The rock: In midst of three defensive schemes in three seasons, Wagner is Akron’s constant

first_img Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on September 1, 2010 at 12:00 pm Brian Wagner was having trouble finding gaps. As an inside linebacker gearing up for his third season with the Akron football team, finding gaps and locating the ball are his primary duties. But on that first day of practice this past spring, Wagner might as well have been a freshman. Well, almost. New head coach Rob Ianello was hired over the winter, bringing with him a new defensive formation: a 4-3 scheme. That left Wagner to fill the all-important middle linebacker spot in the defense. On this first day of spring practice, Wagner and the rest of his teammates had to begin to learn Ianello’s new playbook. More than five months later, it is no longer the new defense, it is just the defense. ‘I think everybody getting to know each other was part of it,’ Ianello said. ‘I think we’ve made great strides in that, and I think any growing pains in regards to that transition are over with.’ Ianello’s 4-3 defense is the third defensive formation Akron has played in the past three years. This season, the shift is from an unconventional 3-3-5 back to a standard 4-3. Each year when Wagner and his teammates have arrived at camp, they have had to learn a new set of plays, new calls and new positioning. For Wagner, that turnover has been the hardest part of his offseasons. On Saturday, Wagner and the Zips will test out their new scheme for the first time when Syracuse makes the trip to Ohio in a season opener (6 p.m., ESPN3).AdvertisementThis is placeholder text Senior defensive tackle Almondo Sewell has been with Wagner through all three defenses. He credits some of Wagner’s success last season (132 tackles) to his ability to pick up the playbook quickly and foresees a similar season for him in 2010. ‘(The transition) is going pretty well,’ Sewell said. ‘We have a new defense, but we’ve had a good, long time to get it down pat. Now (defensive coordinator Curt) Mallory gives it to us, and we just run the plays.’ Last season, the Akron defense struggled in the 3-3-5 formation. It gave up an average of nearly 30 points per game. Although the Zips defense got noteworthy numbers from Wagner, they were not enough to get the team past a 3-9 record. Akron struggled to put pressure on the quarterback (11 sacks all last season) or stop the run because it lacked men on the line. Ianello’s plan to have four men up front this year is intended to allow Akron to pack the box and stop the run. Before he came to Akron or met Wagner, Ianello knew that when he ran his own team, he would play a 4-3. He thinks it gives his defense a better chance to put pressure on the quarterback. Centered behind the four men on the line, the middle linebacker, Wagner, orchestrates the plays. ‘You’ve got to have a ‘Mike’ linebacker that can get everybody lined up, knows what everybody’s got to do, knows what he’s got to do and can be a real run stopper,’ Ianello said. ‘Brian does a nice job of all those things.’ Wagner worked all summer to adapt to his new role as the sole man in the middle and the play-caller for the defense. The new responsibilities fit well to the exceptional skill set he displayed last year. He finished second in the Mid-Atlantic Conference in tackles, with an average of 11 per game. His 132 total tackles were 61 more than the next best on the team. A 4-3 defense should allow Wagner the opportunity for even more tackles, because he will be part of every play. ‘I’m right in the middle,’ Wagner said. ‘I’m right in the middle of the defense, so I’m a part of everything. Instead of two linebackers, there’s just me in the middle, so you get a little bit of everything.’ From the experience gained last season and the muscle mass he put on during his summer workouts, Wagner’s statistics have the potential to be even better this year. But Wagner is taking on a lot of responsibility with his duties as the defensive play-caller. Ianello views the middle linebacker as the ‘quarterback of the defense,’ the man who has to get the plays from the bench and then ensure that his teammates are all in position before any given play. Vocal leadership is not something Wagner has taken to in the past. Despite leading his high school team to the playoffs each of his four years and his impressive numbers last season, Wagner tended to lead by example rather than by voice. ‘He was never the boisterous kid out in front or a talk-it-up kind of leader,’ said Steve DeWitt, Wagner’s coach from Catholic Central High School in Springfield, Ohio. ‘Rather his style of play, the intensity that he always practiced with and that he always played with was a real credit to his work ethic. It drove up the intensity of play in all his teammates.’ The quiet Wagner is concerned about becoming more confident on the field. Only a sophomore, he is the anchor of the defense. He has to be more familiar with the playbook than anyone else on the field. His anxiety stems from the responsibility of ensuring everyone is set each play. Wagner will test his confidence in the new defense for the first time Saturday against SU. He was sick for last year’s game at the Carrier Dome, so this will be his first time facing the Orange. The new defense aims to prevent a repeat of Syracuse’s 234 yards rushing against Akron last year. Ianello has faith that the work his middle linebacker did in the offseason will overshadow any insecurity and anticipates Wagner will only lead his defense to improve as the season progresses. ‘I think you gain confidence through knowing what to do,’ Ianello said. ‘Every day, Brian and the other players will continue to grow in their confidence with knowing what to do and being able to play fast.’ [email protected]center_img Commentslast_img

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