San Diego State's linebacking corps is somewhat of an enigma, and there are too many variables at this point to predict whether this unit will propel the Aztecs' to a berth in the conference championship game or hinder them from making a fifth straight bowl appearance.
As currently constructed, SDSU will field one of the most experienced linebacking corps in all of the Mountain West Conference this season, as all three projected starters will be in their senior campaign. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, that will not become reality until the fourth game of the season--if all goes to plan.
The Aztecs did prove last season that they are be able to handle great adversity, with multiple players changing positions from week-to-week and reserves having to step up due to injuries, which is why Aztec fans should not be on high-alert. However, it would have been ideal to begin the season against a tough non-conference schedule with their projected starting unit.
Now let's take a look at the depth chart for the linebacker position.
47 Cody Galea, 6'3" 255 pounds - OLB - Senior
Galea will make one of the hardest transitions a defensive player can make, and that is to go from a defensive end to an outside linebacker. He will quickly realize that a behemoth of a lineman is a lot more powerful running downhill straight for him then at the snap of the ball. He will also need to learn the pass defense assignments and how to play in coverage against tight ends, and possibly quick slot receivers against teams that empty the backfield.
This does not mean that Galea will struggle in his new position, as not only does he have a relentless motor, but he also has a knack for getting to the ball, as he recorded the most tackles of any defensive linemen last season and was eighth on the team with 36 total. On top that, in Head Coach Rocky Long's 3-3-5 defense, the linemen's main objective is to occupy blockers, so the linebackers can fill the gaps and make plays on the ball.
50 Derek Largent, 6'4" 240 pounds - OLB - Senior
After bursting onto the scene in his first season with SDSU in 2011-12 after transferring from El Camino College, Largent took a step back last season after injuring his knee in the first game against Eastern Illinois. He missed only the following game against Ohio State, but did not start in any of the following SDSU games. He recorded 32 total tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.
Largent's play should definitely not be judged off of last season, but the one prior, where he was San Diego State's Swiss army knife. He was first in fumble recoveries (3); he was second in assisted tackles (23), sacks (6.5) and forced fumbles (1); he was third in tackles for loss (9.5) and interceptions (2); he was fourth in total tackles (61) and fifth in unassisted tackles (38) and passes broken up (3). All rankings were amongst the team.
Now with his knee back to full strength, Largent is primed to match, if not exceed, his first season with the Aztecs. However, he will not start the season at outside linebacker, as he will fill the void at middle linebacker, due to the injuries to seniors Jake Fely and Josh Gavert, the projected starter and backup at the MLB position, respectively, who will be out for the first three games of the season.
42 Jake Fely, 5'10" 215 pounds - MLB - RS Junior
To say Fely was the heart of the Aztecs' defense is an understatement, which is why when he went down to injury last season, all SDSU fans took a collective breath. Luckily Gavert filled his role admirably.
With his wealth of talent, it was devastating to see Fely's season come to end in such a horrible fashion. However, the NCAA awarded him a sixth year of eligibility over the summer and he will be classified athletically as a junior to compete in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Now Fely will just have to overcome his foot rehabilitation, with a projected return date being the fourth game this season.
When he does make his return to the field, San Diego State fans will definitely be excited, as Fely is one of the most talented players not only on the team, but also in all of the Mountain West Conference, which is why before he injured his foot, he had started 30 consecutive games at MLB.
48 Josh Gavert, 6‘2" 215 pounds - MLB - Senior
As previously mentioned Gavert, was the man who filled Fely's role as MLB when Fely broke his foot, and he did so with little to no drop-off in production from his predecessor. He played in all 13 games, but started the last nine, in which he registered 68 total tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, three pass breakups, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Gavert, too, was bit by the injury bug and is on a similar time frame as Fely, where neither is expected to suit up until at least the fourth game of the season. When they do return, though, it will make for a highly competitive competition for the starting MLB spot, as both players demonstrated they have all the physical and mental tools needed to be exceptional linebackers.
No one should be surprised if either of these players to become the full-time starter or if they trade off playing time depending on the opponent. Gavert has the height advantage and better instincts in the passing game, but Fely has better speed and a faster first step.
45 Fred Melifonwu, 6'5" 235 pounds - OLB - RS Freshman
Only a redshirt-freshman, Melifonwu will line up at OLB next to Largent. Coach Long has to really love this player's game, because he's giving Melifonwu first-team reps over more experienced athletes on the depth chart.
Last season, Melifonwu was named the team's defensive co-scout player of the year, which at least shows that he has experience against a collegiate offense and was one of the Aztecs' best redshirts last season. Melifonwu has a great opportunity to prove that he is deserving of this starting role, and potentially land greater playing time off the bench when the projected lineup is in place.
54 Calvin Munson, 6'1" 235 pounds - OLB - Sophomore
Munson is slated to be the backup to Galea at the weakside outside linebacker. Munson played in the final 11 games of last season as he worked his way up as a true freshman starting at special teams and eventually earned some playing time at MLB last season, where he logged four total tackles.
He is a big, strong tackler and as he proved perseverant, with the ability to be a solid player in Long's system. He should see minimal time at weakside linebacker as Galea tends not to remain on the field, but he could see time elsewhere if certain players do not pan out at their positions.
36 Devante Davis, 6'2" 210 pounds - Junior
40 Donavin Buck, 6'5" 205 pounds - Freshman
Buck was a three-star recruit by Rivals.com, Scout.com and ESPN.com, out of Brawley Union High, where he earned the Imperial Valley League Defensive Player of the Year Award as a senior. He chose SDSU over Arizona, Oregon State, Washington State, Boise State, and others.
46 Jay Henderson, 6'2" 205 pounds - Freshman
Henderson, like his fellow freshman linebacker recruit, received three stars from Rivals.com, Scout.com and ESPN.com. A graduate of Serrano High School, Henderson chose the Aztecs over Boise State, Colorado, Colorado State and Nevada.