PERFECTING THE POSITION: Natchez linebackers set tone for defense

Published 12:01 am Monday, November 16, 2015

Natchez High linebackers Ernest Woods, left, and Dalvion Jackson. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

Natchez High linebackers Ernest Woods, left, and Dalvion Jackson. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Speed was the identity of the Natchez High School Bulldogs heading into the 2015 season.

From head coach Henry Garner to offensive coordinator Roderick Holmes praise rained down on the talents of wide receiver Malik Byrd, running back Tydarrius Terrell and safety turned receiver Shavoke Herrington. However, the offensive flow didn’t come as easily as those coaches predicted, and as the season progressed, the Bulldogs took on a new identity — a defensive one.

Going against physically bigger teams in Class 5A, the Bulldogs relied on the toughness of its two core linebackers, senior Dalvion Jackson and sophomore Ernest Woods.

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“We’re linebackers,” Woods said. “We’re not a position that a lot of people look at anyway. We’re used to being (overlooked).”

At 5’9”, 180 pounds, Woods isn’t your typical 5A linebacker, and neither is Jackson at 5’10”, 190. Every week, these two would be tasked to stop running attacks some of which featured running backs bigger than they were.

“We knew if we didn’t secure those tackles, they would run on us all night,” Jackson said. “Every game, we’re facing big boys and fast running backs.”

Despite their ability, their size drew some scoffs from their competition.

“When people look at us, they think they’re going to pick on us,” Woods said. “That’s why we get a lot of tackles. They think they’re going to run over us.”

But Woods and Jackson have nearly mastered their craft. What each lack in size and strength, they make up for in quickness and technique. Assistant coach Nickie Davis worked with Woods and Jackson and showed them how to utilize their hands, so that if linemen were able to get their hands on either linebacker (often times they weren’t capable), they would be able to use their hands to fight off the block.

“We use our speed and our hands a lot,” Jackson said. “That’s why we don’t get blocked a lot. We use hands and sideline to sideline pursuit.”

Their ability at linebacker has made them the center of the entire defense. Linemen occupy blocks and fill gaps, while Jackson and Woods run around and make open-field tackles.

Garner described Woods as a sure-tackler and complimented Jackson’s hard-hitting ability.

“The reason I’m so confident in them is because year after year they’ve made the tackles,” Garner said. “They’re good at sniffing the ball out and making plays. It’s great to have experienced linebackers.”

Woods and Jackson each started a year ago on a defense that featured multiple new starters. In fact, new defensive coordinator Dan Smith remodeled the defense with young new starters so that the 2015 season would focus on less teaching.

“We didn’t have to teach a lot this year because there wasn’t too many freshman playing,” Woods said. “This year, we were able to just go out and make plays.”

Each linebacker has made plenty of them, as Max Preps has each linebacker leading the team in tackles for loss.

And when the Bulldogs needed a defense to pick up its sometimes-complacent offense, Jackson and Woods were always there to make the big play.

“We take a lot of pride in that,” Woods said. “They always depended on us to set the tone.”