February 24, 2013
When Air Force begins a new spring football drill, it’s not quite second nature for Connor Healy and Joey Nichol to sprint out with the first team.
It’s one of many adjustments that Air Force’s new inside linebackers will have to make this spring.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted was to be up there,” said Healy, a 6-foot, 215-pound freshman from Castle Rock who attended the Air Force prep school after graduating from Millen. “I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
In May, the Falcons will graduate all of their starting linebackers from this past season – including Austin Niklas and James Chambers on the inside. Replacing them on the field and their presence away from it will be one of the top priorities of the spring.
For now, Healy and Nichol are running with the first team. While that by no means guarantees they’ll be the starters in the fall, it has helped both to be more assertive in offseason workouts.
“You want to do that freshman, sophomore years but you can’t really get into it as hardcore as you can now because you know it’s your time,” said Nichol, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound sophomore from Cedar Park High School in Austin, Texas. ” Are you going to screw it up and screw around? Are you going to smile that one time in front of (strength and conditioning) coach (Matt McGettigan)? No, you’re not. You’re not going to be that guy.”
Healy and Nichol combined to make just 20 tackles last season (Niklas and Chambers combined for 200), so they know the leadership role is one they’ll have to earn. But they are being proactive to make it happen.
“I feel like I’m a lot more vocal than I was last year,” Healy said. “Last year was a lot of kind of sitting back, observing the older guys and learning from them. This year I’m trying to vocalize and really be a leader.”
The observations haven’t stopped. The linebackers, not just Healy and Nichol, have spent a lot of time in film study watching the good and bad from last season. The departing linebackers won’t be around in the future to mentor, but their examples will exist on those films.
One resource that does remain is inside linebackers coach Steve Russ, a former Falcon who went on to earn a pair of Super Bowl rings with the Denver Broncos.
“It’s great to have him,” Nichol said. “He played here at the academy at inside linebacker, then went to the NFL and played. He’s got everything.”
Russ made the move from defensive backs coach to inside linebackers in recent weeks after the departure of defensive line coach Ron Burton started a domino effect of changes.
“I’ve coached various linebackers, I’ve coached on offense, coached defensive backs; but if I have a home position it’s linebackers,” Russ said. “When we had to shuffle coaches around I thought it would be a good move.”
Russ likes the attitude displayed by his new protégés, which is where he feels everything must start.
“They’re highly energetic, they’re enthusiastic and they want to do well,” Russ said. “It means a lot to them. When you have those components come together you have a chance to have a lot of success.”
Right now, Healy and Nichol are just happy to have the chance to be first in line.
“I’m excited to have it, but every day I have to get better,” Healy said. “Never take a step back. Keep rolling.”