By Kyle LoJacono
Linebackers are often called defensive quarterbacks and several local athletes perform as well or better than the best signal callers while hitting as hard as semi trucks.
Gaither defensive coordinator Brain Del Valle was a linebacker for the Cowboys and has a couple of characteristics needed to play the spot.
“You have to be tough,” Del Valle said. “Linebacker is the toughest position to play on a defense. You have to not be afraid of contact. You also have to have a little bit of speed to make plays.”
Del Valle, who was the co-defensive coordinator at Land O’ Lakes last year, has had a front row-seat to see three of the most productive linebackers in the area — Gaither senior Josh Scarberry and Gators seniors Shadow Williams and Jackson Cannon.
The three are very different players, but Del Valle has high praise for them all because they display that vital toughness.
“Josh just has a nose for the football and all the things you can’t teach,” Del Valle said. “He’s the kind of person other guys look to, and he never shies away from contact. He’s also very coachable. He takes everything coaches say and use it to make him better. He’s a big student of film and uses that to make him better. That sets a good example for his teammates, because he does all the little things to get better.”
“As for Jackson and Shadow, those two are just tough football players who love the game,” Del Valle continued. “They are both very physical players, but they can really move around for how big they are. Both of those guys are also students of the game.”
Williams has been a linebacker the longest of the three, taking to the spot at age 5 while playing with the South Tampa Boys and Girls Club.
“When I was a little kid I saw Ray Lewis play, and he was a big inspiration to me,” Williams said. “He’s easily my favorite linebacker. His enthusiasm and his intensity bring the team together. When it’s fourth and one you can count on Ray Lewis to make the stop.”
The 6-foot, 221-pound Williams transferred to Land O’ Lakes from Freedom for his junior season and quickly became a leader of the Gators defense despite the physical and mental demands that come with the job.
“I like the challenges that come with it,” Williams said. “The team has to count on the linebacker to do a lot of things and I want the team to be able to count on me to get it done. You have to get after the quarterback and running back, cover guys and also make sure everyone is in the right position.”
Part of that challenge is learning how to snuff out an offensive play and bring it to a painful end for whoever has the ball.
“When you make that perfect play, when you read the linemen just right and get a clean break into the backfield is like nothing else,” Williams said. “There are times when you can just see what the play is going to be, and it’s one of the greatest things to stop it before it starts.”
Williams most enjoys playing close to the line of scrimmage.
“Sometimes I know I get too close to the line because I’m so anxious to get in there and hit somebody,” Williams said. “Coach sometimes has to calm me down so I make the right reads.”
Williams had a career-high of 17 tackles last year against both Springstead and Wesley Chapel. He posted a career-best four sacks in that contest against the Wildcats. However, Williams said his favorite game was against Anclote last year, when he had nine tackles and one sack.
“Their offensive line was playing really well, but me and our old defensive coordinator (Jason Hatcher) came up with a new blitz on the spot,” Williams said. “It worked perfect.”
Williams has been working on almost everything to take his game to the next level.
“My size, my speed, my footwork, but the thing I’ve been working on the most is trying to read the offense to get a jump on the play,” Williams said.
Williams said he also enjoys playing alongside Cannon, who has been equally productive to the Gators defense.
“It’s great because you have somebody else to push you and motivate you,” Williams said. “We challenge each other to get better. It’s great, because I know I can count on him, and he can count on me.”
Cannon is relatively new to the position, moving to linebacker as a freshman.
“I played two years of middle school football, but I played mostly fullback,” said Cannon, who has spent all his high school years at Land O’ Lakes. “My coach thought I would be good for the position, and I think it was a good change.”
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Cannon said he also enjoys the physical play at linebacker, but added he likes dropping into coverage as well.
“I play basketball too, so I like being able to drop and pick off a pass every now and then,” Cannon said. “For me it’s all about footwork and quickness. Speed, both physically and mentally. You have to be able to react fast.”
Cannon had a career-high 15 tackles against both Gulf and Wesley Chapel last year. His best sack performance came in what he said is his favorite game, a contest against cross-town rival Sunlake as a sophomore.
“When we played Sunlake a couple years ago I had 13 tackles and five sacks,” Cannon said. “I got defensive player of the game and the game ball. It’s exciting to play well against Sunlake.”
Cannon’s goals to improve his game this year are similar to Williams’: “I’m working on speed and footwork but working a lot on my reads. I already know how to read a guard through fullback, but I’m working to become better at it.”
His appreciation for playing with Williams is also the same.
“We’re all about the competition with each other,” Cannon said. “Who can get the most tackles or the most sacks.”
Scarberry started playing linebacker at age 9 with the Northside Dolphins of the Tampa Bay Youth Football League. Before that he was an offensive lineman. The move seemed to suit him well.
“It’s the physical part,” Scarberry said. “I love to hit. I love it when I’m able to fill a hole when a running back thinks he has space and taking him off his feet. … The mental part is also big for linebackers. You really have to stay focused because you have to play pass, play run and you just have to always know what to do.”
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Scarberry has been an inside linebacker at Gaither since his freshman year but has moved to the outside spot for his senior campaign.
“We lost our outside linebackers from last year, and I knew Josh could make that move and do very well,” Del Valle said. “We wanted to make sure we could shutdown the outside and also show college coaches Josh can do anything they need.”
Scarberry said of the change, “I like the shift because I don’t have to worry about the offensive linemen as much and getting off too many blocks. I have a lot more open space, and I like to work with that and use my speed to my advantage.”
Scarberry, who was named the All-Laker/All-Lutz News Defensive Player of the Year in 2010, set his career-high with 18 tackles against Newsome as a sophomore and with five sacks against East Bay this season. However, his favorite memory came in his first game with the Cowboys.
“My freshman year I was thrown into the Jefferson game, which was my first game I ever played in high school,” Scarberry said. “I was able to make a big play and got a sack on a zone read, when the quarterback fakes it to the running back and keeps it. I was able to read the play from the start. I still remember that hit. It’s my most memorable moment at Gaither.”
Scarberry said he wants to play in college and is leaving no stone unturned to make that dream a reality.
“I’m working on my grades and doing all I can,” Scarberry said. “Just trying to get better in every way on the field, in the classroom and as a teammate.”
—All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches.