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Panthers preach speed and length at linebacker

by | Aug 3, 2023 | Sports

Part of the changes to Plano East’s defense is about getting more linebackers on the field.

The team did graduate two of its best defensive players from last season – Chiagozie Oliver and Daniel Cabrera, but boasts a new look at the linebacker position for this season. For the team, head coach Tony Benedetto sees a lot more speed and length heading into the new year.

“We lost two good linebackers but we have an athletic group that can run sideline-to-sideline and do well covering guys this year,” Benedetto said.

Leading the way with the most experience is Excel Oleru, who got time on both defense and special teams for Plano East last season. He finished the year with 28 tackles and a sack and is also a key leader for a young group of Panthers on the defensive side of the ball.

“The defense kind of goes as he goes,” Benedetto said. “He played a little inside linebacker for us last season and is a leader. He’s very vocal and aggressive and the guys gravitate towards him.”

Oleru’s speed and tackling ability are central to the Panther’s starting front seven, as he’s worked hard this offseason to be one of the team leaders. The team can rely on him this season, and is one of the most dependable players on the roster.

“He’s willing to do whatever we ask him to do,” Benedetto said. “He fights through injuries and does whatever he can to help the team succeed on and off the field. When he goes, the team goes and when he’s not locked in, the defense isn’t either. We’re excited about Excel.”

Oleru brings the most experience to a mostly inexperienced group, but they have plenty of depth and talent across their four linebacker positions. Harold Robinson IV, Kendall Keierleber, Luke Allison and Jace Boutte all expect to see reps this season for the Panthers. Allison was a starter last season, but suffered an injury early in the season that held him out.

“He gets one chance now as a senior after missing out last season,” Benedetto said. “It’s all being wrapped into one 10-game season and he’s excited about it. He’s a smart player and has really good instincts.

Keierleber, Robinson IV and Boutte are all players that Plano East feels can rush the quarterback and provide pressure off the edge, something the defense wasn’t able to do consistent enough last season.

“We saw the skill set those kids had and wanted to change to suit them,” Benedetto said. “They’re strong and long enough to rush and create pressure like a defensive end would, but also fast enough to get off and cover a running back as well. It also allows us to use those versatile players to do different things on the field and keep offenses guessing about who is blitzing.”

Keieleber was the team’s special teams MVP last season and now steps in as a full-time starter on defense prior to his junior year. Like many of the new starters on the team, Keierleber’s drive to succeed on the football field is key to his development this summer.

“He loves football and has goals to play college football in the future,” Benedetto said. “He’s had a great summer and he has a great ability to communicate and play at the same time. He understands the importance of getting the defensive line and safeties lined up properly. So he’s a junior but plays a lot like a senior on the field.”

With the five players, speed is something that is featured across the Plano East defensive depth chart. While it wasn’t a conventional approach, the Panthers are adjusting their defense to what the roster has at its disposal.

“It wasn’t really an emphasis to put more speed on the field, it just kind of was what we have for this season,” Benedetto said. “We don’t have a lot of big, strong kids that can play downhill, we have long, fast athletic kids. So we just kind of make it work with the scheme and build a defense that suits them.”

Plano East seeks improvement on the defensive side of the ball, and believes the players at linebacker can be the key behind that. Most importantly, coach Benedetto and the coaching staff want to see the team develop the fundamentals to succeed on the field.

“I think the things we always want to see is the ability to tackle and create havoc and turnovers,” Benedetto said. “The scheme may change every season for us, but we want guys on the field who can tackle well and create turnovers because we didn’t do that very well last season.”

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