Losing bookend defensive backs Trent Matthews, Kevin Pierre-Louis and DeAndre Elliott, as well as the entire starting defensive line, leaves Colorado State’s defense with a production and leadership void following the 2015 season.
If there is any position group with the returning talent to stabilize the team’s new look defense heading into the 2016 season, it will be the linebackers.
While replacing four-year starter Cory James, who is fourth all time in sacks at CSU, is no easy task, the Rams linebacker corp returns a handful of productive players from last season.
Kevin Davis, the Rams’ leading tackler in 2015, returns to the lineup fresh off a season ranked in the top-ten in the Mountain West conference in tackles (101), and sixth in the conference in tackles for loss (14).
Kiel Robinson, Tre Thomas, Josh Watson and Deonte Clyburn, all solid contributors in 2015, round out the returning depth, making the linebackers the deepest and most stable defensive position group heading into the 2016 season.
Clyburn, who is sitting out of spring practice with an injury, emerged halfway through last season as the Rams starting middle linebacker, and finished fourth on the team in tackles with 74, despite only starting seven games.
Thomas, Watson, and Robinson all finished in the top ten on the team in tackles, and Robinson finished second on the team in sacks with 5.5.
Of the four returning defensive starters, three are linebackers, in Davis, Robinson and Clyburn.
Watson believes all of the linebackers are buying into a significant role on the defense. The spring practices, film study and extra lifting sessions are only adding to the group’s experience coming off of last season, putting them in position for a breakout year.
“I see us being the best line backing corp in our conference,” Watson said. “Come fall, guys are going to be flying around knowing their responsibility, and just making plays.”
Along with picking up any lost production, the linebackers, especially Davis and Clyburn are expected to lead the team both vocally, and by example.
“We all want to be those guys that the other positions look up to,” Davis said. “We want to work the hardest. We want to be the most disciplined.”
Davis has been tabbed by coach Mike Bobo and defensive coordinator Larry English as a player who can step up and fill the leadership void left by departing players. Simply through experience, Davis has the look of an impact player for the defense next season, although his play has already spoken for itself.
“This being his fifth year, he knows the program in and out,” Watson said. “He understands the process of what coaches want out of a player.”
Though Clyburn is not yet fit for practice, his presence has still been felt this spring. English noted the “coaching” element Clyburn is filling, whether that be patrolling the sidelines at practice or his participation in team meetings.
“Deonte is our main vocal leader on the defense, but also on the whole team,” Davis said. “He is a guy that a lot of guys look up to. It’s tough to not have him out there, but he is still being a huge vocal leader even if he is not in pads.”
English also added that the loss of Clyburn has caused the team to do plenty of experimenting this spring with the guys they do have available in order to determine the best fits.
Watson, Davis and Thomas have been working with the first-team defense all spring, while Robinson has been backing up Thomas, though plenty of combinations have been used. Evan Colorito and Deshon Mayes have also both seen experience with the first group of linebackers, playing in the “buck” position on the edge.
Davis and Clyburn might be the big returning names, but the linebackers as a whole fully expect to step up and lead the Rams’ defense in 2016.
Collegian Sports Reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.