Backup Linebackers Prepared For Anything

Posted Oct 16, 2013

Versatile group provides key depth behind veteran starting unit.

Depth is important at every position, and most recently for the Miami Dolphins that became apparent among the linebackers.

Varying injuries to starters Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler and Koa Misi in the weeks leading up to the bye resulted in more playing time than expected for backups Jason Trusnik, rookie Jelani Jenkins, Jonathan Freeny and newly re-signed Austin Spitler. Each player responded admirably and left an impression on the coaching staff.

“All of those guys have really contributed in games in meaningful snaps on defense,” Head Coach Joe Philbin said. “Jenkins has obviously had an expanded role. Trusnik has filled in and done a very nice job in a couple of different spots. He’s a very versatile player. Freeny has been there in games playing. I think those guys have demonstrated the next-up mentality where they prepare very well and when there number gets called they are ready to fill in.”

Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle draws up his scheme in such a manner as to prevent opposing offenses from being able to zero in on one player or on one area of the defense. So Ellerbe, Wheeler and Misi do not have designated backups for the Mike, Will and Sam positions they regularly line up in, and that is by design.

Some situations call for Trusnik to fill Wheeler’s role, Jenkins to take the place of Ellerbe and Spitler or Freeny to occupy Misi’s spot. But that can change on the next series, which is why linebackers coach George Edwards insists that each of his players learn all three positions.

“I think from day one when George, Coach Coyle and Coach Philbin stepped into this building and in Coach Coyle’s defensive system, George made it a point to make sure you know the defense,” said Trusnik, who started two games last season in place of Misi and is in his third season with the Dolphins. “Make sure you know each and every linebacker position as well as the whole defense itself and for me, any guy that goes down I’m just as prepared as he is and know the position, the defense, the scouting report so that you can step in and the defense doesn’t slow down.”

Ellerbe left Miami’s last game against the Baltimore Ravens with a shoulder injury in the second quarter and that’s when Trusnik and Jenkins were called to action. They didn’t miss a beat and Spitler and Freeny also contributed. For Jenkins, he didn’t have time to get nervous or experience the rookie jitters because it was a close game against the defending Super Bowl champions in front of a home crowd at Sun Life Stadium. He also credited Edwards and the veterans with keeping him calm and focused.

“It’s a moment you can’t really prepare for until it happens,” Jenkins said. “You go in there, you just try to calm down, keep your nerves down and remember that it’s still football. It was a little difficult but at the same time it was exciting. I’m ready for the moment and when my name was called I just went back to my teaching, went back to what we learned in practice and just tried to play fast.”

Spitler highlighted the fact that Edwards makes sure to get all of the linebackers snaps against the first team offense in practice precisely for situations like the one that arose against Baltimore. He also emphasized the camaraderie that exists in the room among his teammates.

While Ellerbe and Wheeler were new to the Dolphins after signing as free agents in March and Jenkins is a rookie draft choice, it almost seems like this group has been together longer than it has. That helps when it comes time to game preparation.

“I think it’s just important for the guys who don’t get a lot of reps in the game to stay prepared and I feel like we all do that,” Wheeler said. “We help each other out and if one of us has a question we ask each other and we just kind of come along as a group. There’s nobody in it for himself and we’re just all trying to help each other out. We’ve got guys who can play multiple positions and the defense isn’t designed for one person to make plays. So if I go out there isn’t somebody coming in to be me, it’s somebody coming in to play that position with no drop-off.”

When one of the three starting linebackers makes that kind of statement about the group behind him, coaches will take that any day of the week.

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