This is the second in a series of looks at the 2010 UC football roster through the eyes of its position coaches. It continues with a glimpse at the linebackers with co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach John Jancek.
Jancek spent the last five seasons at the University of Georgia, including the role of co-defensive coordinator last season. He also served as a defensive coordinator at Central Michigan and Grand Valley State.
Summer two-deep: Starters - JK Schaffer, Jr., Ricardo Thompson, Jr., Walter Stewart, Soph. Reserves - Maalik Bomar, Soph., Robby Armstrong, Jr.
Newcoming contributers: Robert Martin, Jr. transfer, Solomon Tentman, Fr.
Other freshmen: Corey Mason, Fr., Josh Russ, Fr.
Overview: There are more questions than answers at this position group as the Bearcats open camp. The summer two-deep starter at MLB, Dorian Davis, is not longer with the program and a host of inexperience funnels in behind JK Schaffer and Walter Stewart on the edges. As is the case with the entire defense, there is not a senior in sight on the two-deep.
Biggest Question: What is going to happen at middle linebacker?
Jancek: "I think JK can play both Mike and Will. It's a next-man-in mentality, whoever the next best linebacker is that is who is going to be in the game. If that means moving Maalik up to Will and JK over to Mike, then we will be in a position to be able to do that. It is going to be interesting to see how guys progress when they start camp."
Worth noting: Leadership is as big of a variable as playing time.
Jancek: "Absolutely, we need some guys to step up in that area, lead and be demanding of the linebacker position and defense. Especially the linebacker area, those guys are so instrumental in the rushing and passing area they have to be instrumental in the leadership area."
THE TOP TIER
Tangibles: 6-1, 223 pounds, Jr.
Last year: 100 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 interceptions
Jancek's take: "He's a natural leader of our defense. He's one of the guys that is doing a great job of leading right now. His strengths are he has great vision, he understands football and functions at a very high level. He is getting better and better, his strength and ability to move has all improved over the summer.
"We've concentrated on getting him a little bit stronger, but not necessarily bigger. We want to keep him progressing in terms of his speed."
PDJ Projection: Schaffer has the tools to become the top player in the back seven of this defense. And the Bearcats need him to be. A second-level defense short on game experience must have Schaffer lead and contribute. All indications are he will have no problem stepping into that role, whether it be at MLB or his natural WLB position.
Tangibles: 6-5, 226 pounds, Soph.
Last year: 59 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks
Jancek's take: "He is going to be rush end and an outside linebacker. He will be bouncing around a little bit. I think he adds a dimension to our pass rush as a defensive end. He has done a good job coming off the end. He can bend, is athletic. Worked hard to be bigger and stronger. He is also smart enough to play sam and rush end and move back and forth between the two. He brings some real assets to our defense with his playmaking ability."
Handling two positions: "It's a concern, the coaches have to determine whether a particular player can do it, but I certainly feel confident in Walter that he can do it. He played a lot of football for the Bearcats last year and done everything to this point to show he will be able to do both."
PDJ Projection: Add Jancek to the long list of believers in Stewart. His play has been as remarkable as his story, which my colleague Scott Priestle documented in this excellent piece on CNati last season. The Bearcats are asking a lot of last year's breakout freshman. His role in two positions will keep offenses off balance and Stewart in a play-making role. I expect him to win at least one game for the Bearcats this season and be viewed as the biggest pro prospect on this defense by the time the year comes to an end.
THE SECOND TIER
Tangibles: 6-1, 215 pounds, Soph.
Last year: Seven tackles in nine games.
Jancek's take: "Maalik, his focus this summer is on getting bigger and stronger. He has put on a lot of weight. He is up to 215 pounds (from 195), he is moving well. It is a matter of him learning the defense and becoming comfortable at the inside linebacker.
"He's going to have to earn his playing time but he is one play away from being a starter. He has to prepare like he would running with the first group. We don't have any time to waste for him to come along. He's got to come out when he returns to camp and continue to improve every day."
PDJ Projection: Bomar will surprise many people this season. His dedication to the offseason workout program has him physically able to compete and a second season with the program has him mentally able to keep pace with defensive schemes. Considering the possibility Schaffer moves to the middle and the lack of depth at the position, Bomar will start some games at linebacker this season.
Tangibles: 6-2, 222 pounds, Jr.
Last year: Four games, 15 tackles, 1 sack (Knee injury in Week 4)
Jancek's take: "He didn't do much in the spring. Rehabbing an injury he suffered during the season last fall. He's a dedicated worker. He's smart. I'm intrigued by what he can do once he comes to camp."
PDJ Projection: Armstrong played well in a limited role last season before suffering a knee injury. He should be back at full strength in the fall and will seeing playing time. Also, with Stewart drifting between end and SLB, Armstrong will likely be on the field as much as any player in the second tier. As one of the more veteran members of the defense, his leadership and playmaking will be instrumental in the evolution of this defense.
Tangibles: 6-0, 235 pounds, Jr.
Last year: Only played in five games without a stat
Jancek's take: "He's got a lot to learn in terms of defense and learning what they learned last year. He is really working on his flexibility. His change of direction has gotten much better. He just needs to continue to grow within the defense."
PDJ Projection: Because of the wide-open nature of the middle linebacker position Thompson will get a shot. But he wouldn't be considered a front-runner to be a starter in Fresno on Sept. 4. He still has a long way to go in terms of grasping the defense, but if he can start to pick up the schemes he may be a surprise impact player.
Tangibles: 6-1, 230 pounds, Jr. transfer
Last year: 57 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 2 interceptions for Arizona Western CC
Jancek's take: "He will be in the mix right away. We are going to see what he can do. He looks good. He just reported so he is a little bit out of shape, but I know our strength coaches are doing a lot with him.
"He has some experience at the JuCo level. He is physically ready to step on the field for us. It is just a matter of if he can pick up the system."
PDJ Projection: AWC coaches praised Martin's speed and he was a major part of that team's push to finish the year No. 7 in the country in Junior College ball. Still, he only started three games there last year and is now moving into a major Division I program. The learning curve will likely be steep, but by the end of the season he should be somebody the Bearcats rely on.
Tangibles: 6-2, 230 pounds, Fr.
Last year: GCL Defensive Player of the Year at Roger Bacon
Jancek's take: "He's been doing a great job this summer. He is a smart young man. He has a great body on him. He's strong. It's a matter of whether or not he can pick up the system. He's physically going to be able to compete right away."
PDJ Projection: Tentman has the most immediate potential of any of the freshman linebackers. With the wide-open nature of the middle linebacker position he could very easily slide in as the backup or even see some starting time if he overachieves or injuries occur.
Corey Mason, Fr.
Josh Russ, Fr.
PDJ Projection: Neither were mentioned when Jancek was asked about newcomers expected to make a contribution, but as is always the case, that is nothing a solid fall can't solve. Redshirts are a possibility.