Elite linebacker corps will be crucial for No. 8 Hopkins in playoff vs. No. 11 Wesley

Johns Hopkins football coach Jim Margraff likes to keep a low profile, actively avoiding the appearance of bragging or any other politicking that could be turned into bulletin-board material.

But the 26th-year coach opened up and revealed his fondness for his current linebacker corps.


"I told our team this year before I went to the [Centennial Conference] meetings that — and this is not a derogatory statement toward anyone in the conference — there will be another guy who makes first-team all-conference at linebacker and I'm not sure if he'd be in the top four on our team," Margraff said Tuesday. "I think our guys are that good right now."

What might sound like hyperbole isn't that far from the truth. Senior Keith Corliss was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year, and fellow senior Brady Watts joined him on the first team. Juniors Jack Campbell and Dan Johnson were selected to the second team.

Johns Hopkins football lost to Wesley, 29-24, in the first round of the 2013 NCAA Division III tournament.

The linebackers, who will help lead the No. 8 Blue Jays against No. 11 Wesley in an NCAA Division III second-round playoff game Saturday at 12 p.m. at Homewood Field in Baltimore, are a critical part of the team's defense.

Johns Hopkins has surrendered just 16 points in the first quarter this season. The defense has collected 34 turnovers (a program high since 41 in 2009) and limited opponents to a 30.8 percent conversion rate on third downs (53-for-172).

And the linebackers have contributed to those numbers. Campbell, Corliss and Johnson (Westminster) rank 1-2-3 on the team in tackles, and Corliss and Johnson are tied for second in interceptions with four each.

Watts trails only sophomore defensive end Keonte Henson (Broadneck) in tackles for loss with 10, and Campbell and Watts are tied for first in fumble recoveries with two each.

In last Saturday's 52-20 rout of Western New England in a first-round contest, the Blue Jays forced five turnovers and held the Golden Bears to 2-for-9 on third down. Western New England coach Keith Emery, a former Johns Hopkins defensive coordinator, said the defense moved faster than his offense was accustomed to in the New England Football Conference.

Two starters likely to miss Johns Hopkins football's second-round playoff game vs. Wesley

"When we'd get a little space, they'd get to us a lot quicker than they do in our league," Emery said. "We'd eke through, and where in our league it would be a gain of eight or nine, up here it ended up being a gain of three or four."

In the Blue Jays' 4-2-5 defensive alignment, Corliss and Campbell are the inside linebackers, Watts is a strong safety/outside linebacker hybrid, and Johnson is a nickel back/outside linebacker hybrid.

Defensive coordinator Mickey Rehring, who also coaches the linebackers, said it is pivotal for the linebackers to coordinate the defense with the defensive line and the backfield.

"They know they have great players in front of them so that they can press open seams and make great plays," Rehring said. "At the same time, they have great players behind them. So if they make a false read or are overly aggressive in a situation, they know that the guys behind them will get their backs and be able to bail them out of situations, and I think that's what makes us a good defense."

Corliss and Watts have been starting since 2013, and Campbell joined them last season. Johnson is the relative newcomer, but Watts said the foursome has developed a solid chemistry.

"We have a great deal of trust in each other, and I know if it's a run inside or a run my way, I can trust those guys to be there," he said. "In pass coverage, I drop to my spot knowing that Keith or Jack is going to be in his spot. I think there's a high level of trust because we've been playing together for a while."

Corliss said the players are involved in a friendly competition for things like interceptions, sacks and fumbles.

Johns Hopkins has qualified for seven NCAA Division III postseasons since 2005, including the past five. Moving deep into the tournament hasn¿t been quite as frequent.

"We like to joke around about stuff like that, see who has a bunch of tackles in one game or who has an interception," he said. "We like to talk about that because it's not often that a linebacker gets an interception. That's always fun to talk about. But we're each other's biggest fans, and I think that's shown all year. When one of us is succeeding, everyone else is cheering for him."

Johns Hopkins will face a Wesley offense that leads the nation in total yards (594.4 per game) and passing yards (395.3). Senior quarterback Joe Callahan is first in the country in passing yards (4,220) and touchdowns (47), and junior wide receivers Bryce Shade and James Okike have combined for more touchdown catches (32) than any other receiving duo in the nation.

But Rehring said the current linebacker group might rank among the best that have played for the Blue Jays.

"We've got big, fit guys with Keith and Brady that at the same time can run sideline-to-sideline with the fastest guys that an offense can bring," he said. "They can also plug up the middle and take on 300-pound offensive linemen. … I think this has been the most productive that we have been. We've changed some things up with what we've done at linebacker, and we've definitely been a lot more productive there. It's definitely shown."


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