Middle Linebacker Back In Action

With the graduation of Cameron "The General" Jensen, now competing in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks, the core of BYU's No. 14 defense has had to get a little stronger through the addition of a former starting linebacker.

Senior linebacker Markell Staffieri was hampered during last season and missed all of spring camp due to a leg injury. The one-time starter has since regained his health and is ready to bring his speed and experience back into the middle for his final season as a Cougar defender.

"It's been about a year to the day since I pulled my hamstring out on this practice field," said Staffieri while chuckling. "I spent pretty much all of last year rehabbing and I'm starting to feel good and I'm coming back. It just feels good to be back out there in the mix and with the boys."

What's remarkable about Staffieri's situation is that although he was hampered through most of last year and missed all of last spring camp, he has jumped right in and has been receiving reps with the first team defense early in fall camp.

"It was pretty much all about working hard to get back and watching a lot of film," Staffieri said. "Now it's about taking baby steps on some things and making ground mentally. It's about a lot of film work and if I can know the plays before it happens in order to put myself in a good position to make plays. That's kind of what I'm working on right now. You just have to study, study and study in order to maintain that edge. Once you get yourself back physically, you can step in and make plays because you're confident and prepared with what you're doing."

BYU graduated both inside linebackers from last year's squad. Both Jensen and Aaron Wagner played key rolls in holding the ground game of opposing offenses for minimal success, but this year's group of inside linebackers could surpass the accomplishments of their predecessors.

"We have a lot more speed and a lot more knowledge across the board," said Staffieri. "We also have more discipline. Last year was the first year we ran this defense, [and] the plays, and we're constantly making adjustments within our defense. This year our group understands the role of their position more along with the plays and how to play within the defense. Many of the adjustments we made last year we won't have to make this year, and [we] pretty much know what we can do. Once you don't have to worry about what you're doing you can just play the game and have fun."

With Coach Mendenhall's call to "raise the bar," this group of linebackers is making an all-out effort to heed that call. Staffieri believes that with the level of talent currently possessed, they'll be able to build upon last year's linebacker successes.

"I think we'll be able to get to the ball carriers a lot quicker and be able to create more turnovers," said Staffieri. "We'll be able to get a body on our opponents really quickly to stand them up to allow other guys to finish them off or strip the ball. I also believe because of our speed you'll see a more aggressive linebacker group. I imagine you will see more blitzes than in past years. We have great speed off the edges with Nixon, Kehl and Bolden and other guys that are quick and will be tough to contain. Bryan [Kehl] might as well be a defensive end because he has such quick feet and a lot of speed. You can't go wrong with those guys there.

"With these group of guys, I think we'll be able to achieve a higher standard of performance. Our big focus is going to be getting out of drives and stopping those third down conversions. I think last year our offense was first in the nation in third down conversions, so for our defense to be able to stop our opponents from getting those third down conversions will really help out our offense more this year."

With more experience come added confidence and less hesitation, and with this Cougar defense in possession of greater speed and depth in key areas, the younger offensive athletes playing in key positions are being challenged with every snap of the ball.

"We have some guys coming in and taking over the lead role for some of our seniors on last year's team," Staffieri said. "We're really helping those guys out a lot because they're facing one of the top defenses in the country during every practice. What greater preparation is there [than] to be thrown into the fire against a situation like that? I mean, if you take a look at what our defense did to a core of good teams, and these guys on our offense are getting a great look at a tough defense.

"I'm proud of some of these young guys. Austin Collie is back from his mission and he's a stud. We have some young receivers that are playing well. Harvey Unga out of the backfield is a stud and he's going to be a good back for our offense. All of our tight ends, like Vic [So'oto], Dennis Pitta and Andrew George, are all like having three Jonny Harlines on the field. You know, some of these guys are a combination of both Daniel Coats and Jonny Harline because they can both block and catch the ball downfield."

When one observes this Cougar team in action, one noticed that the physical appearance of the team has changed. From spring to fall camp, this Cougar football team looks more physically imposing than in years past.

"I think this is because of the greater emphasis from all of our position coaches," Staffieri said. "With our training schedule, they changed some of it. It was still the [same] high intensity training as before with a lot of drills, but I know that…Coach Weber has a weight that he wants his o-linemen at. He's doing things to make sure they are not going to be overweight, and it's showing. They're moving around out there and are able to cover a lot more ground quicker than I remember seeing them do in years past. It kind of makes it tough for us guys playing linebacker because these guys are able to get out quicker. Some of the things we did as a team were some of the hardest things we've ever done. I look back at some of the things we accomplished and thought how did we ever do that?

"Our team is overall more athletic this year and if you take a look at our defensive line, they all look like big ol' linebackers. They're all big and strong and can run. I think the overall situation and condition of this team is a reflection of us taking up the challenge to raise the bar."

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