August 24, 2009

Vision key to linebacker success

MADISON, Wis. - It is late in the fourth quarter. The team is up three with the opponents facing a critical fourth down just outside field goal range. Everything is on the line.

The offensive linemen set. Some, look more confident than others. In fact, the right guard looks like a liability in the eyes of the blitzing linebacker about to bear down on him. For that right guard has bright red fingertips signifying he is leaning too far forward in his stance.

The ball is snapped, the quarterback drops back, that right guard is getting bulled over by the middle linebacker and shortly after, the quarterback is hit by the blitzing backer and dropped for the sack.

Game over.

"It's key," Wisconsin middle linebacker Culmer St. Jean said in regards to field vision. "You've got to see the whole field."

From the way linemen are set up in their stance to the formation of slot receivers to the drop of the quarterback, linebackers are paying attention to everything detail on the field. No matter how minute each motion or call may be, they simply add up to mean everything.

"Play after play, seeing the play over and over…you just kind of know," St. Jean said. "You look at the offensive linemen, get some pre-snap reads and stuff. So it's just through reps."

For the Badgers, after losing two starting linebackers from a season ago, a couple of veteran, but not quite as experienced players have stepped in to fill the void. St. Jean is anchoring the unit at the middle linebacker spot while Jaevery McFadden last year's mike backer, moves back to his natural position on the weak side.

Finally, Blake Sorensen rounds out the bunch at sam. Overall, the players have changed, but the responsibilities at each position have not and vision is the driving force behind everything a linebacker needs to do.

"You've got to read a quarterback pass or draw, a quarterback pass or run or maybe a draw," McFadden said. "You got to read screens and stuff like that. So, if you have that vision as a linebacker, you definitely can make some plays."

For St. Jean, as the quarterback of the defense, his vision is even more important because each intricacy is enhanced greatly simply because he has to make the correct call for each particular play.

If the wrong call is made, that can be the difference between a three-yard run and a 60-yard touchdown.

"It's definitely just feeling," St. Jean said. "You try to see if they're trying to drift off and you know it's going to bend back. It's getting the reps and knowing how plays tend to finalize, just knowing where it is.

"If you see the line going flat, you know it might be a sprint out boot, or they're just going to have to cut it back because we set the edge."

It all happens in quick fashion. The offense comes out of the huddle, walks to the line of scrimmage and sets over the ball. In the few short seconds before the snap is made, the middle linebacker is barking out calls to his defensive teammates. Keep in mind those calls are made with only a few quick instances to maneuver the offensive set.

"If you know what you're doing in the middle linebacker position, and you've got the vision, too, you can make a lot of plays," McFadden said. "Culmer, he's got that vision. He's definitely got that knowledge now. He's recognizing formations so he's recognizing plays out of the formation. That makes it that much quicker and faster to the ball."

Over time, that vision that starts out as a whirlwind for the young players becomes more of a habit. It isn't as much that you see what you need to do as it is knowing instinctually where you need to be. And when it becomes habit of instinct that is when a linebacker has an opportunity to be a difference maker.

"It's definitely more reaction and instinct than it is thinking," McFadden said. "You don't want to be thinking as a linebacker because you're wasting time. If you hesitate, you're blocked. So you just want to go out there and react and know your playbook.

"If you know your playbook, then you go ahead and react instinctively and go and make plays."

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