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Football Preview Weekish: The linebackers

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As part of TheUConnBlog’s 2009 football Season Preview Week, we’re rolling out the position primers and opponent capsules. Today, we look at the linebackers.

Previously on TheUConnBlog: Tom Keifer was right about a lot of things.

But his words were never truer when the Cinderella frontman, Renaissance man and man who has makeup and isn't afraid to use it once crooned "You don’t know what you got, till it’s gone."

And while Keifer’s poetry can be applied in almost every aspect of life, it is truly the anthem of the linebacking core of the 2009 UConn Huskies football team.

Since emerging as starters at the start of the 2007 season, outside linebackers Scott Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson have not only been two of the best defensive players on the team, but also two of the best linebackers in the Big East.

Over the past two seasons, the duo has combined for 320 tackles (31.5 for loss), two sacks and nine interceptions while never missing a start.

And when middle linebacker Greg Lloyd jr., who hits just as hard as his moderately sane pappy, emerged as a starter last season, it became one of the better units in the country.

But despite their elevated status, you don’t hear too much about them, mainly because of what I like to call the Tom Brady effect -- i.e. no one wants to constantly hear about things that are good.

So, as Keifer so astutely points out, you don't know really know how good you have it with this linebacking trio. But when it's gone, my friends, "it ain't easy to get back" ... or something.

Luckily, the Huskies haven’t had to figure that out. Wilson and Lutrus haven’t missed a game since 2007, and Lloyd missed only two games last season because of academic issues.

But this season, an injury to one of the starting three could be a lot harder to "get back" from . Preseason injuries have left the position shallow, and among the projected backups, only Greg Robinson, the mighty Grothe-slayer, has any experience.

The depth chart: According to Runway Ramblings (until the actual depth chart is released later today):

Strongside (or Husky linebacker)

  1. #32 Scott Lutrus, redshirt junior (106 tkls (9 for loss) 1 Int)
  2. #28 Jory Johnson, redshirt freshman

Middle

  1. #95 Greg Lloyd, junior (56 tkls (7 for loss) 1 sack)
  2. #10 Greg Robinson (aka, The Grothe Slayer), redshirt junior (4 tkls)

Weakside

  1. #8 Lawrence Wilson (73 tkls (6 for loss), 1 sack, 3 Ints, I FR)
  2. #46 Sio Moore, redshirt freshman

2008 high points:

  • Down one with 2:45 to play, Lawrence Wilson picks off Louisville’s Hunter Catwell and races 45 yards for the game-winning touchdown, saving UConn from a rather embarrassing loss and winning the team a bag of "Buy one medium one-topping pizza, get one free" coupons at Papa John’s Stadium.
  • Lutrus has 12 tackles in 12-10 OT win over Temple.

2008 low points:

  • Kind of hard to pick out poor performances for just the linebackers, but giving up 216 rushing yards to West Virginia and 261 to Louisville would probably qualify as lows.

Just goin’ off popular consensus:

  • Rivals.com has ‘em No. 1

I haven’t picked up any of the preseason tabloids, but I’d assumed they’d be ranked in the top two in all. Those who have, comment away.

Our outlook: If healthy, the linebacking core should continue to be one of the best in the conference. And unlike in previous seasons, the team will rely on them to play like it.

With Cody Brown and Julius Williams gone, the front four will be incredibly green this year. Although Lindsey Witten stabilizes one defensive end spot, the other three starters (DTs Twyon Martin and Kendall Reyes, and a DE to be named later) are all underclassmen. And although Martin and Reyes flashed the talent to be successful last year while usurping the starting spots of Rob Lunn and Alex Polito, this will be their first time doing it without two of the conference’s better pass rushers drawing blockers.

So the pressure is on the linebackers to pick up the slack. Before, Wilson and Lutrus – quick for the position but also a bit on the light side – could fly to the ball. Without a proven pass rush and push up front, things may be a bit more difficult.

But given their production over the past two seasons, they seem up for the challenge. Lutrus, who was named a captain, has an outside shot to win conference defensive POY. And although he recorded 40 fewer tackles in his second season, Wilson has shown he can make the big play.

But questions still linger as to how the team will use its linebackers to combat mobile QBs. UConn’s struggles against dual-threat QBs have been well-documented, and even with Pat White now in the NFL, the Huskies still have to deal with Matt Grothe, Robert Griffin and, to a lesser extent, Jarrett Brown.

Against West Virginia – and, if memory serves me, South Florida -- last season, Edsall moved Lutrus inside and dropped Dahna Deleston down from his safety position to get some more speed on the field. But with the strong safety position now in flux, the team may just have to leave Lloyd in and hope for the best.

However, as long as the starting triumvirate is on the field against most offenses, the team should be set. Wilson, Lloyd and Lutrus form one of the best units in the conference, and they still have another season after this one to wreak havoc.

Still, their almost spotless record with injuries worries me even more than if they'd missed a game or two here and there, because part of me fears they're due for their comeuppance. And with very little behind them, a defense that is so important to the success of this season -- and for the past two, for that matter -- would greatly suffer.

Position grade: A