Going into the 2019 season, there may not have been a bigger question mark on the field than at the linebacker position for the Aggies. Starters Tyrell Dodson and Otaro Alaka have both departed for the NFL. The Aggies have talent at the linebacker position but none of it is proven yet. Let’s take a look at Buddy Johnson and the rest of the crew for 2019.
After Otaro Alaka was unavailable for the bowl game against NC State to close out 2018, Buddy Johnson stepped into the role. Johnson had spent most of his career at A&M to this point as an outside backer but due to need, he was thrust into a starting role. He had some shaky moments but the Dallas native showed he had the talent to compete. He’ll need to take his game to another level to handle the slate of SEC games at the position as well as Clemson but with an elite defensive line in front of him, I’d expect some of Johnson’s flaws to be covered up.
Behind Johnson on the depth chart are the new 12th Man, Braden White and converted receiver Aaron Hansford. White has seen playing time mostly as a special teams contributor but has proven himself reliable enough to earn himself a spot on the two deep. As for Hansford, he spent his early career at A&M as a wide receiver before making the transition to linebacker in the spring of 2019. Hansford’s athleticism is obvious and his high school film at the linebacker position was impressive, but I wouldn’t expect him to make an impact immediately. However, as long as he can stay healthy, I’d expect him to steadily improve over the season, eventually working his way into a contributing role.
Texas A&M took five linebackers (though RJ Orebo is now unsurprisingly listed as a defensive linemen) in the 2019 recruiting class in an attempt to shore up a position in dire need of depth. Of those linebackers, Ke’Shun Brown seems like the most natural fit at Mike in my opinion. However, with his absence from the depth chart, Brown will likely redshirt during the 2019 season, allowing for time to adjust to SEC ball.
Anthony Hines looked poised for a breakout year in 2018 before a season-ending injury took him out of the rotation. Hines seems to have rebounded from the injury well and I expect him to have that breakout season in 2019. The linebacker out of Plano, Texas is immensely talented and if he stays healthy, is poised for a huge season. In addition to being a plus athlete, Hines seems to have the natural instincts you look for in a backer, both in the run game and the passing game. He’ll be put to the test this week against Clemson, but don’t be surprised if it’s his big moment and he truly shines.
Behind Hines on the depth chart is true freshman, Andre White. White came to A&M from Pennsylvania after spurning his home-state school, Penn State and will look to contribute immediately. Of the linebackers taken in the 2019 class, Andre White was probably the most ready from day one and his status as an early enrollee only helped the process. A&M should be thankful that Anthony Hines is starting at Will so that White wasn’t tossed directly into the fire, but don’t expect him to be kept off the field for long.
While White is listed on the depth chart, his fellow 2019 signee, Tarian Lee is not. Lee looked like a hell of an athlete coming out of high school but I couldn’t help but think he was a little bit raw. He’ll need some time to develop his skill-set meaning a redshirt year is likely in 2019.
The depth chart lists the third linebacker position as a Sam linebacker but in Mike Elko’s defensive scheme, this position is often filled by the “Rover”, a hybrid linebacker/safety player. Ikenna Okeke spent most of the fall of 2018 as the projected starter at the position before falling to injury. Much like Anthony Hines, he’ll look to bounce back in 2019. Okeke won’t always be on the field as Elko will mix in a nickel package with a true fifth defensive back depending on the opposing personnel package, but he ought to be a solid contributor for most of the season, especially against any teams that favor a power running game.
Behind Okeke at the position is the final linebacker signee in the 2019 class, Chris Russell. Russell is more of a true linebacker than Okeke in my opinion, but is athletic enough to contribute at the Rover position. With that being said, I’d expect the nickel usage by Mike Elko to increase if anything should happen to Okeke, at least until Russell is able to really develop in the system.
The linebacker position at Texas A&M is undoubtedly one of the thinnest as after the starting trio, there is almost no relevant experience and even Johnson and Hines haven’t been on the field for some of the bigger games. It’s hard to give an outlook on this unit until we see them in a big game, but A&M fans should hope that Hines, Johnson, and Okeke can stay healthy, otherwise Mike Elko will be forced to play a lot of true freshmen.