Linebackers Steven Pitts and Ryan Dimino played in every game during UC Davis’ 5-7 season in 2013.
Pitts was the team’s second-leading tackler with 74 and Dimino knocked 53 opposing ball-carriers off their feet.
Good numbers for two healthy guys. But healthy these guys weren’t. On occasion, according to linebackers/special teams coach Jeff Copp, Pitts and Dimino were asked to be on the field for 70 or 80 plays.
By the time the finale at Sacramento State rolled around, the duo was football’s version of zombies.
But Pitts and Dimino (both of whom play outside) were keys to that 34-7 Aggie victory. Pitts, a senior from El Cajon, had the game of his life — 13 tackles, including two sacks. Former Del Campo High two-way star Dimino recorded five tackles, limping through the first half of the rout before getting some deserved time off.
With Pitts and Dimino back for their senior seasons, almost everyone in the UCD camp feels the linebacking corps will be the backbone of these 2014 Aggies.
“We think (linebackers are) going to be the strength of our defense — with Steven Pitts and, a guy who’s been in our program forever, Ryan Dimino,” Copp says. “It’s always good having that kind of leadership with guys like those two who have been there and done everything you’re going to see in college football.”
However, this year there’s enough depth — and health — that Dimino and Pitts could get some rest during games.
“Last year, we went with the three or four guys that were healthy,” Copp explains. “So we left guys out there for 60, 70, snaps. As the season goes on, that wears on guys.”
“We got nicked up near the end. Guys like Steve and Ryan just gutted it out through the season,” the coach added.
Fast forward to this fall …
“This year, with more guys that can play — and we feel comfortable with — we can take a couple of reps off of those guys, get ’em down to the 50-rep category. That will help them stay healthy.”
Plus several linebackers have gained experience and there’s the addition of Contra College transfer Travon Brooks.
“We think Brooks is doing a great job,” Copp continues. “But Jonathan Bias has played a lot of football for us as well. I’m excited, too, about our young guys; guys who got limited reps last year.”
Copp pointed to sophomores Brady Stibi (Windsor High) and Russell Reeder (Cathedral Catholic of Encinitas) as proof of the depth:
“They are adding tremendous depth for us. Brady is pushing for a starting job at mike (middle) linebacker right now. He’s having the camp of his life. And I think this is a group that can be play-makers on defense.”
Yeah, like I’m-gonna-knock-you-out play-makers.
With only 14 turnovers forced in 12 games last year, Pitts thinks the energy and mentality has changed.
“My mind is in a total different direction,” Pitts says as he and his fellow linebackers are in a 4-3 alignment. “We’re no longer trying to learn the defense, we’re trying to execute it. We’re trying to take it to the next level and really start making plays.
“We want to be the ones who lead this team in tackles … We want to be the ones that the whole defense flows through.
“I think this unit will blow things up and get those turnovers.”
Dimino sees no drop-off between starters and backups.
“I don’t want to let my teammates down (by coming out). We don’t want to come out of games when something big happens. It’s important this year to give somebody else a couple reps so we can get our rest, then hop back in fresh — being able to play to our full ability.”
To that end, Dimino says Stibi “is one of those guys who’s really picked it up this year. He’s really a physical guy. Stibi or Brooks in the middle? It feels good.”
Notes: UCD opens the season Aug. 30 at Stanford. “Being fresh will make a huge difference on special teams,” says Pitts, who notes most of the linebackers have roles on punts and kickoffs. “It will be fun to watch.”