Football season is fast approaching, so for the next few weeks the BTD staff will be previewing the best players at each position that are on Oregon State’s schedule in 2018.
Today we’re going to run down the toughest linebackers the Beavers will face.
#5 - Ohio State (Baron Browning, Tuf Borland, Malik Harrison, Keandre Jones)
Ohio State had a fantastic group of linebackers last year, but their top two players are gone, and its time for the next generation of Buckeyes to step up.
Baron Browning is the big name to watch in this unit. Browning was the top ranked linebacker in the Class of 2017, and it’s time to see if he merits that ranking. In his true freshman season, Browning saw time on special teams, but after a fantastic spring training spent playing linebacker, it looks like its time for him to join the defense.
If he does, it may be at the expense of Tuf Borland. Borland finished 2017 as the starting MLB, but an Achilles injury during the spring means he may not see the field right away, leaving an opening for Browning.
On the outside, Malik Harrison and Keandre Jones are expected to start. Neither player was a full time starter last year, but both have experience. Jones is another former top recruit who’s had to bide his time on special teams. Harrison has had actual gametime as a linebacker, so there’s a good chance he’ll be the closest thing this unit has to a veteran.
If this unit lives up to his potential, they could be one of the strongest groups of linebackers in the country. Potential doesn’t win games though, so they’ll have to prove it on the field. Oregon State will be the first team to see this unit, during their season opener on September 1st in Columbus.
#4 - Stanford (Bobby Okereke, Joey Alfieri, Casey Toohill, Sean Barton)
Stanford is bringing a very experienced unit of linebackers to the field in 2018. They’ll need to perform very well to make up for a defensive line that is questionable at best, and a secondary that has been depleted by the NFL draft.
Bobby Okereke is the best player in the unit. Okereke was an All Pac 12 Honorable Mention last year, and has a well rounded set of skills. He had 96 total tackles, 7.5 for a loss, and 4 sacks. He also was a skilled pass defender, with 2 pass deflections and an interception he ran 52 yards back for a touchdown.
Who he’ll be paired with Inside is a big question. Sean Barton was the starter at the beginning of last year, but went down with an injury after three games. Mustafa Branch filled it, but also went down to injury later in the season. Both are expected to share the role in 2018.
Joey Alfieri filled in at ILB while the team was struggling with injuries, but if all goes well he’s expected to be focusing on playing Outside this season. Alfieri has been an All Pac 12 Honorable Mention the last two years, regardless of where he’s been playing, and shifting back to his natural role as an OLB will likely help his performance this year.
The starting unit will likely be rounded out by Casey Toohill. Toohill will need to step up his game, but has shown promise as a playmaker. He totaled 21 tackles last year, with 4 for a loss, and one sack.
Stanford’s defense is going to have a lot of questions in 2018, and they’ll be relying on the experience of their linebackers to carry them. Oregon State will get a chance to take them on November 10th in Stanford.
#3 - Oregon (Troy Dye, La’Mar Winston Jr., Justin Hollins, Kaulana Apelu)
Oregon’s defense took a big step forward in 2017, but it still needs to improve if they want to challenge for the Pac 12 championship. They’re linebacker unit is one place they need to improve, but they the tools to do so.
Inside Linebacker Troy Dye is the heart of the unit. Dye has emerged as the best pass defending linebacker in the conference. He’s been the Ducks leading tackler in each of the last two seasons, with 107 in 2017. He deflected 5 passes, and grabbed one interception. To cap off his season, in the Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State, he grabbed a fumble and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown.
Oregon also sports a very good tandem of OLBs, with La’Mar Winston Jr. and Justin Hollins. Winston had 49 total tackles, with 8 for a loss, and two sacks. Meanwhile, Hollins had 59 total tackles, 11.5 for a loss, and 3.5 sacks.
The big question for this unit is who lines up next to Dye. Kaulana Apelu brings a veteran presence to the position, but he struggled with injuries last year. The other option is Isaac Slade-Matautia, a redshirt freshman who had an impressive spring. Expect to see both of them early in the season before they settle on a starter.
This isn’t the deepest unit in the conference, but the players at the top of the depth chart are incredibly disruptive, and can generate big plays. The Beavers will take on the Ducks in this year’s Civil War in Corvallis on November 23rd.
#2 - USC (Cameron Smith, Porter Gustin, Jordan Iosefa, John Houston Jr.)
Cameron Smith is the best individual player on any of these units. Smith has been an absolutely monster in all of his years as a Trojan, and his performance in 2017 was masterful. He finished the season with 112 tackles, half a sack, a fumble recovery, and an interception. And one kick return.
Smith, now in his senior year, is the undisputed leader on the defense, but he’s not the only great linebacker on the team. Smith’s fellow ILB, John Houston Jr., had his first season as a starter in 2017, and was very impressive. He totaled 84 tackles, 3.5 for a loss, and 1.5 sacks.
On the outside, the most interesting player to watch is Porter Gustin. After a tremendous season in 2016, in which he was a Sophomore All American Honorable Mention and an All Pac 12 Honorable Mention, with 68 total tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, and 5.5 sacks. Unfortunately, in 2017 he struggled with injuries, playing in only four games. If Gustin is ready to play this year, he adds a huge pass rushing dimension to USC’s defense.
One final player to keep an eye out for is Jordan Iosefa. Iosefa doesn’t have the stats of the other players mentioned, but he brings a tremendous amount of versatility to the unit. He started games at ILB and OLB, and was also a big contributor on special teams.
This unit will go as far as Smith can take them, but with the crew he’s got behind him, he should be able to take them a long way. The Beavers will take on the Trojans on November 3rd in Corvallis.
#1 - Washington (Ben Burr-Kirven, Tevis Bartlett, Benning Potoa’e, DJ Beavers, Ryan Bowman)
Washington has the best defense in the Pac-12 by a large margin. While their linebacker corps has lost a couple big names from last year, there’s still an incredible amount of talent and depth on this team.
Leading the charge is Inside Linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven. Burr-Kirven has been getting better every year of his career, with 34 total tackles in 2015, then 44 in 2016, and finally 84 in 2017. He also forced two fumbles and grabbed one sack last year. That season, his first year starting, he earned All Conference Second Team honors.
He wasn’t the only Huskie to receive honors. Tevis Bartlett, also an ILB, was an Honorable Mention for last year’s All Pac 12 list. Bartlett came up with 48 total tackles, 4 sacks, and 2 interceptions in 2017. Expect him to drop back into coverage more, while Burr-Kirven focuses on run stopping and pass rushing.
There’s also quite a bit of depth on the inside. DJ Beavers should ably backup Burr-Kirven, if healthy, and Bartlett can be spelled by Brandon Wellington. Beavers was hurt for much of last year, but in 2016 he was good for 40 total tackles, a forced fumble, and an interception. Wellington meanwhile managed 9 tackles for a loss and 1 sack in 2017.
On the outside, there are a few other big names to watch. Benning Potoa’e is the big name to watch for the pass rushing OLBs. Potoa’e was a highly touted local recruit, and in 2017 came up with 27 total tackles, 5 tackles for a loss, and 3 sacks. He’ll have some challenge for the Buck Linebacker position, as walk-on Ryan Bowman, had an even more impressive year, with 32 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, and 5.5 sacks.
The strong side position is the only one that doesn’t have potential All-Conference Players (yet), but this is an incredibly deep and very scary unit. The Beavers will take on the Huskies in Seattle on November 17th.