Tarleton linebackers ready to anchor tough Texan defense
STEPHENVILLE — Head Coach Todd Whitten has consistently said the Tarleton defense, led by Defensive Coordinator Marcus Patton, was the bright spot of the spring season. The Texans allowed 19.25 points per game, which would have tied for the 21st best average in the FCS last year. For 2021, that defense might even be better, anchored by the linebackers who bring the grit, toughness and soul of the Texan defense.
"It's been a good camp," said Assistant Coach (ILB) Marc Martinez. "Everybody's working hard and gelling as a team, getting all these new guys implemented into the system. I think our linebacker group as a whole has been getting better every day.
"In the scrimmage, grade-wise, I thought we all did fairly well. We came out and had six TFL's as a group and we had a couple big hits. Obviously, there were some missed assignments in there, but those guys were flying around. In an 80-play scrimmage, getting six TFL's in our room is pretty good, so I liked what I saw and we got to keep getting those little mistakes out of the way. But we're heading the right direction, I like where we're heading."
The Texans had 15 sacks last season, a mark that would have put them tied-25th at the FCS level, if not for the team's reclassification period.
Assistant Coach (OLB and Special Teams) Eddie Jones said he wasn't satisfied with the number of sacks though, knowing the Texans can be better.
"We're working on being more explosive," Jones said. "We lacked last year off the edge in some sacks. Just looking to incorporate more, bring more energy off the edge, and more speed."
Tarleton's linebacker group is led by Ronnell Wilson, who will be playing his sixth season with the program. Last year, Wilson led the team in multiple defensive categories, including total tackles (76), tackles for loss (10.0-24), forced fumbles (3) and fumble recoveries (tied at 1). He was also tied-second in interceptions (1), fourth in sacks (2.0-6) and tied-fifth in pass breakups (4).
Wilson had an incredible game against Mississippi College on March 6 with 22 total tackles, including five for a loss, two forced fumbles and two sacks. He was the first Texan with 5+ tackles for a loss in a game since Rufus Johnson in 2011, and was one of five Texans in program history to record at least 20 tackles in a game, the first in Tarleton's NCAA history and the first since 1993.
When asked who Martinez expects big things out of in 2021, he said, "We got to start with No. 1, Ronnell Wilson."
"It's his sixth year with me, I've coached him since 2016, and seeing where he was then to how he's growing as a leader and a young man – he's a guy who really loves the game of football, so he's my No. 1 guy in the room to lead," Martinez said. "Leads by example, gets everyone lined up, he's our leader on the defense."
Wilson currently sits in sixth in career tackles in school history with 290. When it's all said and done, he will likely finish second in Tarleton history, a spot currently held by Robert Ivey with 339 career tackles, who played linebacker from 1985-88. The all-time leader for the Texans is linebacker Tally Neal, who had 613 tackles from 1975-78.
"I want No. 1," Wilson said. "But it's a cool thing, it means I kind of left a mark here.
"It's been a journey for real. I've grown a lot through it. I started here when I was 17, and my head was spinning that whole year. The following year I had a big injury, then after that I just kind of watched during the time off and I learned a lot. I just tried to progress each and every year I've been here. So, it's been a journey, it's been fun."
D.J. Harris will also take on a big role for the Texans, coming off an impressive season in his second year with the team. He led the team in solo tackles (33) and finished second with 69 total tackles, both career-high marks despite a shortened season. He also had the second most sacks (3.0-11) and the third most tackles for loss (7.0-20), plus was one of three Texans with both a fumble recovery and a forced fumble.
"He's a guy that just knows how to play football," said Martinez about Harris. "If you tell him to go out there and get to the ball, he's going to get to the ball. Physical kid, still has to grow mentally and get up there, but being there with Ronnell, he's getting into the right steps."
Harris said he brings "a lot of energy" and thanks his family for where he's at today.
"My family motivated me to play this game, so every time I come out here, I play for them," Harris said.
Jones said he wants his linebackers to be "fast and physical," especially with tight ends and offensive tackles.
He's specifically looking at Zach Strong to lead that campaign. Last season, he recorded 11 tackles (five solo) and 2.5 sacks in six games.
"I'm really looking for Zach Strong to show up," Jones said. "He's a young guy, a young freshman, I'm looking for him to be one of our leaders in that bunch and show up."
Martinez mentioned two more linebackers fans should be especially aware of this year – ChadWick Thibodeaux and Devin Sterling. Of Sterling, who played in five games last season as a true freshman, Martinez said, "He's having a really great camp. I'm impressed in seeing him and the steps he's taking."
Thibodeaux will be in his fourth season with Tarleton, earning 35 tackles (3.5 TFLs) and a fumble recovery in 2020. He recorded a game-high 14 tackles in the season opener vs. McNeese State.
"He's another smart kid, can play off the edge, can play in the middle of the line of scrimmage, that stand-up MIKE," Martinez said of Thibodeaux. "So, he's doing really good for us, as well."
Now as camp comes to a close with school starting on Thursday, there are only some minor things to clean up, like alignments and improving the tackling, according to Martinez.
"Once we see the plays that we can make, boom, trigger and make the plays," Martinez said.