JHoo’s Summer Reading ’08: Linebackers

In 2008, just as in every other year during Al Groh’s tenure at Virginia, the linebackers will be a focal point of the defense. That became even more true after some offseason attrition left the defensive line and defensive backfield with holes in need of filling. But while there are few questions – really, only one – about who will start at linebacker in 2008, that does not mean that there are not questions that the unit must answer as a whole, particularly in terms of how the linebackers will fit with the rest of the defense. Put another way, the parts looks good at linebacker, but what will the sum of those parts be?

The Starters

Entering the fall, three of the four starting linebacker slots essentially are set in stone, with fourth years Clint Sintim , Antonio Appleby , and Jon Copper all returning for another year.

Jon Copper led last year’s defense in total tackles, solo tackles, and assists.

For me, the discussion starts with Jon Copper, a player who in his early years in the program was always at the end of the linebacker discussion. This changed placement parallels how Copper’s importance to the defense has changed, as Copper may not be irreplaceable per se but he certainly now has a cornerstone role in the defense. That may be a surprising thing to say about a player like Copper who is somewhat limited physically. But he makes up for a lot of those limitations with smarts and effort, traits that are evident long before the first snap of the game. For example, Copper is in the film room to a Spielbergian level and going into each week’s game, he knows what he is going to see from an opponent across the field as well as any player on the team. Combine that with a good understanding of his own defense, good instincts, and very good reads and Copper plays the game at least a step or two faster than his speed would seem to indicate is possible.

Speed admittedly is not a strength of Copper’s but strength is, so to speak. After all, when Copper is not in the film room, there is a good chance that he can be found in the weight room (or near his locker, eating some healthy snack or drinking a gallon of water or extolling to a teammate the virtues of some healthy eating choice). As a result of his hard work, Copper is one of the stronger players on the team, particularly among the linebackers, and Copper uses that strength, excellent leverage, and good hands to be the best of UVa’s linebackers at taking on a blocker, standing him up, and shedding him to make a tackle. And at bottom, making tackles is what Copper does best, leading last year’s defense in total tackles, solo tackles, and assists while also tying for third on the team in tackles for loss and throwing in three sacks for good measure.

In between the hashes, I would argue that Copper is as good a player as Virginia has on the team. Of course, that same statement highlights the fact that Copper is not a player that has the range to often make plays outside the hashes. But at times, Copper’s physical limitations serve only to show just how productive he is. Take pass coverage, for example, where Copper’s lack of speed certainly limits him in terms of range and the depth of his drops … and yet he tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Simply put, Copper gets every bit of production he can out of each game and for what he does, Copper does it well. Plus, while Copper is understated in what he says, Copper has become a leader on the team in large measure because of the example he sets both on and off the field.

Playing alongside Copper on the inside will be Antonio Appleby . A better athlete than Copper, Appleby can play with a little more range and get outside the hashes a bit more than Copper. While Copper generally uses brute force to take on a blocker and attack a hole, Appleby is a little more fluid in his movements and often will be looking for a seam that will allow him to get to the ball carrier. That is not to say that Appleby is not strong at the point of attack – he has built himself up to a comfortable and much stronger 250 over the past couple of years – but Appleby is as likely to slide off a block as he is to stand up and shed a blocker. Against the pass, Appleby’s athleticism also is a plus in coverage. In 2007, Appleby led the linebackers in passes broken up, finishing in a tie for