Finding the linebackers at a UW-La Crosse training camp practice this fall was easy:
Follow your ears.
The linebackers have been the most vocal group of Eagles since the team arrived on campus earlier this month, and there have been reasons for that. The position is deepest on the UW-L defense, and is going to be leaned on throughout the season to improve a front seven that allowed 189.1 yards rushing per game a year ago.
The Eagles’ 4-3 base scheme is designed for the linebackers to fly around and make plays while the defensive line occupies blockers. When that’s been happening during camp, they’ve been sure to make it known to anybody around to listen.
“It’s such a fun group. I feel like our linebacker group has a lot more fun than everybody else,” said senior Noah Risch, the team’s third-leading tackler last season with 67. “Every year it’s amazing to watch how everybody comes together.”
Risch — a Holmen High School graduate — is one of three seniors of the 13-player group, as a large class of freshman recruits and young transfers bolster a group that can become the cornerstone of the defense for years to come. Risch and senior Michael Garvey fill the outside linebacker slots in the starting lineup, while freshman Jake Krueger is the man in the middle.
Krueger played in UW-L’s first four games last season, tallying 22 tackles, three for loss, and 1.5 sacks before a hand injury that required surgery ended his year. He was granted a medical redshirt season and was able to keep his year of eligibility, which only helps keep the Eagles’ linebacker corps stocked for even longer. Krueger — a transfer from NCAA Division I Eastern Michigan — was one of the key suppliers of the linebackers’ volume at camp, and he said earlier this month that his group makes it a point to bring that liveliness each day.
“The energy we have at practice is great. The guys are motivating each other. The (No.) 1s are pushing the 2s and the 2s are pushing the 1s right back, all competing,” Garvey said. “We’ve got some great leaders like Noah Risch and Jake Krueger.”
The linebackers are guided by defensive coordinator Matt Janus, who is entering his first season at UW-L after coaching at UW-Platteville and in the high school ranks. Janus is the group’s position coach as well, which Risch said has helped them understand the defensive schemes in a broader sense.
“It’s a group that is very talented, and they know there’s a lot of talent in that room,” Janus said. “There’s a lot of guys getting reps and there’s a lot of competition. And they all bring a little something different, so that’s been fun to get to work with.”
Janus and UW-L head coach Mike Schmidt were aggressive — and successful — targeting linebackers in recruiting. Schmidt said his staff went after eight or nine prospects expecting to land a handful, but were able to get eight, including standouts like Rusty Murphy out of Cudahy (Wis.) High School and Ryan Gengler of Milwaukee’s Delavan Darien High School.
Getting those players up to speed is key for players like Risch and Garvey, who take it as part of their jobs as seniors to teach the younger players how to adjust to the college game.
“The young kids’ energy and how they’ve meshed with our group in general has me really excited and looking forward to a great year,” Garvey said. “They’re eager to learn. Yeah, they’re going to make mistakes, but they’re going at 100 percent, and they own up to it and learn from it. The next time they’re put in a similar position, they make the correction and step up to the plate.”
The Eagles haven’t shied away from talking about their goals of winning a championship this season. The linebackers haven’t shied away from talking period. Just a few days out from the start of the nonconference schedule, the group has a chance to put those words in action on the field.
“Our linebacker culture here, it’s hard-nosed, come downhill fast,” Krueger said. “It’s going to be a special year for us.”