NFL Draft: Rashaan Evans at 22nd overall to the Tennessee Titans and Shaun Dion Hamilton at 197th overall to Washington. That leaves two spots open at one of the best school/position marriages for the NFL of the last decade, and I’d expect Wilson to be star there this year alongside Dylan Moses.
When to watch: While Wilson was also injured having broken his foot, he should be in top shape for their season opener against the Louisville Cardinals on September 1.
Michigan LB Devin Bush
Rams fans might recognize the name since his father, Devin Bush, Sr., played for the Rams for two years from 1999-2000 in the middle of his eight-year NFL career.
Devin Bush, Jr., will be looking for a similar level of praise coming out of college as his dad who was drafted with the 26th overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft out of Florida St, and he might well earn it. The younger Bush was a beast as a true sophomore in 2017 replacing former Michigan S and now Cleveland Browns S Jabrill Peppers as the Wolverines’ defensive star. While last season was a disappointment in Ann Arbor, it wasn’t for their defensive efforts. If Ole Miss transfer QB Shea Patterson (and some coaching carousel movement) can change things on the offensive side while lacking a stellar O-line, Michigan might well be in the hunt this year giving Bush a pedestal to show off.
When to watch: With the Michigan-Ohio St. rivalry looming on November 24 just two days after Thanksgiving, that pedestal might stand as tall as it did for that historic matchup in 2016.
LSU ILB Devin White
Kentucky OLB Josh Allen
The contest for the SEC’s best linebacker might come down to these two mentioned aboce (though I’m sure Alabama’s aforementioned offerings will want to be in the convo).
White might be the conference’s best pure inside linebacker while Allen might be the best 4-3 OLB. While it might have been fun to compare both in the same game, these two cross-divisional SEC teams won’t face each other this year. And while Kentucky Head Coach Mark Stoops has pulled UK out of the Joker Phillips years, this LSU team might be one of the most fascinating in years even if (or especially if?) they continue to disappoint under Head Coach Ed Orgeron.
When to watch: LSU’s season opener against Miami on Sunday, September 2, should be must-watch stuff.
Clemson ILB Kendall Joseph
The 2016 sidekick to Clemson’s former heart and soul in ILB Ben Boulware (whose NFL career bounced from the Carolina Panthers’ to the San Francisco 49ers’ practice squads and may already be over), Joseph always had the skill and technique that matched up perfectly with Boulware’s commitment and personality.
Which means NFL teams are going to covet Joseph more.
The son of Haitian immigrants, Joseph’s story is one of perseverance and determination and the same kind of commitment off the field that Boulware was often praised for on the field. His graduation last year and the clear pride he had that day was a fine example of as much. Match that kind of personal story up with his on-field game, and you can envision Joseph going early next spring after passing on the 2018 draft.
When to watch: Fans might want to gear up to see him this year. Clemson won the national championship with Deshaun Watson at the helm two years ago. Last year, they fell short in the semifinals. This year returning so much talent (especially on that D-line that’s at least four-deep with NFL talent), they’re going to be in the hunt for postseason action again...but a Week 2 non-conference game in College Station against Texas A&M? Oh, hell yes.
Wisconsin ILB T.J. Edwards
Edwards’ story is one of the marriage between talent and coaching. He nearly quit playing football in his freshman year in high school to focus on playing golf, but his coaches pulled him back in. After graduating HS as a dual-threat QB, he was recruited by Wisconsin to play linebacker. The coaching staff, especially then Wisconsin’s Defensive Coordinator and Inside Linebacking Coach Dave Aranda who is now LSU’s Defensive Coordinator and Linebacking Coach, was adamant they could help him succeed in the position switch.
Suffice to say, it worked out.
Now headed into his redshirt senior season, Edwards is one of the most productive linebackers over the last three years. Combine Wisconsin’s linebacker pipeline with the tutelage he’s soaked up over the years (and necessarily so given the position switch out of high school), and you can see the pedigree being built for a NFL transition.
When to watch: It depends on how the Big Ten shakes out this year. Their non-conference schedule is Wisconsiny, so look for matchups with Michigan in mid-October and Penn St. in mid-November as standout opportunities.
USC ILB Cameron Smith
Huge production jumps every year portend something big for 2018...and that would be something giving how productive he was last year with a team-high 112 tackles. Perhaps a bit limited athletically, but we’ve seen tons of inside linebackers succeed at the NFL level with his skill set. As long as he stays healthy, he’ll be in the mix. His performance at the combine next February will be a huge factor in determining the true limitations of his athleticism.
When to watch: Stanford or Texas early? UCLA or Notre Dame late? Yes!
Miami LB Shaquille Quarterman
OUTSTANDING freshman season perhaps set the bar too high in 2016. That he didn’t raise the bar could be seen as disappointing, but perhaps that was settling in. He’ll be a true junior this year, and if Head Coach Mark Richt can continue to resuscitate the program this year, we could see another jump from Shaq.
When to watch: The ACC schedule is inviting, but the season opener against LSU in Jerryworld as mentioned above is just too isolated and intriguing.
Michigan St. ILB Joe Bachie
Much like Wisconsin linebackers, do you really need to get overly concerned with Spartan linebackers at this point?
After a nightmare 2016, MSU got back to basics last year with a 10-win season and a bowl win over Washington St. As for Bachie, he continued his ascendancy after his 2016 year in which he took over for former MSU ILB and now Tampa Bay Buccaneers Hard Knocks star ILB Riley Bullough. Now, he’ll be looked to continue to lead the defense after being voted team MVP last year.
When to watch: The answer is of course against Michigan on October 20, but you should get plenty of Spartan football in your diet this year as Ohio State and Penn State loom. But perhaps the most interesting game of their season and one of college football’s sneakiest most interesting games of the year? Week 2, primetime on September 8 as Michigan State takes on Arizona St. under new Head Coach Herm Edwards in a strange, weird and very lovable cross-conference matchup.
Mississippi St. EDGE Montez Sweat
Sweat could have joined Bachie above in a deadly Michigan State duo, but he left the team...well, I’m not sure why. It was a bit of a muddled departure after the tight end-turned defensive end left for “personal reasons” to land at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi in 2016. A year later? He was a heavily sought after edge rusher for 2017 landing with the Bulldogs and absolutely tearing it up in the SEC. At this point he’s a much older prospect, but given his 2017 season he could nevertheless be one of the country’s best.
The issue here might be one of position. Is he a 3-4 OLB or a 4-3 DE? That’ll be a key issue for NFL coaching staffs next year, but if his 2018 season is anything like 2017 let alone better, it’s an issue they’ll be happy to look into.
When to watch: Take their October SEC-only slate: Oct. 6 against Auburn, two weeks later against LSU, and/or (and, please) Oct. 27 against A&M.
New Mexico St. OLB Terrill Hanks
What in the hell is going on in Las Cruces?
For 57 years, NMSU built up the country’s largest bowl drought. And then last year...they didn’t suck! Under Head Coach Doug Martin, who spent a long spell as Kent State’s HC, the Aggies put together a winning record topping Utah St. in the spanking new Arizona Bowl. They even had a player drafted for the first time since 2013 in 2018 NFL Draft fourth-round pick WR Jaleel Scott who heads to the Baltimore Ravens as a huge downfield body.
And now comes Hanks. Productive? Yes. Isolated? Yes. Skilled? Yes. So was Scott. Can he break through the sand ceiling of Las Cruces to attract attention in chile country? Yes. But don’t ignore the chiles (PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: HATCH CHILE SEASON RUNS FROM EARLY AUGUST TO LATE SEPTEMBER AND YOU SHOULD CRAM SEVERAL INTO YOUR FACEHOLE THIS YEAR AND EVERY YEAR).
But yeah, Hanks can play. His only issue is size. He won’t be able to work as a 4-3 end and maybe not even as a 4-3 OLB, so 3-4 OLB it is.
When to watch: On the football merits, I wouldn’t suggest it. For fun? Back-to-back rivalry matchups against New Mexico and UTEP in September could be fun. Or look for me in the stands in late October when they travel to San Marcos to take on the Texas State Bobcats. No, seriously.
The Los Angeles Rams are headed into a season full of expectations and excitement. But beyond this season is the requirement to reload regardless of how things shake out this year.
For the linebacking corps, change abounds. And it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see TST humming about a couple of these guys next spring.