Slowly but surely, the UND football position by position breakdown chugs on. I’ve covered each offensive position, so we’ll move on to our first defensive spot.
As you’ve heard a million times, UND’s linebacking corps was crushed with injuries in 2017. Connor O’Brien kicked off the injury string with his retirement (concussions) in spring ball, followed by Noah Larson‘s knee injury in fall camp, Cam Hunt‘s injury in the offseason (or late last year … not sure?) and Donnell Rodgers‘ injury in Week 2 against Missouri State.
As a result, UND couldn’t stop the run, a previous cornerstone of a Bubba Schweigert-Eric Schmidt defense. UND’s linebackers are broken down between inside and outside in the 3-4, so we’ll first take a look inside where UND really needed to be better in 2017 in order to stop the run.
Maybe the best news? My predictive two-deep at inside linebacker features four players who played a total of eight games for UND a year ago. Maybe that sounds strange as a positive, but I think it is considering the results.
I see UND’s top four inside linebackers right now as Rodgers, Hunt, Larson and Everett Williams, a transfer linebacker from the University of Minnesota. In my last post, I outlined reasons to be optimistic about this grad transfer.
Hunt played in the team’s final six games last season as a redshirt freshman, making just 13 tackles but picking off two passes and passing the eye test athletically.
Larson, who will be a redshirt freshman in the fall, was in the running for a starting job inside last year before an injury derailed his progression. However, he wasn’t banged up enough to miss out on a ton of valuable practice reps throughout the season. No one wants to say it on the record for whatever reason but the ceiling is sky high for this kid.
Rodgers will be a junior next season and prior to the injury was an athletic upgrade from previous quality inside backers for the Fighting Hawks.
Let’s say one of these four is hurt in 2018 (crazy hypothetical, I know). Who else can push this group for playing time?
Jake Rastas picked up some valuable experience in 2017 and is probably the front-runner of the next group. After all, he did lead the team in tackles last season. He has the right mentality but is undersized a bit. Corby Richman played in some big packages on the goal line but has some athletic limitations. The question marks for me will be regional product Hayden Reynolds, who redshirted but was noticeable at times at practice, and incoming recruit Mike Bruner out of Wisconsin, a one-time Iowa commit who has the size required to play early in his career.
Moving to the outside backers, this group also was hampered by injuries. They were led by walk-on safety-turned-linebacker Tanner Palmborg, who was recognized as an all-conference linebacker a year ago.
Palmborg will be a senior and should be a lock at one outside spot. Junior-to-be Jade Lawrence is likely the starter opposite Palmborg. Lawrence played in nine of 11 games but was likely limited health-wise in a few others.
UND needs the backups outside to take a step forward as they enter their sophomore seasons. Ray Haas and Jaxson Turner have been promising prospects, but they need to up production in 2018 for the defense to really improve. Haas played in nine games and made 26 tackles, while Turner played in 10 games and had 38 tackles.
Turner took a try at safety to start 2017, but was moved back to linebacker because of injury. I anticipate Turner to stay at OLB to start 2018. I didn’t think he looked very comfortable on the back end in his limited time there.
UND’s most promising signees at linebacker (minus Larson and perhaps Reynolds) a year ago didn’t make a ton of progress throughout the season and don’t appear ready to crack the lineup, which furthers the need for Haas and Turner to become consistently reliable in 2018.
We’ll learn more here when spring ball starts. For example, I don’t have any base of knowledge on Dutch juco linebacker signee Tyron Vrede.
Any thoughts or questions? Maybe just want to make fun of me for the position breakdown lasting forever? Hit up the comments.