By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
C.J. Citizen isn’t exactly the strong, silent type. Then again, that kind of comes with territory of being a linebacker for the Stillwater High School football team.
But whether it’s getting in quarterback Braxton Noble’s face after a sack in practice or flashing his contagious smile afterward, there’s one thing Citizen knows — there aren’t a whole lot of positions deeper and more talented than what the Pioneers have at linebacker.
And he’s not afraid to let anybody know.
“You got to have that attitude,” Citizen said. “As linebackers, we think of ourselves as the best on the defense and practically on the field. I’m going to go ahead and say that the linebackers are the best on the field.”
Citizen’s opinions may be brash — and even shocking to some — but they aren’t unwarranted. Even Stillwater coach Tucker Barnard, who has taken over the role as the coach of the secondary, won’t argue that the Pioneers are loaded at linebacker.
“I think the defensive backs might disagree,” Barnard said jokingly. “I don’t resent (Citizen’s statement) at all. I think that every one of our defensive groups should feel that way. Every one of our groups should think that they’re the strength of the team and that’s the attitude that we want them to have. I don’t know where the most talent is and I don’t know if it matters because we all have to work together as a unit.”
It isn’t just a new attitude that this year’s linebacking corp brings to the table. It’s also a new defensive strategy.
The Pioneers are switching from a 4-3 defense to more of a 3-4 base defense. The result? Guys like Cameron Mayberry and Citizen are using their speed and roaming from sideline to sideline.
“It’s changing daily,” Barnard said. “We’re figuring things out as we go. Obviously, we’ve talked to a lot of people and done a lot of research on how to run this defense. But as we get out on the field, we’re figuring out how to make it ours and how to match our kids and do the things that they can do.”
Running around like crazy, blitzing from all over and just generally confusing the offense may sound like fun, but it isn’t exactly easy.
“It’s more challenging, but it’s a lot more fun,” Citizen said. “Us linebackers are up to the challenge. ... We worked a little, watching film and everything, and it just kind of came smoothly to us. We had a little trouble with it, but we picked it up really quick. There’s just certain gaps we have to fill and coach (Trent) Worley coached us up real well and we’re pretty sound on it right now.”
Filling those gaps will be a bigger issue this season with fewer linemen. One missed assignment could easily turn into a monster play in a hurry. Yet, even with the pressure on the linebackers to be nearly perfect each play, Barnard said he’s been pleased with the way they’ve handled that pressure.
“They’re definitely still making mistakes,” Barnard said. “There’s no doubt that they’re making mistakes. They’re not always filling the gaps they need to fill, they’re not always getting the call communicated in the correct way. There’s lots of issues that are occurring, but that’s why we’re so fortunate to have spring football. It gives us a chance to work on those things.”
As the first week of spring practice wound down Friday, there’s no doubt Stillwater’s linebacking corp still has some kinks to work out — especially among the seemingly dozens of fresh faced freshman that are getting their first taste of Pioneer football.
But make no mistake, this group is talented and deep enough to certainly be considered one of the best units on the field early in the spring. How good will they be by the time it’s all said and done? That remains to be seen.
“I feel right now we’re the best, but in the summer the offense will get better,” Citizen said. “We just have to keep working hard and keep improving because we know they’re going to keep getting better. Either way, we should be nice and sound both ways.”