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TCU Football 2015: Linebackers Preview

The biggest question mark on the team is the men manning the middle. Can two freshmen replace an All-American and 236 tackles?

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When your name is Mike Freeze, it's almost expected that you have ice water in your veins. The true freshman will need all that and more to step in to some pretty big shoes this fall, replacing the void left by the graduations of Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallett. But Freeze, along with fellow freshman Alec Dunham and junior Sammy Douglas, certainly has the athleticism and football smarts to do just that.

Linebackers in 2014

Marcus Mallet and Paul Dawson were absolute machines in the middle of Gary Patterson's 4-2-5 defense. Dawson had one of the best seasons ever for a Frog backer - and that's saying something when you consider the studs that came before him. With 136 tackles, 20 of which that came for a loss, six sacks, four interceptions, and two forced fumbles, Dawson earned All-American status and selection in the third round of the NFL draft. Relatively unknown outside of Fort Worth coming in to the 2014 season, the former JuCo player and high school wide receiver burst on to the scene with this play against Oklahoma:

(that still gives me chills)

While the INT return against OU may be his signature moment of the season, it was the only time he starred. A sure tackler and smart football player, it seemed no runner escaped his grasp. If he hit the hole the same time you did - you probably lost. And his on field chemistry with Marcus Mallet was unparalleled - the two seniors worked in harmony to absolutely dominate the middle of the football field. While neither is the exceptional athlete of say a Darryl Washington, both had great feet and better instinct. While the INT return gave the Frogs a lead they would never relinquish, a few minutes later, Mallet would make a game saving play of his own. After a B.J. Catalon fumble, OU was driving, and had a fourth and one inside the TCU 25. With Dawson not on the field, Mallet found the gap behind the defensive front and absolutely speared Samaje Perine behind the line for a turnover on downs.

These were the kind of plays Mallet and Dawson seemed to make game in and game out, and their success as a tandem helped TCU's defense maintain a high level of play - and keep the explosive TCU O on the field.

Linebackers in 2015

The thing to remember is, no one knew much about Paul Dawson or Marcus Mallet this time a year ago, right? Dawson was a major project who was actually listed behind Mallet in the spring, even after leading the team in tackles in 2013. So the thought of a relative unknown stepping in to those shoes isn't completely out of the realm of possibility. TCU only has two guys that made the cut on the spring depth chart that have seen playing time - junior Sammy Douglas and sophomore Paul Whitmill. Douglas had 11 tackles in 2014, and Whitmill five - but both players compiled the bulk of their stats on special teams.

The name on everyone's mind is a kid who hasn't put the pads on for real since 2013 - true freshman Mike Freeze. Freeze, who missed his senior season due to a shoulder separation, enrolled last January along with Alec Dunham, and benefited from a spring of work with the team. He was impressive enough to rocket to the top of the depth chart by the end of that season, and entered fall camp with the expectation that he will be the starter game one. Freeze is a converted safety, but at 6'3" and 220 pounds, he has the size required to make plays in the middle of the 4-2-5. More impressive is his speed - with a sub 4.5 40 and good footwork, he is the type of athlete that can excel sideline to sideline and make a lot of plays in the backfield. If his mental game stays on par with his physical attributes - and by all accounts he is a very smart football player - he could be an absolute star.
"Mike Freeze does some things naturally that you can’t teach," Patterson said. "And he was a safety in high school, never has played linebacker, so every day is a new day for him." - Dallas Morning News
Patterson raved about the overall athletic ability of this unit heading in to 2015 - saying they are as fast a group as he has had in a long time. You could see the sparkle in his eye when he talked about the different ways he could drop guys in to coverage and disguise blitzes based off of the speed he had in the middle.

Dunham is another intriguing prospect - listed behind junior Sammy Douglas at the strong side backer position, the 6'1", 215 pound Dunham runs a 4.43 and is another heady guy and sure tackler. Having played linebacker in high school he may be slightly ahead of the learning curve early on, and will certainly push Sammy for playing time. But being the only player of that group to have actually taken defensive snaps, Douglas' leadership and grasp of the playbook will go a long way to determining the success of the squad. Another imposing physical presence, Sammy is 6'3" and 215, having grown 2" and added about 25 pounds of good weight in his two years in the program. He's no slouch either - his seven tackle, one sack performance against SMU shows his potential when given the snaps, and he will get those in abundance early this fall. I would be remiss not to mention the other returning players on the depth chart; redshirt freshman Ty Summers, a converted high school QB, Summers played in the opener against Samford before suffering a season ending injury, and earned a medical redshirt for 2014. Healthy and back in the fold this spring, Summers is listed behind Freeze at middle linebacker. The last member of returning backers is sophomore Paul Whitmill, a redshirt sophomore who saw action in 12 games last season, including a four stop performance against SMU. Whitmill is behind Douglas and Dunham at strong-side, but the highly touted recruit should see more snaps this season as he progresses.

Ultimately, those who argue against the Frog's viability as a true Big 12 and National Championship contender rest their their uncertainty on the backs of the unknowns on the defense - especially in replacing two 100 tackle performers in the middle. The talent is there, and the puppet master hasn't changed, so assuming the trajectory continues in an upward direction (and that the offense picks up where it left off), this group of linebackers should be settled in an effective by the time Big 12 play begins in late September.

Curious as to who the best Big 12 linebackers are in the Big 12? I sat down with Mark Rogers TV to discuss that with Tye Burger (Bring on the Cats) and Sean Cordy (Today's U).