Mike Redlinger came close to never seeing the field for Brighton’s defense this year. He came close to never being the anchor of one of the best defensive units in Bulldogs history. And that’s because he was almost converted to offense.
“Being a selfish offensive coach at times, I thought he’d be a great fullback,” said Brighton coach Brian Lemons, who took over the team this year and quickly plotted out a depth chart of players to figure out who fit where.
“But at the end of the day, as a staff, we sat down and we wanted to make sure our defense is what was gonna lead the team. We took from our entire roster of players, and we filled in those defense spots first. Then we did the gaps on offense. … We decided keeping Mike healthy and on the defensive side of the ball and having that leadership was most important.”
Lemons made a lot of good decisions in his first year at Brighton, evidenced by an 8-1 regular-season record, a share of the KLAA West championship and a playoff win. Ultimately deciding to keep Redlinger at middle linebacker as the focal point of the defense might have been his best.
For Redlinger, the numbers aren’t necessarily eye-popping. He recorded 48 tackles — 39 of which were solo stops and eight of which were for a loss — a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery. But the senior was often benched late in games because the Bulldogs seemingly always had a large lead and elected, wisely, to ensure their starters’ health.
But the middle linebacker’s impact when it was close, his impact on a defense that allowed 14.5 points per game and was one of Brighton’s best defenses in school history cannot be understated.
He was named the defensive Most Valuable Player by his team, a team that owned the best defense in the county by a wide margin.
And for that, he is also the Livingston Daily’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“We gave Mike the defensive side of the ball,” Lemons said. “Our whole defense, none of those guys were spotlight type of guys. Every single one of them was out there for each other, and Mike was kind of the ringleader of that. It was about the team first, all of those things were coming out of Mike’s mouth. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that he had a great season.”
Again, it almost didn’t happen.
When Lemons took the reins of Brighton’s program he sat down with his coaching staff. Together, they evaluated every player, including incumbent starters. Redlinger was among that group, as he was coming off a solid 2014 for the Bulldogs but, by his admission, not spectacular.
The way Redlinger described his junior season was that, “I knew where all the plays were and how to get there, but just felt I was kind of a step behind and a little weaker than the rest of the players.”
Still, Lemons, who strongly believes in keeping players on only one side of the ball, chose not to convert him to offense. Despite having nine seniors coming back to the defense, he felt there were too many questions on that side to steal the unit’s returning leader.
“Believe it or not, coming into the season most of our questions marks were on the defensive side of the ball,” Lemons said. “Even though we had nine seniors over there the majority of the time, it was a new defense, new defensive system. We shuffled some kids three, four weeks into the season. (Mike) was one guy that was a mainstay.”
The new scheme, Lemons said, was one that required a versatile linebacker at the center.
“We force our linebackers to make plays,” he said. “Basically, everyone’s giving themselves up to funnel the ball inside to the linebackers, and he did the best job. He was one of the best tacklers, one of our toughest kids. We didn’t ask him to do too much, but we used him a lot. We blitzed him, we played the run with him, he seemed like he was always around the football, knocking the ball down, sacking the quarterback, making a tackle for a loss.”
It didn’t matter the scheme, it didn’t matter the formation. If the game was in question, Redlinger was in. And he was in making plays. Some of that success he credited to a better offseason regimen that allowed him to find an extra gear, some of it he credited to his coaches new defensive style, but most he credited to his teammates.
“Basically, us seniors had played together for a few years and we knew how to play with each other and for each other. So we knew we’d be a solid defensive core,” Redlinger said. “Just knowing that our core had played together before, we basically kinda trusted each other (and) that we’d be able to go make plays and play our own role. We did our job and trusted others to do theirs.”
The most trust, however, was put in Redlinger.
The coaches counted on him to adapt to the new system faster than anyone else. With how important Lemons said the linebackers were to his scheme, they needed him to. They counted on him to embrace the new lingo and to teach it to his teammates. And despite more responsibility, they counted on him not to miss a step.
He didn’t. He flourished in his increased role.
Perhaps that’s because the role played into all of his strengths.
“I’m not necessarily the fastest or strongest kid,” Redlinger admitted. “So it’s a little tough. I just have to basically make reads.”
In other words, he depended on being a high-IQ player, soaking up information and using it later in the season. He depended on recognizing offensive formations and, based on that, plays a team might run. He depended on using his mind to always be in the right spot, and as his coach said, he seemingly always was.
Therefore, Brighton ended up being the perfect place. And Lemons the perfect fit as a coach.
“I played against a lot of linebackers and saw Joey (Clifford) go against them, and I’ve seen them all make plays,” said Redlinger, speaking on the stacked group of Livingston County linebackers. “They don’t necessarily make plays the same way. (Hartland’s Aaron) Laird’s a strong player, he uses his strength. I’m one who’s in the right spot to make plays.”
“He’s a very intelligent kid,” Lemons added.
That’s why the coach has the utmost confidence in Redlinger thriving at whatever he does in the future, even though that future Redlinger said will not involve football. Although Lemons is certain Redlinger could play somewhere, the senior is giving up the sport to concentrate on academics.
“I know he’s planning on attending a four-year school somewhere,” Lemons said. “They’re gonna be lucky to have him. He’s proven himself in the classroom. Four years from now, he’s gonna graduate someplace with a really good degree and be really successful at what he does.”