Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Why our defense is bad part one: Linebackers

I mentioned in an earlier post that, despite some apparent weaknesses in our game, I was happy after our win over Colorado State. To go on the road and put up big points, including a game-winning drive in under a minute and a half, is something worth relishing.

However, I also said I’d write later in the week about our horrible defense.

Well Tuesday is late enough, I guess, because here I am.

I’ve thought a lot about our defense over the past few games. It’s not hard to see we are being exploited. It’s clear that BYU has some problems when bad teams like UNLV and Colorado State are putting up big numbers and big points against us and no one else.

The question is… what are the problems?

I know there are a lot of problems, but today I want to talk about linebackers.

BYU’s defense begins and ends with linebackers. In a 3-4 scheme, linebackers are responsible for filling holes to stop the run, rushing the passer, covering the short diagonals and taking away the flats. Bryan Kehl and David Nixon, our outside linebackers in ’06 and ‘07, were great. They both had the speed to play sideline to sideline.

Additionally, we’ve had incredible middle linebackers. Guys like Cameron Jensen, Markell Staffieri, Aaron Wagner and Kelly Poppinga have been great at not only playing their assignments, but also leading the rest of the defense. Solid linebacker play meant less reliance on defensive backs, and more opportunities to pressure the quarterback for the defensive line.

The result has been a tough BYU defense that rarely let opponents score over 24 points.

This year the story is a little different. Our linebackers consist of three new starters (one of which is a JuCo transfer) who in my opinion haven’t quite figured things out. David Nixon is a solid anchor, but his weakside counterpart, Coleby Clawson (who is a fantastic pass rusher) is still learning the position. In the middle we have Matt Bauman and Shawn Doman, who splits reps with Matt Ah You. I like all three players a lot—especially Ah You. But they are all very young. They haven’t really mastered the responsibilities of the inside linebackers, and no one has emerged as a clear leader—the likes of Kelly Poppinga and Cam Jensen.

I said earlier in the year that our linebacker unit would be thin and weak, and unfortunately I was right. I was encouraged to learn about the return of Terrance Hooks and Grant Nelson, inside and outside linebackers, respectively, who both have playing experience. But their progress returning from injuries has been slow.

I guess the biggest disappointment is that our linebackers can’t seem to make stops when they need to. That was one thing I loved about Cameron Jensen—when it was third and one you could count on him to bust through the line to make a drive-stopping tackle.

I remember specifically when BYU played Wyoming in 2006. It was third or fourth down and inches. The Cowboys ran a QB sneak to pick up the first down. Easy, right? The QB just needed to lean forward and he would have gotten it. Well Jensen flew over the line of scrimmage at the snap, caught Cowboy QB Karsten Sween by the shoulders and threw him down before he even started pushing. Badda bing, badda boom, BYU ball. Jensen anticipated plays. He sniffed out the offense, and as a result gave the ball back to BYU.

I wish our current crop of LBs were a little more like Jensen. I wish they knew how to hit holes and break through to get to the opposing running back/quarterback. I don’t know who else noticed this, but when we blitzed Colorado State we had absolutely no effectiveness. We brought a blitz 12 times and didn’t pressure the QB once. Part of that has to do with a good offensive line, I guess, but part of it stems from the fact that linebackers and other blitzers are simply having a hard time finding holes and gaps.

A blitz should be a surprise. Blitzes should be directed toward unsuspecting areas. Time after time I saw BYU linebackers just simply run into the offensive line thinking a hole would automatically be there. A word of advice: Just because you call a blitz play doesn’t mean you’ll have a free road to the QB. You still need to make good decisions.

Anyway, this is turning out to be a little longer than I wanted it to be. I’m just a little upset about our linebacker situation right now. Linebackers, like I said, are the heart and soul of our defense. Good linebacker play will take pressure off every other defensive player. Poor play, on the other hand, will put more pressure on our guys.

I just wish we had the players, and I’m not sure how we became so thin at the position suddenly. We could sure use a certain LDS linebacker that lives in Hawaii, has cousins on the team and happens to be the No. 1 linebacker recruit in the nation…

Tomorrow I want to talk about another reason why our defense is lacking: Coaching.

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