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Once Again, Linebacker Legion Forms Backbone of a Strong Defense

By Joe Ginley '12 , 08/14/19, 10:45AM EDT


Connor Francz will be a leader of one of the Wildcats' deepest units.

Over the last few years, the names have cycled, but the results have been the same.

In the Ryan Franzinger '02 era, the Linebacker Legion has produced playmakers such as Scott McVey '09, Jake Ryan '10, Kyle Berger '13, James Layden '17, Adam Shibley '17, and Tommy Eichenberg '19, all of whom have played or are currently playing Division I college football, along with plenty of other talented young men.

The names are different in 2019, but the outlook is the same as in years past – the linebackers will form the backbone of a talented defense. 

As per usual, a couple of seniors will lead the way. But several up-and-comers pepper the depth chart, hinting at the depth the Linebacker Legion is blessed with this season.

Michael McNamara and Connor Francz are the alpha dogs as the returning seniors. Each player earned significant playing time last year. Aidan Hubbard, Aidan Conway, and Nick Velotta are the hungry juniors who will compete for playing time. Seniors Aidan Crummie and Kevin Kempffer are both battling injuries but may factor in. 

Depth is a defining aspect of the group, but certainly not the only strength.

"Depth should be a major factor for us, a big plus," Franzinger said. "Depth is a strength, but I would include intelligence with it. It's a highly intelligent group. All of the junior backers are in the 3.7 and higher range for GPA."

That intelligence has paid off during camp, leading to more effective practices.  

"One of the things that doesn't take talent is knowing the playbook. If you know the whole defense, it's a huge advantage for you as a player," Franzinger said. "At least, it should never be a disadvantage where you don't know the playbook. At this point, we have had minimal mental errors, which is great." 

Having a wealth intelligent players allows Franzinger to be more creative on gamedays.

The Wildcats' defensive coordinator and linebackers coach will be looking for ways to utilize all of his talented players throughout the season. Fans might see the defense debut new looks on defense.  

"Here's my philosophy, if you're good enough to play, you'll play. There's no point in keeping guys on the sideline for no reason," Franzinger said. "You develop depth, you keep guys fresh. If guys are good enough and they've worked hard enough to play, they will play. It should also keep them on their toes week-to-week. If you have a bad week, maybe your reps get cut. Each of the guys is competitive enough to know that and hold themselves to that standard. Some of it is how might we get them all on the field. Maybe all of them are on the field at the same time in some personnel."

McNamara is one linebacker who will play a starring role, no matter the formation. The returning senior will be a key cog at one of the outside linebacker spots after holding a starting role for much of last season. 

A quick and physical player, McNamara played nine games in 2018. As a junior, "Mike Mac" tallied 25 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 pass breakups, 5 quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Baseball fans will recognize him as a key contributor on the state championship team, starting at shortstop and providing key hits at the plate. 

"Mac had the most amount of snaps last year. He is reliable and a tremendous athlete," Franzinger said. "He has just all-around athleticism. He has fluidity and toughness, well-documented in baseball and football. He's gifted, and a leader on this defense and team."

Francz will likely occupy another significant spot. The returning senior is a ferocious and physical player for the Wildcats. Last season, Francz punished ballcarriers on 18.5 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 1 sack, adding a forced fumble and a safety. He also played for the hockey team this winter as a backup goalie. 

"Francz had a number of snaps last year. He's a physical player with a solid inside presence," Franzinger said.

McNamara and Francz know their roles as leaders this season, and recognize the importance of the responsibility they carry.

"We have a lot of guys who can contribute, but I think since Francz and I have experience, we should lead the young and new guys coming in," said McNamara. "We're looked upon to make plays, which is will we'll do. Whatever it takes for us to help out, be it on the defensive line or at defensive back, we'll do."

Aidan Conway will be a major contributor at middle linebacker. A smart and strong player, Conway drew a callup as a sophomore last season. Nicknamed "LBJ", Conway played in five games, tallying four tackles. Expect him to play much more and record more stats this season. 

"You can't fool him," Franzinger said. "Everytime you ask him, 'What are we doing here?' he knows what to do. And as Coach Rossi noticed, Aidan increased his speed in the offseason. He'll be a strong contributor."

Conway also played defenseman for the Ice Cats, helping the squad earn its fourth straight OHSAA State Championship. Physicality on the ice translates well to defense on the gridiron – just ask John Spellacy '85. The two-sport star will be inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame on August 24. 

The first two men off the sideline will be Aidan Hubbard and Nick Velotta. The two juniors were on the varsity roster at the very end of last season, with Hubbard playing in two games and recording 4.5 tackles,1 tackle for loss, and 1 blocked kick. Both have the flexibility to play multiple spots on defense, particularly Hubbard.

"Hubbard has played a bit of defensive end with Coach Cicetti, and with his athleticism and speed and size, he could even play a safety," Franzinger said. "He can play a diversity of positions, which is good."

Two seniors who will fight for playing time are Aidan Crummie and Kevin Kempffer.

Crummie is battling back from injuries after a great offseason. He led the team in attendance in the weight room this season with over 100 lifts. He's an unproven player, but a very hard worker.

Kempffer is also dealing with injury afflictions. He played in a couple of games last season, managing 1.5 tackles. 

One last player who might figure in at linebacker is Carter Zimmerman.

The junior did not play on varsity last year, but did wrestle extensively in the winter. A young man with a great attitude, Zimmerman is a coaches' dream. 

"He has played almost every position on this team," Franzinger said. "His position on defense right now is with the defensive line. He's probably playing a little more offensive line. He has played literally at every spot. If there's a scout offensive lineman not there, and we ask for a guy, he's the first to join us. That's exactly what you want to see in a young man. He's a great kid."

Looking at the unit as a whole, the Linebacker Legion has plenty of talent. But execution is critical.

During the Solon scrimmage, Franzinger was displeased with the tackling. The veteran coach expects his linebackers to improve upon this quickly. 

"Tackling is like the dress code, it's the basics. If you can't get the basics right, you've got nothing," said the Assistant Principal for Student Discipline. "Tackling takes some talent, dress code takes none, but if you show up looking like a slob, what kind of a student are you. If you can't tackle on defense, you've got nothing. It's a crucial fundamental you have to have."

Helping Franzinger teach technique this season will be Benjamin Rossi. 

Returning for a second season as Intern / Assistant Coach, the rising senior at Saint Ignatius helps in a variety of ways. Most importantly, Rossi runs the scout offense at practice. His other duties include coaching up the JV linebackers, intercuts of game film, and various other tasks as assigned.

Rossi is excited for his second season working with Franzinger and the linebackers. 

"The Linebacker Legion will be solid in all aspects," Rossi said. "Last year, I coached the JVs. Conway, Hubbard, and Velotta were all on the JV team last year. Every week, I would say, 'You gotta get on Hudl and learn the playbook. You're going to get called up to varsity, you need to learn the playbook.' In the offseason, they didn't lose a step. They knew everything there was to know. It impressed the two of us that we didn't need to take too much time going over the defense. They did their homework. Being natural leaders helps them out in their position with the team, and being willing to contribute in any way they can. That goes a long way in making the team better."

On the flipside, the players truly appreciate the coaching. McNamara speaks very highly of his coaches. 

"When I was a freshman, I was scared of [Coach Franzinger], since he was the dean of students," Mac joked. "But once you get to know him, he's a great guy. He's really funny. He's one of the best coaches on the team because his explanations are very clear. He tells you what he expects you to do, and if you don't, you'll pay the price."

Look for the Linebacker Legion to work hard this season and form one of the toughest units on a very good Wildcats team.