Back in March, I covered the inside linebackers as part of our spring preview series. Not much has really changed from a personnel standpoint, so I’ll just point you to that link for a refresher. Henry To’o To’o enters the 2022 season as the unquestioned leader in the middle, not only of the linebacker group but of the entire defense. He will likely be on the field every down save for garbage time, and the unit will go as far as his direction and execution takes it.
Next to To’o To’o Is where the questions lie. Christian Harris was drafted by the Houston Texans in April’s NFL draft, leaving a void at the “Will” linebacker spot. Defensive coordinator Pete Golding offered some insight on the competition at that position recently.
“I think at that Will spot, based on what you’re in, whether you’re in a 3-4 system or a 4-2, based on what you’re seeing, you’ve got (Jaylen) Moody that’s got experience in the system. You’ve got Deontae Lawson, who I think had a good spring, had a good summer. I think he’s having a good fall camp. I think there’s a push right there right now.
“And then you add young players to that with Jihaad Campbell and, I think, Ian Jackson has been preparing the right way, practicing hard. We’re moving some guys around and we’re getting those guys to complete, and that’s what fall camp is for. But we’ll have to come out of camp and see who that guy is.”
This was the first we had heard about Campbell working with the inside group. He came in as the #2 edge rusher in the 2022 class, and the fact that he was mentioned by Golding while names like Demouy Kennedy and Kendall Blackshire were not speaks volumes about his potential.
Still, it sounds like it’s primarily a two horse race between Moody and Lawson to see who breaks camp as the starter. It was also interesting to hear Pete mention different formations: perhaps the smaller, faster Lawson will play in nickel while Moody plays in base? Moody played well when forced into action in the 2020 playoff, but for whatever reason didn’t see much playing time last year. Lawson showed out in his first spring game, but didn’t manage to see much in the way of meaningful time with To’o To’o and Harris around.
With spread offenses forcing defenses into nickel and dime formations regularly, and necessitating speed and coverage ability at the weakside position, I’d expect Lawson to get the bulk of the snaps this season while Moody plays a smaller role. Watch out for Campbell and Jackson, though. Both were highly rated, explosive athletes in their own right and based on Golding’s comments, Lawson better watch his back.
No matter who comes out on top, this group should be among the strongest in the nation and will be pivotal for a championship run in 2022.