By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
There are many talented linebackers and defensive backs across our coverage area that features more than 60 teams. Below are some of the top linebackers and defensive backs to watch this season. This list is in alphabetical order.
NOTE: Some worthy players may appear on one of our other five football watch lists. A player can only appear on one list.
Jaden Aven, Nixa Senior
Each year we talk about how explosive spread offenses can be, but guys like Aven are the reason they seem to be slowing down locally. From his outside linebacker spot he’s able to be a presence on the edge against the run, but he’s also fluid enough to defend backs, tight ends and even receivers in space. His versatility is why he was an All-COC selection and will be one of the state’s top linebackers.
Garrett Drown, West Plains Senior
He’s another hybrid who stands up on the edge or puts his hand in the dirt. The All-Ozark Conference selection totaled 74 tackles and 7.5 sacks – with 12 quarterback hurries – on a loaded Zizzer defense. While he’s one of the best pass rushers in the Ozarks, he’s also extremely solid against the run.
Jace Easley, Ozark Senior
There weren’t many corners that were more consistent than Easley. He’s great against the run, but also excels in man-to-man or zone coverage, which is why he’s an All-COC defensive back. He finished last year with 59 tackles and four interceptions. His defensive playing time may be limited with a move to quarterback, but he will still make an impact on the defensive side of the ball.
Luke Gall, Carthage Junior
Gall is the first of several players that belonged on several different lists. His 1,051 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns were impressive, but there’s a reason Carthage only allowed 19 PPG in Missouri’s best conference and it was Gall. The stud linebacker has a crazy motor and IQ, which led to 76 tackles, 11 TFL and three PBUs. He was an All-State linebacker and All-COC pick on both sides of the ball.
Ian Jackson, Aurora Senior
See ball, get ball is how Jackson approaches his linebacker spot. He was an All-State selection behind 102 tackles and 14 tackles for loss. He’s excellent at sliding, shedding blocks and making a tackle which makes him the perfect guy to play in the Big 8. He also rushed for 394 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Expect both numbers to receive a bump this fall.
Connor Lair, West Plains Senior
To be honest, he could’ve gone on more lists than any other player from the Ozarks; he might be the best pure football player in the area. He was an All-O-Zone selection as a junior because of his defensive prowess (126 tackles, 11.5 TFL and 4 INTs) and because was a stud offensively (652 rushing yards, 328 receiving yards and 14 total touchdowns). He’ll see a larger workload offensively this fall so he could have a breakout season on that side of the ball. Basically, the future D1 football player is really good anywhere on the gridiron.
Avery Moody, Republic Senior
Moody is a long defensive back at 6-foot-2 and has developed into a playmaker against the run or the pass, which is a must if you’re going to have success in the COC. He totaled 84 tackles last year and those came from sideline-to-sideline, but Moody also finished with five PBUs. His ability to impact at every level will be key for Republic this year.
Trace Wilhite, Lamar Senior
What he lacks in size he makes up for in pure motor and heart. We’ll call him a hybrid defensive end because of how wide his split is, but he’s an absolute game change at the line of scrimmage. He finished his junior year with 7.5 sacks and 23 tackles for loss, including a two-sack state championship performance. He also rushed for 416 yards offensively.
Austin Wilkerson, Lamar Junior
Wilkerson is one of the area’s most entertaining players because you never know what he’ll do next. Last year he totaled 108 tackles and seven interceptions. He’s a defensive back with a linebacker’s mentality. Offensively, he totaled 564 yards from scrimmage with 14 touchdowns on just 68 touches. Oh, he’s also a punter. He’s just a pure football player that’ll go down as one of the all-time greats in a program full of them.
Griffin Willison, Thayer Senior
The twin brother of standout running back Jackson Willison, Griffin has developed into the heart of Thayer’s defense at middle linebacker. He’s excellent at diagnosing plays, getting downhill and finishing with a big hit. The All-State pick is also a 500-plus pound squatter and it shows in the physicality he plays with.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Drake Acheson, Sarcoxie Senior
Ty Bowman, East Newton Junior
Carson Combs, Rogersville Senior
Colton Cooper, Branson Senior
Marion Fiame, Waynesville Senior
Shane Glass, Parkview Senior
Jeremy Graham, Marshfield Senior
Austin Green, Thayer Senior
Pierce Harmon, McDonald County Junior
Reed Jensen, Kickapoo Senior
Cooper Lander, Republic Senior
Zach Lansford, Carthage Senior
Robert Lawrence, Lamar Senior
Ty Locklear, Rolla Senior
Corbin McCully, Monett Senior
Connor McTague, Glendale Senior
Blaine Mendel, Ava Senior
Cade Muscia, Lebanon Junior
Dane Napier, Seneca Senior
Jaden Parkman, Camdenton Junior
Tanner Ripko, MV-BT/Liberty Senior