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UVA Football Position Preview: Linebackers

Previewing a group with solid experience and some young talent.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 05 North Carolina at Virginia Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the years, the Virginia Cavaliers football program has had many great linebackers. Going back to Chris Slade, through James Farrior, Ahmad Brooks, Clint Sintim, Charles Snowden, and finally Nick Jackson, Virginia’s leading tackler in each of the past three seasons. Jackson has transferred to Iowa, leaving a hole in the Virginia defense.

In many ways, this Virginia defense doesn’t really emphasize the linebackers. After all, there’s two linebackers listed on the depth chart. But in some ways, this defense is all about the linebackers. As mentioned Nick Jackson, at middle linebacker, was the leading tackler (by a wide margin) a year ago. Also, the two hybrid positions are linebackers…sometimes.

Bandit is a defensive end/linebacker hybrid, while Spur is a linebacker/safety hybrid. In both cases, this is a player who is really not a linebacker lining up where a linebacker would line up. We won’t cover those guys in this piece. They play the role of a linebacker at times, but they aren’t linebackers and really they need their own space.

If you watch games from last season, there isn’t always a ton of difference between the middle linebacker and weakside linebacker in this defense.

This is a first down, early in the game against Illinois. Virginia leads 3-0. This is a 4-2-5 defense. The two linebackers are both lined up in the B-Gap on the tackle’s inside shoulder. The two have basically the same role on this play. The play comes to the defense’s right side, towards the weakside linebacker, who ends up making the stop.

In general, both linebackers are primarily responsible for filling any holes created by the OL, and bringing down the ball carrier before they get through that hole. Each linebacker takes responsibility for half of the field.

Here’s another example. This is a pass play. It looks like Nick Jackson, at middle linebacker and at the top of this play, has the short zone on the strong side. James Jackson, at weakside linebacker, has the weak side of the field. Nick gets the RB, and the QB takes off. James Jackson reads it and makes the play for a minimal gain.

Obviously, it isn’t that simple. There are plays when the two linebackers have different jobs. Blitzes, pass coverages, etc, will differ from play to play. After just one season, it is difficult to discern a huge difference in what the two positions are asked to do. Nick Jackson piled up the tackles. Was that the role or the player? It’s impossible to know, but regardless Jackson’s loss will be felt.

The Starters

At weakside linebacker, James Jackson returns after starting six times last year and seeing action in all 10. He was third on the team in tackles, though he provided just 1 sack and 1.5 TFLs. Solid, but far from spectacular. Throughout camp, we’ve heard some linebackers discussed quite a bit, but nobody is talking much about James Jackson. Still expect him atop the depth chart though.

Josh Ahern has basically been Nick Jackson’s understudy for three years now. But he also started four games last year at weakside linebacker, next to Nick. He also started once at middle linebacker, next to James. (A benefit of Nick Jackson leaving for Iowa is less confusion when talking about two linebackers with the same last name.)

Anyway, Ahern has been a steady performer when on the field, but he’s missed time in every season due to injury. He does not have the speed that Nick Jackson has, nor does he have the experience that Jackson has. He’ll open the season as the starter with some big shoes to fill.

Some Actual Depth?

One name to watch is Langston “Lex” Long, who started six games at safety last season. He has moved to linebacker, where his speed and coverage skills will be a plus, though his size (6’3” 220) will not. Don’t be too surprised if Long starts against Tennessee, even if he’s not on top of the depth chart. Virginia needs to get speed onto the field, and Long is faster than either Jackson or Ahern.

A couple of the more hyped younger players on this roster are slotted at linebacker. Both Kam Robinson and Trey McDonald have been getting a ton of hype during camp. Robinson is Tony Elliott’s highest rated recruit, and had a ton of offers. By all accounts, he’s looked very good in camp and is picking up the defense quickly. McDonald saw limited action as a true freshman last season, but has also been getting rave reviews from coaches and media during camp.

Both of these guys should see the field early, and if the Tennessee game is a blowout, as expected, they should see garbage time snaps in the season opener. There isn’t a whole lot else at linebacker.