Wide Open on the Inside

There are several positions up for grabs this fall practice session, but none of those positions is truly as wide open as the two inside linebacker spots. With almost no experience entering fall camp, inside linebacker coach Paul Tidwell has his work cut out for him.

The two inside linebacker spots are a key component in any 3-4 defensive alignment. Indeed, the 3-4 was installed at BYU after Coach Mendenhall's first season because of the existing strength of the existing inside backers at the time.

Since the 3-4 was implemented, Coach Tidwell has had such stalwarts as Cameron Jensen, Kelly Poppinga, Aaron Wagner and Matt Bauman to build around. This year, Tidwell is fraught with having no such returning talent.

"Never since I've been here at BYU have I entered a season with less experience to coach at inside linebacker for sure," acknowledged Tidwell. "Every year we've had a Cameron Jensen or someone like that who we knew was going to have the spot and be really good, but this year we don't have that. We have a bunch of good young guys and we now have to see which one of them can play for us."

After three days, Tidwell has gone with his two most experienced players in Shane Hunter and Brandon Ogletree as his starters, but aims to try out a bunch of different players before deciding on a two-deep.

"It's really too early to tell at this point who is going to start for us," said Tidwell. "Right now it's based on who has had the most past experience and time in the program - those are the two that are starting. Anyone can rise up and take the two spots though, and we'll be looking at a lot of young guys coming up here soon after the scrimmage, and then we'll continue to keep looking until we find the top four guys that we'll play and have travel with the team."

Right now, one of those at the top of the inside linebacker rotation is Shane Hunter, who has been manning the Mike position. As he enters his senior season, Hunter finds himself as the player with the most experience.

While he's competing for a spot along with the other players, finding the best combination at linebacker rises above any personal ambition in Hunter's mind. Subsequently, he's been more than willing to help coach up and help out wherever he can.

"You do your best and you take the responsibility to help these guys not only adjust to things on the field, but to the culture and everything else about BYU," explained Hunter. "We have some great young guys here and it's my job, it's all of our job to help one another out wherever we can, so we can be the best we can be as a position group. That's everyone's goal; we're a team."

One of those young guys is Austen Jorgensen, who has been very grateful to Hunter and the others for helping him out since rejoining the team following his mission service.

"Everyone's pushing me to be better and hopefully I'm pushing them to do the same," said Jorgensen. "Shane is pushing me, but not only that, he's really teaching me and helping out whenever I ask. If I have a question, or if Zac [Stout] or Collin [Keoshian] has a question, he's right there to help them, so even though he's competing with us he's more than willing to help us, which is great."

"It's a long season, guys go down, get hurt, guys then need to fill in, so we all have to be ready," added Hunter. "So, like I said, it's all about being better as a unit and not just individually. We push each other and the way to get better as a group is through competition, and fortunately we have a lot of good, young players that will push us and we'll push them."

Impressed with the New Guys

So far in, Tidwell, Hunter and the others have been impressed with what they've seen from young players such as Zac Stout and Collin Keoshian.

"Zac has a real good nose for the ball," said Tidwell about Stout. "He seems to be able to adjust to the run real well. It's the passing scheme and learning how to play that is what he needs to get better at if we're going to play him, but the run game, that looks real good with him so far."

As for Keoshian, who is coming in after having played eight-man football in high school, Tidwell explained that his learning curve is a bit higher than Stout's.

"It's like learning a new language for him," said Tidwell about Keoshian's adjustment. "He's doing okay and he's going to be fine. He has a lot of talent and we knew that when we recruited him. It's just going to take some time for him to adjust to what we do and how to play in this system."

Stout may be seeing some reps with the first- and second-team here soon, as Tidwell believes that playing with the top groups accelerates the learning process.

"Once you're in with the older guys they communicate better, so the player learns faster, so I think we'll let him get in there with them and see what happens," he explained. "The learning happens faster, so my hope is to have all the guys get a chance to run with the ones here coming up after the first scrimmage, most likely after they've had some time to learn the schemes and how we play."

Search for Mike

Tidwell hasn't started a Mike linebacker that hasn't had at least two or three years experience within the program, but that looks to perhaps change this year. Right now it's Hunter at Mike with Ogletree set to get some looks as well, but there are some others nipping at their heels.

"Right now, Austen Jorgensen is probably the next guy until someone else steps up," said Tidwell. "He's looked good so far, having switched over from outside linebacker, which he played here before his mission. He's done some good things out there and hopefully it continues. We're just going to make sure we look at everyone."

Jorgensen said he feels fine physically and the mental part is coming along nicely, as he feels more and more comfortable with every day.

"I'm still getting my legs under me and I'm still getting used to everything, but I feel good out there," said Jorgensen. "It's been a while, so I'm just so excited to get going again. I feel strong, I feel fit and things are coming to me faster with every day. I played inside linebacker in high school, so I'm glad to be back at this position. We'll just see how it goes and I have to make sure I give it my all with every practice."

"I like our group," summed up Tidwell. "They're all young except for Shane and Brandon Ogletree has some good experience, but from what I've seen so far, they're willing and the effort is good. We just have to make sure they're being smart with that effort, getting to right spots on the field and making plays, and I think we will."

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