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From the Coach’s Bookshelf: Linebacker Lessons

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Coach Lou Tepper brings more than 45 years of experience as a college football coach to Complete Linebacking. In this excerpt, Coach Tepper details the many intangibles a linebacker must possess
to maximize his success.

Linebackers are the glue of a defensive unit, physically and emotionally. Physically, they fill the open seams between defensive linemen inside and patrol the perimeter in conjunction with the secondary. In zone coverage linebackers provide a cohesive pass defense underneath the deep zones. In man coverage linebackers take away the early throws.

The intangible qualities are more difficult to assess but are just as important, because every player in the defensive huddle is affected by the linebackers’ demeanors and personalities.

Psychological tests are available to evaluate a player’s personality. I have not used these instruments but would not be opposed to exploring their use. A high school coach would often know players for years before he selected his leaders. A college coach normally has 18 months to assess how a player matches his program’s values. NFL staffs have the budgets to use more costly psychological exams. Each, however, should try to determine the potential linebacker’s standing in the following qualities before selecting, recruiting, or drafting at this position: character, intelligence, dependability, attitude, intensity, leadership, challenge readiness, courage, and instincts.


My father, Louis A. Tepper Sr., had an eighth-grade education and was employed as a laborer his entire life. He worked in a mill, pumped gas, and was a janitor. None of his employment was glamorous, but he was respected. His life demonstrated character. People had cheated him financially, but they couldn’t take away his character. That’s something unique about this quality. You can only give it away. It cannot be stolen!

Dad was not an outspoken Christian, as I have become, yet he trusted strongly that when a member of his family gave his or her word there was no backing down. Once Lou Tepper Sr. gave his word, it was his bond. One could always count on Dad’s promise.

That’s also a distinction I search for in linebackers. I don’t want a player to give me or the team his word lightly. When a linebacker tells a coach he is going to do something, we expect him to attempt it with every fiber in his being. We want our linebackers to be trustworthy, whether it’s in view of the coaches or when he is alone.

Today’s society does not value a promise as it once did. That’s sad. For there to be trust between a coach and player, the player’s words must ring of commitment. Later, the same will be true with his business and marriage partners.

I was once told that if a man were put in jail unjustly, somehow, some way, he would likely find a way to escape. If, however, a man of character entered a circle drawn in the dirt and promised he wouldn’t leave, no guard would be necessary. Oh, how football teams and America need men of integrity.


We’ve never found the correlation between standardized academic test (e.g., ACT, SAT) scores and football intelligence to be as high as the correlation between grade point averages and football IQ. Those who do the work necessary to compete in the classroom are usually the ones who make the best game plan decisions on Saturdays.

I’ve had some talented linebackers who were marginal students, and their limited decision-making ability often hurt the team. Intelligent linebackers put the defense in alignments and coverages that give the defense a decided edge. When a coach lacks intelligent linebackers, it really limits how well a defense can perform. A team with more than one poor student at linebacker is less able to make checks and adjustments, especially with today’s up-tempo offenses.

Always evaluate a linebacker’s transcript closely. Find out from his teachers what he is like in class. We want our linebackers to be active learners. I require each of my coaches to give daily tip sheets to our players. We provide the players with pencils and highlighters in their meetings. The serious linebackers add notes and highlight the tip sheets, just as the serious business student would.

Many times in my career a lesser athlete has started because he brought to the field the ability to make consistently good checks. Do not underestimate this quality when evaluating linebacker prospects. Smart linebackers like Lee Skinner and Jake Stockman (Buffalo, 2013) make those around them better because of their quick, decisive, and accurate checks.


Find out if a young man is dependable. Ask coaches, teachers, parents, trainers, strength personnel, and others who may know him. When you meet a recruit, ask him to call or meet at a certain time. Find out if the linebacker can be counted on to follow up without constant prodding.

Because athletes love football, the coach can often improve dependability in young linebackers. Why take the chance, however, if a staff doesn’t need to?



Wow, this is a key quality. It always has been, but today a young man faces so many hurdles in life that his attitude is key to his success and the success   of those around him.

Bad things happen to all of us in life. Those who choose to be positive and determined in all circumstances can affect many others. During practice and games, we must endure heat, fatigue, mistakes, and worthy opponents. What profound influence a linebacker can have on the performance of his team when he chooses to be positive or optimistic in the face of adversity.

My favorite quote on attitude is the following by Chuck Swindoll: The longer I live, the more I realize the importance of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company . . . a church . . . a home. The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change the past . . . we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude . . . I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it. And so it is with you . . . we are in charge of our attitudes.

I don’t want a team led by linebackers who are pessimistic about the challenges that lie ahead in life, in the classroom, or on the field. In recruiting a potential linebacker, we look for enthusiasm. The linebacker corps will learn, however, that a surly individual can change. Each of us chooses our state of mind.


How hot does his motor run? There is no motivator like a respected peer who practices and plays hard. A player who works hard in practice and pursues at 93 percent will affect the whole team if he is also a quality player. When a defensive unit has three or four intense and admired athletes, it can change the face of the entire season.

Top linebackers are difference makers. They raise the level of effort for the entire huddle. Their style of play will reinforce the coaches’ emphasis on pursuit and give positive examples to their peers.

When I was in my early 20s and learning how to be an effective recruiter, I was given my home area of western Pennsylvania to evaluate in the spring. I had really been impressed with a young athlete who attended high school at a rival to my alma mater, Derry Area. He didn’t show much effort, but his talents were remarkable. I decided after the dismissal bell to visit the Derry Area High School staff and get their comment on this prospect.

Bill Oleszewski, the Derry head coach (and my father-in-law), and his revered assistant, Joe Mastro, both knew the young man in question. They had seen him mature physically and knew he had excellent talent. Both, however, questioned his desire to play.

As a recruiter, a coach wants badly for a highly rated talent and an impressive body type to be approved for a scholarship. If I had shown selected film clips, I knew my Division II football staff would have jumped at the chance for an athlete of his caliber.

Joe Mastro could see the inner turmoil I had in making this decision. He made a comment that has stuck with me whenever I have been enticed by talent without intensity. Coach Mastro said, “Lou, you can’t give this kid a heart transplant.” It hurt, but he was absolutely correct. Go on to the next guy.

One of the next guys happened to be Eddie Booker of Kiski Area High School. Eddie was a skinny, intense competitor who few recruited. He went on to captain the University of New Hampshire team and elevated everyone’s play with his desire.


Leadership is forced on most linebackers by the nature of their role as signal callers and communicators at the line of scrimmage. Because of their position, linebackers must be more vocal and, as such, shape the defensive unit’s attitude during practice and at games. Leaders are not always the most popular or talkative, but they are respected.

We have been blessed over the years with many convincing leaders. Never did we have a dominant defense without a respected leader. How did these leaders gain that respect? They developed a set of attributes in their personalities. Some were God-given gifts; most were products of time, energy, and the desire to lead. Coaches must daily cultivate the following leadership qualities in linebackers.

Hard Work

American Cardinal James Gibbons said, “The higher men climb the longer their working day. Any young man with a streak of idleness in him may better make up his mind at the beginning that mediocrity will be his lot. Without immense, sustained effort he will not climb high. And even though fortune or chance were to lift him high, he would not stay there. For to keep at the top is harder almost than to get there. There are no office hours for leaders.”

It’s obvious to most that success begins with hard work. The seniors, captains, QBs, and linebackers form the nucleus that sets the standard for the work ethic of the team. If this group does not demonstrate and demand hard work, the coach’s job becomes very frustrating. When young players see their peer commanders exerting consistent effort, they usually fall in line, and that behavior becomes a habit for their careers.

I agree with the legendary Vince Lombardi when he said, “Contrary to the opinion of many people, leaders are not born. Leaders are made, and they are only made by effort and hard work.”


Every great leader I have prepared at linebacker has been a hard worker. None has been lazy. Teams won’t follow a player who doesn’t work hard. All of our effective leaders have also been enthusiastic. Because of their position, linebackers must exhibit a genuine zeal for performing and optimism for the future of the defensive unit.

Every player on the field sees the present circumstances, to some extent, through the eyes of the signal caller. His influence can make a poor call effective or take the starch out of a superior decision by the staff. The signal caller must believe in the game plan and sell it to the defense all week in practice and then on Saturday.

I often quote Dale Carnegie to our linebackers, first at fall camp and then at times of adversity during the season. Mr. Carnegie said, “Act enthusiastic and you’ll be enthusiastic.” I have found this statement to ring with truth. It contains a concept I had never heard until I took his course on public speaking.

A body can actually control its mind. An athlete can be in the middle of double sessions, under a hot August sun, just trying to make it through another practice. If he follows his feelings he will lack energy, which will curtail his learning and set a slower pace for those around him.

If he acts enthusiastically by moving quickly as if he had energy, his mind will follow with focus and vitality. One turned-on leader can be contagious for the entire defense.

Showboating and trash talk are selfish enthusiasm. They are brought on by pride and desire to bring attention to oneself. They have no place in classy football programs.

During the modern era of football, individualism has taken a firm grasp on our society. We need to return to an age of sportsmanship. Sportsmanship has to do with manliness and respect for the opponent. A sportsman gets in the face of his teammate and jacks him up. A sportsman discourages his opponent by playing courageously until the final second.

The modern mentality of trash talk is faulty. It’s rare that I have seen a competitor at the college level intimidated by someone’s mouth. Almost always, the reverse is true; the competitor is inspired by the one who confronts him. Do not confuse showboating or trash talk with genuine enthusiasm displayed by a leader to spur his squad to victory.


No leader can succeed without a blueprint for success. A linebacker can work diligently and be eager, but he must show the troops how they can win. The leader must have a definite plan of action for the defensive unit to rally around.

The coaching staff designs the practice and game plans. Few people realize the hours involved in preparing a practice. Every minute is outlined, and each snap is either scripted or diagrammed to ensure the exact looks for the defense.

Once practice is organized, the leaders must be prepared. They need to understand the importance of this particular day and be able to convey that to the defense. The signal callers must also have a working command of the plan by down and distance, personnel, and so on. When a linebacker can promote a call through his knowledge of the game plan, it helps endorse the coaches and sells the unit on the game plan’s potential. When the leaders can persuade the unit that this plan will stalemate their opponents, it forms a firm union on the field and an air of confidence at the line of scrimmage.

On inconsistent defenses, the coaches alone sell the game plan and motivate the players during practice. With leaders in concert with the staff, the results are magnified. Each practice improves, and, on Saturdays, the linebacker becomes a player with a coach’s ability to explain calls and make adjustments.


A leader fosters team unity. He must constantly acknowledge the importance of every member of his unit. The media and fans celebrate those who make spectacular plays, yet they seldom understand that their favorites depend on their teammates and the scheme for the opportunity to make big plays. A linebacker who leads must recognize the contributions of each of his teammates.

This attitude dilutes self-pride and promotes unity. A defense so tight that it operates as one heartbeat can, indeed, become special.

In Deuteronomy, God spoke to Israel about going into war. He told them they would see armies larger than their own, but they were not to fear because God would be with them. Later, in Deuteronomy 20:8 he tells the officers to speak to the people and say, “What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest the heart of his fellows melts as his heart.”

Linebackers can’t be fainthearted or their teammates’ hearts will falter. The leader must bring unity by showing a confident heart and promoting the value of each team member.
This is an excerpt taken from Complete Linebacking, Second Edition, (©2014 Human Kinetics), written by Lou Tepper. Complete Linebacking is now available in bookstores everywhere, as well as online at (Photos and content provided by Human Kinetics.)


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