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Football: Inside linebacker group no longer a question mark

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Aug. 18, 2018

It’s a position group that came with perhaps the biggest question mark when Billy Napier was named UL’s head coach back in December.

But Napier added a piece here, subtracted a piece there and slid some pieces over, and now the punctuation is more of an exclamation point than a curlicue.

“Inside backer, we’ve got four really good players there,” Napier said not long ago, “and all of those guys we’ll probably play if we played a game today.”

The Ragin’ Cajuns don’t actually play for the first time in 2018 until Sept. 1 against Grambling, but by mid-August their top four inside linebackers — in no particular order — are in place.

MORE: Several newcomers on defense catch Cajun coach's eye

Jacques Boudreaux. Ferrod Gardner. Lorenzo McCaskill. Justin Middleton.

It’s quite a mix of skill and stories, as varied as the locales from which they hail.

Boudreaux is a Cajun through and through, from Holy Cross School in New Orleans but born in Trenton, New Jersey.

Gardner was born in Atlanta, but played at Trotwood-Madison High near Dayton, Ohio, and Coffeyville Community College in Kansas.

McCaskill is from Southfield High near Detroit, but played his juco ball at Holmes Community College in Mississippi.

And Middleton is from Texas, where he played at Mansfield High in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and Trinity Valley Community College.

MORE: Cajun 'head-hunter' Boudreaux got start on special teams

It’s a group that went into the Napier coaching era knowing improvement from it in particular was much-needed from a season ago, when UL finished 5-7 and issues on defense were aplenty.

“We came out of last season,” Middleton said, “with the mindset that we’re gonna come back this offseason and work really hard and prove that we really are a good strength and the core of the defense.”

COMFY IN THE SYSTEM

Middleton started just one game in 2017, his first year as a Cajun, getting the call late in the season in an 11-tackle showing against Georgia Southern.

He had an interception earlier in the season against New Mexico State, and he impressed with a nine-tackle showing at Ole Miss.

But Middleton missed most of the spring following offseason shoulder surgery.

Napier didn’t seem sure then just how much he could help, and the now-senior came out of the spring listed third at the Mike linebacker spot behind Boudreaux and Gardner.

When Will linebacker Tanner Holmes, a former starter, was not retained by Napier, however, Middleton got his break.

RELATED: Linebacker Holmes no longer with the Cajuns

He moved from the Mike to the Will, and has made his presence known since preseason camp opened earlier this month.

“He actually had a really good (first) scrimmage (last Saturday),” Napier said, “and has made it very competitive here of late with Lorenzo McCaskill.”

Sliding to the Will seems to suit Middleton just fine.

“Coach Roberts prepared me really well,” he said with reference to UL defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Ron Roberts.

“Every day I try to learn something new andget a little bit better,” Middleton added. “Honestly, I feel very comfortable in the system, and I feel I can make plays wherever they put me at.”

MORE: New Cajuns d-coordinator Roberts is 'just wildfire'

'HEAT-SEEKING MISSILE'

Middleton has quite a task ahead of him, however, if he is to get the starting nod over the highly hyped McCaskill.

McCaskill spurned late recruiting attention from Michigan State — where his uncle, retired NBA All-Star Steve Smith, played basketball — and signed instead with Cincinnati coming out of high school.

But he wound up going the juco-route instead, and UL was able to land him — winning a recruiting battle with Nebraska, according to Napier — in time for spring practice this year.

Right away, McCaskill — who has three years of eligibility remaining — made a favorable impression.

“He’s an effort player,” Napier said in the spring, “a very physical player, plays with an edge. He can run and cover.”

Opinions haven’t changed since then.

“He’s got tremendous speed. He’s got a great mindset in terms of the physicality that he plays with,” Napier said earlier this month. “His effort, his overall approach — he’s locked in, and he’s ready to go.”  

 

MORE: WR, LB corps impress Napier in spring

Count Roberts among McCaskill’s biggest fans.

“He’s kind of a ‘heat-seeking missile,’ you know?” the d-coordinator said one day before camp opened. “He plays the game hard, aggressive. He’s very explosive, can run around exceptionally well.

“He was a huge factor in the spring, and right now he understands the defense a lot better. So it’s hopefully gonna give him an opportunity to make a lot more plays.”

Boudreaux can vouch for that.

“There’s no doubt about that,” he said of Roberts’ “heat-seeking missile” descriptor. “I think Lorenzo brings tremendous fire to the defense. Very fast and very physical, and I’m very happy that I get to play alongside him.

“I think, as a linebacker, you want somebody on the side who is just as physical, you know?

“You want somebody that’s gonna run through a brick wall,” Boudreaux added, “and I think Lorenzo is one of those type of guys, no doubt.”

MORE: New coordinator wonders if UL defense has what it takes

COMPLETELY VERSATILE

It’s no wonder Middleton is in a battle with McCaskill.

But that’s not the position group’s only unsettled matter.

According to Napier early this week, Boudreaux and Gardner came out of last week’s scrimmage “50-50.”

That hasn’t changed heading into UL’s second final tackling scrimmage of camp, scheduled for Saturday.

Gardner, a Missouri walk-on before going to a juco, had been slated to start at the Will for UL last season.

But he broke his foot during preseason camp, underwent season-ending surgery, then was dismissed from the team following an arrest last October.

RELATED: UL linebacker Gardner dismissed following arrest

Shortly after his arrival, Napier reinstated the scholarship linebacker, however, and now he’s pushing Boudreaux for playing time at the Mike.

Boudreaux, meanwhile, has made a move of his own, going from the Will last season to the Mike now.

The junior has played since he was a true freshman last season, and had seven starts in the 12 games he played last year. He's the most-experienced of the bunch for UL at inside linebacker this season.

“Being Mike now, actually calling out the calls and checking defenses depending on what the offensive set is actually lined up in, just knowing everything from playbook to little schemes, just different alignments and angles that I can take — it’s just so far, how I’ve come in the past couple months,” he said.

For Boudreaux, though, it doesn’t really matter where he plays as much as it does how well.

The same can said, he suggests, for UL’s other three linebackers among the top four inside. The group, that is, from New Orleans, Detroit, Dayton and Dallas-Fort Worth.

“I’m completely versatile, whether to play Mike or Will, I would say, because of how our linebacker system rotates, depending on how we can line up — we can vice-versa, play off each other if we’re lined up wrong, then we can take each other’s responsibilities,” Boudreaux said.

“Me and Lorenzo (McCaskill), Justin Middleton, Ferrod (Gardner), everybody like that — we can kind of just play off of each and take gap responsibility based off of whatever we’re in.”

So put a period on that.

MORE: UL's Jacquet has 'all the tools' to play on next level