"My what a difference a year makes."
That phrase likely runs through the mind of linebacker Obi Ezeh every time he sets foot on the practice field. Despite his noted athleticism and his smarts, many times during his redshirt freshman season he felt like a stalled car in the middle of the Audubon freeway.
"I feel like there is a drastic difference," Ezeh said comparing his comfort level this year to that of last. "Last year it was just like my eyes were this big and everything was just so new to me. I needed to work on play recognition, getting comfortable real fast… being able to know what I learned through practice and be able to play it out in the game. Right now, I feel like I have kind of been here for a while and know what I am doing. Also, I feel like I am starting to become one of the older guys I am supposed to be setting an example for the younger guys to follow, so I can't go out and be jumping around with the players. I've got to be set and I got to know what I am doing so that they can watch me and know what they are doing."
Ezeh's trial under fire experience in 2007 made the switch to the new defensive philosophy this year a lot more seamless. However, he concedes that the players on his side of the ball haven't had nearly a much to internalize as those on offense have.
"(Last year) we ran an under defense, so we had our third linebacker that was on the ball," Ezeh explained. "This year, he is off the ball, so it allows for us to run more instead of just a controlled shuffle. It is similar. Once you learn a defense it is kind of easy to learn another defense. Once you kind of get a hold of it, there is maybe a little tweak there or tweak there, but it is not too hard."
"(The difference in offensive schemes)…I think that is where the bigger gap is," he continued. "(The offense has) a bigger playbook to kind of digest. We do a 4-3 defense, and a 4-3 defense is a 4-3 defense whether you are putting a linebacker on the ball or off the ball."
Also making matters much easier for the defense is the more aggressive mentality employed. The philosophy is much less read and react. The new coaches have laid down one fundamental tenant; always go hard.
"Coach Shafer is real energetic, real enthusiastic guys, and great to be around," Ezeh said. "He kind of wants you to feed off of him with his energy and just be like that all the time. Coach Hopson is a real effort (guy). It doesn't matter if you are doing something wrong as long as you are going full out. That is kind of how those guys are."
None of this means that the job of the linebackers (or the defense in general) is easy. It can be downright complicated. However, the knowledge that the coaches can live with mistakes as long as the approach is right fostered a freer feeling amongst the players. Now they're all flying around and legitimately vying for playing time. Austin Panter and has been amongst those feeling the most unencumbered
"There is a lot of competition," said Ezeh. "I think it is a good problem to have… a lot of competition. (There are) a lot of guys who you know can go out there and get the job done. I think with this new staff, it is a new scheme, new technique and I feel like this really allows Austin (Panter) to make more plays and be more active around the ball."
Even the young backers are getting into the act.
"J.B. Fitzgerald has done really well on defense," Ezeh reported. "He is somebody to look out for. (He is) just kind of getting a grasp of the defense, triggering real fast. He is playing really well."
With the emergence of so many players at the position, Ezeh has found himself moving around a lot this fall.
"I started to get comfortable in the middle, but really, I will play wherever I need to play," he said. "I just want to be on the field, so right now I am bouncing around between MIKE and SAM. Either is alright with me. If I am outside, it is usually John Thompson on the inside. If I am inside, then it is either Austin or Marell (Evans) at outside. I feel like they just want me to be ready for anything because any different package I can go in on MIKE and SAM. That makes me more versatile and makes me more valuable to the team."
On whether the defense feels pressure this year to carry the team:
Obi Ezeh: "I feel like the defensive mindset is always to carry the team. Rather they are young or not, we always want to be the rock."
On the defensive line:
Obi Ezeh: "I feel like I really don't have to do much. Like they run zone left and my nose (tackle) is getting there before I can. I feel like they are a very formidable up front and they will be a force to be reckoned with."
On how much time is being spent on Utah:
Obi Ezeh: "Right now we are just trying to get our defenses in and try to learn the playbook and what not, but we are not really talking about Utah just yet. We are still putting in stuff."
On whether the improved conditioning has caused them to have more of a swagger.
Obi Ezeh: "Yeah you could say there is a swagger. Because when the fourth quarter comes around, you are not tired. You feel just like you did in the first and you know the guy in front of you might be a little tired, so you feel like you have an edge over them."
On whether practicing against an up-tempo offense with help them be prepared for the new 40 second rule.
Obi Ezeh: "Yeah, I don't think that it is going to hurt us. That is how the game has evolved and a lot of teams are going to try and do a hurry up with all the rule changes, so I feel like it is good to practice against our offense, because we will be ready for whatever any offense tries to throw at us."