With a year under the belt, Alani Fua has found a home within Coach Mendenhall’s defense.
“I’m coming along really good right now and I’m on the field side now,” Fua said. “It’s a position where I can be a little more athletic and use my strengths right now, rather than playing Will where you have to be up in there with the linemen a little bit.”
A dominating, versatile player at 6 feet 3 inches and 235 pounds, Kyle Van Noy should lock down the Will side, so the strong side position better fits his physical abilities. More size is needed to effectively combat larger offensive left tackles. So, the switch was made.
“Yeah, that move kind of saved me,” Fua said with a smile. “I knew it was going to happen and the coaches felt I should move to the field side because of my build. I’m trying to put on weight and I’m doing good. I’m up to around 215 pounds now and I’m working my way up.”
Fua was switched last year and saw action in eight games, recording two sacks and six tackles as a redshirt freshman. A year of experience has made a world of difference for Fua, and it’s showing early in spring camp.
“I feel like I’m taking on the position really well,” Fua said. “I played it and took some reps here last year, so that experience has helped me out a lot, so I feel more comfortable and feel like I know everything. This year I’m faster and can fly around more because I know the position a lot better.
“I’m not thinking about what I’m supposed to do and can now use my instincts rather than think about the play or my responsibilities. That’s the one thing that has helped me become a better player this year. I’m faster and quicker in the open field or off the edge because it’s more natural to me now.”
While Fua might have more experience at that position, Spencer Hadley played the strong safety position in high school, which he claims is similar in nature to the Sam linebacker.
“I feel pretty good and athletically I feel I can play the position well,” Hadley said. “It’s very similar to the strong safety position we had while I played in high school in the defense we played. So, a lot of what we do here I’ve done all my life. It’s just played at a different speed.”
Right now Hadley is in the thinking mode rather than in the read-and-react mode.
“There’s a lot of thinking going on and so sometimes I’m slower than I should be,” Hadley said. “It can get frustrating at times, but for the most part I feel good. Coach Poppinga is a great coach and we get in and watch film together and he does a great job of explaining things.”
Fua knows exactly what Hadley’s currently experiencing.
“Last year I was playing kind of slow because I had to think about everything,” Fua said. “Now I’m just doing my thing where I can read and react, knowing my responsibilities without thinking. You play a lot faster when you can do that.”
As Hadley becomes acclimated to his new position, he feels the switch from Buck to Sam linebacker is more taxing because of the new demands required of the position.
“The first two days were a little frustrating for me,” Hadley said. “It’s not too hard but physically it’s taxing. You have to be really athletic because you’re out in space and have to take on tight ends, so physically it’s a tough job but mentally there isn’t as much thought that goes into it. I have to train my body to react differently because before I trained it to react like a Buck, and now I have to retrain it to react like a field side linebacker.”
Fua has more experience than Hadley and that experience has helped him early on. As more of a finesse player, Fua plays fast and his 6-foot-5-inch frame and long wingspan have helped him in pass coverage. His added weight has also helped him.
“The added weight has helped me more in my one-on-one with the tight ends,” Fua said. “I feel a little stronger with the tight ends right now, and I feel more comfortable dropping back into coverage and playing in space.”
Hadley, who moved from Buck to the field side, does very well in run support. At 6 feet 1 inch and 230 pounds, Hadley holds the edge really well when lined up on the line of scrimmage and plays a more physical game in bump-and-run coverage against tight ends. It’s been an interesting change for Hadley as he figures out the different nuances between the two positions.
“The Buck side, you’re on the boundary side of the field, which means there’s not as much space,” Hadley said. “Really, you get the tight end coming into you so to speak, or you’re covering a running back and taking care of those fits as they come downhill.
“At the Sam linebacker, the ball is on the opposite side of the hash, so you’ve got that whole field to cover. You’re out in space more and have to cover a lot of times that number two, smaller, quicker slot receivers like J.D. Falslev, and it’s not easy to cover when you weigh more than they do.
“So, you’re out in space more and can see a lot more progression in routes. It’s a finesse and physical position to play based on the call. I think in order to play the Sam linebacker position, you have to be well-rounded in terms of athleticism. You have to be big and strong to handle the big boys, but then you also have to be quick and agile in order to cover in space.”
“It’s a little different for him because he’s not used to pass rushing,” said Fua about Hadley. “He’s more used to playing the Buck linebacker position than rushing the quarterback, but he’ll get there. He’s doing really good and things are coming natural to him. He’s an athlete.”