On paper, the Jackets have plenty of capable options as they look to fill the void left by P.J. Davis at strongside linebacker. In practice, it’s not so easy to replace a three-year starter who had over 300 tackles in his career. The Jackets have a few veteran reserves who will get a look as his potential replacement, and while they—and several incoming freshmen--will all get looks in fall camp, it’s possible that Tech may not need to look any further than the first man up for a new starter.
Vic Alexander, a junior from Jacksonville, FL, was one of Tech’s top recruits in the 2015 class and was Davis’s primary backup a year ago. Alexander is far from a lock to win the starting job, but he is both one of the most experienced returning linebackers and one of the most talented players at the position—a fast, rangy linebacker who can hit like a truck. He needs to develop a few areas of his skillset, but he was atop the depth chart as of the spring game, and a strong fall camp may well lock up a spot in the starting lineup for the rising junior.
Alexander saw action in all 13 games last season as a reserve linebacker and on special teams. His snaps were fairly limited overall, so he finished with just 15 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss. His lone solo tackle for loss was a nice play: against Clemson, he was the key defender on a read option play inside the five-yard line, but he reacted quickly enough after Deshaun Watson kept the ball to avoid the running back and bring Watson down for a one-yard loss. (A clip would be linked here, but regrettably, all footage of that game has been locked away forever.)
When he lined up on defense, Alexander’s biggest impact was in run support. His strongest trait in his high school film was his ability to pursue the ballcarrier and bring him down, often over a long distance, and he has flashed that ability at the college level. He has the speed to sweep to either sideline to make a play, and if he has a relatively clear path to the ballcarrier, he has a strong ability to lock on and maintain pursuit. For a defense that gave up over 170 rushing yards per game a year ago, having a linebacker with the range to play sideline to sideline will be a very useful asset.
The biggest question mark for Alexander is his coverage ability. He can be an effective blitzing linebacker, but just as often he’ll need to drop back when Tech rushes four or sends another defender on a blitz. Alexander has the speed to run with plenty of receivers, but his ability to stick with a receiver on a route over the middle or to patrol a zone effectively are both question marks. Linebacker coverage has been an issue for Tech for a few years now—essentially since the departures of Quayshawn Nealy and Brandon Watts—and having a starter who can be trusted on passing downs would be a huge boon.
Alexander got the nod as a starter on the first-team defense in the spring game, lining up alongside Brant Mitchell on the Gold team’s defensive unit. In on-and-off action, he had three tackles, all on quarterback TaQuon Marshall—two on standard option keepers to the outside, and a third after Marshall tried to cut back inside on a keeper. Alexander also helped to produce the first turnover of the game, shedding a block from B-back KirVonte Benson and then diving on a loose ball for a fumble recovery.
Overall, the spring game reaffirmed Alexander’s strengths in run support. He did drop back in coverage quite a bit as well, particularly late in the first half; however, he was mostly tasked with spying the QB, and even when he was playing a zone, the White squad’s receivers barely ever crossed it. The only notable concern that emerged was that (fumble recovery aside) he struggled to get off of blocks at times, which caused him to be taken out of the play. Disengaging from blockers has been a wider issue for the defense for some time, though—it’s hardly confined to just one player.
What to Expect
Realistically, Tech has enough depth at linebacker that even if Alexander wins the starting SLB job, he will almost certainly be part of a rotation. The question is what exactly that rotation will look like. If senior Terrell Lewis shifts over from weakside linebacker (which sees fewer snaps thanks to Tech’s frequent use of a 4-2-5 front), then Lewis—one of the better coverage linebackers on the roster—could end up stepping in on third downs and in other passing situations. True freshman Bruce Jordan-Swilling is virtually certain to work his way onto the field as well.
But if one player is going to win the starting job and be a true three-down linebacker like Davis was, Alexander is the best bet. Talent has never been in question with him, and if he refines his coverage and block shedding abilities ahead of the season, he could quietly emerge as one of the most exciting players on the defense in 2017.