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UConn football positional preview: Linebacker

Linebackers coach Jon Wholley will have his hands full navigating through some preseason injuries.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Heading into spring camp, the linebacker position looked to be one of UConn’s strengths. As the season opener nears, the depth chart will look a little bit different due to injuries, but the Huskies still have enough to put together a strong unit in 2017.

E.J. Levenberry, the Florida State transfer who had 37 tackles and a team-high four sacks last season, tore his ACL in April and could miss the entire 2017 season. His counterpart Vontae Diggs recently injured his knee in training camp and is likely out for the season opener, but could return for the second game of the season Sept. 9 against USF.

With Levenberry and Diggs out, the UConn linebackers will look a little different than expected against Holy Cross, but still has contributors that will make an impact in Billy Crocker’s 3-3-5 defense. Former UConn linebacker Jon Wholley will take over as linebackers coach and while he likely won’t have Levenberry til late in the season, if at all, he’ll still have some impact players in Joseph and Diggs.

Junior Joseph - RS SR - Sinking Springs, Pennsylvania

Joseph was an easy choice for one of the three linebacker spots. After recording 93 tackles and being named an All-American Athletic Conference honorable mention as a redshirt sophomore in 2015, Joseph picked up right where he left off in 2016, finishing the year with 81 tackles and three nine-tackle games.

This offseason, Joseph received praise from NDT scouting for his ability to stop the run, pressure the quarterback and help out in zone coverage. If he puts up numbers like he has the past two years, he might hear his name called in April.

Chris Britton - RS JR - Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Britton is probably just holding down the fort until Diggs is healthy to return, but will be a solid replacement. Last season, he appeared in 12 games, recording at least one tackle in five of them, including a tackle and forced fumble against Houston.

Cam Stapleton - RS SR - Staten Island, New York

At 6-foot-4, Stapleton is an imposing presence amongst the linebackers and has some experience to go along with it, racking up 29 tackles in 24 games over the last two seasons. Like Britton, inexperience could be an issue early on, but playing alongside Joseph should help alleviate some of those growing pains.

Vontae Diggs - SR - Downers Grove, Illinois

Once healthy, Diggs will almost certainly slide into the starting lineup with Joseph and either Britton or Stapleton to form one of the most formidable linebacker corps in the American Athletic Conference. After breaking in as a true freshman in 2014 and recording 12 tackles in 2015, Diggs broke out as a junior with 84 tackles, eight of which were for a loss.

Diggs held his own last season against some of the best teams in the American, racking up 12 tackles against Houston and nine against Temple. Much like Joseph, another solid season in 2017 could lead to a legitimate shot at playing in the NFL. Barring any setbacks from his left knee injury, Diggs will likely be in the lineup in some form in UConn’s second game of the season against USF on Sept. 9.

Santana Sterling - JR - Chandler, Arizona

Much like the defensive backs, the backups at linebacker are young with the exception of junior Santana Sterling, a former Arizona State commit who spent last year at Mesa Community College, where he amassed 105 tackles in 11 games.

Darrian Beavers - FR - Cincinnati, Ohio

Beavers - who Joseph described as “the fastest and most athletic linebacker on the roster” in an article in the Hartford Courant - will likely see some action against Holy Cross. The 6-foot-4 prospect, who played safety in high school, was a late addition to the recruiting class by the new staff who chose UConn over offers from Army and a handful of MAC schools.

Ryan Gilmartin - RS FR - Weddington, North Carolina

A highly-rated recruit out of the class of 2016, Gilmartin redshirted last year and could see significant time on special teams this season in addition to getting some reps at linebacker.

T.J. Gardner - FR - Windsor, Connecticut

Gardner was another late addition to the staff, and a big one, as the Windsor High star flipped to UConn after previously committing to Boston College.

While the linebacker corps may be thin at the moment due to Levenberry and Diggs’ injuries, Joseph, Stapleton, and Britton can certainly hold their own. Once Diggs returns and if players like Sterling can contribute, the linebackers could be important playmakers for the defense this fall, especially in the new defense.