New Look to Linebackers in Spring

Last Saturday's Spring Game showcased a linebacking corps that was completely different from the one Eagles fans saw last fall.

Missing were all three starters from last season: Ray Henderson, Ricky Brown, and Brian Toal. Henderson and Brown represent two of the five defensive starters from last year (along with Mathias Kiwanuka, Al Washington, and Jazzmen Williams) that will be graduating in a few weeks. Toal sat out the game for precautionary reasons, still nursing a shoulder injury that he suffered against N.C. State back in November. The injury kept Toal out of the last game of the season at Maryland and he saw limited action during the MPC Computers Bowl a little over a month later.

There's nothing to worry about, though; Toal plans to be back at full strength when the team resumes practice in the summer. By avoiding contact this spring, Toal says, the will-be junior will avoid any setbacks to the healing process, which has taken longer than he expected.

"Originally, when it happened, I thought it was just a regular stinger and I'd be back in two plays later," Toal said after the game, wearing sneakers and sweats. "The [the team trainers] said three months, but it's been longer than that. I didn't think I'd be out this long….The strength's coming back a lot better now, but it's still going to be tender when you're hitting and stuff like that - the strength's probably 90% right now. It's a 99% chance I'll be clear [for the fall]."

If you think this might affect coach Tom O'Brien's decision to use the "First and Toal" offense, think again. "I'm sure it'll still be around," Toal said with a smile. "It better be."

"When he was cleared for the bowl game, he was cleared to play offense, not defense," O'Brien said in his office after the game. Toal's injury to his shoulder, which also tightened nerves in his neck, didn't allow him to have full motion with his head and, therefore, didn't allow him to perform his usual duties as a linebacker. Once he's back to 100%, Toal will be ready to play on both sides of the ball.

Next to Toal, the starting spots vacated by Henderson and Brown will most likely be occupied by Jolonn Dunbar and Tyronne Pruitt in ‘06. Both juniors next year, Dunbar and Pruitt looked like they had something to prove last Saturday. Anchoring an impressive White Team defense behind BC's ponderous defensive line, the two returning lettermen were flying around on the field making tackles. They crashed the backfield consistently to lay hits on L.V. Whitworth (in the first half) and Andre Callender (in the second). They chased down deceptively quick Matt Ryan, Maroon's quarterback, when the big front four hurried him out of the pocket. They baited Ryan to dump off passes to his tight-ends and fullbacks, just so they could line up and pummel the unsuspecting receivers. It was an impressive display of speed, tackling ability, pursuit, and experience from two linebackers who each saw significant time as backups in their first two seasons.

Another promising sign at the Spring Game was the play of Robert Francois and Mike McLaughlin. Francois, a sophomore next year, was impossible to ignore on Saturday as he was in on just as many plays as Dunbar and Pruitt. His best highlight came on a third-down play in the first half when he left his feet to crush Ryan Thompson as the tight-end tried to haul in a pass. Francois jarred the ball loose and forced the Maroon to concede the possession (Johnny Ayers was busy playing baseball next door, so punts were walked off by about 40 yards downfield). McLaughlin played for the Maroon Team and, although he wasn't as recognizable as the other three, made some noise on the following possession when he blitzed through the middle and stopped A.J. Brooks dead in his tracks for a loss. Redshirted his freshman year, McLaughlin will probably be used quite frequently in '06 as O'Brien looks to add depth to the depleted linebacker position.

Although he played in Maroon's defensive backfield on Saturday due to a number of injuries, Kevin Akins has also seen time this spring as a linebacker. The coaching staff tested Akins' pass rush ability during the spring game by blitzing him from the safety spot as often as they might a linebacker and he proved he could handle his assignment by making a number of backfield tackles. Freshman Garrett Seeger is another candidate to convert from safety to linebacker and serve as a backup next fall.

As for the incoming class of freshman, the Eagles have a few talented ‘backers waiting to explode on the scene. But we won't get our first look at them in Maroon and Gold until they arrive this summer.


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