Senior linebacker persists amid struggles
Linebacker Steve Greer embraces defensive leadership role, guides up-and-coming talents through trying times
This is not the way the story was supposed to end.
After three years of dutiful and occasionally spectacular service, senior linebacker and defensive captain Steve Greer was supposed to cap his college career with a 2012 season replete with excitement, accolades and, most crucially, wins. After all, last year’s senior class of defenders, headlined by cornerback Chase Minnifield and defensive lineman Cam Johnson, enjoyed such a banner season as Virginia finished 8-4 and earned a bowl berth.
Instead, Greer’s career appears likely to conclude with a whimper rather than a bang. After their longest losing streak under coach Mike London’s tutelage, the Cavaliers stand at 2-6 and must win the rest of their remaining games to even qualify for bowl participation. What’s more for Greer and other Virginia seniors on the defense, much of 2012 has revolved around the maturation and development of younger, inexperienced talents who will peak as players long after this crop of seniors have received their diplomas.
Greer’s response to the injustice of a disappointing season: Persist, and mentor the younger stars so that they can enjoy memorable senior seasons of their own.
“Anytime you’re not winning as much as you want, it’s frustrating,” Greer said. “I think you’ve got to keep trying to show these young guys the right way to do stuff. It’s going to be their time a couple years down the road.”
Along with fellow standout senior strongside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds, Greer has excelled in his final season and deserves little of the blame for Virginia’s poor performance. Greer has tallied 76 tackles, tops for the Cavaliers and fourth in the ACC, and 6.5 tackles for loss in leading the squad’s front seven. Not to be outdone, Reynolds has registered 48 tackles and 5.0 tackles for loss in just six games of action despite playing most of this season with a broken hand. Together, the two seniors have stymied most opposing run games and provided a steadying influence for a defense coming off two straight dynamite performances.
“Guys are playing really hard and flying around,” Greer said. “Defensively, I think we’ve just got to keep getting a little better each week, which I think we’ve done the whole season. If you continue to do that, eliminate big plays, I think we’ll be alright.”
Still, the contributions of the seniors have failed to translate into wins for a flailing football team.
On defense, the main culprit has been the unit’s staggering youth. For Saturday’s contest against N.C. State, Virginia plans to start six underclassmen defenders — including four sophomores in the secondary for the ninth consecutive game — and incorporate several other budding young players into the game plan.
The multitude of youngsters playing significant minutes bodes well for the team’s future development, but it has also forced older leaders such as Greer, Reynolds and senior defensive tackle Will Hill to function as teachers, as well as standout performers in their final year donning Cavalier jerseys.
“It goes back to giving players a chance to get game experience,” London said. “If you afford them an opportunity to gain some game experience when they’re playing first, second, third down and then perhaps fourth down but some special teams as well, that’s where they’re going to gain their experience.”
The unavoidable paradox for London and defensive coordinator Jim Reid, however, lies in the desire to supply the younger players with game experience while also maintaining the most competitive team on the field. The dichotomy between winning in the present and establishing a strong foundation for the future manifests itself explicitly at Greer’s middle linebacker position, where highly touted freshman Kwontie Moore has seen sparse playing time to prepare for likely stepping into the starter’s role next season.
“You look at Kwontie, you have a player like Steve Greer that’s been an all-star here in this league in terms of the ACC, so playing behind a guy like that would limit your reps and your opportunities,” London said. “I think for the most part, as they get the practice reps, as they learn the concepts and they get bigger, stronger, faster … the gap between going in the game and saying, ‘all right, you’ve got it this time,’ is very much closed.”
The desire to cultivate long-term success and the need to compete now have intersected for the Cavaliers at times this season. In Virginia’s last two games, in which the squad has yielded just 448 total yards and a meager 103 on the ground combined to Maryland and Wake Forest, freshman defensive linemen Eli Harold and sophomore Chris Brathwaite have starred, and the sophomoric secondary of corners Demetrious Nicholson and Drequan Hoskey and safeties Brandon Phelps and Anthony Harris has begun to gel.
The young players aren’t just in the game to prepare for next year — they offer the Cavaliers an opportunity to compete in 2012. For his efforts, in particular, Harold earned the starting nod instead of the more experienced senior defensive end Ausar Walcott for this weekend’s game against the Wolfpack.
“It’s not really a thing of ‘oh he’s a young guy, the coaches are looking at next year,’” junior defensive end Jake Snyder said. “No, he’s putting [a player] in there because he wants to win. And that’s in the best interest of the team, and that’s the way we look at it.”
The seniors like Greer are coping with the crushing disappointment of an arduous final season by continuing to play hard and approach their craft just as assiduously — ever mindful that the example they set could inspire future success. By playing for this year, Greer may show the younger players how to remain committed through adversity.
“As seniors, that’s a little bit frustrating when you’re not getting the results you want,” Greer said. “But at the same time, the program is very important to us older guys, so we want the younger guys to kind of learn the right way to do stuff when they’re seniors.”