They’re like the old Visa slogan, except they’re big, fast, and ready to end your drive.
Impact linebackers aren’t a sure thing in football, but if a team is lucky enough to have one, he’s everywhere you want him to be. Luckily for most local teams there are some, and these players force opposing coaches to scheme differently or get burned.
Wahkiakum’s Ashden Niemeyer and Naselle’s Fa’aoso Tutu’u have made a name for themselves by stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. Others, like Mark Morris’ Noah Mejia and Clatskanie’s Sam Shockley defend the pass with the best of them.
Few can do both, but several area linebackers have shown the ability to do just that, and the impact on games and their teams is undeniable.
Reading between the lines
One of the most important traits a good linebacker possesses is the ability to read an offense and act on what he sees. This might seem easy from the top of the bleachers, but reading a quarterback’s eyes through a wall of nine blockers? is a tall order. Even tougher is knowing where to be.
That’s one area Kelso’s Josh Webb and Riley Noah have dominated; Noah delivered a highlight-worthy hit on a Heritage running back in September, which displayed the ability to read and react. Webb recently shut down his assignments against Prairie with these same traits.
“It’s really important. It’s a ton of reps, and it’s a ton of savvy. Both of those guys are very athletic savvy,” Kelso coach Steve Amrine said. “They’re smart athletes, competitive and smart.”
It doesn’t just stop there, though. After a linebacker finalizes his diagnostics, the next move is to communicate the defensive answer. That’s typically the middle linebacker’s responsibility, which is where Rainier’s Joey Tripp excels.
“Joey is the rock,” Rainier coach Mike King said. “He communicates what defense we are in on every play. Ask any coach and your ‘mike’ backer controls the middle.”
Beyond the read, reacting decisively is where even the world’s smartest might struggle.
Enter Woodland’s Kenyon Guy, a gym rat who was caught loafing on only a single play in practice last year. The reason? His toe was in a great deal of pain, which became evident when he pulled his cleats off after the session. His dedication and effort is one of the reasons Woodland coach Mike Woodward considers him to be so successful. Listening to Guy tell it, Woodward is probably right.
“My favorite part of playing linebacker is the snap of the ball,” Guy said. “My adrenaline pumps and that’s when I use my vision. That’s when I can read plays, and therefore make plays. When I think, it’s ‘What can I do to make this play? What can I do to take a run from the outside back inside to my guys? What can I do to help out?’”
Covering a wide swath
Ray Lewis and Mike Singletary made a career off highlight-reel hits on running backs, but the passing game has become increasingly prominent over the years, even in high school.
Backers are asked to do even more in the current era of football, sometimes lining up against another team’s speedster. That’s an area which separates the best from the rest.
“It’s very rare,” Amrine said. “A lot of times at the college or the NFL level, you’d bring in a nickel, another corner. At the high-school level we don’t always have that luxury. So to have guys that can cover is really good.”
Tripp’s 13 tackles in Rainier’s defeat of Clatskanie last week understate how much impact he had in the outcome. He made plays which required vision and deep knowledge of the game, but also the ability to travel from one point to another very quickly.
“If you have an elite backer I don’t care what offense is being ran,” King said, “he will have a big impact on the game.”
Oh, stuff it
Just because teams are throwing more doesn’t mean run stuffs are less important. On the contrary, stopping the run forces the offense into predictable situations and dictates terms.
“I love looking over to the sideline and seeing (coach Joe) Krieder saying ‘Yes, let’s go!’” Webb said. “I love that face. It’s a good confirmation to us that we’re doing our job.”
It might be the toughest aspect of football to tackle a proficient running back, something that not only goes against every human instinct but is also simply hard to do.
Then there’s the task of tackling the shiftier characters, certainly a reason Guy could appreciate not having to play against the state’s yardage leader, teammate Tyler Flanagan. He still has to worry about getting lit up by a blocker, though.
“Usually there’s another lineman coming to blow me up,” Guy said. “I’ll try to use my arms to shuffle away, and if that doesn’t work, I’m getting pressed by a big ol’ lineman.”
Regardless of how potent a team’s offense is, whether it be a top quarterback, running back, or both, linebackers provide a hefty barrier to stymie an opponent’s yardage totals.
Elite linebackers destroy it.