There’s not much surprise in the numbers that Frenship senior middle linebacker Stephen Smith has put up this season. After earning all-state honors a year ago, they were expected.
What was unknown going into 2012 was how the rest of the Tigers’ linebackers would perform given that they were either first-year starters or first-year varsity players. And even the ones head coach Brad Davis had in mind at certain spots at the beginning of the year aren’t necessarily the ones playing there now.
Regardless of age or experience, Frenship’s linebackers have been the heart of an aggressive, attacking group that is allowing just 280.4 yards per game heading into Saturday’s Class 4A Division II Region I final against Wichita Falls Rider.
“That’s the way our defense is designed to be very aggressive and an attacking defense,” Davis said. “And when you do that it frees your linebackers up to be aggressive and fly around the football.”
For the Tigers, it’s worked to near perfection, and the numbers certainly bear that out.
According to statistics kept on the Texas High School Coaches Association website, four of the Tigers’ top six tacklers are linebackers. Smith, the lone senior among those four, leads the way with 223 tackles, 147 solo, with five sacks and 17 tackles for losses.
“It’s not just me. It’s our defensive line and our outside linebackers,” Smith said. “They keep the offensive line off me and open me up to make all the plays with our inside linebackers.”
More importantly, he’s become the vocal and on-field leader Davis needed, someone to run the offense.
“We knew he was going to have a great year if he stayed healthy,” Davis said. “He’s relentless, number one. He’s got good quickness and speed to not allow the offensive linemen to get to him. Some kids are just a playmayer, and he’s always around the football.”
But he’s not alone.
Opposite Smith in the middle of the Tigers’ 3-4 scheme has been a rotation of junior Jonathan Beck and sophomore Zach Finley. Beck has recorded 103 tackles, four sacks and seven tackles for losses, while Finley has 101 tackles, nine sacks and eight tackles for losses.
Combined, they have more than made up for the graduation of last year’s other starting linebacker, Colton Estill.
“We weren’t worried, but just trying to find out who would be in that position,” Davis said. “Jonathan we thought would be a viable candidate along with Finley, so those two guys have played there and they have not disappointed. Both have been good at making plays and helping Stephen out when teams run to their side of making sure we stop the run on both sides and not just one side.”
Junior Tyler Kreger made the switch from inside linebacker on the junior varsity last year to outside linebacker this year and has flourished with 75 tackles, 43 solo, and five sacks. On the other side, sophomore Chandler Casey has 38 tackles and four sacks.
“Everyone on the team is dedicated but I felt like my strength really helped me out,” Kreger said. “I was up her every day lifting try to stay strong. I actually feel like I’m falling back because last year as an inside linebacker on JV I was kind of a star, but not this year on varsity.”
Then there’s the outside linebackers who work in on a rotation. Senior Rhett Cates has 42 tackles and a pair of sacks, and Shane Birchfield has 21 tackles and four sacks.
Perhaps the best part about the unit is that only Smith, Cates and Birchfield are seniors, giving Davis a solid group to build around next season. But their worth grows in the playoffs.
Against Waco last week in San Angelo, the Tigers held running back Chris Simms, who came into the game with more than 1,700 rushing yards, to just 62 total yards.
They’ve also allowed the secondary to play more coverage and not worry as much about run support. Cade Davis, who was considered at the beginning of the year for one of the linebackers spots, has nine interceptions.
“With the linebackers we have ... (teams) can’t run the ball on us, and that frees the secondary up for more interceptions and more tackles in the open field when they to run outside,” Cade Davis said. “It’s good to have a good linebacking corps and front seven where we can make teams pass the ball on us.”
To comment on this story:
firstname.lastname@example.org • 766-2166
email@example.com • 766-8700