UTC inside linebackers 'growing' as a group

UTC inside linebackers 'growing' as a group

August 10th, 2018 by Gene Henley in Sports - College

Inside linebackers coach Oscar Rodriguez watches players during the UTC football team's first spring practice at Scrappy Moore Field on Feb. 24. He said his unit has "shown flashes at times" since then.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

UTC inside linebacker C.J. Winston is a redshirt freshman competing for playing time.

UTC inside linebacker C.J. Winston is a redshirt...

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

Oscar Rodriguez likes to keep his emotions relatively balanced about his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga inside linebackers.

So the position coach fights the urge to get down if the team's most inexperienced group has a bad practice. Conversely, he's learned not to get too excited when he sees his guys have a solid period or even a great practice.

"Undersell and overachieve," he said after Thursday's session.

The Mocs have only one player who's played meaningful time at the position, but that's senior Tavon Lawson, a converted defensive back who was the team leader in tackles last year. Rodriguez's mission in his first season with the program has been to mold a group that has to replace Tae Davis — now with the New York Giants — and Dale Warren, who along with graduated quarterback Alejandro Bennifield recently signed to continue his career with Memphis of the Alliance of American Football League.

Their departures left the Mocs with a gap in the middle of the defense, literally.

"My guys are a solid group," Rodriguez said. "I've got confidence in my guys, but we're in the business of developing young men, whether off the field or on the field. At this time, we all want to be better, but the thing about fall camp is it's an emotional roller coaster. One day you'll be great, the next day you'll feel you're not very good, but at the end of the day, you're never as bad as you think you are, you're never as good, so it's about staying even keel and continuing to get better through camp."

Rodriguez does have some pieces to work with. Marshall Cooper, who entered camp as the likely starter opposite Lawson, has a solid knowledge of what's being asked of him. The coaching staff is also high on Nyvin Nelson, for whom head coach Tom Arth said he hopes "things are starting to slow down."

"You can see them growing," Arth said. "They're very locked in, a cerebral group, a group that really understands how important it is to learn the game, understand the game, know the calls and get people lined up. I see that group really growing, I see them getting more experience. Tavon Lawson never really played linebacker before; he was a DB that we moved down, so every day he's learning something new. He's making new mistakes, but that's what you want this time of year. Those guys are coming along."

It's why Rodriguez has realized he can't get too high when he sees Cooper make a clean hit on an offensive player, or why when he sees Nelson or redshirt freshman C.J. Winston do the right thing, he can't celebrate too much. He knows there will be times in which one of his guys doesn't remember where to be.

As long as those issues don't persist and are fixed by Aug. 30 when the Mocs open against Tennessee Tech, he'll feel fine.

"We've shown flashes at times, but we're nowhere where we need to be," Rodriguez said. "We need to get a whole lot better before we play at the end of the month. Right now, I just hope we can line up.

"We're probably where we need to be now. We'll have a personnel meeting and figure out what we need to do moving forward."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.