Poppinga looking for fourth linebacker

At the beginning of spring camp the outside linebacker position was thin. Much of that was due to the coaches holding back proven players, and it was also partly due to the injury bug. Coach Poppinga feels he has three outside linebackers that can get the job done at any time. Now he's looking for that fourth to step up and be counted among those who will see the field.

Senior Kyle Van Noy missed most of spring camp, but when you've put a check mark in every defensive statistical category each of the past two years, there isn't much of a need to prove what you can do over spring camp.

However, even though Van Noy is adept at doing it all, he did add to his vast repertoire of defensive skills sets.

"Kyle, when he's in there, has done a nice job," said Coach Poppinga. "He's done some things this spring in coverage that he's never done in the past. He's just getting into some drops that he's struggled with in the past."

With junior Alani Fua playing well at the Will linebacker spot, the position Van Noy has primarily played the past few years, Van Noy has received reps at the Sam linebacker spot, which covers more ground. He's shown that he can drop back into coverage as well as rush from the field side.

"I'm really happy with him in the way he's pass-rushed, and stepping up and being a leader too," said Coach Poppinga. "He's done a really nice job that way."

Spring is a time for coaches to find out what they've got. The linebacker that has made the biggest jump in terms of personal improvement is Fua.

"Alani Fua has been the guy that's made the biggest strides up to this point," Coach Poppinga said. "He had a nice spring game and came out and made a lot of plays and was very productive. It's been like that all of spring camp and it was nice to see that once we got into light drills for him to do that."

The areas where Fua has improved are scheme understanding and raising his level of play.

"He's doing what he's supposed to be doing," Coach Poppinga said. "I mean, really he understands the defense better, which is putting him in a position to make plays."

In the offseason, Fua added some size to his 6-foot-5-inch frame. This has allowed him to play more physical and be more aggressive when it comes to taking on bigger offensive tackles.

"He's playing harder than he's ever played, and he's playing more physical than he's ever played," said Poppinga. "He's stronger than he's ever been, and in all aspects of the classroom and on the field, off the field, all those parts of his [game] he's made huge strides. He has a long ways to go still, but, man, he's made a lot of strides and we as a coaching staff are super excited to see him improve."

The three outside linebackers that Coach Poppinga feels comfortable with are obviously Van Noy, Fua and Spencer Hadley. He is looking for a fourth to be counted among those that could see playing time this year.

"Kyle and Spencer and Alani can't take all the reps," Coach Poppinga said. "There has to be four solid dudes at the outside position. Right now there are three and fall camp will determine if those three guys stay in those top three spots."

Although there are those like Van Noy and Hadley that have established themselves as the frontrunners for starting positions, Coach Poppinga hasn't see a drop-off with those behind them. Rather, it's been just the opposite.

"No, I think, at least in my room right now, [those behind the top players] look at those guys as someone to lean on and learn from," said Coach Poppinga. "Now, really having three solid guys at the outside position is really pushing the whole group along. I've never seen guys study harder and work harder in practice. They know that if they want the chance to play on Saturdays, because we're going to play more plays because of the tempo of our offense, they're going to have to step it up."

Making a push to be that fourth player is Jherremya Leuta-Douyere. However, he's taken a step back in spring after suffering a concussion that kept him out for a few weeks.

"He got a concussion, and for two weeks there [he] was kind of in no-man's land and didn't play very well last Friday and Saturday," said Poppinga. "He came out [on Monday] and had a really nice practice. He probably practiced better than he had in two or three weeks."

Then there are two others that have held steady throughout spring.

"The steady guys, I would say Tanner Cox has come a long ways. He's progressing after being out last season with an injury," said Poppinga. "Then a new guy, Jordan Egbert, who came over from the offense has been showing us some flashes of a guy that in the future could have a chance to play. He's big, fast and physical and long. Now it's just getting him to understand the scheme and being able to get him out there. He came out in the spring game and had two sacks and did some nice things. I'm looking forward to working with him and finding some improvements for him the next few practices."

Come fall there will be an influx of new and seasoned talent that Coach Poppinga is excited to work with. He feels his position group will be loaded with talent for years to come.

"There are guys we're going to get back with Joey Owens and Kevan Bills," Coach Poppinga said. "They're going to be able to push those guys a little bit. Then we have some good freshmen coming in with Kai Nacua and [Trajan] Pili, who I think can push those guys a little bit too. Man, my position is stacked and the outside backers in the future are looking bright. I just like the guys that I have. I'm excited about the whole group collectively."

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