By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Second of an eight-part series featuring the best Football Championship Subdivision players at various positions.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Give Tyler Holmes room to roam the field and he can destroy an opposing team's offensive game plan.
So it might seem odd that the University of Massachusetts football team is changing his role this season.
But it's possible that as the Minutemen switch from a 4-3 defensive alignment to a 3-4, and move Holmes from his customary outside linebacker's spot to an inside position, he might become more of a ballhawk as carriers get funneled toward him.
"I played weakside linebacker in a 4-3, so I played a lot outside," Holmes said. "Sometimes they would just run away from, run to the strong side of the field, or throw away from me. Certain games I wasn't really able to make as many plays as I would have liked."
The weakside spot showcased Holmes' athleticism as he corralled 110 tackles and five interceptions in 11 games. The All-CAA Football standout will be returning for his senior season as one of the Top 10 linebackers in the FCS.
An inside spot will highlight Holmes' versatility. He combines excellent vision with movement.
Holmes will defend the line more against the run in new defensive coordinator's Frank Forcucci's 3-4 scheme.
"Everything has its pros and cons, so I'm very excited about it," the 6-foot, 220-pound Holmes said. "We have a good scheme set up and I think I can be successful in this system.
"I'm confident in myself to make plays no matter where they put me at."
Holmes' instincts, relentless style and productivity led to him being a finalist for the 2010 Buck Buchanan Award, which honors the outstanding defensive player in the FCS, is presented by The Sports Network and sponsored by Fathead.com.
He finished the season with 12 tackles for loss, including five sacks, while forcing two fumbles and recovering one.
"I study a lot of film, so I think I'm able to pick up on little things or certain tendencies - maybe something O-coordinators like to do or quarterbacks like to do," Holmes said. "(I) just play really hard and really fast. The work I put in in the film room really prepares me for Saturdays.
"There's always room for improvement. I think (with) play recognition, I could always be better at that. Keep getting to the quarterback, pass-rushing moves, certain drops - just tweaking up everything."
In the new 3-4, Holmes is expected to line up alongside fellow inside linebacker Perry McIntyre. The starting outside spots could be manned by Courtney Jackson, who is dropping from defensive end, and D.J. Adeoba on the outside.
The Minutemen, who finished 6-5 last season, will be playing their final season in the CAA after the university announced last month that it will move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, into the Mid-American Conference, in 2012. They will not be eligible for the FCS playoffs this year.
"For a lot of teams, this will be our last time to ever play them," Holmes said. "I feel like we have a little bit of a target on our chests. We just kind of embrace that and know we just want to take care of business for our last year in the CAA.
"We had a very successful spring as a team - just finished up. Expectations are pretty high for ourselves as we just make the transition to D-I."
They're sky high for Holmes as well.
Here are nine more linebackers who are part of The Sports Network's FCS Preseason Top 10:
Kadarron Anderson, Furman, Sr., 6-1, 236 - Offensive linemen have to get their body on Anderson because he is a monster when coming forward on plays. He has been the Paladins' leading tackler for two straight seasons, with 122 in 2009 and 121 in 11 games a year ago. He also intercepted a pass and forced a fumble. He combines a hard-hitting style with his ability to read a play.
Matt Evans, New Hampshire, Jr., 6-0, 233 - A tackle machine, Evans posted double-figure totals in 11 of the Wildcats' 13 games last season and finished fifth in the FCS in tackles per game (12.0). He was fourth in the voting for the Buck Buchanan Award, adding 10.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries to his 156 total tackles. He has gotten bigger and stronger at UNH, but kept his speed and athleticism.
Mike Groome, Lehigh, Sr., 6-3, 245 - Groome is the biggest of the linebackers on this list. He's a downhill player who added great range to his play last season, and it lifted him to an All-Patriot League level. Groome was Lehigh's leading tackler with 131, including 73 solo stops, and finished with seven tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception. He is particularly strong in pass coverage.
Ryan Lewis, Bethune-Cookman, Sr., 6-1, 220 - On an excellent Bethune-Cookman defense, Lewis led the way with 81 tackles last season. He's a complete linebacker. His quickness allows him to close against the run, but he also defends well against the pass. Last season, he had 17 tackles for loss, five sacks, four interceptions for 136 yards in returns, three passes breakups, four quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Now that's versatility.
Marty Patterson, Gardner-Webb, Sr., 6-3, 226 - How well Patterson returns from hip surgery to repair a labrum tear is the big question for the Runnin' Bulldogs. The injury cost the 2010 Big South Preseason Defensive Player of the Year all of last season. He returns to a new set of coaches, but they have to be impressed with what he did in 2009, when he collected 110 tackles, including 14 for loss.
Keith Pough, Howard, Jr., 6-3, 235 - Pough's size, speed and range on the outside is intimidating. Opposing ball carriers especially felt this way last year after he led the FCS with 28.5 tackles for 148 yards in losses, including 10.5 sacks for 84 yards in losses. He improved considerably because he learned to read plays better and put himself in excellent position, where his natural ability - which is always full speed - takes over. He finished the season with 100 tackles, five QB hurries, four forced fumbles and three passes defended.
Derek Rose, Northwestern State, Jr., 5-11, 229 - Rose should consider being a film major. He's a student of the game, preparing himself exceptionally well in the film room. Rose has a nose for the ball and tackles well when he gets there. As a redshirt sophomore, he corralled 142 tackles - the most at Northwestern State since 1991 - including 12 for loss, with two sacks. He also had seven QB hurries and three pass breakups. Rose is a quiet leader by example and head coach Bradley Dale Peveto lauds him for his intense style.
A.J. Storms, Idaho State, Sr., 6-0, 215 - Take opposing offenses by Storms. The veteran outside 'backer led the FCS in tackles per game (13.3) last season. He played his best against the Bengals' better opponents, totaling 20 tackles against both Utah State and Montana, 18 versus Eastern Washington and 16 at Georgia. The 2010 Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS All-America second-team selection is strong and quick, though he isn't big, having started his career as a defensive back in '08.
Linebackers on the cusp: Dante Cook, William & Mary, Jr., 5-11, 213; Zach Johnson, Eastern Washington, Sr., 6-1, 225; Lanston Tanyi, Appalachian State, Jr., 6-2, 250; Nick Webb, Weber State, Sr., 6-4, 230