Friday, September 2, 2011

Position Breakdown 2011: Linebackers

Returning Lettermen: Kyle Knox, Travis Brown, Jeremiah Toma, Patrick Su’a, ShaTwn Plummer, Daniel Salinas, Damion Whittington, Stephan Plevney
Newcomers: Karl Mickleson, Jaamal Rose, Kyrie Wilson, Ejiro Ederaine
Lost: Ben Jacobs (Browns), Sonny McCree

Travis Brown: No. 9, No. 9 ...
Jr, 6-2, 235
Fresno (Clovis West HS)

After a freshman season spent mostly adjusting to the college game, Travis Brown emerged as a legit star last season. Brown, son of the late former Bulldogs defensive coordinator Dan Brown, is the team’s leading returning tackler with 79 stops (nine for losses), two sacks and an interception. He’s an all-around impact player who has the instincts and aggressiveness to get to the quarterback and the vicious hitting to be a force in the running game. Brown’s expected to step it up yet another level this year and contend for All-WAC honors in a conference loaded with linebackers. He continues to work on his speed, and last season became a playmaker while making strides in assignment discipline. And, of course, growing up in the Brown household, he’s developed a football mind and can lead this entire defense along with his top battery mate at linebacker.

Kyle Knox: Kyle Knox You Out
Sr, 6-1, 220
Los Angeles (St. Bernard HS)

That top battery mate is Kyle Knox, the most battle tested of the unit, and the team’s second leading returning tackler. Last season, specifically against nevada, Knox showed what he’s capable of. He’s always had the look, attitude, strength and athleticism to be a great linebacker, but struggled in years past to combine all those attributes with the decision making to excel. Last year, with the Bulldogs’ emphasis to turn the defense around against the dangerous WAC offensive schemes, Knox took assignment details to heart. Against nevada’s pistol read option, he stuck to his assignments and it paid off with a key 8-tackle performance that helped the Bulldogs do the best job they had against that offense in three years. And don’t discount the intangibles Knox brings to the team with his emotional leadership. He’s not afraid to stand up and let the team have it if he thinks they need a spark, as he did last season during a subpar practice.

Jeremiah Toma: It's Not a Toma (Arnold Voice)
So, 6-0, 215
Sacramento (Grant Union HS)

Typically when a defense loses a four-year starting middle linebacker it sends shock waves and takes a big adjustment for all involved. Well the Bulldogs just lost perennial All-WAC linebacker Ben Jacobs, but there’s no panic in sight. Jeremiah Toma showed he can compete at this level from the day he stepped foot on campus. He just had to wait for an opening. This is it, and he should have a stranglehold on the job from here on. Toma appears larger than his listed 215 pounds, with a strong, powerful lower body. But perhaps more importantly, Toma has the lateral speed and quickness that Jacobs never did. If he develops the same mind and plays with similar aggressiveness to Jacobs – which all signs suggest he will – Toma could actually be an upgrade at the position. Last season, with limited reps behind the proven Jacobs, Toma had 14 tackles.

Patrick Su’a: The Art of Kabooming People
So, 6-2, 220
Bakersfield (Highland HS)

For now, Patrick Su’a’s biggest impact will be felt on special teams – but that’s a darn big impact. Last year, in his first season on the field, Su’a had four knockout blocks in kick coverage. No joke. Knockouts. Fresno State fans, or any college football fans for that matter, may have never seen a special teamer like this. Su’a is a load with monster calves and one of the toughest sons of guns you’ll ever see on a football field. He had just one tackle last season in limited time on defense, but should get a much bigger look this year. Like Jeremiah Toma, Su’a only needs an opening to prove he deserves playing time. After that, he’s likely to take over a position. For now, he’s backing up Travis Brown on the strong side.

Ofa Fifita: Waiting in the Wings
R-Fr, 5-11, 235
San Bernardino (Arroya Valley HS)

Remember former Fresno State standout middle linebacker Dwayne Andrews? Well, Ofa Fifita is Andrews reincarnated – and not just because he wears the same No. 51. Size-wise, Fifita is almost identical to Andrews. And like Andrews, Fifita has impressed coaches early in his career. The one difference is the Bulldogs’ linebacking corps is much deeper now than it was in the middle of the decade. Fifita sits second on the depth chart behind Jeremiah Toma in the middle. But with Toma’s quickness, it’s not out of the question he could slide over to the weak side next year if Fifita is impressive enough.

Ed Dilihunt: What the Dealio with Dilihunt?
R-Fr, 5-10, 195
Tulare (Tulare Union HS)

We at the Bounce scratched our heads when the coaching staff moved Ed Dilihunt from safety to linebacker in the spring. Safety was already the thinnest spot on the defense and this exaggerated the lack of depth there. With the recent injury to Phillip Thomas, it’s not out of the question Dilihunt could eventually move back to safety, but for now he’s the second-string weak side linebacker behind Kyle Knox. Dilihunt has impressive size and build for a youngster, and was a highly regarded recruit. That said, he was more of a natural offensively with the ball in his hands and has spent the past year trying to learn the nuances of the defensive side of the ball. His athletic ability points to this project ending well for both Dilihunt and the Bulldogs.

Daniel Salinas: Dan the Man
R-So, 6-0, 215
Galena Park, TX (North Shore HS)

Another promising young linebacker who plays with a mean streak, Daniel Salinas didn’t dress all of last season. But he got some reps the year before and showed glimpses of an effective middle linebacker who possesses speed, quickness and a fearless attitude. Now sitting third on the depth chart behind Jeremiah Toma and Ofa Fifita, Salinas will have to battle his way back up that ladder. Until then, he can be a big-impact player on special team. This guys loves to hit people.

Karl Mickelsen: Soon to Be a Household Name
Fr, 6-0, 215
San Diego (Morse HS)

Speaking of guys who love to hit people, from the first day we at the Bounce saw Karl Mickelsen’s high school film, we were ecstatic. Talk about a playmaker. Mickelsen, on film, is probably one of the five most impressive Bulldogs we’ve seen. Ever. He arrived banged up for fall camp and spent the first several days rehabbing injury, but almost shockingly took first and second team reps his first day in full pads. This guy is a player and coaches wanted to see him work with the vets right away. It’s not clear yet if he’ll play this season or redshirt, but he’s the type of guy who runs around with his hair on fire (and it’s a whole lot of hair) hitting people hard. He wears No. 43 and has Troy Polamalu-like hair. YouTube him immediately. You’ll be glad you did. Watch his nose for the football and ability to quickly shed blocks and move to the next assignment.

Jamaal Rose: Roses Are Bulldog Red
Fr, 6-2, 200
San Jose (Valley Christian HS)

A guy who wasn’t expected to make an immediate impact, but had a standout fall camp, is true freshman Jamaal Rose. Rose has height and strength and held his own against the veterans. He’s another newcomer with special teams potential right now, and it’ll be interesting to see how Pat Hill decides to use him.

Kyrie Wilson: Hey Mr. Wilson!
Fr, 6-3, 210
Bakersfield (Ridgeview HS)

Kyrie Wilson was a late surprise near signing day for Fresno State fans. The Valley native had committed to oregon and got a royal backstabbing before changing his commitment to Fresno State. The Bulldogs are glad to have him. Tall, big and built like a veteran, Wilson is another linebacker who had a superb camp. He was impressive on a consistent basis and was the highest rated recruit at the position. That said, the unit is so deep and talent laden that Wilson might be better off redshirting for a year.

Damion Whittington: Is This the Year 'Dogs Get Whitty Wit' It?
So, 6-1, 245
Norco (Norco HS)

Damion Whittington entered the program as a hyped recruit and is still among the biggest Bulldogs linebackers. But Whittington is battling a plethora of young talent at the position. We know what to expect from him in practice, but it’s time to see him in game action. Hopefully he’ll fight his way onto the field this season so we can see him do just that.

Stephan Plevney: Walk-on Hangs Strong
So, 6-2, 215
Palmdale (Knight HS)

Walk-on Stephan Plevney might be the team’s fastest linebacker, but he’s also one of the slimmest. Plevney had his first career tackle last season, and got some quality second-team reps in practice throughout camp. He’s definitely in the mix of guys battling for playing time, and his speed works in his favor during an era in which fast, hybrid linebackers who can cover a spread or option offense are invaluable.

Shawn Plummer: A One-Year Hiatus
Sr, 6-0, 210
Clovis (Clovis HS)

Shawn Plummer still isn’t 100% from an offseason injury and is likely to redshirt this season. The would-be senior would have been second-string behind Kyle Knox, as he’s been for several years now. Already one of the team’s fastest linebackers and possibly the best in pass coverage, Plummer bulked up big-time this offseason and should come back from the injury ready to give it his best shot.

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