ISU LINEBACKERS: Brown leads young, but hungry group

·4 min read

Aug. 20—Indiana State's projected starting linebackers include one redshirt junior and two sophomores. On paper, that might seem like it's a unit that could be problematic in the unforgiving Missouri Valley Football Conference.

However, context is key. Two of three starters, middle linebacker Geoffrey Brown and outside linebacker Johnny May, played significantly in 2021. The other, sophomore outside backer Jarin Johnson spelled more experienced Sycamores.

What does this all mean? It means that the time to wonder about the state of ISU's linebackers was last year. Young though they are, ISU linebackers do have experience and they're hoping to take a leap forward in 2022.

"I think the theme from what we've had in camp with the linebackers is to excel from last year," Brown said. "We're playing with footwork, we're playing downhill and we're reading things better. We're showing the young guys and transfers how we like to do things."

Brown was ISU's defensive revelation in a season in which ISU's defense ran very hot or very cold. ISU had games where it kept opposing offenses under wraps — Youngstown State and Illinois State both struggled — but also had games where ISU was exploited, often in brief bursts of production for the opposition.

Brown started slow, recording a single tackle in ISU's first two games, but by the time the MVFC began, he was a mainstay. Brown ended up as ISU's leading tackler with 61, going from freshman hopeful to dependable standout.

"He started to emerge as a leader last year. We started playing him in the first game. He was consistent all the way through and got better with every game. When you have that it gains confidence and it carried over to the offseason," said ISU coach Curt Mallory, who made Brown a team captain.

Brown will man the middle as he hopes to continue the ISU tradition of having standouts at middle linebacker. The cast around him is young, but some were also given a baptism-by-fire in 2021.

It was telling, though, the ISU linebackers were largely absent from the top tacklers list. After Brown, Matt Thompson (33) was the next linebacker in tackles, ranked sixth. Thompson is graduated, and after him, you have to go all the way down to 19th on the 2021 list to find another linebacker.

May (16 tackles) occupied that 19th spot and he's back to start on the outside. He'll be joined at the other starting outside spot by Johnson (4 tackles).

Depth comes in the form of one junior college transfer — Iowa Central's Garrett Ollendieck, a middle linebacker — and a couple of Sycamores who had a cup of coffee in 2021: Mike Lufile, Gabe Surface, both of whom are outside linebackers.

"Johnny May is our starting will linebacker. He's probably one of the most improved players on our team," Mallory said.

"We've developed some great depth. Garrett Ollendieck, Mike Lufile are very capable guys who will play at the will and mike positions," Mallory continued. "Jarin Johnson at the sam position and Gabe Surface are doing a tremendous job."

There are intriguing youngsters including true freshmen D.J. Griffith, younger brother of former ISU and current Denver Broncos linebacker Jonas Griffith. There is also former Northview standout Braxton Sampson waiting his turn.

ISU likes to rotate defensive personnel, though Mallory is hoping Brown and company will provide some stability in the middle of the defense.

"We'll always [rotate personnel] up front. Linebackers you like to see guys like Geoffrey Brown playing as much as he can, but we'll have capable guys coming in," Mallory said.

Brown is excited. ISU has tweaked its alignment a bit and the sophomore likes the changes.

"This defense allows linebackers to play more one-gap than last year when we were playing two gaps and playing off somebody. This year, we're able to hit things harder and not wonder whether we're hitting the A-gap or B-gap," Brown explained.

As for those moments where ISU made itself vulnerable to bursts from the opposition? Brown doesn't intend for a repeat on his watch.

"We're going to turn some heads. We're way farther this year than we were last year. Everyone on this defense has something to prove," Brown said. "We're not a group anymore that gives up 21 points in three minutes. We're going to be a group that holds people to 14 points per game."

ISU LINEBACKERS

—Proven contributors — MLB Geoffrey Brown (6-1, 230, So.), OLB Jarin Johnson (6-3, 225, So.), OLB Michael Lufile (6-2, 235, RJr.), OLB Johnny May (6-0, 230, RJr.),

—New — MLB Garrett Ollendieck (6-2, 230, So., Iowa Central).

—Other contributors — OLB Ethan Cain (6-0, 220, RFr.), MLB John Moore (6-1, 230, RJr.), OLB Blake Surface (6-2, 225, RFr.).

—True freshmen — OLB Christian Eubanks (6-1, 205, Jr.), OLB D.J. Griffith (5-11, 220), OLB Braxton Sampson (6-1, 210), Sam Steinhofer (6-2, Fr.), MLB Dallas Westhoff (6-1, 225)

—Position coach — Brad Wilson (also the defensive coordinator).