Nov. 4, 2000
By SCOTT KITEI
NU Athletics Media Services
Stop the run like a defensive lineman. Drop back in pass protection like a defensive back. Make sure that the defense is always in the right formation. There are three tasks integral to defensive football, and all are fulfilled by one important position -- linebacker.
The linebackers are in the center of the defense, and as a result they have a big responsibility. Northwestern's starting trio of Kevin Bentley, Napoleon Harris and Billy Silva know their jobs well. They started 23 games between them last year, recording a combined 341 tackles, nearly one-third of the team's total. That trend has continued in 2000, with all three ranked in the top four in the conference in tackles, each averaging more than ten per game.
This success is nothing new. In recent years the 'Cats have seen the likes of Pat Fitgerald and Barry Gardner, both of whom earned national recognition for their linebacking success. While some of them feel the prior success adds more pressure on them to perform, Napoleon Harris says doing their job, not concentrating on statistics, is the most important thing.
"As individuals, each one of us just goes out there and tries to play hard every game," he says. "The stats take care of themselves. We just need to play hard, and that gets us in the position to make tackles and to make plays."
To make the important plays and be in the right position, a linebacker needs to be solid against the run and the pass. Although most linebackers prefer making hits and defending the run, they understand the importance and necessity of both.
"As a linebacker," says Bentley, "You always just want to come downhill, play smash-mouth and get a few tackles. You don't really like to cover guys, but here it's something we pride ourselves on, being able to cover receivers one-on-one."
"We do a lot of tackling drills and a lot of movement drills," says linebackers coach Jay Peterson. "We do movement drills that defensive backs would do because we're required to do that. We also do hand-to-hand combat drills just like the defensive line. We do a little bit of everything, because at linebacker you have to be the complete package."
While strength and speed are important attributes to being a linebacker, Petersen says the most important aspect of the position is mental.
"You have to be intelligent to be a good linebacker," he says. "There are a lot of good linebackers who can just fly around, run fast, and make plays. But being in the right spot at the right time is just as important as talent and ability."
"The hardest thing is the mental aspect," says Bentley. "Just being able to digest what's going on quick enough. You have to adjust and make reads and know who you're covering because everything happens so quickly. Everyone has the physical ability, it's just how fast you can digest and know your job and where you need to be and you need to get there in a hurry."
With so many different attributes needed to be a solid linebacker, Bentley says that each of the three Wildcat starters have their own unique strengths, thus making the group as a whole more solid.
"Billy is the wild man," says Bentley. "He hasn't cut his hair in about six months. He's real crazy. He's the juice of the group. He likes to come out fired up. Napoleon prides himself on being athletic. He wants to just out-athlete everybody, as we say around here. Me, I'm the strength and the brains because I'm real strong but I know the game really well, so I know where everyone is supposed to fit. We all bring a little something and we put it all together and we work really well."
On the field, Harris, Bentley and Silva are relentless, doing their best each play to drive opposing offenses crazy. They all love the position, and all three know that as soon as the ball is snapped, they're a force to be reckoned with.
"We're like a pack of wild dogs when they let all three of us loose," says Harris.
"We're going to bring it for 60 minutes every game," says Bentley. "Win, lose, or draw, we're coming and you better be ready."
"It's a great feeling," says Silva, "When you're running into a hole, the running back is coming right at you, and you just smack him. The next thing you know he's on the ground three yards back and you get up and go, 'Yeah, I did that.'"