2020 UTEP Football Forecast: Breaking Down the Linebackers
Editor's note: Sports are constantly evolving on a daily basis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making a lot of the 2020 season still uncertain. This story is part four of an offseason series preview for the Miners' upcoming season with the idea that the season takes place as scheduled.
On day two of his football depth chart outlook, head coach Dana Dimel selected the linebacker corps to preview on SportsTalk. And boy, what an offseason transition it's been for the defense.
From switching to a 4-3 from a 3-4 offense, using odd and even packages, Dimel believes that his linebackers are extremely skilled and the position group is deep.
"Lot to talk about the linebacking crew," Dimel said. "We've got some guys returning with experience, which is good. A lot of new faces as well which I'm really excited about. If we're in our odd set, you'll see three linebackers on the field. If we're in our even package, you'll see two linebackers on the field. In the odd package, it's the SAM to the strong side, the MIKE in the middle and the WILL to the weak side. In the even package, it's the MIKE inside and SAM to the strong side, WILL to the weak side and then there's a Nickleback in the ball game."
Dating back to the Sean Kugler era, Jayson VanHook has contributed to this program for a stable stretch. He battled injuries during his college career but as he enters his senior season, VanHook will look at expanded playing time and hopes to follow up on the production he had last year. VanHook ended his redshirt junior year with 52 total tackles, four tackles for losses, a sack and a pair of quarterback hurries. He started in all 12 games last year.
"Jayson VanHook is a returning starter that runs extremely hard," Dimel said. "He will play at the WILL position along with Jerome Wilson. When we go to the odd, we see him go from an inside position to an outside position and a position where he can rush more at the SAM spot to make him more of a playmaker."
The son of defensive line coach Matt Wallerstedt, Cal is someone that is currently developing within the program who might see the field this season at the MIKE position. He didn't see much action last season, appearing in one game for the Miners.
"Cal's a guy that's coming along really well in our program and has a chance to get in there and contribute to us at the MIKE position as well," Dimel added.
Stephen Forester by all accounts is Dimel's go-to guy in the linebacker group. Forester even received AJ Hotchkins comparisons, who co-led Conference USA in tackles during the 2018 season. Last year, he was plugged in toward the end of the season as a starting linebacker where he racked up 19 tackles in the final three games.
"Stephen Forester is a guy that's been in the program for a while and has had injuries until last year," Dimel said. "He's a guy that when we put in, he wasn't a starter but midway into the season he would start and have 10 tackles a game. He's the kind of guy that I believe you can build your whole defensive team around because he has a lot of AJ Hotchkins toughness, playmaking, leadership abilities."
Franklin High School graduate and Arizona transfer Elijah "Polo" Ruiz hopes to integrate himself back in the mix of the linebacker position. He totaled three tackles last year and one the year before with the Miners. Dimel wants to see more of Ruiz in the coming years, especially with the athleticism he brings to the table.
"Polo Ruiz, another local product, has a lot of athleticism and we're looking for him to step up and help us out," Dimel added.
Yes, Tyrice Knight played for Independence Community College, also known as the home of "Last Chance U," the popular Netflix series. But no, he did not appear in the show. Still, Knight finished with 58 total tackles, 4.0 TFL (9 yards), four pass breakups and five interceptions for 163 interception return yards and two touchdowns.
"Tyrice is 6-foot-2, 225 pounds. He's a really impressive looking player that runs really well for his size. Physical type of guy. He's going to be one of the guys who stands out and helps us out [at the MIKE]," Dimel said.
The coaches rave about Jerome Wilson out of California. Last year as a true freshman, the 6-foot-3 linebacker appeared in the final four games for the Miners and had two assisted tackles against NM State. He will have his share of opportunities this year, according to Dimel.
"A guy that runs extremely hard. Played both defensive back and linebacker in high school and now has grown to a nice tall linebacker,' Dimel added.
The 6-foot-3 California native in Gary Theard has also impressed coaches with his size and athleticism. At the junior college ranks, he tallied 61 total tackles (28 solo, 33 assists), including 4.5 tackles for a loss of 108 yards.
"Gary Theard is another linebacker we recruited out of the junior college level and he has a chance to be really, really good. He's also very tall, long, athletic linebacker that will battle at the WILL position," Dimel said.
Connor Helsius is another JUCO linebacker entering the program with some solid experience under his belt. The junior had 40 total tackles (28 solo), 3.5 sacks (24 yards) and an interception for Mt. San Antonio College (Calif.) last year.
"Connor is an extremely talented, attitude guy that will challenge any of those positions. He's a really talented, hard-working guy and he's going to get in the competition too," Dimel added.
The local product from Andress is a two-time first team All-District recipient that finished with 92 tackles (57 solo/35 assist) as a senior with nine tackles for losses, two sacks, two interceptions, two pass breakups and one fumble recovery.
"Kiante Liggins is another local player out of Andress. He looks the part, plays with great motor. Great young man on and off the field. Got to see him recently, put some weight on and he looks fantastic. So excited to see what he will bring to the future of the program," Dimel shared.
Joining Liggins from the north east of El Paso, Xavier Simmons of Parkland brings a ton of tenacity to the table as well. He finished with registered 94 total tackles (57 solo), nine sacks and eight quarterback hurries as a senior for the Matadors.
"I'm really excited about Xavier Simmons, another local product, and how he will continue to grow in our program," Dimel said.