In retrospect, Mickey McCarty can be frank: linebacker was a position of concern entering this season.
“I will say it was a position of concern, by all means, with capital letters,” the Neville head coach said. “Going into this year after graduating senior linebackers last year, there was no question that was a major point of concern for our defense.”
Through a deep cast of players, among them the safeties that pose as linebackers at times, the Tigers have turned that part of the defense into a strong one, coming off of holding Grant’s double-wing offense to 66 rushing yards.
“We’ve gotten better at that position,” McCarty said. “We’ve showed improvement and continued improvement, which is good to see.
“Will Anders, for one, is a smaller linebacker but very tenacious, very quick and gets in the position to make a lot of plays. We’ve been pleased with Robert Williams’ progression at this point. We’ve always felt like he could be a quality linebacker — he has the size, speed and athleticism to be a quality linebacker — but without experience at the position, we knew it would take him time to learn to read his keys and how to handle all the bodies in the box coming at him from different angles.”
Williams’ development in that realm has been both a concentration and a joy for Neville defensive coordinator Benjy Lewis, as he and linebackers coach Chad Johnson transition him to full-time linebacker from tight end.
“Robert Williams has probably emerged as our best, our playmaker. He has a nose for the ball and it’s been fun to watch him develop,” Lewis said. “You look back at the Ouachita game and he probably was unsure of it all, which was a bad time because that quarterback (Devion Warren) can really make you look bad if you don’t know.”
McCarty added of Williams, “I think Coach Johnson and our defensive coaches have done a good job of continuing to work with him on the little things at linebacker, from reading keys to how to play through blocks and over the top of blocks.”
Williams is second on the team in tackles with 33 while leading the team in sacks (six), yards lost on sacks (28) and fumble recoveries (two). Anders made a sizable impact in the Bastrop game, coming up with a sack and pressuring the quarterback into throwing an interception Ben Nola returned for a touchdown.
Jahmal Nelson’s return to football has come at a great time for the Tigers, too. Lewis said an, “unfortunate health problem,” kept him away from football for a year and his return, combined with his move to linebacker, has his role on the team growing by the week.
“The thing with him was, he’s such a good-looking kid and such a smart player that we just had to find a place to use him,” Lewis said. “He started out in the back end, but we were solid there and he kind of found a home (at linebacker). He doesn’t show up much on the tackle chart, but he’s always around the ball and forcing things back in.”
The final piece of the corps is a bit of preventative maintenance: Lewis is looking to sophomore Mahlon Markle as the future of the position so the Tigers don’t have to search for answers at linebacker next season, too. All of them, along with safeties Herschel Carter and Cole Marsh, make the second level of the Neville defense a formidable force.
“Those guys on the inside have been productive as the season’s gone along, and thank goodness,” McCarty said, “because to play good team defense, you have to have good linebackers.”
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