April 21, 2012

Miami the obvious choice for Linebacker U.

One look at our Position U. series reveals how much of an impact Miami players have made in the pro ranks. Nowhere is it more evident than at linebacker.

Using only former Miami players, you could put together a linebacker corps that would be the envy of just about any NFL team. In fact, the toughest part of the job would be deciding who to leave out of the starting lineup in a typical 4-3 alignment.

LINEBACKER U. 2012
Our choice: Miami.
Who they've sent: Spencer Adkins (Atlanta Falcons), Jon Beason (Carolina Panthers), Tavares Gooden (San Francisco 49ers), Ray Lewis (Baltimore Ravens), Colin McCarthy (Tennessee Titans), Rocky McIntosh (free agent), Darryl Sharpton (Houston Texans), Jonathan Vilma (New Orleans Saints), D.J. Williams (Denver Broncos)
Who's next: Sean Spence is a projected third-round draft pick next week.
Why we picked them: Lewis is a future Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest linebacker of his generation, while Beason and Vilma have earned three Pro Bowl invitations each. Williams has been a starter throughout his career, while McCarthy is the Titans' projected starter at middle linebacker in 2013. McIntosh, currently a free agent, has made 67 starts for the Washington Redskins over the last five years.
Other finalists: Georgia Tech (Dallas' Keith Brooking, Washington's Keyaron Fox, Miami's Gary Guyton, Jacksonville's Daryl Smith, Oakland's Philip Wheeler), Maryland (Philadelphia's Moise Fokou, Minnesota's E.J. Henderson, Minnesota's Erin Henderson, Cleveland's D"Qwell Jackson, Seattle's Adrian Moten), Ohio State (New England's Bobby Carpenter, San Diego's Na"il Diggs, San Francisco's Larry Grant, Green Bay's A.J. Hawk, free agent Ross Homan, St. Louis' James Laurinaitis, Philadelphia's Brian Rolle, Miami's Autin Spitler), Penn State (San Francisco's Navorro Bowman, Dallas' Dan Connor, St. Louis' Josh Hull, Dallas' Sean Lee, Jacksonville's Paul Posluszny, Tennessee's Tim Shaw, Miami's Cameron Wake), USC (Houston's Brian Cushing, Cleveland's Kaluka Maiava, Green Bay's Clay Matthews, Cincinnati's Rey Maualuga, Seattle's Michael Morgan, New York Giants' Keith Rivers, Seattle's Malcolm Smith, Carolina's Thomas Williams).
Candidate you might not have considered: FCS program Maine has produced linebackers Jovan Belcher and Stephen Cooper, who have combined for 721 career tackles. Cooper, who spent most of last season on injured reserve, has recorded 502 tackles for the San Diego Chargers since 2003. Belcher has compiled 219 tackles in his three-year career and has spent his last two seasons in the Kansas City Chiefs' starting lineup.
Future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis is a given for one starting spot. The other two starting assignments likely would go to three-time Pro Bowl selections Jon Beason and Jonathan Vilma. That means we'd have to leave out D.J. Williams, who has collected at least 114 tackles in four of his eight pro seasons.

Williams would form a rather solid second-team unit with Tennessee Titans starter Colin McCarthy and free agent Rocky McIntosh, who has made 471 tackles in his six-year career.

And that wouldn't even include Spencer Adkins (Atlanta Falcons), Tavares Gooden (San Francisco 49ers), Darryl Sharpton (Houston Texans) or incoming rookie Sean Spence.

"The list just goes on and on," McCarthy said. "It says a lot about the program and how the position of linebacker really stands out as far as players from Miami making it to the NFL."

If that group doesn't seem imposing enough, consider how strong it would have looked before injuries prematurely ended the career of Dan Morgan.

That kind of all-star lineup is what helps bring top linebacker prospects to Miami every year. McCarthy said he selected Miami in part because of the school's history of sending players to the NFL.

"It seemed like every year they had a first-round pick, they had guys getting drafted and you'd see in the NFL how much success they were having," McCarthy said. "I think especially, just from high school and going to college, your overall goal is to play in the league. I felt ... if I wanted to play in the NFL, Miami would be a great opportunity for me."

Lewis obviously represents the greatest example. The No. 26 overall pick in the 1996 draft has earned 10 All-Pro honors and 13 Pro Bowl invitations in his remarkable career. He was named the NFL defensive player of the year in 2000 and 2003.

But he certainly isn't the only star linebacker to come from Miami.

Beason earned three consecutive Pro Bowl invitations from 2008-10 before a torn Achilles tendon in the Carolina Panthers' 2011 season opener knocked him out for the rest of the year. Vilma, who also has been named to three Pro Bowls, has exceeded 100 tackles in six of his eight pro seasons. Vilma led the NFL with 169 tackles in 2005.

Williams has been a steady starter for the Denver Broncos since beginning his pro career in 2004. McCarthy, a fourth-round draft pick last year, replaced an injured Barrett Ruud in Tennessee's starting lineup as a rookie and performed so well that the Titans allowed Ruud to leave for the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent.

Miami has continued producing quality NFL linebackers while undergoing numerous coaching changes.

WHAT'S POSITION U.?


The Position U. series is our attempt to determine which schools provide the most NFL talent at each position. We will analyze a different position just about every day up until the April 26 start of the NFL Draft. For the purpose of this series, we only took into consideration players who were still active as of last season.
April 13: Quarterbacks
April 14: Running backs
April 17: Offensive tackles
April 18: Guards/Centers
April 19: Pass rushers
April 21: Linebackers
April 23: Cornerbacks
April 24: Safeties
April 25: Kickers and punters
Lewis played at Miami for Dennis Erickson. Williams and Vilma signed with Miami during the Butch Davis era but played for Larry Coker the majority of their college careers. Beason and McIntosh also played for Coker. Adkins, Gooden, McCarthy and Sharpton played for both Coker and Randy Shannon. Spence spent most of his career with Shannon before playing his senior year under current Hurricanes coach Al Golden.

While head coaches have come and gone, Miami strength and conditioning coach Andreu Swasey has stuck around. Swasey was Miami's assistant strength coach in 1997 and 1998 before leaving for an assistant coaching job at Houston. He returned to Miami in 2000 and has remained there ever since.

McCarthy believes Swasey's presence has helped Miami maintain its tradition of producing NFL linebackers amid all that upheaval.

"Through all the changes and through everything that's happened, he's the one guy who's been constant," McCarthy said. "He's always down there in the offseason. The NFL guys come back and work out with him."

McCarthy showed last season that it's possible for a mid-round pick to make an immediate impact as a rookie. One of his former college teammates will try to follow the same pattern.

Spence was a four-year starter who recorded 47 career tackles for loss at Miami, but his 5-foot-11 frame is a little small by NFL standards. The Web site nfldraftscout.com rates him as a likely third-round pick.

"He's a terrific football player, just obviously undersized," said Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for nfldraftscout.com.

Spence's height indicates he could struggle to find a home in the NFL.

His school's track record suggests he"ll find a way to succeed anyhow.


Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.




 

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