Aug. 19, 2014
The Wildcats returned to Evanston from a nine-night stint in Kenosha, Wis. to resume practice in the shadow of Ryan Field Tuesday morning. As camp continues, many have been focused on several position groups, including linebacker, where Drew Smith and Jimmy Hall are sharing reps. Skip Myslenski checks in on the competition and the competitors.
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The one is Jimmy Hall, who is 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds and a former safety. The other is Drew Smith, who is 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds and renowned for greeting a ball carrier with mayhem in mind. Together they are the hybrid that this season will play Sam linebacker for the `Cats, lining up alongside Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo. "I'll probably list them (on the depth chart) as `or' the whole year," says Pat Fitzgerald, referring who will be designated as the starter.
"And whoever goes out there first (as the starter) will be maybe as insignificant as any position that we've had, if that makes any sense. They're both going to play. We've got four starters right now. They'll both be in different situations that play to their strengths. But I look at them both as starters and that's the way we'll probably go through the whole year."
Jimmy Hall, one year ago, was locked in a battle with Traveon Henry to determine who would start at safety aside Ibraheim Campbell. He would lose that competition, but that fall would appear in 11 games and total 36 tackles and an interception. Drew Smith, one year ago, was locked in a battle with Ellis to see who would start at linebacker aside Ariguzo and Damien Proby. He too would lose his competition, but that fall would appear in 12 games and make 31 tackles, 4.5 of them for losses of totaling 13 yards.
"Nothing's going to be given to you. You have to earn your playing time no matter what your year is," Smith will say of his current situation, which appears to be a bit of déjà vu all over again.
"It's been a competition for the starting job," says Hall, who of course is experiencing the same phenomena. "But at this point, both guys are going to play a lot of reps. So whoever starts, we're both going to get a lot of time in this season."
The catalyst for this hybrid came during the offseason when Hall sat down with Fitzgerald. "He said," remembers the player, "`We can move you to Sam and you'll play more, you'll have a bigger chance to start.' Me, being a fifth-year senior and playing a lot last year, but not being in the starting role, I saw that as a chance for me to play more and a chance for me to start. So when he told me, at first I was kind of surprised. But then I was excited to get going and have the opportunity to play more."
"He's very athletic and he's played safety," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will say when asked why the coaching staff wanted Hall on the field. "In this day and age, your Sam has a lot of plays in space, they (offenses) put him in coverage situations more than ever. So he gives us a lot more flexibility.
"Andrew's improved dramatically in that area. But Jimmy just gives us a more natural cover guy because he played defensive back. Andrew's extremely aggressive against the run and he's going to play. He's too aggressive and he's too physical and we've got to get him on the field."
They are both going to play. All involved in creating this hybrid say that and this is why their shared situation only appears to be a bit of deja vu all over again. They are both going to play, and here is a Cliff Notes' version on how that will work. Come the `Cats season opener with Cal, which features the spread and the hurry-up offense, Hall will likely have the dominant role. But come October, when Wisconsin and Nebraska bring their ground chuck attacks to Ryan Field, that role will just as likely fall to Smith. "They both have unique strengths," Fitzgerald will explain.
Still, when asked if their playing time will be totally determined by the situation, Hankwitz will say, "No. We feel we can play Andrew in there at any time. We like the depth. Then we can give guys a blow. Andrew obviously has some strengths and is more experienced against the run than James is. But Jim's embracing what he's doing, and he's getting better at it too."
"I'm trying to get to the point where, whoever we play, coaches think they can keep me out there," says Hall himself. "That's what I've been working on this camp."
"It doesn't put any pressure on," says Smith when asked about his status. "I've been in this system for awhile, so I'm pretty much comfortable with any situation I get in."
The one is Jimmy Hall and he says, "I always thought I was a physical player at safety." The other is Drew Smith and he says, "Honestly, I was thinking about that the other day and it's just been the way I've played since I can remember. I can't ever remember myself not playing a physical style of football. I've just always been physical."
So, as Fitzgerald noted, they may have their unique strengths, but concurrently they also share a mindset that is not unimportant. For, throughout all of this off-season, coaches have emphasized that the `Cats must be more physical, must be more aggressive, must be more like the Drew Smith Fitzgerald described this way 15 months ago. "He thoroughly enjoys contact," he said of him then. "He goes to bed dreaming about knocking somebody's lips off. He likes running around and doing that."
"That's pretty accurate," Smith would say when asked about that observation. "That's what I live for. I play defense for a reason. I like to hit people. That's my job. So when I get a chance to hit somebody, force my will on them, that's what I do."
"We try to spread that attitude through the defense," he will add on this Tuesday. "Being more aggressive stopping the run, coming downhill, you just have to run around and make big plays. I know when you have people who make big hits, it energizes the defense and creates energy and drive for everybody to up their game to another level."
"When you play defense and someone makes a big hit, that brings the whole defense up a level," Jimmy Hall will later echo in conclusion. "Someone gets a big hit, you think, `Shoot, the next play that could be me.' It just brings everyone's level of play up."
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