Linebacker group features new faces, team leaders

Redshirt freshman linebacker Ben Holt (44) and sophomore defensive back Drell Greene (28) cover University of Memphis’ wide receiver Tony Pollard (1) during WKU’s 51-31 win in the Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Fla.

Matt Stahl

When WKU plays No. 4 Wisconsin on Friday, the Hilltoppers will be facing off against one of the best offensive lines and running backs in the country.

With that being the case, the Hilltopper linebackers will need to be on their game if WKU is to match up with fourth-ranked team in the country on its home field.

The Hilltoppers recently showed great confidence in one member of the linebacking corps, voting redshirt junior Ben Holt a team captain. Holt said that he was thrilled to be a captain and that he was taking responsibility for leading the team.

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“That’s definitely more emphasis on that for me,” Holt said. “But I tried to do that anyway before I was the captain so now I’ve just got to take more measures to get it done.”

As for the rest of the group, linebacker coach Maurice Crum felt that members of the group having a year to grow had benefitted them greatly in their preparations for the game.

“I definitely think we’re more experienced,” Crum said. “Definitely with experience comes depth, so we’re a lot deeper this year.”

The group will have to deal with the loss of Joel Iyiegbuniwe, who left for the NFL Draft and was taken in the fourth round by the Chicago Bears. Crum said that while the loss is felt by the team, he feels like other linebackers are ready to step up.

“He was a very, very productive player,” Crum said. “But sometimes when you lose a guy of that caliber, it kind of forces guys to want to rise to that occasion. He definitely set the standard for what we want in our linebacking room and I think because he’s gone you’re starting to see other guys start to flourish now.”

One of the players who will be expected to make up for the loss of Iyiegbuniwie will be the highly-touted transfer from Kentucky, Eli Brown, who hails from Bowling Green. Brown said that the transition to WKU has been a very smooth one.

“There was no hostility going on,” Brown said of his arrival. “As soon as I got in here, the boys, we just all gravitated to each other. We’re always together playing video games, 2K and all, so I think this is probably the closest group.

Brown, who was granted immediate eligibility after his transfer by the NCAA, also spoke about the most difficult part of his transition to WKU.

“Getting in shape,” Brown said. “This defense, you’re gonna blitz. You’re blitzing 24/7, you’re doing something 24/7. They do a lot of man coverage so sometimes I have to be in man, sometimes have to check out of it, stuff like that.”

Brown said that some of his specific goals for the season include getting 10 or more tackles per game, and helping the team win in whatever ways he can.

“I want to bring back the winning tradition back to WKU like it was when I was at UK,” Brown said. “We used to talk about, dang, Western’s over there balling, so I’m ready to bring that back and show that we are nothing to play with anymore.”

The importance of the linebackers to the Wisconsin game was not lost on head coach Mike Sanford, who said that being in position to stop the run will be key for the Hilltoppers.

“If you’re out of the run fit, he’s going to score,” Sanford said of Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor. “That’s just the reality. You don’t run for 2,000-plus yards if you don’t have dynamic speed and can finish your run down the field, so our run fit is going to be the most important thing in addition to getting as much penetration and knock back up front.”

WKU will take on the Badgers at 8 p.m. on Friday in Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin.

Reporter Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @mattstahl97.