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Wiggle Room At OLB

Aug. 9, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Just the other day, Al Groh was speaking — or trying to learn – Ebo, the language of Nigeria. It was part of an inside joke between Georgia Tech’s new defensive coordinator and senior Anthony Egbuniwe, whose parents are of Nigerian decent, because, don’t you know, coach Groh is quite the funny guy.

No, seriously, the man tasked with keeping the Yellow Jackets ahead of the ACC by re-vamping their defense is almost always serious. This anecdote is meant to show that he is human, that he’s not a football computer in the flesh.

The man is not all smoke and scheme on the field, either. He’s always looking for ingredients and while Groh may have made little sense while joshing with Egbuniwe and his visiting cousin from Nigeria, the man makes points clearly when that is his goal.

There is no misunderstanding these concepts of his 3-4 defense: outside linebackers are uber-important, and they better be able to wiggle.

You read that correctly.

Take your big guys, your strong guys, your fast guys . . . if they can’t shake and bake, Al Groh doesn’t have much use for them – especially at outside linebacker.

If you’re not too old, think back to Lawrence Taylor. Groh helped recruit him to North Carolina many moons ago, and later coached him with the NFL’s Giants. Groh will forever call L.T. the prototypical 3-4 outside LB and not because of his bench press or his sprinting ability.

Once upon a time, Taylor was more flexible of mind and body than Gumby.

Check out this wish list for OLBs: “6-4, 255 and can bend, twist, change direction,” Groh said. “One thing that’s common to almost all good football players is body flexibility. Those guys can almost always find a way to get their job done. [The outside linebacker] probably has to be the most versatile player. He has to take on blocks on the line like an end. He has to take on blocks in the backfield like a strong safety.

“He’s got to rush the passer. He’s got to adjust to formations, and he’s got to play zone [pass] coverage like a safety. They have to have versatility mentally as well as physically.

“Where fans get misled is they’ll read some recruiting survey and they list a player’s 40-yard time and everybody is like . . . `We need this guy on our team.’ But if they can’t bend, twist, move laterally, have good balance and change of direction they won’t get much opportunity to use that speed.”

So Egbuniwe and fellow senior Anthony “A.T.” Barnes, currently on the depth chart as the Jackets’ starting OLBs, had better get to bending. Seems find with them; both sound tickled with their new lots in life.

“There’s basically not as much thinking as in a 4-3,” said Barnes, who graduated from Tech last Friday night in a ceremony at Alexander Memorial Coliseum. “The middle linebackers are making all the calls; we’re just listening and reacting. In the 4-3, we had to think on the run. We get more freedom to do two things, destroy the tight end and rush the passer.”

Egbuniwe and Barnes have done some flexing already, and they’re in line for more.

Barnes played safety in high school, but kept growing. He was asked by last year’s staff to cut weight to about 225 pounds for a run at the hybrid “Wolf” position, kind of a safety/linebacker spot. That didn’t go well. He’s now listed as 6-feet-3, 248 pounds. Egbuniwe is listed as 6-5, 248 although that may be with cleats on his feet. He played end last year in Tech’s 4-3.

“There are three things coach Groh asks of outside linebackers; 1., rush the passer; 2., defeat the tight end; and 3., be able to move in space. All three of those things we did at defensive end,” Egbuniwe said, perhaps exaggerating his previous coverage responsibilities. “I think it’s more fun to play [OLB]. It is more space to cover, though.”

Groh has been clear in communicating so Egbuniwe said he spent plenty of his own time in recent months doing extra stretching, working on flexibility. He has tried to loosen his hips.

And sure enough, in the first practice of fall camp on Thursday, “We started twisting,” Barnes said. “I’ve gone over and beyond this offseason, and I worked extra on my core. I can use my size more in this position, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

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