Over the next month I'll preview every position for MSU football leading up to spring practices. I'll break down who is expected to start, who will fill the backup roles, who could be a sleeper, and issue a positional grade based on overall talent/experience and previous performance.
Today we look at the linebackers, a position that took a blow with Beniquez Brown entering the draft but one that is loaded with young talent. Classification is based off what the players will be for the 2016 season.
Expected starters: RSo. Gerri Green, RSr. Richie Brown, Jr. J.T. Gray
If new defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon wants his best linebackers on the field, it will require a position change. The MLB spot is loaded with Green, Brown, and Leo Lewis. I expect Green to end up on the outside because he has the athleticism to make a smooth transition. This spring will be the first indication as to what the coaches have planned for the physical freak of nature from Greenville, MS. It's been rumored he could end up at defensive end, but if he stays at linebacker, you'd be hard pressed to find a better two-deep than what MSU will put on the field next season.
Richie Brown is the most underrated linebacker in the SEC. He tallied 109 tackles, 13 TFL, and 6.5 sacks in replacing former All-SEC and MSU middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney. The scary part is he's still evolving as a tackler and I could see him improving on those stats next season. J.T. Gray is one of my favorite players to watch. His style resembles former MSU standout Matt Wells with his speed and diverse skillset of stopping the run and also locking down wide receivers. Gray finished fourth on the team with 65 tackles, and that was coming off the bench. He was all over the field in the Belk Bowl and finished with nine tackles and a sack.
Next in line: RJr. Traver Jung, RFr. Leo Lewis, RJr. Dez Harris
As much as fans hated Geoff Collins' 1A/1B philosophy in 2014, that's exactly the plan Peter Sirmon should have in place for this year's linebackers. All three of these guys are quality SEC linebackers and would have a chance to start for the majority of teams in the league. Former JUCO transfer Traver Jung has big time speed -- he's been clocked at a 4.4 in the 40 -- and he redshirted last season due to MSU's linebacker depth. The same can be said for Leo Lewis, a player who would have started day one for MSU in years past. The former four-star and No. 1 inside linebacker recruit in the country gives MSU one of the best middle linebacker rotations in college football. Dez Harris is another player in the Matt Wells/J.T. Gray mold that coaches have raved about since he got to campus. The key for Harris is staying healthy -- he's suffered season-ending ACL injuries two years in a row.
Don't sleep on: Sr. Deandre Ward
Ward filled in after Harris was injured and collected 17 tackles on the season. He won't be talked about much in a star-studded group of backers, but he's seen more playing time each year during his career. He went from a special teams player to cracking the two-deep by the time MSU played North Carolina State in the 2015 Belk Bowl.
Position grade: A
There's plenty to like with this group. There's a good mix of older players who have already proven it on the field and younger players who project to be equally as productive with more snaps under their belt. I'll be keeping up with the linebackers closer than any position this spring. Will Green move to the outside? Is Harris recovering from his injury? Will we see packages of Green, Brown, and Lewis on the field at the same time? There's plenty of questions to be answered and multiple players that deserve first-string reps. It's a wonderful problem to have.