From Jonny Rugby to Jonny Football

Jonny Linehan

With a last-second drop goal-kick, New Zealand-born rugby star Jonny Linehan became the hero in BYU's 27-24 victory over Cal to win the Varsity Cup National Championship. Now the true freshman is applying his athleticism, grit-and-grind mentality, and gutsy disposition to the gridiron. It's been a drastic change and an eye-popping experience for Linehan.

When the call went out from BYU's football coaching staff that they were looking to add depth to the football team, BYU rugby star Jonny Linehan answered. The fact that he had never played the sport didn't stop him from wanting to make an effort. Now that he's had a few practices under his belt his whole perspective of football has completely changed.

"Oh man! It's been a lot harder than it looks or I ever expected," said the ever-flamboyant Linehan with a 100-yard smile. "I'm mean, seriously! I just thought it would be easy. I didn't know the defense had so many plays! I just thought if they told me to stick on the man I could do it."

As Linehan has been learning, there are a lot of intricacies, techniques, and physical abilities that go into playing the cornerback position.

"Man, there is so much you have to learn and so many different things you have to do just from a technique perspective. It's really difficult, especially if you've never done those things before," Linehan said. "It's really different. Sometimes you have to come up and take the flats, learn different techniques, then go deep and make sure you stick on the man without interfering with him. Hey, it's not as easy as it looks."

In the sport of rugby, players direct their focus primarily at the player who possesses the ball. In football, that natural instinct to locate the player with the ball is heavily discouraged, especially at the cornerback position. It's something cornerback coaches call having "dirty eyes," and it can lead to a defensive back being beaten quickly and easily.

"[I'm learning] just a lot of the technique and things you have to do that you feel you shouldn't," said Linehan. "Like for me, I want to look at the quarterback and so I always want to look for the ball, and the receiver can then just run around me. I'm just trying to learn when to look and when to run. I don't know, probably the biggest challenge for me is patience with myself because I want to learn the game and get into some sets. I have to just be patient with myself and give myself some time."

Linehan has gone from rugby halfback (which, if comparing rugby and football, would be the equivalent of a quarterback) to football cornerback, now having to plaster quick and fast receivers and keep them from catching passes from quarterbacks. Since he's new to the game, he hasn't been given the opportunity to test his abilities against the likes of Cody Hoffman, Ross Apo, Kurt Henderson, Skyler Ridley or Mitch Mathews.

"I haven't had too many opportunities because they want to work with the other guys," Linehan said. "I learn a lot from just watching the other guys, but it's not easy, yeah. There's a lot of pressure on you. I mean, I watched the YouTube video on how to be a corner. It was like a little three-minute video where they say, 'You're out there on an island.' but it's pretty fun, yeah."

The level of athleticism and talent on the team that Linehan now competes with or against is very high, and that includes his rugby teammate Paul Lasike.

"Oh yeah, they're really, really good," Linehan said about his teammates. "I love watching Paul [Lasike] play and he's doing really, really well and tearing it up. These guys are incredible athletes, that's for sure. It is kind of fun being around them because even just lifting, there's around 30 or 40 guys in one room just throwing around the weights."

Like a Pringles potato chip can, Coach Howell has literally popped off the top of Linehan's head and dumped an encyclopedia's worth of information into him to help expedite his development.

"It really is, it is a lot like that," Linehan said with an even larger smile. "I mean, man, there is just so much to learn! I'm so grateful that there are a few weeks before school starts to try and learn just a fraction of what's being taught because I would literally just want to crawl into a hole and die. No, it's been a lot of fun being around the football team. These guys are so great, and if anything, it's been a great experience so far."

For the full-padded scrimmage held at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Wednesday, Linehan attempted to put football pads on for the first time in his life.

"I still struggle," Linehan said with a laugh as he pointed to his crooked thigh pads, which went well with his clumsily worn uniform. "Like these ones ... this is the first time I put them on today. I don't know, I think I took my pants off three times today trying to put my different pads on in different places. I had, like, this one over here and I was like, 'Hey, where does this one go?'"

The rugger-turned-gridder began to laugh once again as images of Ziggy Ansah's comical first attempt to put his own pads on came to mind. Linehan actually feels more vulnerable when wearing the pads. It's a new perspective for him, and just another introduction into the rough-and-tumble sport of college football.

"I don't know, there's still a lot of me that feels, even though the other guys have pads on, that I would be safer without them. Like, I don't know why. I put them on and I feel like, 'Man, I'm going to war,' or something. I feel like it's a lot more dangerous than rugby. It might just be, you know? I'm not sure, and a lot of it is pretty brutal."

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