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The advantage for Prairie Falcons defense is having a wealth of linebackers


Coach reinstalled 3-4 defense for this season

VIDEO: Prairie Falcon takes out a drake mallard
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By , Columbian staff writer

Published: September 8, 2023, 6:01am

Prairie seniors Pierson Lameh, from left, Seth Blick, Mason Frei, Gage Bruno, Tyler McNulty and, Alex Juhl stand for a portrait Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, at Prairie High School. The crew of linebackers have been instrumental in the Falcons' switch to a 3-4 defense under head coach Will Ephraim.
Prairie seniors Pierson Lameh, from left, Seth Blick, Mason Frei, Gage Bruno, Tyler McNulty and, Alex Juhl stand for a portrait Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, at Prairie High School. The crew of linebackers have been instrumental in the Falcons' switch to a 3-4 defense under head coach Will Ephraim. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian)

The Prairie Falcons are a bit banged up at one of the most important positions on the football field.

Due to a string of injuries, the status of linebackers Taylor Gause and Pierson Lameh is uncertain for Friday’s week two game against G.W. Graham.

For some teams, being down two starting inside linebackers could spell disaster for a defense. Not the Falcons.

After Lameh exited in the first quarter of Prairie’s season-opening game Sept. 1 against Auburn, while watching from the sidelines he soon realized the linebackers — and the whole defense — would be just fine. Prairie ultimately suffered a 14-12 loss to Auburn, but the defense surrendered just 12 points and walked away feeling encouraged with the effort.

“It really showed our depth that we have and how we can fill in and play the spots,” Lameh said. “It made me happy that they could perform at that level without me.”

Prairie has a glut of experienced linebackers on their roster, which made head coach Will Ephraim eager during the offseason to reinstall a defense he’s used throughout his career as a defensive coordinator — the 3-4, or what the Falcons call their “Bear” package. Whereas last season Ephraim didn’t believe the team had the personnel or athletes necessary to run a defense with three down linemen and four linebackers, this year is entirely different.

Behind Lameh and Gause on the inside, the Falcons can turn to a group of seniors in Mason Frei, Tyler McNulty, Gage Bruno and Seth Blick. They’ve also seen the emergence of senior Alex Juhl, a rangy 6-foot-3 athlete who plays rover and can slide into one of the outside linebacker spots in the 3-4.

“We have depth no matter who goes out, and I think knowing that, we have a little bit of weight lifted off our shoulders,” Juhl said. “… If we have to go out, take a break, we’re like, we trust our other players, our friends to get in there and do the right job.”

Linebackers are front and center in most defenses. With four of them on the field at once, their roles take on even greater importance.

They read the opposing team’s quarterback, cover zones in passing plays, fill in the gaps against the run, make tackles and sometimes get called on to blitz. The position demands a unique combination of speed, physicality and mental agility.

“We’re kind of the (communicators) and the center of the team, so everything happens around us,” McNulty said. “The (defensive backs are) watching our back for the pass, and the linemen up front are making sure that we’re able to make the play if it’s a run. So we’re really the center, and if they get by us, it’s hard for a team to be able to recover from that. We’re kind of that middle wall that is able to make the play.”

“We have quick, fast linebackers,” Ephraim added. “They’re not big and bulky, but they’re good tacklers, they’re quick and they’re fun to watch.”

Making the transition to a 3-4 defense was a smooth one, the linebackers said, because of their understanding of the position and overall football IQ.

Some have played linebacker since they first started competitive football in elementary school, like Lameh, or Frei, who, at the recommendation of a coach, started playing outside linebacker as a freshman. Now, he dedicates all of his time to the position.

“It’s the only position I play,” Frei said. “It was definitely a good decision.”

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There’s also players who gravitated from offense to defense. Juhl arrived at Prairie last year after transferring from Grants Pass in Southern Oregon, intending to compete for the starting quarterback job. Once Braeden Slamp was named starter, Juhl carved out a role as a receiver and defensive back

Beginning this season, he became a full-time, two-way starter who can play pass coverage and defend the edge as an outside linebacker.

“I loved it,” Juhl said. “Friday (against Auburn) was kind of my first actual full game starting defense for pretty much every single rep. … I think I love it more than offense now.”

Blick also has a role on the Falcons’ offense as one of the team’s starting offensive guards. The 6-foot, 215-pound senior is an inside linebacker by trade, too, but the team’s luxury of linebackers allows two-way players to rotate in and out.

“Coaches have told me, because we don’t have as much depth on the o-line, ‘If you’re tired on defense, just tap your head, because we have you covered on linebacker. It’s harder to replace you on offense than defense,’” Blick said. “I know there’s somebody behind me that can do my job just as well as I can.”

When Ephraim took over as Prairie’s head coach ahead of the 2022 season, he brought with him a defensive-minded approach that has served the Falcons well.

They boasted one of the top defenses in the 3A Greater St. Helens League last season, allowing 17 points per game.

Behind their deep core of linebackers, the Falcons believe in their defense, and those backers understand their place in helping this team have a successful season.

“That pressure is something that I feel like we all rise up to,” Blick said. “It’s not something we hide away from; it’s something we embrace.”

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