Brian Murphy: Linebackers are an endangered species

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comSeptember 13, 2013 

Chris Santini spent last fall, his first as a linebacker in the Boise State football program, adding weight. Santini put on 20 pounds during his redshirt season, topping out at 235 around the Broncos’ bowl appearance.

“I thought that’s what I had to be,” Santini said.

That, Santini quickly discovered, was old thinking for linebackers, a relic of an era when linebackers crashed into fullbacks, took on pulling guards and plugged holes in hopes of tackling running backs.

“I quickly realized I had to drop all that weight,” said Santini, a backup linebacker this season and one of the Broncos’ key special teams contributors.

“You just got to be fast. You could be 200 pounds to 205 pounds and still taking on fullbacks, you’re just doing it different. You just got to be able to cover, too. It’s a lot more coverage than what you used to do.”

Santini weighs 207 pounds now, as he and other linebackers adapt to the changing demands of the position.

As offenses push the tempo and spread the field, linebackers are being asked to do more than ever. The assignments for defensive linemen and defensive backs have remained largely the same. Linebackers, in danger of being run right off the field, have had their roles expanded greatly.

“It has changed. You’re looking for guys who can really run as opposed to the big bruising guy, that image in your mind of a middle linebacker,” Boise State linebackers coach Bob Gregory said. “You’ve still got to have a middle linebacker, but that guy better be able to run.”

Cover slot receivers. Make plays in space. Defend the pass as well as the run. Chase smaller, faster players. Key on the quarterback. Be smarter.

Do it all or risk being replaced by quicker safeties or cornerbacks.

“We want to see fullbacks coming at us. We want to see pullers coming at us. We’re not trying to chase little guys out on the sidelines,” said middle linebacker Blake Renaud, the heaviest of BSU’s linebackers at 243 pounds.

But Renaud knows those days are gone. The Broncos played spread, up-tempo offenses in their first two games of the season against Washington and UT Martin. Fresno State, Boise State’s opponent next week, will be more of the same. Southern Miss, Utah State, Nevada and Wyoming also employ versions of the spread offense.

“You can’t be some big, 260-pound guy running around. You won’t make it against a no-huddle team,” Renaud said. “You’ve got to be smarter and you’ve got to be willing to give 100 percent effort to chase after people.

“You just got to change everything about it. It’s not just a downhill game anymore, it’s sideline to sideline. That’s what it is now. You’ve just got to get used to it.”

Air Force will test the Broncos’ young linebackers sideline to sideline with a different style. The Broncos will have to contend with a myriad ball fakes and play-action passes, designed to test them mentally as much as physically.

It’s a lot for such a young crew to absorb. The Broncos have lost veteran linebackers Jonathan Brown and Travis Saxton to injuries this season, pushing Santini and true freshmen Darren Lee and Tanner Vallejo into expanded defensive roles.

Among the Broncos’ top seven linebackers this week, only Renaud and Corey Bell are upperclassmen. Four are freshmen, including redshirt freshman Ben Weaver, who is tied for the team lead with 14 tackles (11 solo).

“Pay attention in meetings. That’s the biggest things,” Renaud said of the young linebackers. “Watch film and pay attention in meetings. Coaches know you can play. You’ve got to know the plays that you’re in. You can’t hesitate.”

So not only do the linebackers need to be fitter and faster, they also have to be smarter.

“Everyone is trying to pick on people that are messing up out there,” Renaud said. “You don’t want to be that guy.”

Got that linebackers? Can you handle all of that?

Hope so, since any chance of stopping offenses — and keeping your spot on the field — depends on it.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444; Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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