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2014 Position Previews: Linebackers

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Hoping to get through the rest of the Baylor defense and special teams before we kick off SMU coverage next week, it's time to look at the linebackers.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With the defensive line now behind us, today's Position Preview turns to the first position of real concern on our defense for probably 90% of Baylor fans: linebacker.  There, we return one starter from 2013 and will have to replace another, having lost Eddie Lackey's steady playmaking to graduation.  Thankfully, we have an abundance of young talent here as most other places, and several players are vying for rotation time next to Hager in our 4-2-5 defense.

One note before we get right to it: like last year, I'm excluding our nickelback or "Bear" position from the definition of linebacker despite the fact that they do similar things and have similar expectations.  I think it makes more sense, this year especially, to talk about the nickelbacks as their own beast.  That means today's post will be all about our two linebacker spots, MLB and OLB.

Eligibility Remaining
No. Player Year Ht/Wt. Position 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
44 Bryce Hager
SR 6-2/235 MLB
5 Grant Campbell
JR
6-1/225 LB
55 Baylor Black
SO
6-1/200 LB
20 Aiavion Edwards
SO 6-1/225 MLB
16 Kendall Ehrlich
SO 6-1/225 OLB
45 Xavier Phillips
RS-FR 6-1/215 OLB
52 Raaquan Davis
RS-FR 6-2/225 OLB
11 Tyler Young
RS-FR 5-10/225 MLB

In making this chart, I am somewhat at the mercy of our roster in terms of who slots where.  For the linebackers, that means that since 2014 recruits James David and T'Kevian Rockwell didn't make it to Baylor, and Jamie Jacobs (DE) and Cordell Dorsey (NB) are playing elsewhere, we don't have any true freshman LBs.  It's an interesting spot to be in, and it sheds a little light on why Baylor is so intent on taking at least 2, hopefully 3, linebackers in the 2015 recruiting class.

With Hager coming back and reportedly looking like his old self again, the big question at this position is who replaces the departed Lackey and his 108/13/4.5 line from last season.  As of this moment, the answer appears to be Edwards, a converted HS safety who played in 12 of 13 games last season.

Bryce Hager -- SR -- #44 -- 6-2, 235 pounds

The undisputed leader of the Baylor defense is the senior Hager, who will enter his third year as a rotation player after missing the last few games of last season with a groin injury.  Hager is possibly the most-known quantity on the Baylor defense; he has over 200 career tackles as a Bear, including a conference-leading 124 in 2012, and has started 19 games. His full stats:

Tackles Def Int Fumbles
Year School Conf Class Pos G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int Yds Avg TD PD FR Yds TD FF
*2011 Baylor Big 12 JR LB 13 8 5 13 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
*2012 Baylor Big 12 JR LB 72 52 124 9.5 4.0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 2
*2013 Baylor Big 12 JR LB 46 25 71 2.5 1.0 3 0
Career Baylor 126 82 208 12.0 5.0 0 0 0 4 0 0 0 3
Provided by Sports-Reference.com/CFB: View Original Table
Generated 8/18/2014.

There's not much more to be said.  Before his injury, it appeared that Hager had improved significantly in pass coverage, the one big question remaining his breakout year in 2012.  There's no doubting his capabilities in run support due to size and straight-line speed.  He's a smart player that Bennett has described as the QB of our defense, and we were significantly better when he played last season than when he didn't.  With a strong line in front of him to keep him clean of blocks, I'm looking for a huge 2014 statistically and in his impact on the field.

Grant Campbell -- #5 -- JR -- 6-1, 225 pounds

It seems obvious now, as it did when they signed him, that Baylor brought in Campbell, a JUCO transfer from California, to replace Lackey, a JUCO transfer from California.  They realized we had a need when Lackey left for an athletic playmaker at LB, so they found Campbell on the West Coast and gave him Lackey's #5.  The only real fly in the ointment is Campbell's actual position; our coaches seem undecided so far on whether he's a MLB or OLB in our system, so they are apparently trying him out at both places.

Regardless where he eventually ends up this season, Campbell is an extremely important player for Baylor in 2014.  With how much Bennett seems to like him, it seems a foregone conclusion that he will be a rotation player at one of the two spots.  We just don't know which one.

Baylor Black -- #55 -- SO -- 6-1, 200 pounds

Considering Baylor has Baylor listed as a sophomore this year, and I had him listed as a sophomore on last year's chart, one of us is obviously wrong unless Baylor somehow repeated a year at Baylor.  I'm going to go ahead and assume it is me, since it's probably me.  I just don't know how long Baylor has been at Baylor or will continue to be at Baylor.  The most interesting part about Baylor, I think, is that he transferred from Mary Hardin-Baylor, so Baylor is actually the second Baylor that Baylor has attended.

Before you ask, he's a walk-on that probably will play sparingly, if at all.  He did not play last season, which could mean that he was actually redshirting and neither Baylor nor I were wrong about how long Baylor had been at Baylor.

Aiavion Edwards -- #20 -- SO -- 6-1, 225 pounds

The first of our pair of 2012 LB recruits whose surnames start with the letter "E", Aiavion Edwards is one of the most intriguing players on Baylor's 2014 defense for a number of reasons.  The first is opportunity: with Eddie Lackey gone, we need someone to step up immediately at OLB.  The second is ability: Edwards is a converted HS safety, giving us at least some reason to believe he can cover down the field.  With relative uncertainty at NB and the way we play our OLBs, that will be important.  The third is experience: Edwards played in 12 of 13 games last season, racking up the following stats:

Tackles Def Int Fumbles
Year School Conf Class Pos G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int Yds Avg TD PD FR Yds TD FF
*2013 Baylor Big 12 FR LB 16 4 20 3.5 1.5 1 0
Career Baylor 16 4 20 3.5 1.5 1 0
Provided by Sports-Reference.com/CFB: View Original Table
Generated 8/18/2014.

At this point, it's reasonable to assume that Baylor begins the 2014 season with Hager and Edwards the starters at LB.  If that's the case, I'm honestly pretty happy with it.  Edwards has tremendous physical skills as evidenced by his team-leading 710-pound squat. Of course, it's possible that someone like Young or Davis steps up to take the job away from Edwards, but we won't know about that until it happens.

Kendall Ehrlich -- #16 -- SO -- 6-1, 225 pounds

The subject of quite a few transfer rumors this summer, when it looked like he might be passed up by some of the freshmen, Ehrlich is the second of our "E" sophomore linebackers and the likely backup, along with Campbell, at MLB.  I always thought it was interesting that we didn't see Ehrlich, Lackey's nominal backup last year if memory serves, when Hager went down and Lackey moved over.  Instead, we saw Sam Holl move from NB before Brody Trahan stepped in.  Even now, I'd love the opportunity to ask Bennett how all that worked out, since it directly impacted the way our defense played the last few games and indirectly shows (perhaps) what the staff thought of both Edwards and Ehrlich at that point.

As for 2014, it seems likely that we'll see Ehrlich at some point this season with the second defense unless he falls behind Campbell in the competition in camp.

Xavier Phillips -- #45 -- RS-FR -- 6-1, 215 pounds

Raaquan Davis -- #52 -- RS-FR -- 6-2, 225 pounds

Taylor Young -- #11 -- RS-FR -- 5-10, 225 pounds

I'm grouping these three guys together because they seem to be in about the same place.  Redshirt freshmen all, one of these three guys is likely to be your backup OLB this season.  We just don't know which.  Of the three, it seems Young and Davis are likely to receive significant time this year; they were listed in the post-spring depth charts as a co-backups and had 10 tackles between them in Baylor's scrimmage this past Saturday.  I'm not entirely sure what that means, since Edwards, the presumed starter, had zero.

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I'm running out of momentum here, so I'll conclude this pretty simply: unlike a year ago when we had both starters returning and their likely backups firmly in place, what we don't know about the LB spot probably outweighs what we do for 2014.  We know we have Hager, and he's a beast when healthy.  Those are always good to have leading your defense.  Next to and behind him, though, only questions.  Can Aiavion Edwards go from being a physical freak to a solid starter at OLB?  Is Grant Campbell the Heir Apparent at MLB or does he catch on somewhere else?  Which of the freshmen OLB steps up to make an impact?  We'll find out together.