MARSHALL - The Southwest Minnesota State University defense may be based on a 4-3 scheme, but new defensive coordinator Christian Guenther and linebackers coach Danilo Robinson have no intention of using just three linebackers.
"We wanted all summer to scheme for them and we put them in the best positions we possibly can," Robinson said. "We expanded the package and we're excited about how they've picked it up."
Spending the spring to get a feel for the kind of players that will make up the linebacking corp for the Mustangs, Guenther and Robinson are now in the process of trying to find ways to utilize each linebacker as two-a-days come to a close at New Mattke Field at the Regional Event Center at SMSU.
"Hopefully, competition brings out the best in you. I think we'll be fine as long as we understand what we're doing," said SMSU head coach Cory Sauter. "It's not just a position, but an entire unit that we're looking for."
Like Sauter, Robinson comes to Marshall with Division I football credentials. Coaching stops for Robinson include Navy, Louisiana-Monroe and Utah State. The common thread between those jobs and SMSU is the attention paid to the little things, a valuable asset with practice starting a week later due to a change in NCAA rules
"We are detail-oriented, try to be efficient. We know that we don't have a whole lot of time with the kids, so we try to be organized and efficient with the kids as much as we can," Robinson said. "It's still 11-on-11. It's still the same game.
"The players here, they have a certain level of dedication. They're student-athletes and it's refreshing to be around them. It's refreshing to be involved in this level where some things are a little more pure to it."
Coming into fall camp, the Mustangs had two spots to fill at linebacker, replacing Levi Bullerman and Derek Klinkner. Bullerman, who had 51 total tackles and two interceptions, graduated. Klinkner, who was second on the team with 71 tackles (7.5 for loss) last year, had two dislocated vertebre and a broken back in a farming accident during the offseason.
"It's hard to ever replace a guy like Derek. Not only a great player, but a great team leader," Sauter said. "We will still rely on him being around our guys and being an inspiration for our team. He's one of those guys you don't replace, but he will definitely fill an important role."
Returning at linebacker is senior Nick DeCaneva, who had 45 tackles in 10 starts last season. Filling Klinkner's role in the middle is sixth-year senior Paul Muecke, who had 16 tackles and a sack last season in part-time duty.
"Muecke is a true competitor and a leader. He's respected by all the teammates here," Sauter said. "He may not have the height, the size, the speed of Derek, but he plays with a lot of heart and he's a smart player. We expect him to get our guys lined up properly."
Other linebackers that have impressed Robinson thus far are seniors Jason Fernholz and safety-turned-linebacker Brandon Torry. Robinson said both Fernholz and Torry have done well in grasping the defensive concepts, and Torry's switch adds extra athleticism for the linebacking unit.
"Brandon is a very gifted athlete and getting more speed on the field is a good thing," Sauter said. "He can create some problems as far as jamming receivers and he's physical enough to hold up his end on the run."
"He's got to get comfortable and get used to being in the box," Robinson said. "We'll have to find ways to get him on the field. He brings an excitement to our group just in athleticism and speed."
NOTES - Sitting out on practice Friday were starting safety Levi Reiff (shoulder) and running back Gannon Moore (quadricep). Sauter said both injuries are minor and Reiff and Moore sat out for precautionary reasons. Both are projected to be at practice today. ... Klinkner, who watched the Mustangs' practice from the sidelines, got involved in a passing drill. Under center, quarterback Andrew Peschong threw the ball out of bounds, seemingly on a missed route. Instead, the pass was intended for Klinker, who came up the catch. Amid the celebrating in the huddle, a player yelled out to Klinkner, "You still got it!" ... Sauter on Klinkner's sideline grab: "If we get him back, we'd love to get him as a tight end," Sauter joked. "The only thing is he needs to finish those plays (and score a touchdown) when he catches it."