Accustomed to a more traditional four-man defensive front, the 6-3, 250-pound BYU sackmeister admits it took some getting used to defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall's new 3-3-5 defensive scheme.
"You gotta know a lot more then just being an edge pass rusher," said Poppinga. "You gotta know about being able to go down against a guard. You gotta be able to head up against the tackle, and you still gotta know how to rush the edge. You have to be more multi-dimensional."
Indeed, learning how to play two entirely different defensive schemes has molded Poppinga into a more compete player. That's good news for Cougar fans and bad news for everyone else.
Poppinga commented on the unique – unprecedented for him – interaction between the defensive and offensive line players in practices this year. The person he helps and works with the most is the one he faces daily as his imaginary foe on the other side of the line, left tackle Eddie Keele.
"We work with each other. He lets me know this is what you should do better and we just try and get each other better and just prepare each other to play in the season. He's got a vital role in our offense to be able to beat the pass rush. It opens up the offense to throw the ball around more. What we try to do is help each other through our strengths and weaknesses," Poppinga said.
During the last full fall practice scrimmage, head coach Gary Crowton called three consecutive plays that resulted in three consecutive sacks by Poppinga around Keele. It was deliberate, strategic and on film specifically so Keele would learn how to counter Poppinga's moves.
"He's going to be great," Poppinga said of his friend and teammate Keele. "He's a hard worker. I just feel the responsibility that I just want to be able to try and prepare him the best I can. There's a lot of guys that will be better than me. A lot of guys play different than me, but I just want to prepare him the best I can. He's going to be great."
Last year's dismal 5-7 left a bitter taste in the collective mouths of all Cougar players, including Poppinga.
"The one thing I've learned through my athletic career is you got to learn from the losses. You gotta take that feeling with you to remind yourself that you don't ever want that feeling again… It's a new start, a new season and we're looking ahead… We're not dwelling on the past now. We're just learning from the past, preparing and looking forward to the future," Poppinga added.
The Wyoming native said "last year was more of an out-for-yourself type of thing. Fend for yourself and that's a lot of work. I mean, there were teammates fending for themselves. This is a team sport."
With the Georgia Tech game in two days, a sense of fiery resolve, determination and anticipation has swept across this Cougar team like a summer storm.
He added he has full confidence in his defensive teammates. "Oh yeah, these guys are good. Jernaro is feeling healthy; Heaney is feeling healthy; so they're ready to go. They'll do well. I have all the confidence in the world."
How determined and physical is Poppinga planning on being? "Obviously, that is what the game's about. It's all about being physical and hitting people. If you're going to have the ball, I'm going to tackle him. I'm not going to try and shy away from the guy. I'm gonna hit him in the face. I don't care who it is because that's what I'm going to do."
Poppinga said he is not concerned with the gambling and aggressive nature of the Cougar defense. "It's the chance you take, but that's why he (Mendenhall) talks so much about effort because that's how you combat those big plays. You have to run down the long ball and start over again."
So what can BYU and Georgia Tech fans expect game time on Thursday night at Lavell Edwards Stadium?
"Hey, he's (Mendenhall) not conservative. It's going to be an aggressive defense and you'll see come Thursday. That's all I have to say. It could be like a jail break."
The team is prepared and ready. Poppinga knows very well who he will be facing come time to get down in a three-point stance. He also knows about the athleticism of true freshman starting quarterback Reggie Ball.
"I'll race him down. I don't care. I'll do whatever I need to do to get to him. I'll do whatever I need to do, and that's how I play honestly, cause I don't care."
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