NEW YORK—This is the seventh part of a preseason series previewing each of the 2017 Columbia Football position groups. For our next position group preview, we take a look at Columbia’s linebackers in 2017.
Columbia Linebackers coach Justin Stovall lost all three of his starting linebackers from the 2016 team. All three graduated and were at least two-year starters. Those players include First Team All-Ivy League selection and middle linebacker Gianmarco Rea and outside linebackers Keith Brady and Christian Conway. A candidate for Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, Rea enjoyed one of the best defensive seasons ever experienced by a Columbia player as he led the Ivy League in tackles (108), ranked 12th nationally in solo tackles (5.8 per game), led the Lions and ranked No. 23 nationally in tackles for loss (15-46), made five sacks and six quarterback hurries. He also reached double figure tackles in nine of 10 games on the year and concluded his four-year 35-game career with 218 tackles (110 solo), 20 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks. Brady ranked third on the team in tackles (71) and totaled 9.5 tackles for loss, while Conway contributed 65 tackles (35 solo), four sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. Those three players accounted 36 percent (244 of 680) of Columbia’s tackles and comprised three of the team’s top four tacklers in 2016. Their experience will be difficult to replace.
“Last year’s linebackers group left the bar high but we always talk about ‘the next man up mentality’,” Stovall said. “I would say that this group has a ton of potential from an athletic and talent standpoint. That’s not a knock on the previous group of linebackers because they were outstanding. But as we progress as a program, that’s what we’re looking to accomplish at every position. That’s what’s going to help us get to the top of the Ivy League. I think we have the players at linebacker to get us there. We have brought those type of guys into our program. Now, it’s about getting them the experience that our previous group had so we can see them emerge as players who can be better than what we’ve had. Our players want this opportunity and they’ve prepared well.”
Replacing Columbia’s trio is a talented and athletic group who all have collegiate game experience. Among those veterans challenging for starting roles and playing time include sophomore middle linebacker Jalen Williams, sophomore Michael Murphy, junior Sean White and senior Parker Tobia. Last year, Williams played in eight games, made five tackles and contributed primarily on special teams. He is a prime candidate to replace Rea at middle linebacker. Murphy made seven tackles in seven games and also saw action on special teams, while White saw action in nine games. Tobia is a three-year senior who has seen action at both linebacker and on special teams.
“We have a talented and athletic group but we have big shoes to fill,” Stovall said. “Jalen Williams is emerging as the starting MIKE and Michael Murphy has been emerging as the starting rover,” Stovall said. ““Michael Murphy has done a great job. The guys that stayed here over the summertime, you’re able to see the work that they put in with our strength and conditioning staff that has translated out to the field. Jalen Williams basically changed his body and is ready to play as a full-time starter for us.”
“We’ve shuffled around the WILL position a bit. Sean White has done a tremendous job, Parker Tobia has done a great job and freshman Justin Woodley has emerged and will see playing time. Sean White, having never played linebacker before, it took some time for him to come around, but from spring until now, the progress that he’s made is remarkable.
Other linebackers who are competing for playing time are junior Calvin Falkenhayn (nine games, four tackles), senior Jason Vravick and senior Turner DeMuth, who switched positions from running back and sophomore Max Mullaney, who is also seeing action on the defensive line.
“All the freshmen are doing a great job,” Stovall said. “We’ll probably travel three freshmen. All of them have been outstanding. Justin Woodley, Carson Powell, Cameren Carter and Luke Adams have all done a great job.”