Amidst Changing Defensive Roles, WVU’s Shea Campbell Anchored At Traditional Position

Amidst Changing Defensive Roles, WVU’s Shea Campbell Anchored At Traditional Position

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Spear. Bandit. Cat. Will.

West Virginia’s defense under coordinator Vic Koenning is filled with new and revamped labels, which is fitting, because most of these positions are revisions of the classic names that most football fans are familiar with. While it’s true that one or two key spots in many college defenses have had somewhat unique names for a while (see the “Hero” at Penn State, or the “Spur” at WVU), the 2019 system being taught on the practice field at West Virginia has more new terms than ever before.

The positions are hybrids of some of the traditional spots, with the bandit having linebacker and end duties, and the will and the spear meshing those of ‘backers and safeties. Those positions may skew more toward one of the classic spots than they other, but they can also morph from week to week, depending on what the opponent does. For example, positions could skew bigger and bulkier against power teams, or shift more toward speed and coverage in space against four-wide offenses.

West Virginia linebacker Shea Campbell (34) breaks through the line to pressure Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger

The new names, and more importantly, the new duties, are part of the evolution of the game, as defensive coaches work to keep pace with the explosive offenses that spread personnel across the field in order to create advantageous match-ups and win with speed.

Amidst all the changes on the back end of the defense, though, there’s still one spot that calls back to the days of Chuck Bednarik and Dick Butkus – mike linebacker.

The guys in the middle of the defense might be considered throwbacks in some regard. While they certainly have to fit into the overall system, many of their duties are the same no matter what scheme they play in. They fill interior run gaps, and need to be physical players who can engage and get off blocks in the maelstrom in the middle of the field. They must be sure tacklers. Often, they are also the quarterbacks on defense, making adjustments and calls right up to the snap.

It’s no surprise, then, to see old-school players like Shea Campbell and Dylan Tonkery manning the mike for West Virginia this spring. In these days of hybrid players scattered across the field, you can always find them as the foundation in the middle of the action.

“It’s nice for me because I know I play middle linebacker. It’s plain and simple,” Campbell said in comparing his spot with the mix-and-match versions around him. I can go around and say, ‘I play middle linebacker,’ and people say, ‘That makes sense. I know what that is.’   But you tell somebody ‘I play spear,’ and people are like ‘Ehhh, what do you do?’

Campbell, as most mike backers do, understands the game and where it is going. He recognizes that the evolution of defense, and the way the game is played, is leading teams away from traditional defenses where all of the linebackers that are similar in what they do.

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“There are a lot of hybrid players. The people you recruit now, there are so many different people who can do both,” he said of the ability to execute outside linebacker and safety tasks. “You look at how people are built and how they develop. They are big enough and fast enough that they can play linebacker and safety. They can play in the box, they can play in space. It’s just finding a place for those guys to play.”

That does mean, though, that there are fewer of the old school spots available.

“I know we have a will linebacker and a bandit, but at times the only person that actually plays a true linebacker is the middle linebacker,” Campbell said, illustrating the adaptability of the system. “They are scattering guys a little bit to see who fits where. That’s what spring is for, find out who is going to be where and do what. They are just trying to get a feel for how does this guy play, where is he going to fit best.”

For Campbell, though, no experimentation is necessary. Along with Tonkery, they will anchor the middle as their forebears have done for generations while change swirls around them.

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