Interchangeable linebackers

We've seen it with the offensive line, where players are being switched around and cross-trained. Now the same approach is being applied to the outside linebacker position, where Alani Fua and Spencer Hadley have been battling. Regardless of who will be starting, Coach Poppinga wants his players developed to be interchangeable on both sides.

There no doubt the Cougar defense will be a potent part of the team this season, given the experience and level of talent throughout the depth chart.

"I feel like we did really well this spring," said Alani Fua. "The defense is clicking and even the new guys seem to know things really well. Last year we were doing a lot of learning, but this year that isn't the case because everyone knows everything."

There are a few positions still up for grabs however, and one of those positions is Sam linebacker, which Fua and Spencer Hadley have been battling over this spring.

"I would say it's still up in the air right now," said Fua. "We're both doing really good out there, and we're still both fighting for that starting position. I don't think anything's been determined yet because we've both done really well."

With Hadley, playing the Sam linebacker has taken some time to get used to, which is to be expected since this is his first year at that position.

"Yeah, I think I've done much better as practice progressed," said Hadley. "The more time that I spent actually playing the position, the more comfortable I became and the better feel I gained overall. When you're able to reach that level you gain greater confidence and are able to play much faster."

While Hadley is an athletic 230 pounds, Fua is an athletic 215 pounds.

"The one thing that I want to do is gain more weight," said Fua. "I'm currently 215 pounds and have maintained that weight throughout spring ball, which is good. I want to be up to 230 by the time fall camp starts. I think that's something I can do if I keep doing what I've been doing.

"Coach Poppinga wants me to gain weight and get more physical with the tight ends. I feel like I do pretty good in my pass rushing ability. My main thing is just against the run and trying to knock back that tight end and staying stout on the offensive line."

While Fua is working on being stouter at the line against tight ends and in the run game, Hadley does well at holding the point at 6 feet 1 inch and 230 pounds.

"Because I played the Buck linebacker position, I feel I do well when it comes to matching up against the tight ends," said Hadley. "I think I bring sort of that middle linebacker mentality to the outside. I'm still working on my pass rush and Alani helps me out with that because he's really good at it."

Overall, Coach Poppinga is pleased with the progress of both.

"Spencer Hadley has done great," said Coach Poppinga. "He's made major progress, and Alani Fua I'm really happy with. I'm super excited to see the progress that they've made and we've got some things we're going to do with them."

The overall goal of Coach Poppinga is to develop the outside linebackers to be interchangeable. He wants them to be able to go from Sam to Will with a single defensive call "just like how Kyle [Van Noy] has done it, Jordan Pendleton has done it, Jameson Frazier had done it, Brian Kehl did it and David Nixon did it," said Coach Poppinga. "We've seem all the best guys do it."

With that in mind, there will be a change with the future recruitment of linebackers prospects.

"I will not recruit a Will linebacker anymore," Coach Poppinga said. "That's because I want my guys to be interchangeable and that how most in the NFL does it, so that's the direction we're going."

While size is an important ingredient to being stout against tight ends and offensive tackles, it's not the only ingredient.

"Well, that's what we initially thought," said Coach Poppinga. "But when you find guys like Alani, Kyle, Spencer Hadley and Brian Kehl – those guys are out there – why not make them all that way? That's what I'm going to do."

Fua has been playing both sides of the field throughout spring camp, and, according to Coach Poppinga, will continue to play and develop at both sides.

"He's going to play Will and Sam," said Coach Poppinga. "We feel he has the ability to play both sides. Really, what I want to be able to do is play my guys at both Sam and Will rather than at just one position."

"Getting better and trying to keep my speed with the added weight, that's the main thing," Fua said. "I want to be physical at both sides of the field while being able to cover, so I want try and get better in my pass coverage skills while adding weight."

It's safe to say that Van Noy could see time playing both sides of the field as well, much like he did at times during last season. While Fua has been seeing more time at Will linebacker than Hadley – who is currently getting his feet wet first at the Sam spot – the two will be expected to eventually be interchangeable like Van Noy.

"Sam and Will are really similar and there's not that big of a change," said Coach Poppinga. "The terminology is almost identity and everything about it is almost the same. It just makes it harder for offenses to know who is playing Sam and who is playing Will and who's coming and who's not. It's just one more thing offenses have to worry about. Overall it's just better."

In the future, Coach Poppinga will continue to recruit athletic linebackers with the ability to be cross-trained for both Sam and Will linebacker.

"I think I have three of our better players on the whole entire team at outside backer in those three guys [Hadley, Fua and Van Noy]," said Coach Poppinga. "It's pretty fun to watch those athletic suckers run around and make plays, whether it's in coverage or coming off the edge and rushing the passer. It's a lot of fun, and like I said, we'll continue in that direction."

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