Manny Diaz - "We moved K.J. Wright to our Will linebacker because we expect a lot of big plays from that position. It's sort of the nature of that position. K.J. had been a Sam and he was open to the idea of changing positions because there are not a lot of guys who turn down the chance to make big plays. I thought he adjusted well throughout the spring. I thought he played at a high level. But I think he knew coming out of spring that this is it, this is his senior year. I'll use a basketball metaphor, he has to be the guy that is willing to take the shot at the end of the game for us. If he plays good, we will have a good season. But if he plays great, then we may have a great season. And I think he is highly motivated to take his level of play to an even higher level than he has been before.
"Backing him up is Deontae Skinner. We had Deontae at Will linebacker. He is talented but raw and still learning. He is a guy we hope starts to contribute this year, but we see some really good things down the line because he has a lot of natural strength and pop in his body. When he hits you, you can usually tell it was him."
They are both Will linebackers. Are they similar in style?
"No, they are a little different, a little different in build. K.J. is almost a hybrid d-end. K.J. is a really good player who can run. We put him at Will because we wanted him in a spot where, to use a baseball metaphor, he can drive in the most runs."
What about your middle linebackers?
"We moved Chris White from Will to middle linebacker. And I thought after the first week of spring practice he was one of our best defensive players. He got it and became comfortable in our scheme. He really took a liking to what we asked him to do and was physical and had a knack for making plays. I think he is playing with a lot of confidence. Between he and K.J. we are really expecting big things from them. Chris has to improve his leadership ability. K.J. is a great leader and Chris is a good leader, but he has to become a great leader for us, too, because the Mike linebacker is the quarterback of our defense.
"His backup is Brandon Wilson. Brandon is a guy we put there because we set our spring depth chart on two things; offseason program and academics. And Brandon was the second best guy at middle linebacker in those two things. He was never caught on the depth chart. He fought tooth and nail to keep his role. He's a tough, physical kid who is a middle linebacker all the way. He still has to improve playing in space which is what the game is becoming more about. But as the middle linebacker, a guy who needs to play in the A gap or in the B gap and take bullets in there, Brandon did a pretty good job this spring."
Who ended up as the starter at Sam linebacker?
"The Sam linebacker is where we had the closet competition this spring. It's really the only position where somebody caught somebody else. By the time spring was over, Emmanuel Gatling had caught Cameron Lawrence. Gatling was the starter by the last couple of days of spring practice. But it is so close. The Sam linebacker in our defense is almost a hybrid safety/linebacker type guy. He has to be able to play in space, make tackles in the open field moreso than the other guys. Cameron Lawrence is tough, can run, loves to hit, loves the game. The only thing he suffered from was being new to the position. He is like me on the golf course. When I first started playing this spring I played better, but when I started making corrections to my game I began playing worse. That is kind of what happened to Cameron at first. He was one of our better guys the first week of spring. As we started giving him more to think about in terms to understanding the nuances of the position, his level of play went down a little bit. But that is not uncommon at all. We are in no means disappointed in or discouraged with him because we think he has a good future there. Gatling was sort of the opposite. He got a little bit better every day. He showed a knack for making good plays. He made a lot of good plays on the blitz, which is a big part of what we do.
"Another thing about our Sam linebacker is the Sam has a little more stay-at-home type responsibilities. And Gatling settled in well with all that type stuff. His level of consistent play got him to where he is. But that position is by no means settled. And I can't wait to see how they both come back in the fall.
"But the footnote on them and everything on our defense is we don't want to just play three linebackers. I really want to go into every game playing six. That is why there are still guys like Michael Hunt who couldn't do any of the scrimmages but will get a shot at Sam to see what he can do. His rating is almost an NA because he didn't get the chance like the other guys did. Jamie Jones will still have a shot at the middle linebacker position. I really believe in playing 22 guys defensively. We will make sure the heavy hitters get the most at-bats but we really want to come at the offense in different ways."
Are there any freshmen you expect to play key roles at linebacker this season?
"There are two things that dictate freshmen playing. One, it means you have a major problem that they are coming in to solve. Or two, they have something special about them that you probably don't really know about until they show up, such as in terms of being able to handle the work ethic that is required. It has very little to do with their ability to run and jump and things like that because you already know that. What you don't know is if they can handle the work level and the level of effort. Because of that, it is to hard to predict what they can do."