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Third Down (cont’d.): A look at Villanova Football’s linebackers

‘Linebacker U’ has a nice mix of old and new.

NCAA Football: Villanova at Lafayette Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

We will be dissecting and previewing Villanova's football roster, breaking it down by position as part of our "Four Downs" series. Each week, we will highlight two positions.

Schedule:

First Down: Quarterbacks (Aug. 8) | Running backs (Aug. 10)
Second Down: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends (Aug. 15) | Offensive Linemen (Aug. 17)
Third Down: Defensive Linemen (Aug. 22) | Linebackers (Aug. 24)
Fourth Down: Defensive backs (Aug. 29) | Special Teams (Aug. 31)

It will transition right into Villanova's Sept. 2 season opener against Lehigh. We continue our look at the Wildcats’ defense by putting the spotlight on the linebackers.


Returnees:

#33 Ed Shockley (5-11, 235) Sr.
#10 Gregg Kobelski (6-0, 205) Sr.
#35 Joe Sotomayor (6-0, 215) Sr.
#58 Jeff Steeb (6-0, 215) Jr.
#52 Drew Wiley (6-1, 235) So.
#42 Keeling Hunter (6-0, 230) So.
#54 Tyler Von Nessen (6-0, 210) So.
#39 Gabe Cohen (6-0, 220) So.

Departures:

Austin Calitro (6-0, 245) -- UDFA signed by the New York Jets, now with San Francisco
Travis Clark (5-10, 210)
T.J. White (6-1, 225)
Corey Majors (6-0, 250)

Newcomers:

#29 Amin Black (5-9, 235) Fr. -- Philadelphia, Pa./Imhotep
#43 Forrest Rhyne (6-1, 220) Fr. -- Waynesboro, Pa./Waynesboro Area
#44 Josh Patrick (6-0, 215) Fr. -- Wilmington, Del./Salesianum
#53 Patrick Reed (6-3, 205) Fr. -- Westwood, Mass./St. Sebastian's


Last season, Villanova's top three leading tacklers were all linebackers—Ed Shockley, Jeff Steeb, and recent graduate Austin Calitro. The trio led the Wildcat defense with 86 tackles apiece. It was the first time Villanova had at least three different players rack up 80+ tackles in a season since 2010-11--the year after the Wildcats won the FCS National Championship.

The trio of linebackers were integral to the success of Villanova's defense, which held opponents to an average of 15.0 points per game--4.2 points fewer than the 2010-11 Wildcats did. While the Wildcats have graduated Calitro, who was the leading tackler in back-to-back seasons and a first team All-CAA selection last year, they are fortunate to return both Shockley and Steeb.

While Shockley appeared in 24 games over his first two seasons at the Main Line, nothing compared to the production and performance he got to enjoy last year, relishing in a much bigger role on the Wildcats' defense. His 86 tackles--and 11 for losses--last season singlehandedly eclipsed his numbers from his freshman and sophomore years. His team-high 59 solo tackles helped pave the way to earning third team All-CAA honors.

Standing just under six-feet tall, Shockley plays a lot bigger than he actually is. He has an excellent nose for the ball and reaction time to an opponent's play, that he's almost like a torpedo locked in on a target. He's by far the most experienced linebacker that is currently on Villanova's roster, and it looks like he should conclude his career with his best season yet. His closing speed and pursuit is admirable, just like the way he loves to lay down a hit. Shockley's physicality and aggressiveness stood out since his arrival freshman year, and it has only grown ever since. He will likely come out as one of the top linebackers in the conference, first team honors might not be out of the question.

As for Steeb, a preseason injury to Corey Majors ended up being a blessing for his career. Steeb saw little to no playing time in his first two years with the Wildcats and didn't log anything into the stat book. With Majors down to start the season, Steeb stepped into a starting role for the 2016 season opener against Pittsburgh and hardly looked back. He became a fixture at linebacker since his eight-tackle performance against the Panthers. He finished the season with 86 tackles, including eight for losses and three sacks, as well as a pick six. Equipped with a 4.6 second 40-yard dash and solid football IQ, Steeb is a scary combination of speed and strength. The redshirt junior linebacker is another big hitter looking to build upon his coming out year. He didn't receive any postseason accolades last year, but he can potentially be All-CAA by season's end.

Coming down the roster, there are a couple of sophomores that might end up snagging that third linebacker spot, joining Shockley and Steeb. Drew Wiley and Keeling Hunter had double digit appearances last season. Wiley, a redshirt sophomore, is the older brother of defensive end Jeff. He's a solid hitter and a swift linebacker that moves well at stopping the run. Wiley appeared in all 13 games last season. As for Hunter, he played in 11 games as a freshman last year. Hunter has great football instincts and is adept at reading and reacting to plays pretty quickly. He's a high-motor linebacker and will be a great piece for the Villanova defense, whether that happens this year or down the line.

The Wildcats welcome four linebackers--Amin Black, Forrest Rhyne, Josh Patrick, and walk-on Patrick Reed. This is a talented linebacker class, and while they will likely take the backseat to some of the older guys on the roster, they will most likely see the field on special teams or possibly even redshirt. Next season or two years down the line though...