Mizzou's LBs don't fit the SEC prototype, and that's OK
Let’s play a little word association, or at least partake in a visualization exercise: SEC linebacker.
What comes to mind when you read those two words?
Most long-time SEC fans picture a shredded, frothing-at-the-mouth animal who can knock a blocker on his butt and then clobber a ball-carrier with a form tackle, driving him into the ground. Adjectives that come to mind are physical and nasty.
Missouri entered the SEC with one of those guys in Andrew Wilson, whom the team had to replace at middle linebacker entering last season.
Now the Tigers feature two standouts at the position, though Michael Scherer and Kentrell Brothers hardly fit the SEC prototype, if there is such a thing.
Let’s start with Scherer, who finished fourth in the SEC with 114 tackles last season, according to cfbstats.com. After playing mostly special teams as a redshirt freshman in ’13, he spent most of the offseason penciled as the starting strongside linebacker until Brothers got hurt.
Suddenly thrust into a leadership role at middle linebacker, an “awkward” role for him according to the Kansas City Star, Scherer is a natural fit for the position on the field. From a pure athletic standpoint, Scherer may not rank in the top five linebackers on the team. But the word that constantly comes up to describe him is “cerebral.”
At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Scherer sometimes struggles to shed blockers and isn’t making any “dirtiest player” lists. He’s not going to win a footrace with your fastest running back. But he has an uncanny ability to put his body in the right place on the football field. Described as a student of the game, he’s the perfect player to point a confused defensive lineman to the right spot pre-snap and to sniff out the gap the ball-carrier is taking post-snap.
Then there’s Brothers, the team’s original choice to replace Wilson last season at “middle” linebacker (the team played nickel defense about two-thirds of the time last season, meaning Scherer and Brothers were the only two linebackers on the field). Also a reluctant leader according to the Kansas City Star, Brothers suffered an injury, returned to find Scherer had replaced him as the heir apparent and spent the first half of the season frustrated, struggling against the run.
Always a plus defender in coverage, Brothers looked more comfortable and free as the season progressed, averaging nearly 10 tackles per game during SEC play. His progress as a run stopper is what helped him to a late rally for the team tackle lead, as he finished second in the SEC with 122 stops. But as one of the team’s most athletic linebackers, his strength remains pass coverage, where he made three interceptions in 2013.
Clarence Green, who started the ’14 season at the other linebacker position before fading to the fourth linebacker on the team behind Donavin Newsom, is another ultra-athletic ‘backer who seems more comfortable in coverage at 6-foot and 220 pounds.
It’s not as though Missouri’s defense isn’t physical. If that were the case, the team couldn’t have held last season’s Arkansas team to 14 points in a crucial November win. But the team thrives on speed and athleticism, as Shane Ray and Markus Golden provided as standout bookend defensive ends.
While the Tigers personnel on defense doesn’t always match with the SEC prototype, it has proved effective, and even propelled Mizzou to an SEC East title last season as the main catalyst.
Scherer, Brothers and others may not have emerged from the most common mold among SEC linebackers, but that’s OK. They should be one of the best tandems in the conference this year, and a big reason why the defense should be good yet again.