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Brooks: Jon Major Eyeing A Season Of Good Health

Aug 12, 2011

(Note: Fourth in a series previewing the Buffs position-by-position during training camp. Today: Linebackers.)

BOULDER - The majority of Jon Major's goals have little to do with Jon Major. But there is one very personal goal that he visits and revisits daily. 

Major and his position coach at the University of Colorado are certain that if Major can remain healthy for an entire football season, his contributions to the Buffaloes defense will match his name.

But here's the issue: Since his freshman season, keeping his body intact has been a recurring problem.

A torn ACL a week into his first CU camp and the major knee surgery that followed sidelined him for all of 2008. A sprained knee and shoulder limited him to seven games in 2009. A severe MCL sprain ended his 2010 season after seven games.

Football brings a risk a minute, which Major had known since he began buckling his chinstrap. But forgive him if he began wondering if he had arrived in Boulder under a dark cloud.

Brian Cabral, CU's veteran linebackers coach, can only smile and shake his head at Major's misfortune. For Major's sake, as well as for the good standing of his linebackers and the entire defense, there's nothing Cabral would like more than to see Major skate through CU's demanding 13-game schedule with nothing more than a cursory trip to the training room.

"Jon has to stay healthy this fall; he's yet to prove he can be healthy for a season. He's got the ability and the understanding; it's time for him to break out, show up big - and be healthy."

Major, an athletic 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior, doesn't have to be reminded. Staying in Cabral's lineup at outside linebacker is "definitely a personal goal," he said. "It's probably the number one thing in my mind - and what a season to do it, too. Right now is the perfect time."

Major was midway through what might have been an All-Big 12 Conference season when he was injured against Texas Tech. His teammates could sense it and the team's defensive statistics reflected it. He was CU's leading tackler, averaging 8.1 a game (57 total, 32 solo).

"Whether you know it or not, Jon Major is pretty good athlete," said sophomore Derrick Webb, a candidate to start at inside linebacker. "He can do sideline-to-sideline pretty easily . . . he can really scrape sideline-to-sideline. Jon Major is a good 'backer."

Like Cabral, Webb pointed to Major's experience as being as vital to the linebacker corps as his talent.

Said Webb: "He has the most playing experience of any of us. Anything Jon Major has to say to any of us is always a good thing. He's played all three positions. Whether we're on the field at the same time or watching film or whatever and he says, 'Hey, watch how wide you are,' you respect his opinion. He has experience and he cares about the linebacker group as a whole.

"He's like a coach on the field - that's the most impressive thing to me. He's a right-spot-at-the-right-time kind of guy. You need players like that on defense because you can depend on them doing the right thing."

Major, a Parade All-American and Colorado's Gatorade Player-of-the-Year at Ponderosa High School, points out that leaders surface in several types and that he isn't "a rah-rah guy. But I can lead by doing the right things."

With Major healthy, Webb and senior Patrick Mahnke battling at the "Will" position and rugged Doug Rippy making his presence felt in the middle, Cabral says he "feels good about this group - but it has to come of age. If this group takes the next step, which it seems to have done this summer, and it turns the corner it can be a very good group. If we come of age, we've got as good of a core as I've had for some time. This group is talented enough if it takes the next step up."

Cabral's take on his starting candidates:

  • Major: "He's a leader in the group, a leader in my room. He's been a leader all summer with this group. He's my jack-of-all-trades; he can play all three positions. I can do a lot of things with a lot of different people because of him."
  • Rippy: "He's a pure middle linebacker. He's talented enough, but if he takes the next step in mastering the defense, then I'll like a lot of what he has to bring."
  • Webb: "He's always been a very, very passionate player on the field. If he's as passionate in terms of learning and understanding, he'll be very good. But that's the next step for him."
  • Mahnke: "He's smart enough. He has to take the next step in terms of being a playmaker. He's a guy who can play at several positions, but it doesn't really matter if he's not up there being productive. He's got to be more productive."

The 6-3, 230-pound Rippy is coming out of a breakout spring, leading the team in tackles (24 total, 18 solo) and being honored as the top junior-to-be. His fall goal: Being more consistent. "Over the past years that's really been the big thing," he said. "I'm seeing formations better now and reacting faster.

"But all the linebackers need to be more consistent, and we've all got to be on the same page. That's what coach Cabral means by us taking the next step. If we do that, there's no telling what this group of linebackers can do."

Webb (6-0, 220) has played the "Will" and "Mike" positions and says the middle spot might be a little more natural for him. But he's in a duel with Mahnke at the "Will" spot, so that has his focus now. 

"Right now, for all of us, it's all about us competing, seeing how we fit in the different defenses," he said. "It's all about getting in the books. Whatever coach (Greg) Brown (defensive coordinator) has for us, whether it might be confusing at first, it's all about us taking it on ourselves and getting in the right defense. It's totally on us.

"At my spot, the most important thing is knowing where your help is . . . that's what coach Cabral is always telling us. When everybody does his own job, the whole defense comes together - and we can stop anything."

Mahnke (6-1, 210) is a converted safety who moved closer to the line of scrimmage prior to last season. A plus, he says, is having played in the secondary two years ago when Brown coached the defensive backs: "Some of the coverages being used now are what he taught in the secondary when he was here before. That's making it a little easier on some of the older guys."

Immediately behind that foursome, Cabral is scrutinizing a pair of players to see where each fits.

Sophomore Liloa Nobriga replaced the injured Major for last season's final five games at the Will spot, but Cabral says Nobriga (6-2, 240) "has the most work to do" of any of his veteran returnees. "He has all the ability to be a very good player, but he has to come of age in terms of learning, understanding and executing."

Freshman Brady Daigh (pronounced Day) has been among the camp's top newcomers. Daigh (6-2, 235) "could enter the picture at the middle linebacker spot, depending where Webb fits," Cabral said. "He's been here all summer, he's a very intelligent player who picks things up. It's a matter of him adjusting to the college speed, but he's physically ready. He reminds me a lot of Greg Biekert (former Buff, NFL star). He's not as tall, but the same kind of player - very physical and smart."

Daigh, who grew up wanting to emulate NFL linebackers Brian Urlacher and Al Wilson, said physical play was his trademark at Mullen High School.  He called the Biekert comparison "a pretty good compliment" and said the only expectation he brought to his first college camp was "expecting to compete. I didn't really have that many expectations; I just wanted to come in and do my best."

He arrived on campus on May 31 and participated in the entire summer conditioning program, giving him a solid preview of what he might expect from CU's returning players. He said the speed of the game obviously has changed, underscoring the need to "make my reads a lot quicker. I think I've learned things pretty quick, but it's definitely been a learning experience. It's a quicker game, but I'm starting to adjust."

Cabral said speedy freshman K.T. Tu'umalo needs to mature physically, but might factor in somewhere, while conditioning is a concern for freshman Woodson Greer III, who had spring shoulder surgery. He and redshirt freshman Lowell Williams "probably are a year away from playing," Cabral said.

After the second camp scrimmage (Friday, Aug. 19), or maybe before, Cabral likely will have an idea of where Webb and Daigh fit. The entire group, he said, "is talented enough to be very good. We're not very good when we don't know what we're doing and we don't understand, but I like what this group is starting to grow into."

Major agreed: "There's so much depth to the position, but we still really have to dig down and get there. We're starting to learn about route recognition and offenses. It's beyond just learning the defense. We have to have that offensive mindset, too. We're starting to understand that, starting to get there.

"I think we have the want-to; we want to be good and win. What (Cabral) wants is only going to make us better football players. He's said we all need to take the next step. He knows, we know, we can reach beyond what we're doing."

BUFF BITS: The punting situation took another twist Friday with incumbent Zach Grossnickle working his way back into the two-man competition that coach Jon Embree expects could be decided by the middle of next week. Grossnickle kicked well enough in a lengthy morning practice that focused on special teams to move ahead of transfer Mark Brundage. Now, Embree says CU's punter will be either walk-on Darragh O'Neill or Grossnickle . . . . Saturday's scrimmage (noon-3 p.m., lower practice fields, open) will be mostly situational, but Embree said he "doubts" his offenses will start drives in the red zone. "I might do that just to get some (field goal) kicks," he said, adding he's big into that. "You get 49 points and they're all 25-yard drives." A heavy emphasis will be on evaluating how players think and make decisions with no coaches on the field . . . . Backup quarterback Nick Hirschman, sidelined with an ankle/foot problem since last week, has not been on the sidelines since suffering his injury. Embree said that's because of increased swelling Hirschman likely would endure if he attended practice and remained upright for 2 to 3 hours. "He'll be out here (Saturday)," Embree said. "A lot of times when you have a foot injury, it's the swelling issue you're dealing with. You want to keep it elevated as much as you can. We've got him in a boot." Embree said Hirschman was attending all of the position meetings with QB coach Rip Scherer . . . . The Buffs' second camp scrimmage, set for Friday, Aug. 19, originally was scheduled to be open to the public. However, athletic department officials say anticipated parking issues on that day have forced them to close the scrimmage and conduct it in Folsom Field. That means Saturday's scrimmage will be the only one in preseason that is open. A third scrimmage, set for Aug. 27, was closed when the camp schedule was released.

THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .

Linebacker

Coach: Brian Cabral, 23rd season at CU, 22nd as a full-time assistant.

Returning starters: OLB Jon Major, Jr.

Returnees: WLB Patrick Mahnke, Sr.; MLB Doug Rippy, Jr.; MLB/WLB Derrick Webb, Soph.; OLB Liloa Nobriga, Soph.; WLB Lowell Williams, Fr.-RS; OLB Alec Parker, Fr.

Newcomers: LB Brady Daigh, Fr.; LB Woodson Greer III, Fr.; OLB K.T. Tu'umalo, Fr.; OLB Casey Walker, Fr. (walk-on)

Key losses: MLB Mike Sipili; OLB B.J. Beatty; Sr. OLB Tyler Ahles moved to FB.

Stat line: In the seven games he played last season, Major averaged 8.1 tackles - second among the 2010 linebackers. Sipili's 7.8 tackles average in 12 games was the best on the team.

Bottom line: Cabral is Dr. LB, having produced enough excellent linebacker corps at CU to earn an honorary doctorate. It's way too early to put his 2011 group among his best, but he likes its makeup and potential even though it's fairly young (Mahnke is the only senior). A key will be Major's ability to stay healthy and submit a full season. His on-field leadership and ability for 13 games would be huge for the defense. Newcomer to keep an eye on: Daigh.

Next: Running backs

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU