When Texas Tech defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt was hired in January, he inherited a group of linebackers untouched by graduation. The starters, the backups, you name it, they’ve played a good bit.
They just didn’t make hardly any big plays last season.
And that was nothing new.
“I know that’s been a knock since I got here is the linebacker play hasn’t been as productive as it needs to be,” Wallerstedt said last week. “It’s certainly been addressed from early on in spring, and we’ve challenged that whole second level to play well this fall.”
With Tech going to a 3-4 as its base defense, Wallerstedt will coach the inside linebackers and co-defensive coordinator Mike Smith will take the outside linebackers, the same unit he coached last year with the New York Jets.
Wallerstedt and Smith are part of Kliff Kingsbury’s new staff. Their personnel are all holdovers. Going into preseason practice, which starts Aug. 3, Micah Awe and Will Smith are the first-teamers at middle and weak-side linebacker, respectively. Blake Dees backs Awe, and Sam Eguavoen and Zach Winbush are behind Smith.
That’s not set in stone. Wallerstedt told the group he considers all the jobs still open. He did allow that he expects the two starters to come from Awe, Smith and Eguavoen, based on what he saw in spring.
From that subset, Awe might have the highest ceiling. The 6-foot sophomore’s biggest obstacle is needing to bulk up: Awe played last season at 210 pounds and coaches’ target weight for him is 220-plus. He’s topped 215, but struggles to keep the weight on.
Nevertheless, former Tech coach Tommy Tuberville loved what he saw from Awe during the latter’s short stints as a true freshman, and Wallerstedt can see why.
“His issue is just playing time and size right now,” Wallerstedt said. “He’s very aggressive, very fast. He’s going to be, in time, a good leader here. He’s a very emotional player that brings a lot of energy to the field. I love his attitude.
“As he gets established and starts making plays for us, I think he’ll be a big voice in the locker room.”
For the most part, Awe stayed at middle linebacker and Smith at weak linebacker during the spring, while Eguavoen and Dees trained at both.
After arriving from a California junior college last year, Smith was fourth on the team with 55 tackles, and that’s second to All-Big 12 defensive tackle Kerry Hyder among this year’s returnees.
“Starting in the fall here, he’ll probably run with the ones,” Wallerstedt said of Smith, “but nothing’s in cement. He was very solid, very eager. He’s a kid that’s always asking questions and comes in on his own time, trying to spend extra time watching film.
“He understands this is his last go-round, and he wants to produce. He has aspirations of playing at the next level. He understands that in order to do that, he’s going to have to have a good season.”
Eguavoen was right behind Smith with 52 tackles in 2012 and impressed Wallerstedt during the March and April workouts. The junior could end up starting at either inside linebacker spot, Wallerstedt said.
Eguavoen is more of a finesse player than physical, Wallerstedt said, and he showed promise this spring with blitz calls.
“Sam’s a guy that’s just got a knack of finding his way through traffic and making plays,” Wallerstedt said. “He’s not going to make eye-popping hits all the time, but he’s making plays and tackles for losses. Some of that stuff we’ll be doing at the second level and bringing different looks should give those guys opportunities to make plays in the scheme.”
That would be a welcome development. Among Tech’s five returning inside linebackers, none had a sack, an interception or a fumble recovery last season, and Dees had the highest tackles-for-loss total with two.
In the new scheme, Tech’s weak-side linebacker will play to the tight or boundary side of the field with the middle linebacker to the wide or field side. That might sound counterintuitive.
“Off the base 3-4, when people hear mike (middle) linebacker, they think of an old-school, big (middle) linebacker,” Wallerstedt said. “That’s not the case in this package.”
That being the case, Kahlee Woods, a prototype run-stuffing inside type, is penciled in with the weak-side linebackers, and rangy and athletic Mahlik Jenkins will begin training in the middle. They’re freshmen signees.
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Depth chart: Inside linebackers
Middle linebacker: Micah Awe, So.; Blake Dees, Jr.; Kris Williams, Fr.; Malik Jenkins, Fr.; Garrett Carter, Fr.
Weak-side linebacker: Will Smith, Sr.; Sam Eguavoen, Jr.; Zach Winbush, Jr.; Kahlee Woods, Fr.
Seniors lost: None
Departures with eligibility remaining: Daniel Cobb (transferred to Louisiana Tech); Justin Cooper (transferred to Samford).
Best spring: Awe, Eguavoen and Smith all had their moments, but Eguavoen grasped concepts quickly and showed playmaking potential. “He started playing very well and being very productive when we blitzed him and making a lot of plays,” defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt said. “He kind of emerged. He could end up starting like he did two years ago.”