By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - By totaling 24 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown, Eastern Washington's J.C. Sherritt was an unstoppable force against Weber State last season.
It wasn't the game, however, that stands out the most to the strong-side inside linebacker.
It was against Northern Colorado, he recalls fondly, "when our defense had that shutout. It kind of epitomized everyone doing their job to get that win."
Sherritt's 15 tackles had a lot to do with the Eagles' first shutout in three years. Still, the only number that mattered to him was the 0 ... as in EWU's 16-0 win.
His school-record 170 tackles and 14.2-per-game average were by far the best numbers in the FCS, and helped Sherritt finish second to James Madison defensive end Arthur Moats in the Buck Buchanan Award voting for the national defensive player of the year award. Sherritt's incredible season came one year after teammate Greg Peach won the 2008 Buchanan Award.
"It was cool to be in that running last year," said Sherritt, who will return for his senior season at the head of a standout class of FCS linebackers. "Having Greg win it two years ago, [he] is a guy I really looked up to. It's a big deal. But, honestly, my number one goal right now is to help this team win a Big Sky championship.
If you listen to EWU head coach Beau Baldwin, less just may mean more with Sherritt. Considering how Sherritt leads by example, Baldwin hopes others will follow and raise their production.
"Less tackles doesn't mean he's any less of a player," Baldwin said. "Less catches for a receiver sometimes means you are more balanced and you are better on offense - it doesn't mean you are not playing as good. For J.C., it will mean a combination of things. Hopefully, we're doing a better job getting our defense off the field, and on the flip side maybe we're doing a better job on offense. We're always going to be a no-huddle and quick strike [attack], but maybe we'll do a better job on long drives and grinding out some eight- or 10- play drives.
"We want [Sherritt] to look back over the body of the season and say he had a better season than the year before."
Last season, the 5-foot-10, 220-pound Sherritt, who goes sideline-to-sideline with his ability to track down ball carriers, had 14 tackles for loss, four passes broken up, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and the interception return for the TD against Weber State.
He has spent the spring doing what Peach once did for underclassmen like himself.
"With our young linebackers, I realized I need to be more of a teacher because I've had quite a bit of experience now," Sherritt said. "My coach brought up a good point that a lot of times to better yourself a great way to do that is to teach younger linebackers. So that's what I'm kind of focusing on right now.
"I think we have potential to have a great, great year, but it's all gonna start with game one."
Quality linebackers are found all across the FCS. Here are nine others to join Sherritt in a list of the Top 10 linebackers:
Kadarron Anderson, Furman, Junior - Anderson's first name is pronounced kah- Dare-on ... as in don't dare run his way. Although the Paladins defense underachieved last season, Anderson was all over the field from his middle linebacker's spot, corralling 123 ball carriers. At 6-1, 235 pounds, he's a physical player who gets to the ball. His all-around production should increase this season.
David Erby, South Carolina State, Senior - Erby is equally effective playing in the middle or on the outside. Defensive coordinator Mike Adams lauds the 6-foot, 215-pounder for avoiding blockers in the box and shooting to his target. He's both strong and smart. On a balanced defense last season, Erby made 55 solo tackles en route to posting 82 overall. The All-MEAC first-team selection had four sacks.
Eric McBride, Richmond, Senior - Many players don't play in 43 college games, let alone start in 43. That's how many starts McBride has made in his first three seasons. He's an athletic playmaker who flies to the ball with his speed. The 6-2, 231-pounder was in on 93 stops as a junior while making the All-CAA Football first team.
Bryce Smith, Samford, Senior - Incredibly, Smith had nearly twice as many tackles as the No. 2 finisher on the Bulldogs' team last season. His 7.2 solo tackles per game led the FCS and he had 102 overall tackles, including 11 for loss, while picking off four passes. The 6-1, 245-pounder, who hits hard, made the All-Southern Conference first team.
D.J. Smith, Appalachian State, Senior - Mountaineers linebackers like Jacque Roman and Pierre Banks have garnered plenty of attention in recent seasons, but Smith, playing on the outside, is among the program's best at the position. He blends size, speed and instincts into a complete package. He totaled a whopping 137 tackles as a junior, including 14.5 for loss. He also broke up eight passes, intercepted one and recovered two fumbles.
Terence Thomas, Villanova, Senior - That he is known as "Mr. Consistency" to the Wildcats' coaching staff says a lot about the 6-foot 230-pound hard- hitter. Thomas has started all 39 games in his career and made the All-CAA Football first team for the 2009 FCS champions. He led the Wildcats with 116 tackles, including 8.5 sacks. He mixes a cerebral approach with his smash- mouth style.
Antoine Wilkinson, Missouri State, Senior - In his first season with the Bears, the 6-2, 230-pound junior college transfer was their first player with at least 100 tackles since 2004, totaling 113 while breaking up a team-high eight passes as well. He always seems to be around the ball with his versatile style. Wilkinson was the Missouri Valley Football Conference Newcomer of the Year and made the conference first team.
Jabara Williams, Stephen F. Austin, Senior - Williams' lore at SFA was established during his freshman season when the running back position was hit so hard by injuries that he started three games there in addition to at linebacker. A playmaker, the 6-3, 225-pounder has recorded more than 300 tackles in his career, including 113 last season. The All-Southland Conference selection broke up seven passes as well.