Courtesy: Tim Fitzgerald/CMU Athletics
CMU Spring Football Spotlight: Linebackers
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – This spring season, Central Michigan assistant coach Kyle Nystrom does not have to be concerned with unearthing starters for the two linebacker positions in the Chippewas’ 4-2-5 base defensive system.

Senior Shamari Benton and junior Justin Cherocci are back, coming off breakthrough seasons, to man the inside linebacker spots. In 2012, Benton and Cherocci cemented themselves in the starting line-up and were fixtures on the CMU defense throughout the season. Each played in all 13 games last season, combining for 25 starts, and finished 1-2 on the team in tackles.

Benton topped the team in solo tackles with 54 and was CMU’s leading tackler in seven of 13 games. He ended the 2012 season on a high note, earning Little Caesars Pizza Bowl Lineman of the Game honors for spearheading a defensive effort that held a potent Western Kentucky offensive attack to just 21 points. A former walk-on, Cherocci, who recorded a team-high 132 total stops a year ago, also led the nation in assisted tackles with 89.

Nystrom lauds Benton for his toughness and tenacity while Cherocci earns praise for his high football IQ. The linebackers in the CMU defense are tasked with heavy responsibility, asked to play stout against the run and take on running backs in coverage. Both Benton and Cherocci fit those bills.

“Those two combined for a lot of tackles last season, but they should in our defensive scheme,” said Nystrom. “I have told them not to pat themselves on the back too much. But those guys are where we need them to be.”

With Cherocci and Benton entrenched atop the depth chart and known commodities to Nystrom, this spring, he is focused on preparing his back-ups and younger players to contribute. That group includes two three-year players in Cody Lopez and Tim Hamilton and a pair of redshirt freshmen in Joe Bacci and Nathan Ricketts

Lopez, who Nystrom likens to Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus in terms of his approach to the game, has seen a wealth of action in two seasons at CMU, playing in a total of 23 games. Hamilton played in nine games last season after redshirting in 2011. He played both inside and with his hand down on the outside rushing the passer.

Bacci and Ricketts are a departure from the other linebackers on the CMU roster. Weighing in at around 240 lbs., 
Bacci is the biggest within the corps while Ricketts, who measures in the 6-3, 6-4 range, is the tallest. With a couple years of seasoning under their belts, Nystrom envisions a bright future for the talented youngsters.

“The next step for these guys is that they have to be good enough to put them on the field and I’m not thinking about them out there,” said Nystrom. “If you take Justin and Shamari off, and put Cody and Tim on there, and then I am thinking in the back of my mind that I have to make calls to help them, you can’t do that. You have to get those guys to the point where they are out there and play and produce. That’s where we want them to be at the end of spring ball.”

While the linebackers in 2012 were productive, Nystrom sees a prime area that needs to be improved upon in 2013 – first down run defense.

“We allowed an average of over five yards per rush on first down last season. That can’t happen. You give a team a 2nd down and 5 and then they can do whatever they want.”

With the stability lent by the returning veteran presence of Benton and Cherocci and with the extra reps afforded the back-ups and younger players this spring, Nystrom’s linebackers are primed to accomplish bigger and better things in 2013.