MARQUETTE - The Northern Michigan University linebackers entered last season as the most experienced position group on the field.
As the 2011 campaign wore on and spiraled downward, however, it turned out to be the most battered and bruised corps in green and gold.
The result is a mix of the same in 2012 with a pair of veterans - seniors Eddie Knoblock and Josh Droese - returning from season-ending injuries and newcomers who were thrown into the fire last season earlier than expected, such as former Ishpeming Hematite Wyatt Jurasin.
Northern Michigan University senior inside linebacker Eddie Knoblock runs through a drill during a Monday evening training camp practice inside the Superior Dome. Knoblock is returning for a second senior season after suffering a knee injury in Week 2 of 2011. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
"I'd hope just to keep our chemistry going with this new class of kids, new defense and new positions," Knoblock said. "Hopefully, we can just carry over what we did good last year and keep it up."
NMU first-year defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brian Newberry called his position group the leaders of the Wildcat defensive side of the ball. Compared to the linemen and defensive backs, it's the deepest position group on the field.
The depth is a welcome change from 2011, when Knoblock - a 2010 All-GLIAC first-team linebacker and team most valuable player - was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury during the second week of the season at Findlay.
Knoblock, who will start at middle linebacker, was granted a medical redshirt for 2011. He sat out the spring season and returned to the practice field late last week for a second shot at his season.
Despite stepping into a brand new defense - which Knoblock described as more complex, but with less pre-snap adjustments to be made - the senior is relieved to know he has someone like Jurasin able to step in anytime to replace him.
Jurasin appeared in all 11 games last season as a true freshman. He started two of the three final weeks and finished seventh on the team in tackles with 44.
"It's more comfortable knowing there are people behind you and people learning from what you're doing," Knoblock said.
"It's probably just a little confidence, if we need a sub or a breather, we can trust the guy behind us."
Droese, who played middle linebacker in the Wildcats' 3-4 scheme last year before missing the final three weeks of the season due to an injury, is moving to weakside linebacker in Newberry's 4-3 set up. The senior finished fifth on the team in tackles with 51 in 2011 despite only appearing in eight games. He just returned to practice this week.
Droese is backed up by junior Morgan Stenz, who finished with 42 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries in 2011, one of which he returned 97 yards for a touchdown against Tiffin (Ohio).
Newberry also pointed to true freshman Evan Bishop out of Algonquin, Ill., as an option at weak side linebacker as a starter or backup in nickel and dime packages.
The key, however, is having both Droese and Knoblock healthy for the opener against Findlay, Newberry said.
"Having those two veteran seniors on defense is going to be big for us," he said.
At strong side linebacker is where the Wildcats are youngest, but there is experience.
Sophomore Jeff Smith returns after playing nine games in 2010. That season he recorded an interception against Findlay and blocked a kick against Indianapolis.
He's currently slotted behind sophomore Nick Krause, who after appearing in only two games last season, has made an big impression on the Wildcats' new defensive coordinator.
"Nick Krause has exploded onto the scene and is one of our better players," Newberry said. "Depth is really good at linebacker for us right now."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.