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2011 Football Training Camp: LB Preview

August 23, 2011
|  Lynchburg, Va.
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Leading up to the Flames' season-opening football battle against N.C. State on Sept. 3, LibertyFlames.com will be previewing each position around the gridiron.

Today, we continue our position-by-position preview by taking a look at the linebackers. During today's video package, Flames Sports Network correspondent Nick Pierce had a chance to speak with linebackers coach Wally Ake, who is in his first season of overseeing Liberty's middle line of defense.

On the practice field, the Flames return to preparation for their season opener against N.C. State today with an afternoon practice from 3:45 to 6 p.m. Liberty has had the last two days away from the practice field, taking time off for Football Media Day on Sunday and the first day of classes on Monday.

Outside Linebackers
Just like the offense, the Flames have one defensive position that will see several different faces in starting roles for the 2011 season.

The Flames return just one true starter from the linebacking corps for the 2011 season in Mike Connolly. He had to sit out the spring workout season recovering from an injury that caused him to miss the last five games of the year in 2010.

"The most challenging position defensively for us last spring was the linebacker position," commented head coach Danny Rocco. "Not that it wasn't a good situation, but just like our offensive line, different guys had to step in and step up to new roles during the spring."

Three of Liberty's four top tacklers from the 2010 season graduated, with each being starting linebackers for the Big South's top defensive unit. Kyle O'Donnell, last year's JACK linebacker, led the team and garnered first-team all-conference honors with 75 tackles, 12.0 tackles for a loss and 3.0 sacks.

Additionally, the Flames will be without the services of last year's MIKE linebackers Doncel Bolt (53 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 forced fumbles) and Chad Brown (40 tackles, 5.0 TFLs and 2.0 sacks), plus adjuster Danny Broggin (31 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks and four interceptions).

"No doubt, we have enough talented players and depth to excel at linebacker, and the spring solidified this for us," continued Rocco.

Last year, Rocco changed the positioning and terminology of his linebacking corps, adding an "adjuster" and "drop" outside linebackers. The alteration gives the Flames some versatility and flexibility at the position that mirrors a traditionally "3-3-5" defensive scheme.

"We are going to be real solid at the ‘drop' linebacker position with Mike Connolly fully recovered from the injury that kept him out late last year," added Rocco.

Connolly got off to a solid start in 2010 with 19 tackles in six games, including a strong outing in Liberty's upset of FBS foe Ball State, finishing with 3.5 tackles, a sack and fumble recovery on the game-sealing defensive stand.

Filling in for Connolly during the spring and challenging for the starting role during the fall will be Demetrius Ward. Ward finished the 2011 season with 17 tackles in 11 games. "Mike and Demetrius manned this position between the two of them last year and will likely continue these same roles this upcoming season," continued Rocco.

Brent Vinson is a returning starter for the Flames, but he spent most of last year in the secondary as the starter at weak safety. This year, Vinson has been moved to the "adjuster" position, taking over for Broggin, who had a breakout year with 31 tackles and four interceptions during his senior campaign.

Vinson has gained experience at the position, manning it during spring workouts. However, with the unexpected development of Broggin, Vinson returned to the secondary during the regular season.

"We are also going to take a good long look at players like Randy Spann for various roles this spring," remarked Rocco. "We think that these type of guys will be able to provide immediate help at the outside linebacker position.

"We just need some guys to step up and come through this year, and there is no reason that players like Brent Vinson can't develop into all-conference type players at this position."

Outside Linebackers at a Glance
Front Runners
Brent Vinson (ADJ) (Jr., 6-0, 215)
Mike Connolly (DROP) (R-Sr., 6-1, 235)
Demetrius Ward (DROP) (Jr., 6-0, 225)

Contender
Justin Gunn (R-Jr., 6-4, 205)
Bobby Partilla (Fr., 6-1, 210)

Up-and-Comer
Dylan Lewellyn (Fr., 6-1, 210)

Inside Linebackers
Rocco felt that the greatest level of evaluation during the spring came from the inside linebacker position, where the previously mentioned O'Donnell, Bolt and Brown have left vacancies with their graduation from the program.

"The inside linebacker position is very interesting and this is where we looked forward to evaluating the competition," stated Rocco. "We wanted to see who was going to step up. We worked this group of players at both MIKE and JACK linebacker, giving players the opportunity to prove themselves and earn a starting role."

The three players that took the greatest advantage of the evaluation period were Nick Sigmon, Marques Jenkins and Scott Hyland. Sigmon seems to have locked down the starting role at MIKE linebacker, while Jenkins and Hyland will come into August training camp battling for the starting spot at JACK.

Sigmon is a redshirt freshman that the coaching staff "has high hopes for" and they believe he has all the tools to come out and have an excellent 2011 season.

He will be backed up by Nick Martin and program newcomer Chase Griffiths, a summer transfer from USF.

The element that excites the Flames coaching staff the most about the players are vying for time at the MIKE linebacker is their availability. Griffiths and Martin have three years of eligibility left, while Sigmon has four years left with the program.

The most "seasoned" veteran among the inside linebacker group is Jenkins, who played in 10 of 11 games in 2010. "We are waiting for Marques to set into his own role," commented Rocco. "He has been a role player in our program for the last two years after transferring from Ole Miss. He has all the ability and tools, but he just has to put it together."

"Scott is a master of many trades, as he can play many linebacker positions," continued Rocco about Hyland, who stepped in as a true freshman and played after Connolly's injury.

Adding depth behind Jenkins and Hyland will be Jimmy O'Grady and Matt Baptiste. O'Grady comes to Liberty after playing two seasons of postgraduate football at Hargrave Military Academy. "He has come into our program and has had a great offseason," commented Rocco. "He was the fastest of all the inside linebackers and has tested very well."

Inside Linebackers at a Glance
Front Runners
Scott Hyland (JACK) (So., 6-0, 225)
Marques Jenkins (JACK) (R-Jr., 6-1, 235)
Nick Sigmon (MIKE) (R-Fr., 6-0, 240)

Contenders
Chase Griffiths (R-So., 6-3, 225)
Nick Martin (R-So., 6-1, 230)
Jimmy O'Grady (Fr., 6-0, 235)

Up-and-Comers
Brian Arelt (R-So., 5-11, 225)
Ray Jones (Fr., 6-0, 220)
Andrell Morrison (Jr., 5-9, 225)