With only 10 years of existence, USF has quickly established a tradition of excellent play at the linebacker position.
Four players have gone on from USF to play linebacker in the NFL: LaFann Williams (Redskins) and Maurice Jones (Packers) joined their teams as free agents, and Kawika Mitchell (Giants) and Stephen Nicholas (Falcons) were selected in the NFL Draft and are now in contention to earn starting positions this season.
Mitchell was selected 47th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2003 and signed with the New York Giants as a free agent in March.
Two other linebackers, Demetrius Woods and Vassay Marc, never played in the NFL but were named to the Butkus Awards watch list, which is given to the top linebacker in the nation.
This season the tradition continues as Ben Moffitt, entrenched as the middle linebacker for the fourth consecutive season, is the latest USF linebacker to gain recognition. The highly touted NFL prospect was named to the Bronco Nagurski Watch List, an award given to the nation’s most outstanding defensive player.
“It has a lot to do with the recruiting and everything, but it definitely has a lot to do with the coaching,” Moffitt said. “I think that’s why we have a great tradition at linebacker.”
Prior to joining USF in 1996, Leavitt served as a defensive coordinator at three schools and as a linebacker coach at Kansas State.
While with the Wildcats and serving as co-defensive coordinator with Bob Stoops, Leavitt helped lead the program to become the No. 1 ranked defensive unit, when just six years earlier, Kansas State was ranked 93rd of 106 Division I-A schools.
“Coach (Leavitt) has
always brought in some quality
linebackers, and it’s a position he knows very well,” Mitchell said. “Even before I was there, he started a tradition at linebacker that is ongoing today.”
The array of talent has made USF into one of the nation’s best schools at developing linebackers. Leavitt, along with defensive coordinator/associate head coach Wally Burnham, takes responsibility for coaching the position.
“You look at some of these other schools like Penn State, which has been known as ‘Linebacker U,’ or Miami, so we need to take a lot of pride in that and make that the case here,” Mitchell said. “We have a lot of talent coming through (USF). We already have nine people in the league and we’re still a really young team.”
Entering this season, the Bulls must find two players to line up alongside Moffitt.
With the loss of Nicholas and Patrick St. Louis, the two starting linebackers last season, as many as four new players are in contention to fill the void.
Tyrone McKenzie transferred to USF after spending time at Michigan State and Iowa State. With the Cyclones, he finished eighth in the nation with 129 tackles and was named to the Big 12 All-Conference second team.
Joining USF and hoping to start at either outside linebacker position, McKenzie, a junior, felt this was the best school to increase his value as a possible NFL prospect.
“(The history here) was a huge factor. Coach Burnham – and knowing the players he’s coached – was one of the
major reasons why I wanted to be here,” McKenzie said. “I wanted to go to a program where they excel at a certain position, and that’s the case with linebackers here at USF.”
Prior to joining the Bulls in 2000, Burnham worked at
seven different colleges, but spent a majority of his coaching career at Florida State serving as a linebackers’ coach for Bobby Bowden.
While with the Seminoles for nine years, nine linebackers were drafted into the NFL and one more signed on as a free agent. Among his top talents were Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks, Marvin Jones, Paul McGowan and Jesse Solomon.
Jones and McGowan won the Butkus Award in addition to Jones capturing the Lombardi Award, representing the nation’s top defensive linemen or linebacker.
“You can’t ask for a better coach than Wally Burnham; he’s one of the best in the nation and he knows exactly what he is talking about,” Moffitt said. “You buy into what he’s saying ,and he can coach and teach you things you can’t learn anywhere else.”
This year, as in seasons past, the linebackers will be turned to again to solidify the defense. Rutgers was the only team in the Big East to rank higher than USF in total defense.
Chris Robinson, McKenzie, Donte Spries and Brouce Mompremier are all competing for starting positions outside of Moffitt, who enters his fourth season as USF’s middle linebacker.
Knowing the players who came before them, the 2007 Bulls linebackers realize there is a high standard to fulfill.
“It’s very important to be a linebacker at USF. They are the quarterbacks on defense; they make the calls and (adjustments) with all the signals,” senior Sam Miller said. “It’s pretty crazy that we have that much competition, but it raises the bar. It’s great to have.”
As players like Nicholas and Mitchell attempt to make their mark in the NFL, the younger linebackers at USF realize they’ll have to do something different to put their own stamp on the USF program.
“Last year I made All-Conference at Iowa State and this year I hope to be an All-American. I have to set the bar high and have lofty standards to push myself.” McKenzie said. “Ben (Moffitt) is great. I’m learning from him, so next year when we lose another great linebacker, I can step in and keep the tradition going.”