One group Northside coach Mike Falleur believed was as solid a strength he had on his team entering the season was at linebacker.
The Grizzlies definitely possess talented linebackers, both inside and outside. They also provide experience and a willingness to find the football, or the player that has the football.
“We have a lot of guys that crave contact, even throughout the game, so I feel like that helps us a lot, not being shy and not running away from the ball, but always just being on the level with the ball and ready for contact,” Chase Needham, one of those linebackers, said. “I feel like that’s helped us a lot this year so far.”
Another common denominator about the linebackers, which consists of inside linebackers Stetson Van Matre (6-foot-2 205 pounds) and Glenn Brewer (6-0, 215), as well as outside backers Needham (6-1, 170), J.J. Mills (6-0, 175) and Conley Bone (5-9, 165): All five are seniors.
“Those five seniors have been, more or less, starters for two years, so they’re really good players,” Falleur said. “They’re all very smart guys, they all play hard, they’re all very coachable and they just bring good experience and they listen to what their coaches tell them. They play hard, every play.”
The Grizzly linebackers have even been able to withstand the loss of last season’s leading tackler, Anthony “Boo” Travis, who walked on at the University of Arkansas.
“We feel like we’ve got a lot of experience coming back; all of us played last year, and we’re all seniors,” Van Matre said. “We know the defense like the back of our hand.
“Boo was a great player, but we’ve got guys that have stepped up this year and we feel like we’re one of the strengths of the team and we just want to keep improving like that.”
In fact, four of those linebackers are leading the team in total tackles. But Brewer, for one, doesn’t take that as a complete surprise.
“We’ve got a great nose for the football; we’re always around the football no matter what. ... We’re not afraid to get to the ball and take care of our job,” Brewer said.
“I feel like there’s going to be a lot of that (tackles) this year, especially because we’re not afraid of anything and we fly around to the ball a lot. ... We’re obviously among the first people there and I think we should be the first ones to stop and the first ones to make the play, and that’s what we’ve been doing and I expect to keep doing that.”
Mills is the Grizzlies’ leading tackler with 34.
“J.J., I feel like plays hard, fast and physical, all three (phases),” Brewer said. “He’s always one of those guys, he’s a ball-hawk, he’s always around the ball and he’s going to give you all he’s got no matter what.
“Even if he’s not quite sure of what the offense is doing or the defensive scheme or whatever, he’s still going to give you a thousand percent, and I think that’s a really good quality that he has.”
Brewer is currently second in tackles with 25, and led the team with 11 stops in last week’s loss to Bryant.
“I feel like I’ve got a good nose for the football; I know where the ball is and where the play is the majority of the time,” Brewer said. “I also think I play quite physical and I’m always near (the opportunity) to tackle if it’s not a solo play.”
Van Matre and Bone are tied for third in tackles with 22 apiece.
“I would somewhat say my speed (is a strength); I’ve got quite a bit of speed at inside linebacker, especially around the edge, and also total overall awareness of like where the ball is, watching plays develop and seeing that before (the opposition does),” Van Matre said.
Needham remarked that Bone, despite generally being undersized, doesn’t back down from anyone.
“He’s not huge, but Conley’s one of those guys that will give you everything he has,” Needham said. “I’ve never seen a guy just sacrifice his body to make a play the way he has in my life.
“He’s 170 pounds and he’ll go and hit a 300-pound pulling guard and not think anything about it.”
As for Needham, he’s just glad to be back on the field. Last week was his first action of the season, having missed the team’s previous three games due to a preseason ankle injury.
“I know what the offense is doing a lot of times before other people see it, so I would say just taking care of my responsibility every play and doing my job,” Needham said.
“It’s always great to be back; it feels really good to be back in the groove and everything.”
The same can be said for the linebackers as a whole, in terms of being in the groove.
“We didn’t know each other as well coming into our sophomore year and we’ve all grown tighter and tighter ever since then,” Van Matre said. “Since we’re all in the same class, we all pretty much know what everybody’s going to be doing on the field and we know they’re going to take care of their responsibilities, and I just think that just helps us play a lot better.”
The linebackers will be counted on to come up big again Friday as Northside faces a pivotal 7A-Central game at Mayo-Thompson Stadium against Little Rock Central, as both the Grizzlies and Tigers are seeking to avoid starting conference play at 0-2.
“We just have to play physical; they have a running back (Samuel Franklin, a 5-10, 180-pound junior) that’s really talented and we know we have to get him to the ground,” Van Matre said. “He’s kind of the motor to their offense.
“They also have a deep, big and physical offensive line, so we’re going to have to focus on stopping the run for sure, and I think that’s our primary goal.”
Central won all three of its non-conference games before falling to North Little Rock in the 7A-Central opener. However, Falleur said the Tigers were very impressive even in that loss.
“They get after it and they’re big and physical and they run very well; they’ve got a tailback (Franklin) that may be as fast as anybody we’ll see all year,” Falleur said. “So saying that, it’s a challenge for us; we did not play very well (against Bryant), we’ve got some things we’ve got to continue to work on and we’ve got to continue to get better and we’ve got to play a very good football game Friday to have a chance to beat Little Rock Central.”