When I say, "linebacker," you think of DeDe Lattimore, right? So do I. Well now he is in the frozen wasteland of Illinois, trying to become a Chicago Bear (and all the best to him). Lattimore had been at USF since the Leavitt days and had 48 solid starts at linebacker, so it's hard to imagine the linebacking corps without him. Just last season Lattimore made 98 tackles, forced four fumbles and got a pick. Watching him flatten Teddy Bridgewater at midfield was a bright spot in all of last year’s misery. Long story short, Lattimore leaves USF with a crucial gap to fill.
This season defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan has introduced a 3-4 defense, so on a lot of plays there may be two middle linebackers out there. This should be fun to watch, as it will make the defense more versatile and unpredictable. The depth chart still lists the front seven as 4-3, but what do preseason depth charts really mean anyway?
Coming into this season the guys taking over in the middle do not have much experience, but they do have a lot of talent. Junior Tashon Whitehurst looks to be a starter even though he had just six tackles last season. He played in ten games on special teams and as a second string linebacker. Whitehurst is fast and athletic, but has yet to be truly tested in the grueling role of middle linebacker. So far the highlight of his career has been this glorious punt block against Florida State in 2012:
Covering the middle next to Whitehurst will be redshirt freshman Auggie Sanchez. The coaches talk about him like he’s a godsend, although he hasn't seen any college action yet. Apparently Sanchez really has a sixth sense for football, which is what has helped him switch back and forth from fullback to linebacker (both in high school and at USF). Sanchez will definitely get playing time this fall and is projected to develop into a vital part of the Bulls tomorrow.
If Whitehurst and Sanchez can't read the offense and challenge the running game, you may see Hans Louis, LeGrande Harley or Ruben Garcia come in. There are also a whole host of true freshman options, including the versatile Jimmy Bayes.
USF is in good shape regarding outside linebackers. Reshard Cliett has recovered from shoulder surgery and is back for his senior season, where he'll play on the strong side. There's no reason to doubt Cliett’s abilities as he has good lateral movement, reads passes well, is a good tackler and not a bad blitzer. Last season he had 56 tackles which was second most on the team.
Junior Zack Bullock will probably back up Cliett on the strong side. He mostly played on special teams in 2013, but did post six tackles. Bullock is a decent second string option: he is one of those tough, hard-working guys who stays on his feet and keeps fighting until the play is over.
On the weak side you will see one of two guys: Nigel Harris or Rahmon Swain. Harris is a sophomore and one of last year’s starting linebackers, with 35 tackles. His best game was against FAU in which he forced a fumble and made 12 tackles. Swain is a senior who is good at reading the quarterback in pass coverage.
A standout freshman linebacker would be a pleasant surprise; who wouldn’t like to see the next Dede Lattimore emerge this fall? Whatever happens with the new 3-4 scheme and some 14 linebackers on the roster, this will be an interesting position to watch.