Texas Tech starts spring football practice Wednesday. This is the ninth in a series of spring previews, looking at the inside linebackers.
Even though Texas Tech struggled against the run during the second half of Big 12 Conference play last season, Will Smith was usually doing his part. The Tech linebacker had a big senior season with 120 tackles, 101/2 tackles for loss and 41/2 sacks on the way to being named first-team All-Big 12 by the writers who cover the league.
Now the Red Raiders have to replace Smith, but they’ll go into spring practice with some experience at the two inside linebacker spots in their 3-4 defense. Sam Eguavoen, who started every game at middle linebacker last season, will move to Smith’s weak inside linebacker spot, and Micah Awe, a rotation regular, will take over at middle linebacker.
At weak inside linebacker, Eguavoen is backed by sophomore Malik Jenkins, redshirt freshman Kahlee Woods and junior Bobby Esiaba. In the middle, Awe is backed by incoming transfer V.J. Fehoko and redshirt freshman Caleb Woodward, the latter being converted from outside linebacker.
There’s no proven depth, but the Red Raiders have a starting point with the first-teamers’ experience and quickness.
“Will Smith had a big year for us, and a lot of his plays were just effort,” said defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt, who coaches the inside linebackers. “Eguavoen will be more athletic, and Micah’s fast. Both those guys are fast, so it should be a good combination.
“And I’m going to be curious to see what V.J. does, and I think Malik Jenkins is going to be a really good player here. He’s just young.”
Eguavoen, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound senior, was the third-leading tackler on Tech’s 8-5 Holiday Bowl winner, making 70 stops with 61/2 behind the line.
“I thought he was very solid,” Wallerstedt said. “Even when we were struggling, he was still a guy that he’s not overly flashy, but steady. All of his numbers, every week as far as grading out, he graded well. He’s a smart player. He knows what’s going on.”
The 5-10 Awe has increased his weight to 223 pounds after starting last season at 212. The junior from Mansfield Summit has played in every game the last two seasons and was sixth on the team in 2013 with 58 tackles.
Now he’ll get his first chance to start. In Tech’s scheme, the middle linebacker plays to the wide side of the field and is asked to cover more ground than the weak inside linebacker, whose pass drops are into the boundary. So the Red Raiders will be trying to put Awe’s speed to use by playing him in the middle.
It’ll be interesting to see how he handles the extra 10 to 12 pounds he’s gained.
“Down in and down out, getting used to running around with that kind of weight, it’s going to be a good spring for him,” Wallerstedt said. “We’re running hard right now (in offseason conditioning), but as fast as our offense goes, just getting into a rhythm of playing with that type of weight should be good.
“He’s an aggressive kid, and I think he’s maturing in his voice. Like I’ve said all along, I thought as he continued to get older and earned respect, I think he’ll be a really, really good leader here.”
The powerfully built Fehoko (5-11, 225) has some of the best weight-room strength on the team. He could help against some of the teams that bulldozed the Red Raiders with the running game last season.
The brother of former Tech linebacker Sam Fehoko transferred from Utah, where he made 30 tackles as a part-time starter in 2012 and 20 tackles as mostly a backup in 2013. Fehoko graduated from Utah at mid-term with a year of eligibility remaining, so he doesn’t have to sit out a year.
“He’s a very intense kid that’s training hard and has a good impact-type body,” Wallerstedt said. “I think he’s going to be real aggressive.”
Jenkins, from Ennis, and Woods, from Sherman, and Woodward, from Leander, all signed with the 2013 class. Jenkins got onto the field right away, mostly on special teams, and made eight tackles in 12 games. Woods redshirted and underwent arthroscopic surgery during the season to clean up knee cartilage.
“Jenkins has traveled around the Big 12 and got experience, so I think as he continues to mature that’ll be good,” Wallerstedt said. “Kahlee is a kid that, at Sherman High, I think he was (going) a lot off of just natural ability. He comes in raw, but he’s a sponge right now. He’s learning as we go. He was very productive in some scrimmages we had with our young guys through the course of the season, and then he got set back with that knee.”
Woods was back from the surgery in time to participate in Holiday Bowl workouts, however.
Woodward, who trained in the fall at Raider outside linebacker, is switching to the middle this spring. He could be an option in nickel packages.
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