Remember our last coach?
Remember last year, when a reporter asked him at one of his weekly press conferences, if he planned to start any of our freshman, or second year linebackers?
Remember when he said it’s hard to trust those guys when they still aren’t sure of the difference between the A gap and B gap?
Remember pulling your f-ing hair out when you heard this?
If so, welcome to the 2023 Spring Position Preview: Linebacker edition.
It’s no secret our linebackers were abysmal last year.
Diaz couldn’t coach up SECOND YEAR players on which gap they needed to cover, the defense was chaotic, with no integrity, no edge-setting — it truly was backyard football, and made the linebacker’s jobs nearly impossible.
So we’ll get into a player by player breakdown for spring ball. But first, in order to give the linebackers a fair look, we have to discuss the coaching change.
Every single position coach is new on the defensive side. The D-line has Joe Salave’a, former Texas star Rod Wright, and NFL legend Jason Taylor (in an off-field role) helping them get better, the linebackers coach will be co-defensive coordinator CHARLIE STRONG, and Jahmile Addae, fresh off his time as cornerbacks coach with national champions Georgia, will serve as the DBs coach, likely with some off-field help from Demarcus Van Dyke. Overseeing all of this: Kevin Steele.
Before Steele joined Auburn for the 2016 season, there hadn’t been a top-45 scoring defense there since 2008. Then began a stretch of four consecutive years with top-20 scoring defenses.
Important for the Canes is Steele’s ability to increase production from players already on the roster. Like Deshaun Davis, a 3-star, 5’11” 235 pound linebacker, who barely played his freshman year before Steele, and wound up becoming a reliable contributor year after year, eventually drafted by the Bengals in 2019.
Also: Charlie Strong coached 44 future draft selections BEFORE his stints at Texas and USF.
So I’m guessing our Linebackers will know where to find the A and B gaps this year.
And all of them will have a chance.
All of them will start from zero.
6th year, 10 starts, 653 snaps. A consensus 3-star in 2017. At 6’0” 225 lbs, Waynmon has been plagued by injury, and last year, like all of our linebackers, when asked to step up, he underperformed. Will Steed’s veteran status help him win a role? With a full off-season and 4th quarter program under his belt, has his athleticism and durability changed?
I think Steed has reached his ceiling. He’ll be a rotational player at best.
5th year, 15 starts, 1,202 snaps. Gilbert has had some serious highs at Miami, but inconsistency has plagued his career. His decision to return for one last go, I think, is only going to benefit himself and the team. How has his body changed through the off-season? Has he added that next gear? Will he shine in a new system?
Frierson made the decision to come back for a reason. He’s going to break out this year. He’s got all of the physical talent, and Steele loves to use huge bodies creatively in the second level. In whatever that striker role is in the Steele defense, expect to see good things.
5th year, 22 games, 170 snaps. Ragone is a great member of the Hurricanes. He’s a glue guy, with great fight and toughness and love for his teammates. He’s one of those pieces that are vital for team chemistry, and honestly, last year, when called to duty, was one of the more consistent linebackers we had.
Ragone will fill a consistent role on special teams and will continue to be one of the positive voices on our team. If injuries aren’t an issue, we won’t see him taking snaps at the linebacker spot this season.
4th year, 8 starts, 558 snaps. What an enigma, Keontra. Last year, Smith was our only bright spot at LB, albeit, pretty dim at times. After his injury Keontra was plagued by the same mistakes, missed tackles, assignments, and poor gap integrity that the entire LB room suffered from. Can he find consistency in the new scheme? Undersized, can he find the speed and instincts he played with before his injury last year?
Smith has gone through a full offseason, and his injury will be a non-factor this year. I don’t know if he’ll be a starter for us, but he’ll have a consistent role and will find his stride in a more fundamentally sound defense.
Sam Brooks Jr.
4th year, 2 starts, 444 snaps. Brooks is one of our most physically imposing linebackers, with prototypical NFL size. The only problem: he hasn’t been healthy for years. And I still don’t think he’s healthy. We’ll find out for sure in spring, but I don’t think Brooks participated in the off-season program, which is a big step back for a player who could’ve used it the most.
Unfortunately, with a nearly two-year long injury, and no end in sight, I’m unsure if we’ll see Brooks on the field for the Canes again. By medical retirement, or transfer elsewhere, I predict Brooks is done with the Canes.
4th year, 15 games, 48 snaps. Huff is a lot like Brooks in his injury history, but unlike Brooks, he’s been able to go through an entire off-season and fourth quarter program, and looks completely transformed physically. He’s struggled with learning plays, and his comprehension of Steele’s defense will be a huge factor in his success this year.
Huff finally puts all the pieces together. At 6’3” 230ish LBS, he gives the Canes the size, speed, and strength they need to stop the run, cover the middle of the field, and apply pressure. If he can learn the playbook, this could be a breakout year for a finally healthy, gifted player.
Corey Flagg Jr.
3rd year, 12 starts, 787 snaps. Flagg is a player you know well by now. He was our feature inside linebacker last year, for better or worse, and was plagued by the same inconsistency as everyone else. With a full off-season under his belt, can Flagg improve his speed and athleticism?
We’ve seen Flagg’s ceiling. I think Cristobal, Steele, and Strong seek and find a knockout inside linebacker in the transfer portal after spring ball, and Flagg becomes a solid rotational player.
3rd year, 11 games, 46 snaps. Tirek has unfortunately been taxed by injuries his entire career, and I don’t think he’s been through the off-season program this year. We just haven’t seen much of him to know his upside, and I think that trend continues.
Tirek either steps up, or gives up. I think Tirek could easily transfer elsewhere, or be the name you hear who has stepped up into a solid rotational player.
2nd year, 7 games, 98 snaps. Smith was our beacon of hope at linebacker at the end of last year, and then he got hurt. Now he’s missed at least some of the off-season, and may have to sit out spring ball. If Smith went through training and the 4th quarter program, I would’ve expected him to fight for a starting spot.
Smith gets healthy by summer, and slowly builds his way into a rotational player with high upside by the end of the year. And maybe he breaks out.
2nd year, 2 games, 13 snaps. We know little about Troutman, other than he is most likely one of the guys that couldn’t find the A and B gaps last year.
With a full off-season, a new scheme, and a blank slate, it’s possible Troutman could have a heavy presence in the defense this year, just behind a new transfer ILB.
2nd year. To be honest, I don’t know much about Johnson, other than he’s the little brother of former Canes star Jaquan Johnson, and I haven’t heard much about his development since he entered the program.
Someone has to step up. Maybe it’s Johnson. We’ll find out more about him and where he fits in the defense when spring rolls around.
1st year. We all want Bissainthe to break out like James Williams and Kinchens did last year, and usher in a new level of play at the linebacker spot for the Canes. And I think it’s possible. He had surgery, but participated in most of the off-season program, and is as capable of being a starter this year, and a future star for the canes, as anyone in the program.
Bissainthe could be slower to develop than we all hope, while learning the ins and outs of life as a college athlete. Next year he’ll be my favorite to breakout.
In the end, I think we lose at least one, maybe two linebackers to the portal, but I predict Cristobal will go find a solid inside backer that can start for us. Troutman and Flagg split snaps on the inside with the new transfer. Frierson dominates in that hybrid DB/ linebacker role. Keontra Smith finds consistency and contributes often. Avery Huff surprises everyone and excels on the outside.
Linebacker play will vastly improve, but will also remain the biggest area of weakness and need for the Hurricanes. Instead of ineptitude, expect toughness, solid fundamentals, and still, a clear need for more star power at the LB position.