With the start of fall camp just about a month away, PowerMizzou.com revs up our month-long preview of one of the most anticipated seasons in Tiger history. The last couple of years, Missouri has won the Big 12 North and has been in the running for much more significant prizes. With a new cast on hand, and so many productive players having moved on, winning the division for a third straight season will be no easy task.
But just what does the competition look like? That's the question we are set to answer in this series of previews. For the next two weeks, PowerMizzou.com will break down each position for each team in the North, the Tigers included. We will rank each unit on a scale from 1-10. At the end of the series, we will tally up the scores (6 points will be awarded for having the division's best position group, down to a single point for the worst group in the North) and use those scores to give you our prediction for the order of strength in the division.
Today, we look at the division's linebackers. Teams are listed in the order of division finish from a year ago.
Last year's starters: The Tigers lose Brock Christopher from last year's group and he'll be tough to replace. Christopher had 105 tackles a season ago, second on the team.
This year's starters: Replacing Christopher will be Luke Lambert, who posted 58 tackles a season ago as a part-time starter. He will play alongside Sean Weatherspoon, who is hands down the best linebacker in the North and perhaps the best in the country. Spoon had 155 tackles, 18.5 for a loss, three interceptions and seven pass breakups a season ago. All four numbers led the team. Though the Tigers will run mostly two-linebacker sets with the proliferation of spread offenses, Andrew Gachkar is in line to be the third starter.
The Rest of the Depth Chart: Will Ebner, Tyler Crane and juco transfer Josh Tatum give the Tigers plenty of athleticism, but little proven depth.
Position Rating (1-10): 8: What the Tigers have that no one else does is a bona fide star at the position. Weatherspoon is the best linebacker in the league, and possibly the best defensive player. Lambert won't get a lot of pub because of Spoon's presence, but he's a solid backer in his own right who should have a chance to showcase his skills with Christopher gone.
Last year's starters: Phillip Dillard and Tyler Wortman combined for 74 tackles a season ago. Wortman is out of eligibility and from the sounds of things, Dillard might as well be. HuskersIllustrated.com wrote after spring ball that "For whatever reason, Dillard is just not in the plans for the defense right now as the Huskers head into 2009."
This year's starters: Sean Fisher and Matthew May drew high marks in the spring and will contribute. Blake Lawrence, Will Compton and Colton Koehler are in the mix for playing time as well. Right now, little is known about the position.
The Rest of the Depth Chart: Throw Matt Holt and Alonzo Whaley in the mix for playing time here as well. No position may draw as much scrutiny as linebacker during camp in Lincoln.
Position Rating (1-10): 3.5: There just isn't much to go on right now. The Husker backers could emerge and be very good, or they could be a big hole in the defense. Right now, there's just no one that is real proven in the group, other than Dillard who has apparently fallen out of favor. Bottom line, there are many more questions than answers right now.
Last year's starters: James Holt, Mike Rivera and Joe Mortensen combined for 288 tackles, 35.5 for a loss and 14 sacks last season. They are all gone this year.
This year's starters: Arist Wright made 33 tackles a season ago, best among the returning backers. Angus Quigley moves over from running back and is expected to start. The Jayhawk depth chart lists a 4-2-5 defense, so those look to be the starters.
The Rest of the Depth Chart: Justin Springer (15 tackles last season) and Jake Schermer are currently listed as the Kansas reserves.
Position Rating (1-10): 2.5: No single position group in the entire Big 12 North lost more than the Kansas linebackers. The school has become known for having a tough linebacking corps. After Mark Mangino lost the likes of Kevin Kane and Nick Reid a few years ago, he replaced them with as good a group as the North had in Holt, Rivera and Mortensen. There is a lot to prove before the Hawks get back that production.
Kansas State Wildcats
Last year's starters: Reggie Walker and Olu Hall combined for 68 tackles a season ago. Walker exhausted his eligibility and Hall was not listed on the Cats' spring roster.
This year's starters: Ulla Pomele was the second-leading tackler among the linebackers last season with 58 stops, including 7.5 for a loss. He is back to anchor the corps. Joining him in the lineup should be Josh Berard and Alex Hrebec, who led the linebackers with 68 tackles last season.
The Rest of the Depth Chart: Antonio Felder and John Houlik combined for 37 tackles last season and will provide some depth as KSU goes back to a 4-3 defense.
Position Rating (1-10): 4: The Cats do have some experience with Hrebec and Pomele, but they don't have a no-doubt star at linebacker. K-State's defense was among the nation's worst last year and the linebackers will have to make a giant step forward to improve the Cats' chances in 2009.
Last year's starters: Brad Jones, who had 78 tackles and a sack a season ago, is the only departed starter from 2008.
This year's starters: Marcus Burton, Jeff Smart and B.J. Beatty have potential to be one of the better crews in the league. Smart is the leading returning tackler with 118 stops to top the squad last year. Beatty and Burton did not play a ton last year, combining for 18 tackles, but got good reviews in the spring.
The Rest of the Depth Chart: The top three were good enough that it appears Shaun Mohler, who started a season ago, will be the top reserve. Mohler was second on the team with 97 tackles last season.
Position Rating (1-10): 6.5: This is one of the positions around the division that has the potential to be much improved from 2008. It has to be, as the Buffs gave up 166 yards a game on the ground. The backers will have to be good to help bring along an inexperienced line which we ranked last in the division.
Iowa State Cyclones
Last year's starters: Senior Michael Bibbs played in nine games and was the team's fourth leading tackler a season ago. The other two starters are back.
This year's starters: Jesse Smith was the Clones' second-leading tackler with 84 stops, including five for a loss. He also broke up six passes. Fred Garrin came in just behind Smith with 63 tackles, six for a loss, and two interceptions. Replacing Bibbs will be junior Justin Rumple, an Iowa native with virtually no experience.
The Rest of the Depth Chart: Josh Raven, Cameron Bell and Derec Schmidgall combined to make 52 tackles a season ago and give the Cyclones options if injury or ineffectiveness is a factor with the starters.
Position Rating (1-10): 4.5: Smith and Garrin are a solid duo, but the Cyclones were horrid on defense a season ago. ISU was among the nation's worst pass defenses, giving up 31 TD passes, and also allowed 176.2 yards a game on the ground. There is experience, but the fact is the returners will have to play better for Iowa State to improve.
Order by Position Rating (Points in Parentheses)
Iowa State (4)
Kansas State (3)