HOUGHTON - The Michigan Tech football team has lost its undisputed leader on defense in linebacker Justin Armstrong, but the Huskies still have plenty of returning talent at linebacker.
"We lost a very good linebacker, but we played four kids last year and three of them are back," Tech coach Tom Kearly said. "Taylor Ziolkowski is a senior, Danny Perrault a junior, Paul Kuoppala a sophomore. All those guys played and played in a lot of different roles. All three of those kids are probably going to have to play 50-60 plays (per game) somewhere for us."
They'll play in all kinds of situations, including rotating among the two inside linebacker spots, contributing on special teams and possibly even filling in on the defensive line in nickel packages, as Perrault did last year.
Versatility is certainly a staple of being a successful linebacker, and that's becoming an even more critical attribute against the increasing prevalence of dual-threat quarterbacks. But, according to Tech's philosophy, the best way to stop multiple dimensions is to target one.
"Everybody takes a look at Russell Wilson and RGIII and Kaepernick and says that's where it's going," Kearly said. "There's probably some truth to that, but I still think for us our first goal, the first thing out of our mouth defensively is we have to stop the run. If you stop the run and make them one-dimensional, then you have a chance."
It's something Tech did well with last year, earning the second-best run defense in the league. The defensive line, which was featured in Wednesday's Daily Mining Gazette Spring Showcase article, did its part in the trenches, but Armstrong led the second line of defense.
He was the only Tech defender to garner All-GLIAC First Team honors, tallying 80 tackles (safety Emmett Bjorn was second on the team with 63 tackles), seven tackles for a loss, two sacks and three fumble recoveries.
That's a lot of production to make up for, but Perrault had 62 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks; Ziolkowski had 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss and a sack; and Kuoppala had 27 tackles, two tackles for a loss, two sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Kuoppala is the youngest in the trio, but burst on the scene in his first year.
"Paully was our freshman of the year. He's done a lot of things," Kearly said. "He has a knack for finding the football, has a knack for making big plays. He played a lot on (special) teams, averaging between teams and nickel and a series or two for Justin, probably 30-35 plays a game, which is a lot for a young kid."
Tech hopes to see a similar maturation process in several up-and-coming linebackers like Cam Shortz and Ben Tauchen, who are both in the second team huddle during spring practices.
Kearly feels pretty confident in his core group of three linebackers, but there's a little more uncertainty at outside linebacker, where only one of the top four players on last year's depth chart returns.
Tech often uses four down linemen, four linebackers, two cornerbacks and a free safety in its scheme, and the outside linebackers are usually referred to as alley players.
"Our alley situation is different. We lost some seniors, but they were young people who were one-year players," Kearly said.
Kevin Nancarrow (40 tackles), Greg Pedersen (38) and Kurt Lehmann (26) were all seniors and saw most of the playing time, but sophomore Ben Potter saw action in eight games and tallied 10 tackles.
"There were spots last year where Ben Potter was right on the edge of being a one last year at one of our alleys," Kearly said. "He's had a very good spring. He's got a confidence now and an understanding of the defense.
" I would say he and (defensive tackle) David Russek are probably the two kids defensively that have jumped or taken that step to the next level - in their cases, both from backups that played a lot to all of a sudden kids that may be as good as we have on our football team."
Lake Linden-Hubbell alum Brett Gervais, who played his freshman year as a cornerback, is currently the frontrunner as the weak-side alley player, but there's quite a bit of competition there from second-year players Nick Brajak, Cody Moederndorfer and Mitch Jacqmain.
"The number of repetitions they get this spring is really critical," Kearly said. "All three of those kids, and we have a third-year youngster Jeff Sargeant also competing for those two alley spots."
Editor's Note: This linebacker feature is the second in an eight-part series breaking down the Michigan Tech football team position by position leading to next Saturday's annual spring game at Sherman Field. Friday will feature the secondary and Saturday special teams. Next week Tuesday through Friday will examine the offense.