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The Next Big Thing: Linebacker

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Our newest writer, Matt Hoeppner, examines who to look out for at linebacker in 2017

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

While we are still quite a ways out from the start of the football season, it never hurts to start looking ahead. With that in mind we will be taking the next few weeks to take a look at some of the candidates to be the “next big thing” for the Spartan football team. We will try and hit all the major position groups and present a player that we believe could either break out, or come out of nowhere to be a major contributor this upcoming season.

For our first installment, we tackle (pun intended?) one of the deeper position groups on the depth chart, linebacker.


NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

There are certainly some holes to fill with the graduation of Riley Bullough and the departure of Jon Reschke from the program. While whoever wins the “Mike” linebacker spot in the middle will likely get a lot of attention, I believe it’s one of the outside spots that presents us our contender to be the next big thing at linebacker.

Andrew Dowell figures to be the starting “Star” linebacker when Michigan State takes the field for their opener in the fall. Dowell started eight games for MSU last year after Reschke got hurt, but was a part of a rotation at the spot for most of the season.

That did not stop him from putting up some numbers, though. Dowell finished the season with 67 total tackles, including 44 solo tackles. Both of those totals were good for fourth on the team behind fellow LB’s Bullough, Chris Frey, and safety Montae Nicholson. Of those three only Frey remains. Dowell also notched three tackles for loss and had one sack.

Dowell also grabbed one interception, coming in the season opener against Furman and it was a beaut.

It was plays like that pick that show the type of athleticism that Dowell possesses. He is listed at 6-1, 221 lbs. but what he lacks in size he can make up for with his speed and athleticism.

Dowell has proven the ability to be decent in coverage, breaking up three passes in addition to the pick you saw, and one would hope that he will improve even more as he heads into his junior season. Remember, this is a guy that played safety in high school, so he is no stranger to pass coverage.

The big question for Dowell is whether he will also be able to turn his game into one that involves being an effective blitzer and rusher of the quarterback. He obviously has the speed to be effective coming off the edge, as someone who was rated as a top-40 running back coming out of high school. His six quarterback hurries last year ranked second on the team behind Bullough and Frey, who both had seven.

Mark Dantonio likes to find ways for players’ best traits to be the most useful on the field. For Dowell that could mean utilizing his coverage skills by dropping him back, but also by using his speed to rush the passer and create havoc in the backfield. If Dowell can be effective in both those roles, he could become quite a weapon and defensive playmaker from that outside linebacker spot. And if there is one thing MSU could use more of next year, it is playmakers.

We know Chris Frey is going to be the leader on defense and likely lead the team in tackles again. We also know that whoever wins the middle linebacker spot is going to be one of the most important players on the field for the Spartan defense. But Dowell has the potential to be a difference maker. He showed flashes of his potential last year, and with his athleticism and skillset, he feels prone to break out in a big way this year.