Lions new linebacker corps exceeds expectations

New starting linebackers Ixavier Triplett (left) and Bud Coleman (right) have helped the Lions become the No. 1 ranked defense in the GSC.

The philosophy for a traditional football powerhouse like UNA is to reload, not rebuild each year.

The linebacker play was one of the biggest offseason questions for the Lions as they lost three starters to graduation from last year, including D-II National Defensive Player of the Year Tavarius Wilson.

“Those three guys (Wilson, Gabe Poe and Brion James) were the backbone of our defense last year,” said head coach Bobby Wallace. “All three of those guys were seniors who had played a lot. Where the new guys lack from Tavarius, Gabe and Brion is experience. But I think they’re doing well so far.”

The Lions defense is shutting down opposing offenses this season despite the loss of the 2013 linebacker trio, as they rank first in the Gulf South Conference in scoring defense (10.4 per game) and total defense (240.8 yards per game).

UNA’s defense has also given up a conference low five touchdowns and five field goals.

“I think they’re learning still. The more they learn about our defense, the more aggressive they can be,” Wallace said. “The more experience they get, the faster they’ll be able to play.”

The starters this year have been senior Steven Rich, freshman Bud Coleman and senior Ixavier Triplett. But the Lions like to rotate the linebackers by switching in juniors Nick Johnson and C.J. Jackson to keep fresh legs in the game.

Rich leads the team in tackles with 35 and has recorded three tackles for loss. He has also recovered a fumble and picked off a pass.

Triplett has 22 tackles and Coleman has pitched in with 12. Johnson is tied for the team high in interceptions with two.

“You won’t see the individual production be as high as it was last year because we play so many at linebacker this year than last,” Wallace said. “But the overall linebacker production is about the same.”

Defensive coordinator Chris Willis said he has been extremely pleased with the linebackers this year.

“I think we’ve exceeded expectations because I was concerned about the linebackers coming in (this season),” Willis said. “We did a good job of recruiting these players and they’ve stood the test so far.”

Willis said despite the loss of the top three linebackers last year, this year’s group has more depth.

“Last year we only had one guy playing the same position and this year I feel like we have two,” he said. “Steven has really found a home at mike (middle linebacker) and we haven’t missed a beat at that position. Ixavier Triplett was an all-conference player at a previous D-II school (Delta State) so we knew what type of talent he had.”

The linebacker depth has created good competition between the players during practice, which makes the team better, Triplett said.

“Coming into fall camp we all knew everybody was competing and we’re just trying to find out who could be the best for our team,” he said. “Everybody understands what sacrifices we have to take to become a better team.”

The athleticism of this year’s linebackers has been key to the team’s success this year, especially since the Lions face several teams that run a spread offense, Wallace said.

“We have to be able to stop the quick passes and also the run,” he said. “I think we’re doing a much better job of it and I think we did extremely well job of it Saturday. It helps that the new guys have a lot of athletic talent and a lot of speed.”

Last year the Lions defense led D-II in forcing 39 turnovers and this year UNA has forced 16 through five games.

Forcing turnovers is something Willis said he constantly harps on and thinks the linebackers have done a good job of it.

“We just do our job and fly to the football and if you do that you’ll force some turnovers,” Rich said. “It’s all about knowing your assignments and playing with full speed.”