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The Journal Gazette

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Saint Francis sophomore Nick Lucas, also known as Moose, will be among the players called upon to try to fill the void at linebacker left by the graduated Piercen Harnish and Eric Dunten.

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette University of Saint Francis linebacker Jamal Jackson during practice at Bishop D’Arcy Stadium on Tuesday 09.03.2019  

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette University of Saint Francis linebacker Nick Lucas during practice at Bishop D’Arcy Stadium on Tuesday 09.03.2019  

Thursday, September 05, 2019 1:00 am

Saint Francis Preview

Filling void at linebacker

Replacing Harnish, Dunten key for Cougars' defense

ELIZABETH WYMAN | The Journal Gazette

Saint Francis

Saturday: at St. Francis (Ill.), 5 p.m.

Sept. 21: at Robert Morris, 8 p.m.

Sept. 28: St. Ambrose, noon

Oct. 5: at Marian, 6 p.m.

Oct. 12: Concordia, 6 p.m.

Oct. 19: Indiana Wesleyan, noon

Oct. 26: Siena Heights, noon

Nov. 2: at Lawrence Tech, noon

Nov. 9: at Taylor, 1 p.m.

There was arguably no greater pair to play for Saint Francis than that of inside linebackers Piercen Harnish and Eric Dunten. They rank 1-2 in career tackles for the Cougars, require pages to list their records and awards and were captains of the defense for back-to-back NAIA national championships.

How do you replace two greats? Simple, you can't.

“No, you really can't, and that's the attitude we've really taken with this,” co-defensive coordinator Joey Didier said. “We've learned that you never really replace a player, you just maximize the players' strengths in the room that you have.”

Coming into the 2019 season, which opens Saturday in Joliet, Illinois, against Saint Francis (Ill.), the linebacker position, along with the entire defense, is the biggest unknown. With a more linebacker-by-committee mindset, one of Harnish and Dunten's successors might be a player known as Moose.

“I've always been peeking at Piercen Harnish and Eric Dunten and kind of seeing what they've been doing successfully, and I've just really developed by watching their film,” said Nick Lucas, aka Moose. “Learning from them, it's the two best people to learn from.”

Lucas, a 6-foot, 205-pound sophomore, appears to be the next man up at inside linebacker. He played some Sam linebacker, strong safety and nickel back his freshman year and is ready to lead a young defense.

“It's kind of like a motivating factor, because everyone wants to put a question mark on it, and how are we going to replace the two greats that left us?” Lucas said. “But with the guys that we already have, it's incredible.

“I love playing with the dudes that we have in this certain linebacker position right now and everybody has skill. Since it's a championship program under coach (Kevin) Donley, under coach (Eric) Wagoner, they learn how to replace those that we've lost and move forward from there.”

Didier said that despite Lucas not yet starting a collegiate game, he's got what it takes.

“He already is looked at as a leader because of the way he carries himself, the energy that he brings to practice every day,” Didier said. “He is very athletic, and when we asked him to play a strong safety role last year he was playing much more in space, so he's spent the last six months in the weight room so that he can handle the run-game portion of playing linebacker.”

This linebacker-by-committee mantra will feature junior Jamal Jackson, sophomore Cade Erwin of East Noble, and freshmen Jackson Long and River Walsh.

Harnish and Dunten were relied upon for so long, it almost got easy for Didier. Something new is a welcome challenge.

“It almost got autopilot with Harnish and Dunten,” Didier said. “Now, we're going to be a little more creative as coaches, which is pretty exciting.” 

Junior quarterback Matt Crable spent all camp competing against this group of linebackers. He said he thinks they know their roles.

“They know that their spot on defense is questionable,” Crable said. “They're ready to take on that role and ready to fill it.”

ewyman@jg.net