April 13, 2007
ATHENS, Ohio - The Bobcat football team held its 10th practice of the spring on Friday, April 13. The workout was also part of the Second Annual Ohio Football Coaches' Clinic that runs through Saturday's scrimmage.
One of the biggest questions facing the Bobcat defense is how to replace the starting linebacking trio of Matt Muncy, Tyler Russ and Michael Graham. The three combined for more than 90 starts and 700 tackles during their four-year careers. The cupboard is far from bare, however. Several players return that saw meaningful action as reserves in 2006.
Michael Brown Junior
Brown is in his second season at linebacker after playing safety during his freshman year. Brown missed nine games in 2006 because of a broken leg. In his five games, he registered 11 tackles.
Errik Ejike Junior
Ejike, a transfer from Kilgore College in his hometown of Tyler, Texas, enrolled at Ohio in time for winter quarter and will participate in spring drills. He led his junior college team and ranked fourth in the conference with 94 tackles in 2006, and earned All-Southwest Junior College Football Conference Honorable Mention accolades.
Chris Hall Junior
Hall is another former defensive back that converted to linebacker in 2006. A former corner, Hall played in 12 games as a reserve outside linebacker last season, making seven stops.
Taj Henley Senior
A back-up to All-MAC middle linebacker Matt Muncy the past two seasons, Henley will be competing for the starting job as a senior in 2007. He played in all 14 games last season, making 14 tackles, including 2.5 for loss. He is the most experienced linebacker on the roster with 33 games under his belt.
Jordan Meyers Junior
Meyers, one of the primary reserves at the will linebacker spot for two seasons, was limited in 2006 by a leg inury. Despite playing in only seven games, he made 27 tackles the most of any non-starting linebacker. He has played in 16 games with 48 tackles in his two seasons. He returned from a six-game layoff to make two tackles in the GMAC Bowl.
Lee Renfro Sophomore
Renfro was one of three converted defensive backs manning a reserve linebacker spot in 2006. A safety during his redshirt year in 2005, Renfro played in all 14 games last season as a back up and on special teams. He registered 22 tackles in his first season on the field.
Others in the mix: Stafford Gatling will get a long look after redshirting as the only linebacker in the 2006 recruiting class. Gatling moved to the inside linebacker position prior to the start of spring practice. Josh Ballard, Chad Clemens, Clevon Kirkland, Kendale Moore and Kyle Robbins also joined the team last fall and redshirted. Josh Lasure is a sophomore transfer from Malone College. Two rookies will join the fray in the fall. Jay Edwards out of nearby Nelsonville-York High School is slated for an outside linebacker spot. Edwards recorded 87 tackles and three interceptions in 2006 and was named conference MVP and district MVP playing quarterback and linebacker. Middle linebacker Noah Keller comes to Athens from Kearney High School in Kearney, Neb. Keller recorded 204 total tackles, including 82 solos, in 13 games as a senior, and was named Nebraska Defensive Player of the Year by the Omaha World Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star.
Q&A with Linebackers Coach Ross Els
How have the players responded to their different roles this spring?
"It's an interesting bunch because, number one, they're hungry. I keep saying that because these guys for two years have been watching the other three (Muncy, Russ and Graham) play, and now these guys finally get their opportunity. If you look at a group that's very focused and works extremely, extremely hard, that's this group we've got right now."
Which will be more difficult to replace, the on-field production or the leadership the linebackers brought to the team last year?
"Both really helped us get the program turned around. Now, we have that in this group also. The senior leadership won't be just the linebacker position. There are a couple other positions that are stepping forward and taking over because the previous class showed them this is how we do it. On-field production, we still want to get better every time we put a team on the field. The '07 unit should be better than the '06, and the '08 should be better than the '07. That's the way you build a program."
Have you had to talk to this group about just being themselves on the field and not trying to play like last year's group did?
"No, they're looking from play to play. We don't talk about a lot of long term type things. We look at what we have to do on that individual play, and these guys can focus on that pretty well."
What can people expect to see out of this year's linebackers?
"It's a little bit of a different crew. The number one thing, I think, is that we might be a step quicker when you add all three positions together. I think you're going to see some flashes across the field from this group - all of the sudden just this blur running down and chasing some things down from behind. Sometimes we get going a little bit too quick, and we might miss a read every once in awhile because these guys have not had the game situations. We're a step quicker, but obviously less experienced."
Can that increased speed overcome a missed read or alignment mistake?
"It can, but unfortunately sometimes when you make one wrong step it's too late. These guys just need to get all the practice they can get. I like how Coach Solich has given us a lot of live situations this spring so these guys can see it full tilt. Our offense shows us every offensive scheme that we're going to see all year so this is the most confused they ever should be. If we do take a wrong step, hopefully the speed can overcome that."
How would you characterize the depth this season?
"I think it's okay. I was really happy with the depth last year because the guys that will be playing now were the back-ups. This year, it's almost completely new guys, either a freshman or a transfer. The depth isn't quite there yet. It's a very talented group when you look at the twos and threes, but we're not quite as good depth wise as we were last year."
The annual Green & White game will be held on Saturday, April 21 at 2 p.m. Ohio Athletics and the Ohio Sports Administration program is teaming up to present the second annual Bobcat Blitz which featured a full day of events surrounding the spring game. For more information, log on to www.BobcatBlitz.com.
Ohio Athletics will also hold its biannual merchandise sale at Pepsi Tail-Great Park.
Information about 2007 Ohio football tickets, including the return of the Bobcat Family Pack, can be found by clicking here.