University of Toledo linebacker Ja'Wuan Woodley (30) returns to lead the Rockets at the position after earning All-MAC honors a season ago. BLADE PHOTO
In its second season under defensive coordinator Brian George and linebackers coach Mike Ward, the University of Toledo linebacker group has a sense of confidence that has come thanks to being in the same scheme for the second consecutive year.
“For me personally, it’s helping me understand the scheme a lot more and what the coaches want and expect,” senior linebacker Jack Linch said. “I can see it on film and in practices that we understand the scheme a lot more and how to communicate a lot more.”
With senior Ja’Wuan Woodley, a third-team All-Mid-American Conference performer last season, Linch, and junior Tyler Taafe returning, the linebackers are experienced and should take advantage of the 4-2-5 scheme the team uses.
“I think a giant change from last year is that we know the defense in and out,” Taafe said. “We’ve been around it for about two years now. Any problems or questions, it is always an open-door policy and you can go talk to [the coaches]. It makes it easier.”
Woodley was second on the team in 2016 with 79 tackles, and added 3½ sacks, two pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and five quarterback hurries.
“We have more depth this year that coach Ward trusts to go out there,” Woodley said. “We have [redshirt freshman] Tre’Shun Wilson who has been learning that playbook and getting into that playbook good. He’s been playing more comfortably out there at practice. He’s been good, and Tyler has stepped up, too, even though he was a starter last year. He’s just more aware of everything. Jack is another senior that has been stepping up at camp as well. We have a lot of depth at the Mike and Will positions.”
One of the primary responsibilities of a linebacker in Toledo’s system is to communicate with the rest of the defense and make sure the line and the secondary are lined up correctly. UT coach Jason Candle said he trusts the experienced linebackers in making sure the communication is fluid throughout the whole defense.
“Those guys are veteran guys and they’ve played a lot of football for us,” Candle said. “There shouldn’t be missed assignments and there shouldn’t be a lapse in where you are supposed to be or what you are supposed to do. We count on those guys to get guys moving in the right direction and lined up and where to be. It’s all connected on a string from the front to the second level to the secondary, and those guys all have to be on the same page.”
Last season, Taafe had a breakout season, starting all 13 games and recording 70 tackles, six tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries, and two pass breakups. He had a career-high 12 tackles in the Camellia Bowl against Appalachian State.
Taafe said he has learned a lot from Woodley and Linch, the two seniors.
“It means the world really,” Taafe said of being around the senior duo. “You have guys that have really been through everything. They’ve been here for four or five years for some of them. They are people you can go to when times get hard. They’ve been through every situation. So it’s good to have them in the linebacker group.”
Linch played in all 13 games last season in a reserve role, and had 24 total tackles with one sack. He thinks this year’s group will build off of its success from last season.
“I see a lot of potential,” Linch said. “We are experienced. We have a lot of guys back. Really, we have everyone back who played last season. We have guys that are stepping up. It’s a lot of talented individuals who are selfless and don’t care about who gets the credit. We are just out there trying to help out one another and communicate out there.”