Linebackers receive passing grade, and Fredenburg’s confidence, after strong performance

Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru

BELTON, Texas- In his press conference prior to Saturday’s 49-3 victory over Texas Lutheran, UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg brought up the linebackers unit on multiple occasions. Without senior captain Mikkah Hackett, there were questions about the Cru’s depth at the position. 

But those questions were put to rest in Saturday’s win, as UMHB’s three leading tacklers were all linebackers; Omari Frazier, Jacob Mueller, Akeem Jackson. Additionally, younger standouts such as Durand Hill stepped up, keeping the Bulldog offense at bay. 

“Obviously the big critical thing was the play of our linebackers,” Fredenburg noted. “This last week [Linebackers coach] Jack [Johnson] did a great job of getting them prepared. Akeem Jackson and Jacob Mueller did a great job in the first half. And then our young guys have been coming along. We’re excited about the progress. Hopefully we get Mikkah Hackett back pretty soon.”

Prior to the contest, Mueller was moved from strongside linebacker to weakside linebacker, and played well at his new spot, tallying eight tackles, 2.0 for loss. Fredenburg also noted how impressed he was with Jackson, who posted seven tackles. 

“Akeem Jackson played his best ballgame,” Fredenburg said. 

TLU ran a unique option-based offense, something the Cru had to adjust to early on. The Bulldogs were held to just 69 net rushing yards, and UMHB forced three fumbles, two of which the Cru recovered. 

“TLU’s attack really was a unique offense that we hadn’t seen much of,” Fredenburg told reporters at Monday’s press conference. “For our guys to adjust to it, as readily as they did, was an accomplishment.”

Hill’s name was mentioned on multiple occasions during Fredenburg’s meeting with the local media on Monday, even drawing comparisons to former Crusader Jerrell Freeman, whose number is the only one retired in program history. Hill recorded one tackle and also recovered a fumble in the win. 

“He has done a great job and is just going to get better and better,” Fredenburg said of Hill, a freshman from Austin. “He reminds you of Jerrell, the way he can run and get around the football. Obviously he has tremendous instinct and he’s going to be a really good player for us.”

Interestingly, Hill was not listed as a linebacker coming into the game. In fact, for the first part of this season, he was taking reps at linebacker for the Cru, though he never saw action in a varsity game. 

Hill is not the first Crusader to switch from offense to defense, or vice versa, during a season. Marc Gutierrez is now listed on the roster as a running back/linebacker after seeing time at both positions already this year. Current backup running back Kenneth Cormier Jr. spent the first three games of the spring season at linebacker before being switched to running back. 

Fredenburg said having versatile players like Hill, Gutierrez, and Cormier allows the coaching staff to get the player into a position where they can have the best impact on the team. 

“The thing that we really try to do is get guys in a position where they can fit into our scheme of offense and defense and be successful,” Fredenburg said. “[Durand] has obviously taken the initiative to step in and play linebacker. He’s done a great job.”

While depth issues seem to have been somewhat solved at linebacker for the time being, there is now some concern when it comes to the Cru’s depth at quarterback. 

“Our second team has got to [be better],” Fredenburg said. “If something happened right now to Kyle King, I’m not sure if we would have a lot of confidence in his backup. We have to address that. We’ve got to get a quarterback ready to come in and help us if we need him.”

Fredenburg said that the only way to build that depth, at quarterback, or any other position, is through quality reps in practice that can translate to gameday. 

“It has to happen through practice and guys getting a lot of reps in practice,” Fredenburg told reporters. “It’s really important in practice that you rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse that way, in the game, instead of it being a thought process, it becomes a reaction.”

Though Fredenburg has made several changes throughout the season’s first six games at various positions, including kicker, he expressed his confidence in senior Anthony Avila. The veteran kicker has struggled in 2021, both in the spring, and now during the first part of the regular season. Avila nailed all six of his extra-point attempts on Saturday, though he did miss his lone field goal attempt. He is 2-for-3 on field goal attempts this season, his longest, a 45-yarder, coming in the win over ETBU. 

“You have to develop confidence in your kicker,” Fredenburg said, “when right now, he’s not playing very well. We’ve got to work really hard and put him in situations. We try to do that in practice, with pressure from the rest of the team having to run if he misses, so we put him in situations where he has to perform. We will continue to do that. I think he’s the strongest leg and the most capable so we’re going to put our faith in him.”

Injury report

Starting right tackle Ethan Ruckman left Saturday’s game with a right ankle injury. Fredenburg said postgame that x-rays did not show any signs of a broken bone, and on Monday noted that the sophomore is day-to-day. 

“He thinks it will be,” Fredenburg said when asked if Ruckman would be available for Saturday’s game at Sul Ross State. “We’ll see. They x-rayed it the day of the game and it was not broken. Obviously he’s got some pain and swelling that we’re trying to get out. It’s a day-to-day for him.”

In the Polls

UMHB remained at No. 2 in both the D3football.com Top 25 Poll and American Football Coaches Association Poll this week. The Cru tallied seven first-place votes in the D3football.com poll. North Central (Ill.) remains at No. 1 in both rankings. 

Up Next

UMHB makes its longest road trip of the season on Saturday, a six-and-a-half hour trip west to Alpine, Texas for a duel against Sul Ross State. The Lobos are 1-4 on the year, their lone win coming in a 12-10 defeat of Texas Lutheran. SRSU lost to Belhaven this past weekend by a score of 44-0 in Jackson, Mississippi, allowing 344 rushing yards. 

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