Linebackers Get a Makeover

Kelly Poppinga was an All-MWC and Academic All-MWC linebacker while playing at BYU. Having gone from GA to Cougar coach in just three years, he gave insight into some linebacker changes that have been in the making for over a week now.

Kelly Poppinga helped the Cougars win consecutive conference championships in 2006 and 2007, and led the Cougar defense with 113 tackles his senior year. He knows a few things about what it takes to be a good linebacker in the 3-4 defense, and that's a position that's produced a rather glaring lack of results so far this season.

"You as a linebacker, that's your number one goal to stop the run," said Poppinga. "We have not been able to do that one time this year. Our pillar is less than a 100 yards in a game and we haven't done that once this year.

"The closest we were to that pillar was against Washington where we held them to 128 yards that game," Poppinga continued. "Other than that I think they've been over 200 yards every other game, and so obviously it's been a big emphasis in our meetings as a coaching staff."

Not helping matters is the number of injuries that the Cougar defense has suffered, and the linebackers certainly haven't avoided the injury bug.

"With Jordan [Pendleton] being out – and I don't know how long he'll be out… it sounds like it's two-to-six weeks – but when he gets back he'll be ready to go, and he's one of our best players on our defense," said Poppinga. "He's also one of the most knowledgeable players on our defense, so I'm not worried about him. I'm also not worried about Jameson Frazier once he gets healthy. Both of those guys are very reliable and very smart. They'll both come right back in and start playing as well as before they left."

The injuries and lackluster performances have led to a few recent changes in the linebacker corps. In an effort to further provide depth while matching players to a position that better fits their skill sets, the coaches have moved some players around. Jadon Wagner will now be starting at Will linebacker, where Aveni Leung-Wai will also see time, while Kyle Van Noy will be moved to the other side at Sam linebacker. Zeke Mendenhall will also be moved to Sam linebacker.

Poppinga said that "those are probably the guys we're going to go with this week, those four guys. And then Connell Hess will be a role player in that too, so we've got some guys that never really played the position and are going to get their feet wet right away come Saturday. It's going to be fun."

At 6 feet 4 inches and 245 pounds, Wagner – who's played defensive end in the past – performed rather well at the Will linebacker spot last week against Utah State. Coach Poppinga said that "Jadon is a better run stopper and he's done a better job on the tight end. Most of the time the Will linebacker is on the tight end, and Kyle [Van Noy] is a lot better in space and so that's why Kyle has been moved out into that Sam linebacker spot."

Although Leung-Wai doesn't have similar physical qualities as Van Noy or Wagner, Poppinga said he likes what he's seen from him.

"Aveni had a really good practice at that outside linebacker position his very first day," said Poppinga. "He looked very, very good and I was impressed with him.

"With Aveni it was more about depth," Poppinga continued. "We needed depth out there and it wasn't that he wasn't doing good at inside linebacker, it was just that we needed more bodies out there. Right now, for him, it's looking like it's going to be a more natural position and a more comfortable position where he's going to be more successful."

In addition, the coaches have moved defensive end Thomas Bryson to Will linebacker.

"We think he has the ability to do some things out there that can strengthen the position," said Poppinga. "We're going to try and get a lot of guys out there and see who can go out there and be the most productive and have the most success."

Although Coach Mendenhall recently took over defensive coordinator duties after Coach Hill was relieved of his duties, Poppinga said that the personnel changes on defense aren't a result of that change.

"What it really came down to was depth," said Poppinga. "Those decisions actually came before we watched film, and so they actually came last week when Coach Hill was here. We had decided to do some of those moves and adjustments and even move Thomas Bryson from the d-end position to the Will linebacker position. Really, it's the things we've thought about for a long time, and especially with Jordan getting hurt, now we've had to do it a lot faster than we initially thought we were."

With Coach Mendenhall taking control of the defense for the first time in several years, it is hoped that there will be a return to the culture of accountability, toughness, unity and playing with reckless abandon.

"Coach Hill just did things a different way," Poppinga said. "He was a very Xs-and-Os type of guy. He was a very smart guy and very intelligent. He knew this type of defense schematically and was very smart about it and knew his stuff. He kind of relied on the other coaches to bring that culture stuff that Coach Mendenhall brought here when he was the defensive coordinator.

"The cultural part of the program kind of just faded for the reason I think Coach Mendenhall's foot wasn't there, and that's what his emphasis and specialty is, the cultural part. Now I think Coach Mendenhall trusts myself and he trusts Shaun [Nua] because we were players here and went through that process of being in that culture, that process of practice and meetings and all those things that the culture involves. We know how it's supposed to be done and I think that's why we're here is to make sure that the players know and become groomed within that culture."

Now in charge of the outside linebackers, Poppinga will have many challenges and faces the daunting task of helping his players reach the level of play expected of them. Despite the uphill climb, Coach Poppinga is grateful for the opportunity to prove himself worthy of the challenge by Coach Mendenhall.

"Yes, I'm very, very happy for the opportunity," Poppinga said with a rather large smile on his face. "It's a great blessing and I've got my dream job and I've been a graduate assistant for a year and a half. Now I'm in my dream job where I have to prove myself over these next couple of months and earn it. By the end of the year I can be evaluated by Coach Mendenhall and be given the opportunity to be mentioned for an opportunity for this job with a couple of other people. I just now have to rise to the occasion and show what I can do as a coach."

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