Bruisers: Area's top linebackers put on their game faces
You could say the Alle-Kiski's latest talent-heavy football position can be measured in “LBs.” That's because, pound for pound, linebacker stacks up against any other position in the area.
But some — the real bruisers — stand out above the rest. And from scowls to seedy grins, they're mean.
The nastiest of the bunch, the run-stopping, pass-deflecting foursome that would start every game in the Alle-Kiski Valley's 3-4 defense, has to include Cole Bush of Burrell, Allan Cratsenberg of Highlands, Sean Dugan of Springdale and Mike Cunningham of Knoch.
These are the players coaches call the “Jack Lambert-types,” with that eye-black smeared glare that complements the speed, defensive awareness and heady anger that comes with playing the bone-jarring position.
Cratsenberg is the reining Valley News Dispatch Defensive Player of the Year.
When told his presence was requested at a photo shoot for the area's top returning linebackers, Cratsenberg began planning ahead.
“Ok, cool. Sounds good,” he said. “I'll bring my game face.”
Thing is, Cratsenberg never takes his off. Neither does Bush, Dugan nor Cunningham.
“Linebackers are like hybrids. You have to be strong but fast at the same time; you have to be able to move,” Bush said. “I love it. I think it's better than offense because from a mental aspect, you have to react more. No two plays are the same.”
Cratsenberg, nicknamed “Bull,” admits he sees red every play.
“I have been a linebacker since Bumble Bees (Highland Hornets Youth Football),” Cratsenberg said. “I like to attack anyone who has the ball. You just go and get 'em.”
The all-important, play-calling middle linebacker, Cratsenberg said his secret is reading the line's next move.
“The guards always tell you where the play's going,” he said. “You follow the guard. If they pull, you go with them.
“When I make a tackle, I get hyped and intense and start jumping around.”
A third-year starter, Cratsenberg has Division I potential. Coaches from Pitt already have talked with him. He fared well at camps at Pitt and Maryland and at the Big 33 camp for the state's top 50 sophomores.
His 107 tackles led Highlands' best last season and were two off a school single-season record. He also recorded a team-best nine sacks.
For Bush, Burrell's fierce, 6-foot-2, 215-pounder, the linebacker position doesn't get any better than the Steelers' James Harrison. And Bush emulates Harrison, right down to the demonic stare.
Bush believes he can stop anyone from crossing the goal line, and at full speed, which made “Cole Train” an easy nickname for him.
A speed-burst pass-rusher since his days with the Lower Burrell Flyers, Bush played outside linebacker last season and earned All-Class AA Allegheny Conference honors.
Burrell, which operated out of a base 4-4 last year, returns seven of its front eight on defense. Bush will lead the charge.
“You want to feel like you can chase someone and save a touchdown 40 yards downfield if you have to,” Bush said.
Bush has received interest from several schools, including Bucknell and Princeton.
Springdale's fourth-year starter, Dugan, isn't one to second-guess an in-game decision.
“You have to have the right mentality,” the senior outside linebacker said. “No hesitation is the key.”
Dugan will be a key component in Springdale's revamped defense, which has used up to five linebackers in previous years.
Dugan ripped through opposing offenses as a junior, recording 74 tackles and five sacks, to go along with seven interceptions.
“You can't have any fear in what you're doing,” Dugan said. “That's what stops a lot of kids from playing linebacker. They're afraid of making a mistake and getting pummeled. It's a position where you have to get your nose in there and get some contact. You have to like your head ringing.”
Making a name for himself is quite literal for Dugan. He doesn't have an official nickname among his peers, but if he did he said it would be “Baby Boy.”
That's because his name wasn't official until he turned 16 — yes, about two years ago.
“My legal name was Baby Boy Dugan,” he said. “My name has always been Sean but it wasn't official until I got my (driver's) license. I had to get a social security card and the person working in the office was stunned.”
These days, “Baby Boy” makes opponents say uncle.
And who needs a name anyway? On film, college coaches just know him as “No. 27,” or, the kid making every tackle.
As far as Sean Michael Dugan's college interest, he is being courted by Patriot and Ivy League schools.
To play linebacker, “It's about heart,” said Cunningham, a key piece of the puzzle last season during Knoch's run to Heinz Field and a runner-up finish in Class AAA. “Some plays you win and some you lose. The majority of the plays you win keep you coming back. It's like punches thrown in a fight. You have to get the upper hand.”
Cunningham made quarterbacks whimper last season, breaking a Knoch single-season record with 16 sacks.
“I love to hit people and get in their heads and bother them,” he said. “I want to make offensive coaches change their gameplans.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-226-2689.