NORTH ANDOVER — The days of one-dimensional linebackers in football are over. As the game has evolved and the spread offense has become more prevalent, linebackers need to be able to rush the passer, stop the run and maybe most importantly, cover in the passing game.
“We have a few kids who are more traditional linebackers, but a lot of those kids who come in at 6-2 and 230 pounds, we ask them to put on some muscle and play D-line,” Merrimack head coach Dan Curran said. “You see that even at the high levels. The game is all about speed and with the evolution of the spread and teams opening up and throwing it more, you need guys who can drop in the two hole. You need someone who can blitz but still take on offensive linemen and tight ends. The guys do have to be more versatile and athletic.
“Almost all of our linebackers with the exception of one or two were high school tailbacks or receivers. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago. I almost make that a requirement. There are some exceptions, depending on where a kid played high school and team needs, but almost all of our kids at linebacker were slot receivers or running backs.”
Merrimack junior Enrique McFarlane is one of the top returning linebackers in the Northeast 10. Named All-Conference last season, McFarlane led the team and was fifth in the league with 8.4 tackles per game (67 tackles in 8 games), despite missing some time at the end of last season with an injury.
McFarlane was a running back in high school and Curran said he’s so athletic, he could probably play running back at Merrimack if they asked him. Another projected starter, Michael Mercuri, was a terrific receiver just down the road at Central Catholic. Both fit the mold of today’s linebacker.
They follow in the footsteps of Shawn Loiseau (running back), Jimmy Holland (slot receiver) and Carey Wells-Jowers (tailback) as hybrid, athletic linebackers in the Merrimack program.
“We’ve always had those guys of guys,” Curran said. “You have to.”
McFarlane is the prototypical linebacker for today’s football. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Curran said he runs a 4.5 40-yard dash. Last week, he pulled up in practice and he’s a little banged up with a minor injury, but Curran said it sounded like he’d be OK.
“He’s an explosive kid,” said Curran. “He runs around a 4.5 and he’ll be faster than almost every tailback in this league, and he’s playing linebacker. He’s a good football player and we’re looking for him to take the next step from a consistency standpoint, but he’s a very good player. I think he can be the best linebacker in the league if he plays up to his ability.”
The Warriors have asked Mercuri to change positions and move to inside linebacker after starting his career on the outside. Only a sophomore, he appeared in all 11 games last season as a true freshman and made 52 tackles.
Mercuri is a top-level athlete and is a rare two-sport college athlete, doubling as an outfielder on the baseball team where he hit .302 as a freshman.
“He should have been All-Rookie in the league last year,” Curran said. “He led us in tackles in the six games he started. Because of need we asked him to move inside and play the Mike position. He’s a little undersized for that, but he’s as tough as they come. He might be the most physically and mentally tough kid we have in the program. He’s gritty, he’s smart and he’s a great teammate. He’s everything you want in a student athlete. He’s very physical.”
Behind McFarlane and Mercuri, the Warriors have a battle for the last starting spot.
“We have a boatload of unproven guys behind those projected two starters,” Curran said.
The Warriors add five freshman linebackers with two other returners. Jake Ragusa is back as a redshirt freshman and is a former Hockomock League MVP and Player of the Year out of Canton High School. Cristiano Rovero appeared in eight games last season as a true freshman, mostly on special teams.
The freshmen linebackers include P.J. Iannuzzi, Jack Creamer, Mike Mulvena, Troy Shallow and Hugh Calice.