Central Michigan spring football: Which linebackers will arise to help replace Fountain, Briones?
This is the seventh of a series of nine Central Michigan position group previews entering spring football practice, which begins March 19. Today's edition focuses on the linebackers. For more, check back with Central Michigan Life over the next week.
Quarterbacks – March 4
Running backs – March 4
Wide receivers – March 5
Tight ends – March 5
Offensive line – March 6
Defensive line – March 6
Linebackers – March 7
Defensive backs – March 7
Special teams – March 8
Of the tackles made by Central Michigan's defense in 2018, linebackers Malik Fountain and Alex Briones accounted for 27 percent of them. Add Trevor Apsey into the mix and 33.2 percent of all tackles were made by linebackers.
However, new CMU coach Jim McElwain has a major issue on his hand – Fountain, Briones and Apsey have graduated and will not return for 2019.
Even though there are a number options to fill the void, it comes down to finding the right group of players. The linebacker positions are up in the air and players are going to need to prove themselves in spring ball and fall camp.
Expect ample rotation between different sets of players before McElwain and linebackers coach Mark DeBastiani find a core group trustworthy of seeing the field once the regular season begins.
Oliver must lead
Senior Michael Oliver has the most experience right now, but he needs to take on the role of a leader for the unit to flourish. For his entire CMU career, he was able to rely on Briones, Fountain and Aspey to carry the weight.
This time around, it's Oliver's room to help DeBastiani manage. But in order to lead, Oliver has to be ready for the task, something the coaching staff will quickly find out once spring practice gets underway.
Oliver, who has been around since 2015, put up 31 tackles, two tackles for a loss and one sack last season. In 2017, as a redshirt sophomore, he had 68 tackles, two tackles for a loss and one pass defended.
The 6-foot, 235-pound linebacker started six of the 11 games he appeared in during the 2018 campaign.
More reps coming for Brown
Redshirt sophomore Troy Brown played a decent amount in the dime and nickel packages in 2018, so he's right behind Oliver in terms of experience. He made 15 tackles, one interception, one pass defended and one forced fumble.
With Briones and Fountain out of the way, Brown should be looked upon to take a heavier workload. He played in 10 of CMU's 12 games last season, starting one of them.
Brown is going to have to step up as a starter, or at least a rotational player with starters minutes, for CMU to see success at the linebacker position.
Who else fills in?
Oliver and Brown are just two individuals, and a group of linebackers usually consists of three. There are a number of players who will compete for the third spot and time in the rotation behind Oliver and Brown, but the only real reps they've accumulated to this point is on special teams.
The players expected to fight for the final starting spot, along with backup opportunities, are redshirt freshman George Douglas, senior Christian Mercer, redshirt sophomore Andrew Ward, redshirt freshman Chuck Jones and redshirt freshman Nick Apsey.
Of the group, Apsey impressed the old coaching staff last year in camp before injuring his wrist. Ward was a three-star linebacker who originally went to Nebraska, then transferred to CMU prior to the start of the 2018 season.
The Chippewas have two incoming freshmen linebackers in Logan Guthrie, an early enrollee, and Justin Whiteside. Since Guthrie enrolled early, he's already in Mount Pleasant and will be around for spring practice.
Guthrie holds the Alpena High School record in career rushing with over 2,700 yards, and he tied the program title of 27 tackles in a game. He earned all-state honors from the Associated Press and Detroit News as a senior.
Since the linebacker room is extremely dry, expect the 6-foot, 218-pound Guthrie to put up a battle in spring and fall camp. And don't be surprised if Guthrie makes some noise.