White: Inexperienced Linebackers Learning on the Fly
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — What UVa’s football team sees Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is likely to bear little resemblance to what the Wahoos saw last weekend at Scott Stadium.
Virginia opened the season against the University of Richmond, a power in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. The Cavaliers, who whipped UR 34-13, play their second game Saturday night.
The opponent? Southern California, a giant in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of the college game.
“It’s a big difference,” UVa linebacker Aaron Taliaferro said on a teleconference Wednesday in Charlottesville. “You can’t really compare the two teams.”
Taliaferro was referring to USC’s superior speed, but the same holds true for the teams in general. USC, unlike UR, is loaded with players who came out of high school as four- and five-star recruits. On offense, the Trojans are especially dangerous at the skill positions — tailback, wide receiver and quarterback — and that will put added pressure on Taliaferro and the other linebackers in Virginia’s new 4-3 defense.
The Wahoos are experienced in the front four and, to a lesser degree, in the secondary, especially if senior cornerback Ras-I Dowling (hamstring) is able to play Saturday night. But their linebackers are another story.
Against Richmond, UVa’s starters were sophomores LaRoy Reynolds and Ausar Walcott on the outside and Taliaferro, a junior, in the middle. For each, it was the first start of his college career. Moreover, Reynolds and Walcott were safeties last season, when Virginia’s base defense was the 3-4.
The only linebacker in first-year coach Mike London’s program who has significant experience is Steve Greer. A redshirt sophomore, Greer started every game at one of the inside spots in 2009 and led the ‘Hoos in tackles.
Reynolds was the undisputed star of the group in last weekend’s opener. He had 3 tackles for loss and led UVa with 8 stops overall. Fifth-year senior Darnell Carter, a reserve outside linebacker, also impressed, with 2 tackles for loss, including a sack.
Walcott was credited with 3 tackles, Taliaferro with 2 and Greer with 1.
“All of those guys, I thought, played with a lot of passion and energy and flew around to the ball, which is what we’re striving for on each play,” said Vincent Brown, the Cavaliers’ first-year linebackers coach.
“Now, there’s improvement that we need to make in a lot of areas, but overall I was pleased with it.”
Taliaferro and Greer split time at middle linebacker versus Richmond, and that’s likely to be the case again Saturday night.
“One of the things that we want here is, we always want our guys competing for playing time,” Brown said. “In an ideal world, yeah, you’d like to see one guy emerge, but we feel very comfortable with both of them.”
Against the Spiders, Brown said, what “I was really striving for was to try to get both of them about the same number of snaps, and keep them fresh. They both have done a tremendous job for us.
“At the end of the game, I think Aaron had a few more snaps, because he plays in our nickel package also. But Steve got some good work, and he’s going to continue to get some good reps also.”
Reynolds overshadowed Walcott in their debuts as starters, but the 6-4, 230-pound Walcott “did fine,” Brown said. “He’s a kid that has tremendous athleticism, and although the flow of the game didn’t dictate him the opportunities to make the big impact plays that LaRoy had, for what we were looking for he did well. And he’s going to continue to get better. Not having played much, he’ll see things faster, he’ll play faster, and I think he’s going to be a really terrific player for us, not only this season, but in the future.”
On the depth chart, Walcott and junior Jared Detrick are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, at Will linebacker. Carter backs up Reynolds at Sam linebacker. They’re not locked into those spots, though.
“For the most part, depending on what an offense is giving us, those two outside linebackers are interchangeable, because when you face all the spread stuff, a lot of the rules in coverage and run fits are exactly identical, Brown said. “So if you get in a bind you can take a guy who maybe plays the Sam and slide him over to the Will backer and not be out of place, and vice versa.”