Preview: Linebackers

A team's overall success often depends on the play of individual units. In a series of articles as a new season approaches, UConnReport staff writer Pete Sonski evaluates each unit on the Huskies' 2013 team and ranks it among other teams in the American Athletic Conference.
In many things in life there is no middle ground, but in football there's a lot - and it's a linebacker's role to defend it. UConn typically uses a 4-3 set, relying on four linemen to pressure the quarterback and be the first element of run defense. Linebackers usually are called on for additional run defense, pass coverage of the opponent's tight end and running backs and to disrupt plays in the backfield with blitz tactics.
Projected starters
Yawin Smallwood (Jr)
Ryan Donohue (Sr)
Graham Stewart (So)
Key Reserves
Jefferson Ashiru (So)
John Hicks (Fr)
Brandon Steg (Jr)
Omaine Stephens (Fr)
Marquise Vann (So)
Jon Wholley (3rd year)
Huskies fans lament the loss of Sio Moore (72 tackles, eight sacks, 15.5 TFLs) and Jory Johnson (95 tackles, 6.5 TFLs) from the linebacking corps. The grief over those two losses will be tempered by the return of Yawin Smallwood (120 tackles, 15 TFLs, four sacks and two forced fumbles), who was a first team All-Big East selection last year. Smallwood, easily among the league's elite players, should contend for 2013 defensive POY honors. There's a lot of talent behind him too, even if lean on experience.
Ranking: UConn vs. The American
1. Cincinnati - The Bearcats are the best hands down with three outstanding backers: Greg Blair, (Florida State transfer) Jeff Luc and Nick Temple.
2. Louisville - Preston Brown and Keith Brown head this unit, along with James Burgess and George Durant.
3. Rutgers - Jamal Merrell returns to a unit that lost a lot of talent. Waiting in the wings for a chance to start are Kevin Snyder, Steve Longa and Quanzell Lambert.
4. UConn - This is one unit that, even with the turnover, the Huskies can rely on to dominate play on the defensive side of the ball.
5. Houston - The Coogs have a lot of talent in Derrick Matthews and Trevon Randle. Steven Taylor could start as a redshirt freshman.
6. Temple - Stratford's (St. Joseph HS) Tyler Matakevich, a true freshman last year, earned FWAA Freshman All-American honors as well as 2012 Big East Rookie of the Year and second team All-Big East. The Owls also return starters Nate D. Smith and Blaze Caponegro.
7. USF - DeDe Lattimore and Reshard Cliett return as starters. Zack Bullock should also start for the Bulls.
8. Memphis - The Tigers have a veteran unit in Anthony Brown, Charles Harris and Ryan Coleman. Kendrick Golden or Kewan Alfred could start in Memphis' 3-4 scheme.
9. UCF - The Knights will have Terrance Plummer in the middle, likely flanked by Troy Gray and Willie Mitchell.
10. SMU - Though at the bottom in the rankings the Mustangs have a commendable unit with Stephon Sandors, Randall Joyner, Kevin Pope and Robert seals in their 3-4 configuration.
This UConn unit should see little drop off in production despite the key losses mentioned above. The Huskies have recruited this position well in recent years. Not only is there talent but the group is healthy. Smallwood missed spring ball due to a shoulder injury but is back to full participation. This is a group that the coaching staff and fans should depend on to provide stability and be the heart of a strong defensive unit.
Previous articles in the series:
">Offensive Line Preview
Defensive Line Preview
Receivers Preview