The depth of the linebacker corps has taken its share of hits this past week due to injuries. Nate Fellner is out at least four weeks with a broken foot, Thomas Tutogi suffered a sprained knee that will keep him out at least a week and probably more, Garrett Gilliland left the program, while Taz Stevenson has missed the last two practices with a head injury and Princeton Fuiamaono sat out on Saturday’s practice with unspecified injury.
That meant the linebackers running with the first team defense were sophomore John Timu, Jamaal Kearse and converted safety Evan Zeger. Redshirt freshman Scott Lawyer also worked in with the ones, while true freshman Cory Littleton and Blake Rodgers and walk-on transfer Stetson Shearer were running with the second-team unit. Depth is an immediate concern right now.
Coming into the season, I thought the position would have its question marks. Obviously, last season Timu, Kearse and Princeton Fuiamaono were up and down – indicative of their inexperience. But the addition of the three safeties – Fellner, Zeger and Stevenson – would give the outside backer spots some speed. All three added some weight to adjust to playing the position. But I did think, the group was more talented. The converted safeties brought athleticism to the position.
But now? Fellner will likely miss the first game and possibly the second. We still haven’t heard an exact timetable on Tutogi’s or Stevenson’s return. The missed practice time is a concern for both Fellner and Stevenson, who are both still learning the position. Tutogi was one of the two linebackers in their jumbo package and one of their best run-stoppers.
Timu has looked solid this season playing more in the middle. He’s bulked up and doesn’t play with the hesitancy he showed last season. But it’s preseason too.
The immediate reaction would be to switch another safety to linebacker to add to the depth. Who would it be? Logically the best candidate would be Shaq Thompson. At 6-2, 215, he is probably the biggest of the safeties, and he’s shown the ability to play well close to the line of scrimmage. His speed to the ball carrier is better than just about anyone on the team. He’s been seeing time in the first team nickel and dime personnel packages where he’s playing up as more of a linebacker.
When asked about Fellner, Stevenson and Zeger making the transition, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said, “the things we are asking aren’t any different than a down safety.”
So really Shaq could make that transition.
Sarkisian said that the staff would do a total evaluation of the first week and possibly look at any position switches on Sunday.
“We’ll do a real analysis tomorrow as a staff and looking at our personnel, our schemes, what we’re doing, is our schemes fitting our personnel? Or can we fit the personnel differently to make our schemes even better,” he said on Saturday. “We’ll look at our depth across the board at every position, there might potential of guys moving around a little bit, potentially some guys doing some double duty work on both sides of the ball, so they might be switching over a little bit next week. All of that stuff will get diagnosed and decided tomorrow.”
Will we see Shaq at linebacker tonight at 7 p.m.? I wouldn’t be surprised to see him work in a few reps there as a precaution. Sarkisian has always maintained they have to get the best 11 players on the field. I think they want to keep Shaq as comfortable as possible. But Wilcox is creative enough to find ways to make it work. If the injuries continue to build, if Fuimaono or Stevenson’s injuries are more serious than first thought, then it’s certainly possible.