Ohio’s Young Linebackers Show Promise< < Back to
After losing junior linebacker Ben Russell to a shoulder injury in the preseason, the Ohio linebackers core became a real question mark. The Bobcats had already lost 2013 captain Keith Moore to graduation in the spring, and Russell’s injury cost them their leading tackler.
What was once a question mark for head coach Frank Solich’s defense has become one of the unit’s best assets. Redshirt junior Jovon Johnson and underclassmen Quentin Poling and Blair Brown have bolstered the Bobcats’ defense.
The three backers are Ohio’s top three tacklers through nine games this season. Poling leads the group with 62 tackles, and Johnson is second with 54. Brown has 47 despite playing limited time due to an injury.
Perhaps a bit unconventionally, the trio has played at high level through the two-thirds of the 2014 campaign. All are listed at six feet, between 215 and 230 pounds.
“We are not the typical linebacking corps,” Johnson said. “We’re not all 230 pounds and big and tall.”
The group has compensated for lack of size with athletic ability. The Ohio linebackers rely on strong footwork and lateral movement to make plays.
“We’re not the biggest but we can fly around,” Johnson said.
A great deal of the group’s success can be attributed to the Bobcats’ new defense. More so than in years past, the 2014 Bobcats’ defense is oriented around linebacker play. According to linebackers coach Ron Collins, the defense was simplified during the offseason. A simpler defense has required less thinking on the field and allowed the Bobcats to play more instinctually and aggressively.
“You know what gap you have and you execute that gap,” backup Chad Moore said. “It’s pretty clear. You know the guy next to you knows what he’s doing.”
A scheme can only do so much for a unit. It takes hard work to execute that scheme and the Bobcat backers are well prepared to do it.
“[Another] thing they’ve done is that they’ve studied film and done everything they possibly can to get prepared,” Collins said.
Depth is maybe the largest reason Ohio’s linebacking core has been successful.
When Russell went down in the preseason, Poling was there to fill in – and he hasn’t been just an average replacement. Poling leads the team with 62 tackles, four sacks and three interceptions, making the freshman a team-MVP candidate.
“We knew he was going to be a good linebacker,” Collins said. “He had a good spring, and we knew he was going to be something special. He’s a good player, [he’s] smart, runs [well], and is physical.”
“[Quentin] is always out there communicating what gap he has and what gap anyone else has,” Moore said. “It’s always easy when you have someone reiterating exactly what everyone is doing.”
Moore himself has been a pleasant surprise for the Bobcats this year. Just like his brother, Keith, Chad walked on to Ohio. He spent last year as a redshirt.
“We weren’t expecting him developmentally this year,” Collins said. “Maybe next year, but he has really stepped up and done a great job.”
Moore’s time to shine came in Ohio’s matchup with the Central Michigan Chippewas, when Brown left the fourth quarter with a concussion. Moore played in Browns’ place in the following weeks against Bowling Green and Akron, and he impressed.
“He has probably had the best grade of the linebackers [those] two weeks and that’s good to see,” Collins said.
Brown is healthy again, but Moore’s performance gives Ohio a proven commodity in a reserve role. Both players played against Western Michigan on Saturday.
With three underclassmen seeing significant time, Johnson, a redshirt junior, is the experienced leader that holds the group together. In 2013 he started in four games and saw action in all 13. His 61 tackles were good for third on the team — the second best total from a linebacker, behind Russell.
This season he leads the team with eight tackles for loss, to go along with a forced fumble and a sack.
On the field, Johnson is a vocal leader — one of the loudest players on the defense. Off the field, his quiet demeanor makes him a leader by example. His work ethic, knowledge of the game and preparation are a gauge for his teammates.
“I’m not real hard on them,” Johnson said. “I just try to help them out whenever they need it. I’m not too demanding or anything.”
Ultimately, football is a just game. It’s easier to play that game with your friends, and there isn’t a closer group on the team, according to the linebackers and their coach.
“We just have that type of bond where everyone is just best friends with everybody,” Brown said.
Such a relationship makes for a fun environment and easy communication in games and practices.
The Green and White linebackers are a young, tight-knit group, performing at a high level earlier than expected. With good luck and good health, the core may develop into a defensive strength for years to come.