December 27, 2007

Season-in-review: The UT linebackers

As we continue our final breakdown of the 2007 season for the Texas Longhorns, we'll take a look at the linebackers. With three starters returning and a host of young playmakers coming up through the ranks, this was one of the most discussed areas of the team in 2007. Did they live up to expectations? We're going inside to find out.

Linebacker

Scott Derry (Senior)

Expectations - After a solid junior season in 2006, most expected Derry to give the Longhorns a solid effort in 2007. The only question was whether or not he could hold onto his starting position because of the presence of several younger, more talented players coming up through the program.

Reality - Derry held his starting position all season and the results were disappointing.

Stats - 67 tackles, four tackles for loss, one interception, two quarterback hits and one forced fumble.

Best game - Derry recorded eight tackles, an interception and forced a fumble in a win over TCU in September.

Bottom Line - Unlike a lot of players in the program, Derry was able to tap into every ounce of talent in his body, but he was never able to get beyond being a solid player. When you look at his body of work and realize that he didn't record a single sack or have a hand in any created turnovers in the final 10 weeks of the season, you'll start to realize why the defense wasn't very good. As great of a guy as Derry is off the field, there's little evidence to support him being a major contributor on the field.

Robert Killebrew (Senior)

Expectations - After two years as a starter, Killebrew was projected as a possible starter, especially with Sergio Kindle having been suspended for most of the first month of the season, but almost everyone felt like there was a chance he would lose his position before the end of the season.

Reality - Killebrew ended up starting all 12 games, despite the fact that he didn't make any noticeable improvement from the last two seasons as a starter.

Stats - 54 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, two quarterback hits, zero forced fumbles and zero fumble recoveries.

Best game - Killebrew had six tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss in the win at Oklahoma State.

Bottom Line - Just like Derry, Killebrew's physical limitations created a ceiling for him that he just couldn't rise above. He was a solid player that the coaches swear didn't make many mistakes, but he also made few plays. If you're a starting player and you don't make plays to help win games, it's hard to justify a large amount of playing time. At the end of the day, the stat sheet shows that Killebrew failed to create a single turnover this season and he didn't make a tackle for loss in 10 of 12 games.

Rashad Bobino (Junior)

Expectations - After starting the last two seasons, most felt like Bobino would start at middle linebacker this season, even if sophomore Jared Norton was bigger, faster, stronger and breathing down his neck for more playing time. As the "emotional leader" of the defense, Bobino seemed locked into his position heading into the season.

Reality - Bobino started all 12 games and ended up having a very average season.

Stats - 69 tackles, four tackles for loss, zero sacks, five quarterback hits and one interception.

Best game - There's not really a game that jumps out at you this season, but Bobino did record 10 tackles against Oklahoma State.

Bottom Line - There's just no excuse in the word for your starting middle linebacker to have fewer tackles and tackles for loss than one of your cornerbacks (Ryan Palmer), especially when the linebacker in question is going into his third year as a starter. That Bobino only made a play in the other team's backfield once every three games provides some serious justification that the team needs to look for an alternative solution to the middle linebacker position in 2008. If you aren't a playmaker, you don't need to be on the field.

Roddrick Muckelroy (Sophomore)

Expectations - Throughout the off-season, Texas head coach Mack Brown talked about how much the defense missed Muckelroy after he suffered an early season injury that robbed him of almost the entire season. With so much praise coming from Brown, it seemed impossible to think that a healthy Muckelroy could be kept off of the field.

Reality - Muckelroy played in a reserve role all season, despite providing more size, athleticism or playmaking abilities than any of the three starters.

Stats - 64 tackles, four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery.

Best game - Most of the Longhorns can't chalk up the A&M game as a sterling moment, but Muckelroy recorded 10 tackles, three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in the loss in College Station.

Bottom Line - A strong case can be made that Muckelroy is the team's best overall linebacker and he should have bumped someone, anyone, out of the line-up because he's an obvious upgrade over any of the upper-classmen. As the Longhorns move forward into 2008, Muckelroy is an obvious choice as a starter at one of three starting positions.

Sergio Kindle (Sophomore)

Expectations - After a disappointing freshman campaign, the expectations were high for Kindle, but they were also tempered after an incident in the off-season led to a three-game suspension to start the season. Still, everyone in the program agrees that Kindle is the most physically talented linebacker on campus and his playmaking abilities were definitely needed. The hope was that Kindle would eventually replace Killebrew in the line-up if he was able to play with more consistency.

Reality - After missing the first few games of the season, Kindle showed flashes of brilliance, but injury issues limited his effectiveness down the stretch.

Stats - 30 tackles, four tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks.

Bottom Line - There aren't many players in the program that have the talent that Kindle possesses, but the Longhorns have allowed themselves to get caught up in a pickle as it relates to his development. On one hand, Kindle needs to be a more consistent player if he's going to see starter's snaps, but on the other hand he needs to be on the field more to gain the experience needed to become a consistent player. The suspension and injuries hurt his development, but his growth was also stunted by the staff's decision to play average upper-classmen in front of him. As the Horns head into 2008, they still have more questions than answers when it comes to this immensely talented player and that failure to get more out of him falls directly on the shoulders of the coaching staff.

Jared Norton (Sophomore)

Expectations - With Bobino in front of him on the depth chart, the improving Norton was expected to play a limited role this season, regardless of his talent level and upside.

Reality - Norton was a very good reserve linebacker, who outperformed the starter in front of him at times.

Stats - 49 tackles, three tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble.

Bottom Line - See Muckelroy and Kindle. There's just not an excuse that can justify leaving a bigger, stronger, more athletic player off the field in favor of a player that has started for multiple seasons and failed to emerge as an above-average player during that time. Until Norton starts to see more playing time, the staff is just wasting his eligibility. As it stands, he might be the best middle linebacker prospect Brown has ever signed and he might only have a chance to start for one season if recent history has taught us anything.

Dustin Earnest (Redshirt freshman)

Expectations - With Kindle out of the line-up because of the suspension, Earnest moved into the two-deep early in the season, but most expected Earnest to have a very limited role this season.

Reality -Earnest was a virtual non-factor this season.

Stats - Four tackles.

Bottom Line - Earnest has been a solid performer in practices, but he's been held back because of the numbers game at the position. As he heads into his sophomore season next year, he should have a chance to see more playing time.

Keenan Robinson (Freshman)

Expectations - As the state's top linebacker prospect in 2007, Robinson was a player that possessed a lot of talent, but barring a surprise, it was expected that he would take a redshirt this season.

Reality - As expected, Robinson redshirted.

Bottom Line - The coaches probably made the right call with Robinson this season because as talented as he is, he probably wasn't going to push any veterans off the field, which would have meant that he would have wasted a season of eligibility had he seen action this year. Look for Robinson to compete for immediate playing time in 2008 because he has the most speed and athleticism of any linebacker on the team, with the possible exception of Kindle. If the coaches can help him develop, he has a chance to be a special player.

Overall thoughts

This group proved to be the poster child for everything that was wrong about this Texas team this year. For all of the talk of returning starters and up-and-coming young players, there wasn't a single linebacker that played at an elite level. Were the right players starting? That's a question that will be debated for months, if not years, by Longhorn faithful. The bottom line is that this position terribly underperformed this season. There were just too few difference making plays from a group that had almost a decade's worth of starting experience under its belt.


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