Developing the linebackers to their fullest

From the outside to the middle, many great BYU linebackers such as Bryan Kehl, Cameron Jensen, Kelly Poppinga and David Nixon have taken the field in recent years. However, as a new season approaches, BYU fans will see one of the deepest and more athletic Cougar linebacker squads to take the field.

In regards to pure ability, the linebackers coached by Paul Tidwell and Kelly Poppinga are some of the most fascinating to watch. While they might not be perfect, as perfectionist Coach Tidwell will tell you, they are some of the more physically gifted to ever suit up in BYU blue.

"[Uona Kaveinga] is quick, fast and it's fun to have him out here finally," said Tidwell. "It's been a year and a half since he's been here. Over that year and a half, he hasn't been taking that off. He's the kind of kid that's really put in the time in the film [room], he's really put in the time in the weight room and conditioning.

"He's an instinctive player and he likes to play off of his instincts, and I don't want to take that way from him. Sometimes he gets out of position a little bit, but sometimes he guesses right because he studies film so much and knows what's coming, so I like his instincts and I like his leadership."

There are high expectations for the former star California linebacker who once wore the colors of USC.

"You know, we have high expectations for [Kaveinga], and I think he does for himself," Tidwell said. "But he's not going to come out and make every play. But we have high expectations and we feel like he's going to be a great asset to our defense."

The addition of former first-round NFL draft pick Rob Morris to BYU's staff as a grad assistant has also helped the linebacker corps.

"We do a lot of crossover teaching with our players," Tidwell said. "You know, it's great to have a resource like Rob Morris on our staff that played [linebacker] eight or nine years in the NFL. He's coaching with Coach Weber on the offensive line, but I go to him often, and so do some of our inside linebackers, and communicate with him, 'Hey, what should I do here, and how did you play this in the NFL?' There's some good crossover."

As mentioned, Coach Tidwell has also taken advantage of Morris' knowledge.

"In fact, I spent some time with him this summer in film and having him critique our linebackers and getting the ideas," said Tidwell. "He's a great resource to go to."

Every day the linebackers are evaluated and measured by a point system that allows Coach Tidwell to keep track of his players' progress.

"Well, they're measured every day," Tidwell said. "You know, then we watch film and we grade them and we keep track of everything and then we're making them accountable.

"So when we're doing one-on-ones with the running backs, it's either won or lost, so there's a point system and we try to make it as competitive as possible, and so it means something and not just running through a drill.

"When they are actually engaged in a drill, you can hear guys in the back saying, 'Don't let him inside!' You know, saying 'Finish and don't give up a touchdown,' because that counts as points. You're graded individually and not as a group. When we go to team, it becomes ‘Did the offense win or did the defense win?' We have a point system with that so, yeah, we do it as a group too."

At outside linebacker, fans know all about Kyle Van Noy, but if the recent reports of his fall camp success aren't enough to make Cougar fans drool and future opponents take pause, Coach Poppinga has a few words for them.

"He is fast and he's athletic and right now he is doing a great job as a pass rusher," said Poppinga about Van Noy. "Our [offensive] tackles are having a hard time blocking the guy, and that's talking about an All-American tackle [Matt Reynolds] that's been really good over the past three years. It's fun to see because [Van Noy's] making those guys better, and by going against those guys that are really good, he's getting better."

Last season, Van Noy did most of his on-field damage as more of a finesse player. This year, he's added a few more tools to his arsenal.

"That's the thing that's stood out to me over these past four days is just how [Van Noy] has been able to pass rush and doing it not just with finesse, which he did all of last year, but now with power," said Poppinga. "He's bringing power and it's fun to watch."

"I think Kyle is a phenomenal football player and an amazing athlete," said Reynolds. "He made me a better player today. He went hard every single time we went up against each other and he never took it easy on me.

"He got me a couple times and I'm sure I got him a couple times, but in the end if we're going to be as good as we can be, he's going to have to take it out on me every single day. If he doesn't, then I'm going to have to get after him because that's his job, but he's doing a great job at it. Like I said, I'm a better player today because of him."

If Van Noy continues along the path of desired molding, Coach Poppinga has a bold prediction that will be music to the ears of BYU fans everywhere.

"By the time he leaves here, if he keeps maturing the way he's matured, progressing the way he's progressing over the past eight to nine months, he's going to be a very, very special player," Poppinga said. "He could be one of the best, but it's all up to that guy and how much he wants to continue to be teachable, humble, ready and eager to learn.

"Out of the whole defense, he and Jordan Pendleton have blown me away and I'm lucky enough to coach both of them. That's what's fun as a coach is when you have two guys like that, it sure makes your job a lot easier."

After tallying a sack on day one, another on day two, two more on day three and securing another on day four, Ezekiel Ansah is another player rising up through the ranks of great potential. In fact, it's Ansah that has recorded the most sacks of any linebacker so far in fall camp.

"He is doing awesome!" Coach Poppinga said of his 6-foot-6-inch, 270-pound Will linebacker prodigy. "The last two days he's played with the twos and got some reps with the ones, and he is a guy that, like Kyle Van Noy, was very inexperienced in another way. Ziggy never knew football and never knew the mentality it takes to play football. He's still learning what mentality it takes to play football, so the physical part is coming."

Coach Poppinga saw the understanding turn on within Ansah's mind during Tuesday's practice.

"Yesterday, I mean, he was manhandling guys," said Poppinga. "He's got such long arms and he's so tall and he's fast and so powerful you can't block the guy. He's a specimen. Really, he's a specimen and if he continues to gain experience on the field by running with the ones and twos, and then continue to gain his knowledge of the game, he's going to be a very special player for us.

"He's done a great job in the one specific assignment that we have for him. He could be a great rush d-end when we get into our special packages, and so he's doing a great job for us."

When evaluating his players' progress, Coach Poppinga looks at a few specific things.

"There is a three-level criteria that I use," Poppinga said. "First of all, their level of effort and how hard they're trying and running to the ball. Effort is one of our pillars or standards of our defense. If you're not playing hard and flying around to the ball, that's not BYU defense, and has been something that's a mainstay since Coach Mendenhall got here.

"The second thing I look for is their position mastery. Meaning, they know what to do when the call is put into the game. Do they know their assignment, do they know their alignment, do they know what they're supposed to do and how to execute at the highest level? Do they know how to play their position to help put our defense in a better position to be successful?

"Then the third thing I look at is their production and are they making plays. You can know exactly what to do and try really hard, but if you can't make plays you're not going to be on the field.

"Over the last two days, Ziggy has made a lot of plays. He's been able to make plays because he knows what to do, and he's trying harder than he's ever tried. He has a way long ways to go, but he's working his butt off and I'm happy with the progress he's made over these last four days of camp. I'm just grateful and feel blessed I get to coach guys like these."


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