Will Zach Heller continue to shine without Jake Lewko beside him?
***Great news from New Jersey where Mark Zielinski '89 has been unanimously reappointed as head football coach at North Brunswick Township High School. It sure seems like the good guys won this one.***
(As one reader noticed, I skipped over the offensive line before jumping to the defensive units. I actually did that on purpose because I believe the O-line is the most important single unit on any football team and I want to save the most essential for last).
Today I want to look at the best returning veteran linebackers, both individually and as a unit.
All three of last year's 1st Team All Ivy linebackers have graduated. BUT 2008 1st Teamer and 2007 Ivy Rookie of the Year Alex Gross will return for Columbia after missing most of last year due to injury. If Gross can come back at 90% or better, the Lions will have the best veteran linebacker in the league.
Joining Gross will be the very experienced Nick Mistretta, Marc Holloway, Evan Miller, and the other injury-recovering X-factor, Matt Moretto, who was still recovering through most of 2009 but made a decent impact from time to time.
The Lions have a good veteran linebacking crew, but it's not the best in the league.
Penn, led by 2nd Team All Ivy honoree Zach Heller, makes the strongest case for the top spot as we enter the 2010 season. At 6 feet and 225 pounds, Heller is the perfect size for his position and he is both a run-stopping and pass rushing specialist. Not far behind Heller are Quaker teammates Brian Levine and Eric Rask. Both were All Ivy Honorable Mention and a became more effective as the 2009 season wore on.
But it remains to be seen how strong the Penn linebackers will be this fall without co-Bushnell Cup winner Jake Lewko to force double teams and open tackling lanes. Penn also loses long-time linebackers coach Cliff Schwenke. Schwenke produced the best linebackers year after year during an amazing 11-year run coaching just that unit for the Quakers. That's a very rare asset to lose.
Dartmouth can boast the fact that all three of its starting linebackers from 2009 return for 2010. And the three returners, Pat Scorah, Garrett Wymore, and Diego Soto-Fernandez were the numbers 1, 2, and 3 tacklers for the Big Green, respectively, last season.
But like the veteran defensive line, the Dartmouth linebackers really need to improve greatly to be considered a top unit. Even if you strip out the rough games against UNH, Colgate and Holy Cross, the Big Green defense still had too much trouble stopping opposing offenses. I do expect improvement in this area in 2010, but Dartmouth will still not be the best.
A major contender for the title of best individual returning linebacker is Princeton's Steven Cody. He's back for a senior season after making 2nd Team All Ivy last season. Cody led the Tigers in tackles despite missing one game in 2009. He also had 10 tackles for a loss and two interceptions. Only Columbia's Gross really matches him in combined defensive ability against the run and the pass.
But Cody does not have a veteran linebacking teammate with even remotely the level of his talent. The only other returning starter is Jon Olofsson, who had just five solo tackles last season.
Brown's Robert Gillett is a strong and effective linebacker, but he's the only veteran starter returning for that unit. He'll mostly miss the graduated All Ivy 1st Teamer Kelly Cox, who was second on the team in tackles in 2009.
Gillett and Harvard's Nick Hasselberg could be soul mates as Hasselberg will have to deal with the graduations of not one, but two All Ivy teammates in Jon Takamura and Sean Hayes. No one expects Harvard's linebacking crew to be weak in 2010, but it's an "X factor" at best.
Without Chris Costello, Cornell's linebacking crew is essentially gutted for 2010.
Yale's Sean Williams returns for 2010 after making All Ivy Honorable Mention last year, but the Bulldogs lose superstar Paul Rice and the solid Travis Henry.
So my rankings for best overall returning linebacking crews are:
The best individual veteran linebackers coming into 2010 are:
1) Zach Heller, Penn
2) Steven Cody, Princeton
3) Alex Gross, Columbia* (if at least 90% recovered from injury)