Ohio State linebackers coach Mark Snyder has two NFL draft picks to replace, but the Ironton native is looking forward to the challenge.
He has a good deal of talent to work with, including Rob Reynolds, AJ Hawk, Mike D'Andrea and Bobby Carpenter, but some still list the linebackers as a question mark. This spring, the group worked on just about everything in the book. They want to report to preseason camp with most everything in place.
"We targeted a little bit of everything this spring to be honest with you," Snyder said. "We tried to get every situation covered that we possibly could."
Most fans know the differences of the three LB positions. For those that don't, Snyder gave a quick rundown.
"In our system, the Sam linebacker, which was Rob Reynolds last year, is the guy that plays over the tight end most of the time. He's a tweener. He's a D-Lineman/linebacker kind of guy. The Mike linebacker is our bigger linebacker that's a playmaker. Obviously that was Matt Wilhelm last year. And then our Will linebacker, or weakside linebacker, is a littler guy that can run. That was Cie Grant last year."
Although they must replace Wilhelm and Grant, no one will argue that the Bucks have weapons returning at 'backer. But there are still some things that concern Snyder.
"Competition makes us all better and good competition is there, no question," Snyder said. "You sit here as a coach and the question I have right now – I don't question anyone's toughness, I don't question their speed, strength and those kind of things – you just don't know how they're going to react when a big-game time situation comes and you have two minutes to make an adjustment. But those guys are making improvements there. They are feeling more comfortable. We tried to get them in as many situations as we possibly could and we changed the adjustments of our defense every day so when fall does come, they will have some recall."
A lot was said this spring about the versatility of the linebackers. They were lining up at different spots seemingly daily. Snyder wanted to make sure that his guys learned multiple positions and he had three reasons why this was important.
"We made the guys try and learn two positions this spring: A. In case we have an injury. B. Let's see what position fits them best. C. It makes them learn the whole defense. So at Mike, our options are Fred Pagac, Mike D'Andrea, Rob Reynolds and AJ Hawk, and Bobby Carpenter played there before his injury. At Will, we obviously have AJ Hawk, we moved Thomas Matthews down to Will because he has Cie Grant-type speed. He has blitzing ability, but he's not quite as big as Cie yet. Bobby Carpenter is also going to work over there. At Sam, Rob Reynolds can of course play there and Mike D'Andrea played there a lot this spring. Jason Bond has also worked in there at all those spots," Snyder said.
The coach was impressed with what he saw from D'Andrea this spring. He's still not sure if he will be a Mike or Sam, but he is sure to see the field a lot in 2003. And don't believe any of the stuff you hear about D'Andrea being a liability in passing situations.
"Mike's got a lot of talent and we're tying to find places for him on the nickel packages so we don't have to take him out of the game," Snyder said. "We want him in there as much as possible."
What about AJ Hawk? Some fans are predicting stardom for him.
"AJ has instincts and great ball skills, he's a smart kid, workaholic, tough and all those kind of things. I'm very excited about AJ," Snyder said.
"Anthony's has done real well," Snyder said. "He's a tough guy, he runs around, he's very instinctive. For the most part, he knows the entire defense. He's a real sharp kid. He'll be really good for our scout team this year. I mean, he'll make our offense better, no question. He's a hitter – he'll bring the wood. Anthony will bring the wood."
As a coach, Snyder only has one pet peeve: people who don't play hard all the time. If you are going to line up for him, you better have your motor at full-go.
"My thing is, if you do have a mental error, do it 90 miles and hour and hit the first thing you see," Snyder said as he laughed. "Our goal is no mental errors, but if you're going to have one, do it full-speed. Do everything at 90 miles and my job as a coach is to correct you after that."
We briefly tracked down D'Andrea after the spring game for a couple comments. The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder played mostly at Sam in the scrimmage, but understands why he's been moved around so much.
"I like Mike the best, but knowing Sam and Will helps you even when you're playing Mike. Say on a running play, the back comes to you. If you truly understand where each piece of your defense is going to be, you know what hole to fill," D'Andrea said.
D'Andrea talked more about the positions he played this spring.
"Since Bobby went out, I played a lot of Sam," he said. "And when we do nickel, I played some Viper. Early in the spring, I played some Leo (is your head spinning yet with all these neo-position names?) but they moved Redgie Arden there and I played mostly at Mike, Sam and Viper after that."
We asked D'Andrea to explain Viper and Leo in detail.
"Viper is actually like a linebacker. You're standing up, reading things and blitzing and stuff. Leo is when you've got your hand on the ground like a defensive end and you just rush ‘em. They're both on our nickel package," D'Andrea said.
Running backs coach Tim Spencer also gave us some insightful comments on what happened this spring and what to expect this fall.
First up, the obligatory question about the status Maurice Clarett's shoulder.
"We just wanted to make sure his shoulder was at full-strength before he took any contact and of course he didn't take any contact this spring," Spencer said. "But mentally he knows the game as well as anyone. He's been in there and mentally he's fine. Physically he's pretty close. If we had a game tomorrow, he'd play."
It was a big freshman season for Clarett, but what are some improvements Spencer hopes to see from him in 2003?
"Obviously he runs hard, but sometimes he likes to lead with his head and that has gotten him in trouble and probably caused some of those stingers. I'd like to see I'm get out of that a little bit. Also, fine-tune some technique-type things. In terms of football knowledge, he's a pretty intelligent player. You can give him anything and you can change it during the course of the game and he'll be able to pick it up. He has a really good understanding of everything. He even works with the quarterbacks on their signals, which he really doesn't have to know. It all comes pretty easy to him and he likes the game. Well, this spring wasn't much fun for him, but it probably made him better."
Spencer, who is third on Ohio State's career rushing list with 3,553 yards, was impressed with another back named Maurice this April.
"Mo Hall balled this spring," Spencer said. "I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged by his effort. He really came on. Lydell (Ross) pulled that hamstring a little bit and that kind of held him back. He was looking pretty good those first few days."
"Fullbacks did a decent job," Spencer said. "I'd like one to be a little more physical (Schnittker) and I'd like to see another one use a little better technique (Joe). But those guys are good players and they'll get better. I want to see some pancakes from them. I want to see somebody get a little bit down, dirty and nasty. That is what it's about from that fullback-linebacker collision. And I also want to see people stay up on their feet a little more and some of those little technique-things tightened up."
Spencer is the farthest thing away from a "hands-off" coach. He is always right up in the face of one of his backs. Hall always knew what flavor of gum Spence was chewing in spring drills.
"I am all over those guys," Spencer said. "I try and get the best out of them. I can go from being the nicest guy, to being the guy that you just want to kick his butt. I was on Maurice (Hall) a little bit to get a little tougher, a little more physical and he ran that ball hard all spring. Maurice has more speed than you could ever imagine. Sometimes, thinking too much, he actually looks slower than what he is. So, I said, ‘Man, just cut and release and let that speed go cause you've got so much speed you can run around some things, your speed can get you out of some trouble.'"
Spencer is already looking forward to preseason camp. He is going to watch a lot of film this summer and that film study will carry into camp. He and his guys will watch more tape than you will bad movies on HBO.
"In the fall there will be a lot more classroom-type things because I think there's a rule coming down saying you can't have more than two two-a-days in a row," Spencer said. "That will give us more opportunity to show guys the whole picture of what we're trying to do. They can understand why the guard is pulling and what he's trying to do, what the quarterback is looking at and just understanding the entire offensive plan. We watch a lot of film around here."