Indeed it was the overall strength and play of the linebacking corps that led to head coach Bronco Mendenhall's abandonment of his 3-3-5 scheme. Last spring saw the implementation of the new system, as coaches spent a lot of time teaching the pure basics and fundamentals of the new system.
Throughout the spring the defense presented very few variations on the system, running the same base coverage for the better part of the first two weeks. It wasn't until the third week that coaches went about implementing just one other coverage which capped out the spring session with exactly two different base coverages being taught and subsequently run.
"We didn't do much of anything compared to what we did before last spring," recalled inside linebacker Markell Staffieri. "It's a simple system. It's zone, keep everything in front of you, and that's that for the most part. This season we're doing so much more."
So far this spring as many as eight different coverages have been run, and they're adding to the overall scheme everyday now that the base is in place.
"It's the same system and same philosophy, but we're throwing in new stuff that will help us," explained outside linebacker Bryan Kehl. "I think you're going to see us blitz some more this year and throw some new stuff at teams every week. We were successful last year, but if you don't improve the system offenses are going to catch on and we're making sure that doesn't happen."
For Kelly Poppinga, this spring is his initiation to the inside linebacker slot where he'll team with Markell Staffieri to fill the void left with the graduation of Cameron Jensen and Aaron Wagner. While both Poppinga and Staffieri bring some good experience and overall play to the position, they're aware that filling in for Jensen and Wagner is a tough task.
"Both those guys did an incredible job," said Poppinga. "Our work is cut out for us to learn the position and match what they did last year."
Having played outside linebacker last season, Poppinga is making the switch to inside to help field the best 11 defenders on the field at the same time during the 2007 season. Last season Poppinga shared reps with Bryan Kehl and David Nixon on the outside, where each of them subsequently took reps away from one another.
"That was the reason for the switch," said Kehl. "Kelly is way too good to simply have just rotate with me and David. We need to be on the field at the same time and I'm really excited to be on the field with Kelly and David on almost every play. Kelly is a great player who can do a lot of things out there."
So how has this change been met by Poppinga who tried the switch briefly last fall before settling in at outside linebacker? "I love it," said Poppinga. "I just want to play. I really don't care where it is. I want to be on the field as much as possible and to help the team as much as possible. They feel I can help best inside, then I'm all for it."
Of course playing inside linebacker takes some adjusting-to, which Poppinga is learning every day during practices as the angles and responsibilities will change for him this season.
"I'm having to take on offensive linemen a lot more," said Poppinga. "Big guys like Travis Bright and Ray Feinga, I'm getting to know those guys really well which is good since those guys are two of the best guards in the country. They're beasts, they're huge, they move well and I know that if I can take them on, then I can take on just about any other offensive linemen in the nation."
Lining up in the middle of the defense of course allows Poppinga to be more a part of the action which is a prospect he relishes. "You want to be part of everything, part of every tackle and every play. You don't want to be a spectator out there," said Poppinga. "This defense is designed for the inside linebackers to be a part of just about everything, to be in on just about every play and I love that."
Markell Staffieri is also raring to get going again to play where he was pegged to play prior to the 2006 season: one of the two starting inside linebackers along with Cameron Jensen. Injuries severely limited Staffieri's play at the start of last season and quickly proved to end his season all together.
"It was really frustrating," said Staffieri. "You work so hard in the off-season and then it's all gone and you can't do anything. You can just watch. I hated it."
Staffieri has yet to be cleared for full contact work in practice, but is confident he'll be there at the end of spring. "I better be," said Staffieri. "At least that's the plan and I'm going to be sure to do everything I can to be out there. I don't want to sit around and watch anymore."
Staffieri's impending return is anxiously anticipated by his teammates. "We need Staff out there," said Poppinga. "He's a great player and a very hard worker. We need him."
With the adjustments being made and new wrinkles to be added throughout spring practices and beyond, the collective excitement of the linebacking corps is high. The feeling is that the right system is in place and that they'll advance the system to reach new heights this coming season.
"We're going to be awesome," said Kehl. "You can just sense it from day one. Everyone is giving their best effort, working hard to get it done and we're going to get it done. We did it very well last year, but Cougar fans haven't seen anything yet. We're only going to get better."