PITTSBURG — Thinking on your feet, being a leader and being a versatile defender are just a few of the challenges which come with being a linebacker at Pittsburg State.
The MIAA isn’t short on dynamic playmakers on the offensive end, so PSU coach Carl Roth is working harder than ever with his group of linebackers to be prepared for a battle every game.
“Traditionally, the linebackers and the free safeties are known as the quarterback of the defense,” Roth said. “We’ve got really strong leaders. We have three captains on defense and they’re all linebackers. They’re very strong leaders, well respected, tough, train hard in the offseason, do well academically and are just all-around student athletes.”
Being able to get to the line of scrimmage to stop the run on one play and dropping back to defend a quick wide receiver on the next, means versatility is a must for anyone at the position.
“It’s very difficult to play the position,” PSU linebacker Demetrius Bernard said. “Especially with the way offenses are run now. Everybody comes to the line with two plays ready and are just waiting to see your formation, so it’s like you’re wrong before the play even starts. You just have to make adjustments based on that and be able to do everything. You have to be able to fit the run, play the pass and have good vocal skills. It’s a tough job, but it’s a fun one.”
When it comes to stopping the run, being able to limit space for ball carriers and forcing them to into the teeth of the defense is the basic strategy Pitt State is implementing.
“We’re trying to eliminate the need to make open-field tackles,” PSU linebacker Ethan Fugitt said. “We’re trying to fill our gaps, so they won’t have anywhere to go. We’ve been focusing a lot on the running game, so they will have to make passes.”
If the Gorillas can manage to contain the run, it could make the opponent’s play calling more predictable.
“The philosophy is to take the running game away first and foremost,” Roth said. “That makes teams one-dimensional and means you can play the pass a little better.”
This is all easier said than done, as many teams in the MIAA don’t shy away from throwing the ball down the field.
“Trying to stop the pass is the hard part of being a linebacker, because you have to be committed to the run first,” Bernard said. “And these days with all of the spread offenses, you just have to be able to think quick. The main thing they’re trying to do is to get you one-on-one in space against someone who’s supposed to be a better athlete than you are. You have to have good leverage and good awareness all the time.”
As if there wasn’t enough to speculate about before the snap, quarterbacks rolling out of the pocket and running the ball for themselves can pose a big threat.
“Last year, we played the pass very well,” Roth said. “But this year, we’re trying to incorporate less matchups so we don’t get burned by quarterback scrambles. That was a problem last year, particularly because the opposing quarterback was able to keep drives alive. We’re still going to matchup, but we’re also going to try and be a little heavier in our zones and to hopefully contain quarterbacks.”
No job on the football field is easy, but the expectations of linebackers in the MIAA only seems to go up each season.
“The MIAA is starting to be thought of as the SEC of DII, and that’s very true,” Roth said. “If you’re not physically and mentally prepared to go to battle, you will lose the game. You just have to be prepared every week, or there’s a chance for anyone on your schedule to knock you off.”
Although the challenge will be difficult, the Gorillas are optimistic for a better year after a productive summer.
“We had a tremendous offseason and the players now have a tighter bond,” Roth said. “We feel like we have a unit that’s stronger together this season and we’re preaching that you have to care for each other and pick each other up. We’re all in it together.”
— Jordan Buckamneer is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @jbuckamneer.