After continuing positive trends made on the defensive side last season, the Northern Arizona linebacker group is looking to retool a bit.
With last year’s leading tackler Byron Evans now graduated, there is a slight new look to the middle of the team’s defense, but not without talented returners.
With key pieces Jake Casteel, fifth in tackles last season and one of the team’s most consistent pieces since his redshirt freshman season in 2015; Taylor Powell, fourth in tackles last year; and Tristen Vance, 10th in tackles and the team’s 2017 special team player of the year, there is some competition in the middle of the Northern Arizona defense going into 2018.
Last season, Northern Arizona ranked first in the Big Sky in total defense during conference play, allowing 355.5 yards per game, improved from 413.1 yards in 2016 and 474.4 yards in 2015.
Northern Arizona finished fourth in scoring defense, giving up 24.9 points per game, which was better than 28.5 points in 2016 and 34.8 points in 2015.
Casteel, Powell and Vance each played in all 12 of Northern Arizona’s games last season.
“They bring great leadership,” Thompson said. “They’ve gotten bigger, faster, stronger and all those guys have played a bunch. We’ve got great expectations with them to continue where they started so far during camp.
“I can’t say enough about those three guys and also the whole group,” Thompson added.
This year, the team is expected to continue their trend of rotating a group of linebackers and other defensive players at a high rate. When it comes to the linebackers, the fourth spot appears to be up for grabs as camp continues with just under a month until the season begins.
Competing for that fourth linebacker position is a group that includes senior Markquise Simmons, who appeared in one game last season against Montana in his first year in Flagstaff after transferring from Pima Community College, redshirt junior Eb Odeh and a group of six underclassmen.
Casteel had some high praise for that young crop of linebackers that are attempting to show their worth to the team’s defense.
“We got young guys that you’re going to be talking about in the future,” Casteel said. “Guys like that are going to be the future that’s coming up. They’re out here right now making plays.”
Thompson said that the young linebackers on the Northern Arizona roster have shown great dedication in their short time in Flagstaff and that their presence has added depth to the position.
For linebackers, it is obvious that tackling is the key, and that is something that Thompson said his group excels at.
“They are great tacklers,” Thompson said. “That has to be the best part of the linebacking crew.”
While Thompson praised his group for what they can do, Powell and Casteel each had ways that the group can continue to improve as camp goes on.
Casteel made it clear that the group can “never be too good at tackling,” while Powell agreed with his teammate’s sentiment and added some more thoughts.
“I just feel like if we keep working hard and keep doing the things we need to do as a linebacking corps and focus on ourselves as a group first, then get to the defense as a whole, we’re going to be a really good defense,” Powell said.