JK Schaffer and Maalik Bomar joke with each other when they watch film. They call themselves the Siamese Twins. Every step they take is the same. The two are in tune as well as any duo at that position in many years.
Well, when you play every snap together for an entire season, those bonds tend to develop. And by every snap, that doesn't reflect them both starting all 12 games last year. It doesn't even reflect them finishing first (Schaffer, 111) and second (Bomar, 70) in tackles.
They almost literally took every snap together last season.
Last year, the linebacking corps enjoyed less depth than an episode of Bachelor Pad.
Every game, Schaffer and Bomar lined up and grinded through the wear and tear of a disappointing 4-8 season.
Walter Stewart stepped in beside them, despite occasionally slipping to the edge rush position.
Now Stewart has officially transitioned. He's at 250 pounds and a defensive end. He won't be coming back to LB. Bomar and Schaffer are the known quantities. Two of the best in the Big East in fact.
"We got that special bond out there on the field," Schaffer said. "He is like a brother to me."
What they needed were a few more siblings.
Now 12 days until the season opener against Austin Peay, every UC fan knows of Schaffer and Bomar. But what happens after that?
A third starting linebacker position sits vacant. As do all three backup spots.
The coaching staff believes they imported more depth at the position than last year. Only, there is a catch to the addition. For now, they aren't quite sure what to do with it.
Ben Pooler, Nick Temple, Dwight Jackson, Solomon Tentman, Greg Blair, Clemente Cassius. Only Tentman (torn ACL) had even been to Higher Ground before Aug. 13, yet were tossed into the linebacking fire there.
Learn the system, compete for a job, adjust to new surroundings, accept constructive criticism, self-evaluate, meet your teammates, improve technique. When you're done with all that -- stop thinking, play fast.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Now, the coaching staff sits and waits to see who emerges.
--- If there were an ideal choice, it would probably be Pooler (6-2, 230 pounds), a transfer from Maryland. Of all the candidates, he owns the most experience. He spent a portion of 2009 starting for the Terrapins. He contributed a sack in four straight games for them that season, including an 11-tackle performance against NC State.
Coaches can't teach experience. And at linebacker that means more than any other position on defense.
"The experience is key to the linebacker position because they are tied in with the front, the stunt, the coverage, every aspect of the call affects the linebacker position," co-DC and linebackers coach Jon Jancek said. "Some calls don't effect everyone - defensive backs don't need to know if it's a stunt -- linebackers need to know everything. The cumulative effect of all the calls lends itself to a linebacker that has good experience and can understand all of that."
--- Names those close to program know best are Nick Temple and Dwight Jackson. Butch Jones has been raving about the two true freshmen since they arrived as early enrollees in the spring.
Progress continued this fall. But, between the rows of trees at camp, there's nowhere to hide their label of Freshman.
"They still need a lot of work," Schaffer said.
He would know. Schaffer recalls attempting to work his way up the depth chart his freshman season. He eventually ran with the second team as a relative unknown kid out of LaSalle. He played linebacker in a few games, but mainly grinded his teeth on special teams.
"I got to play special teams all year and that really helped me going into my first year starting," Schaffer said.
Jackson and Temple might not have such a luxury.
Co-DC Tim Banks defines Jackson (6-1, 213) and Temple (5-10, 215) by two different measuring sticks. The same, but different.
"Temple is athletic, he played on the edge last year at high school, now we are playing him a little more inside," Banks said. "The thing he brings to the game is athleticism, whereas Jackson brings a little more physicality and nose for the football. He's got good instincts for a puppy."--- Schaffer only played alongside Greg Blair (6-2, 240) for the first time three weeks ago, but it feels like the junior college transfer has been around for years, according to Schaffer.
Of course, Schaffer may be remembering watching Pitt play UC in basketball a years back. Blair is the younger brother of former Panthers star and current San Antonio Spurs forward DeJuan Blair.
He spent the last two years at Lackawanna JC where he was named defensive MVP.
--- Jones expected Solomon Tentman (6-2, 222) to compete for playing time last season. Only, almost exactly one year ago, Tentman tore his ACL at Higher Ground. He's recovered and playing at full steam this fall.
--- Clemente Casseus (6-1, 215) may be the player nobody expected to see near the top of the depth chart, but that means little at Higher Ground. Production does. And Casseus produces.
He's a walk-on from Miramar Everglades HS in South Florida and caught the eye of Jones and the rest of the staff. Casseus might have been viewed as more of a project when he arrived, but is being given an opportunity.
--- Casseus projects more of an outside linebacker, Blair's body insists he plays in the middle, whereas Temple's athleticism might insist he belongs on the edge.
Banks doesn't concern himself with positions. At least, not yet.
"It's a free-for-all," he said.
Jancek has mixed and matched each player at both inside and outside to find where they belong. This camp hasn't been about filling a hole at outside linebacker -- it's about filling a hole at football player.
"Some days they play inside, some days outside," Banks said. "We are trying to really develop the overall skill set of all those kids. Once we start getting in game mode we will start to pencil them in at certain positions. For the most part, inside backer can play outside and outside can play inside."
Jancek and Banks will being narrowing down the depth chart next week as specific preparations begin for Austin Peay. Only then will a front-runner for the third starting linebacker be known.
--- Yet, this provokes an important question: How often will the Bearcats utilize a third linebacker? Even asking this question five years ago could get you thrown out of a press conference.
The landscape of college football has changed. With the spread formation taking over as offensive philosophy of the day, concerns with beefing up to win a physical war are fading. Now, defense requires the skill set for 7-on-7.
Matching up with three linebackers on the field makes little sense when teams break out a three or four WR spread. The Bearcats would obviously be more apt to run with the Siamese Twins and five DBs.
"If they've got a bunch of motions, skill players out there, there's a lot of things that go into matching up your personnel and their personnel," Jancek said. "You have to be careful in making sure you don't get outskilled in certain situations. You can function with a three-linebacker system, but it really limits your disguises package and some of the things that you can do."Considering the experience a large contingent of defensive backs gained last season (some of which they would prefer to forget), the depth at DB suggests the team would maybe be more equipped to handle the spread. At least, from an experience point of view.
In those games a third linebacker probably wouldn't touch the field more than 50 percent of the time depending on the scheme.
Take a look at the offense systems of UC's Big East opponents this year:
Louisville - Spread
Pitt - Spread
WVU - Spread
USF - Spread
UConn - Pro
Syracuse - Multiple
Rutgers -- ProThat's right, four in a row to open the conference slate. Between four non-conference games (unfortunately, all four non-con opponents run a pro or multiple offense) and the first four games of conference play, experience likely won't be much of a factor for the younger group of reserve linebackers. Or at least, the UC base hopes it wouldn't.
Regardless of opponent or situation, UC will rely on inexperienced players to fill roles at the linebacker position -- among other spots. Of course, that's not always a bad thing. Remember, Bomar owned zero starts and nine career tackles before last season. Now, the Bearcats don't know where they would be without him.
The linebacker situation is hazy, but that doesn't mean it's bleak. Compared to last year, it's a relative cornucopia.
"You always want experience," Banks said. "At the end of the day we are not always afforded that. We are going to play the best guys. The guys we feel like give us the best opportunity to be successful."