BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - Injuries to returning starters have allowed a number of young UAB players to get increased repetitions this spring.
The inside linebacker positions are no different.
Jake Ganus and Destin Challenger are recovering from shoulder injuries. Challenger missed the final seven games of last season. He's been able to do some individual drills in spring practice, but not much else. Ganus played in all 12 games, but hasn't been able to do much this spring.
That's opened the door for redshirt freshmen T.J. McCollum and Jalen Coleman and sophomore Ervin Alston, among others, to shine for the Blazers this spring.
"The silver lining for me is that I'm able to look at these talented freshmen and play them," UAB inside linebackers coach Chuck Dunn said. "We're not ready to play Troy tomorrow, but I'm happy with the progress we're making. We're making mistakes, but I'm proud of how far we've come in the short time."
If they were healthy, Challenger would be at the MIKE and Ganus at the WILL. Both are rising juniors. Ganus started out at SAM but moved inside to WILL. Ganus led UAB last year with 93 tackles, eight for loss, while rotating between linebacker and safety. Challenger had 18 tackles in five games, all of which he started.UAB inside linebackers coach Chuck Dunn gives out instructions at practice (Mark Almondfirstname.lastname@example.org)
"They're smart kids," Dunn said. "They've been getting mental reps and extra meeting time. I'm happy with where they are as far as what we're doing."
Dunn said he wants his guys to be interchangeable - "The smarter they are inside, the better we are," he said. The MIKE is the quarterback of the defense, the most vocal player who gets everyone lined up. The WILL can work out in space and help with coverage. Usually, the MIKE is thicker than the WILL.
McCollum, a former Clay-Chalkville standout, is at WILL.
"I think has a great future here," Dunn said. "If he'll keep progressing and keep working, I think he can do very well here at UAB. Other young guys like Jalen Coleman and Ervin Alston, two other young guys I've got, they've had some ways to go, but they've got a bunch of reps with Destin and Jake being out."
Junior Shaq Jones (Lanett), redshirt freshman Je'Niah Jackson (Spain Park) and sophomore walk-on Nick Terrell (Pelham) are also at WILL. Jones had 33 tackles, two for loss, as a reserve last season.
At the MIKE is Coleman (Daphne), Alston, and redshirt freshmen Mark Rawls and Brandon Fuller (Clay-Chalkville). Alston played in seven games last year as a true freshman and had seven tackles.
UAB will add junior college transfer Alonzo McGee to this group in the fall. McGee will be a sophomore with three years left to play three. Until then, the youngsters have seven more practices to get better. Rain has altered UAB's schedule, but the Blazers practice again four times this week.
"I'm very proud of how the kids have bought in to what we're doing," Dunn said. "We've seen a change. Is it a change to beat Troy tomorrow? No, but we've seen a change since we've got here."
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