There is no question that the Washington Redskins' new corps of starting linebackers has the requisite speed, strength and quickness to do the job.
But only the regular season will tell whether the young linebackers have the grit--or pure meanness--that defines the position.
Linebacking greatness was embodied in the rage of Chicago's Dick Butkus and the toughness of Chuck Bednarik, cut of Bethlehem steel. Among Redskins, it resided in Sam Huff, who once slammed into fullback Jim Taylor so hard that Huff's dented helmet was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But in revamping his starting linebackers for the 1999 season, Redskins Coach Norv Turner is banking on youth and athletic skills.
Second-year player Shawn Barber, 24, will start at right outside linebacker. Third-year player Greg Jones, 25, takes over at left linebacker. And in the middle, where Marvcus Patton patrolled the field for the last four seasons, third-year player Derek Smith, 24, has been installed.
The shake-up reflects the Redskins' revised defensive philosophy, which is shifting from a read-and-react approach to an all-out attack. This season the linebackers will be more active. Instead of being coached primarily to cover gaps, which required lots of lateral movement, they are being told to attack upfield.
"The coaches are working on us to make things happen in the backfield, make things happen at the line of scrimmage," said Barber, who played last season only on third-down passing situations.
The success will depend, in large part, on how Smith adapts to his new role in the middle after Patton, a free agent, was not re-signed in the offseason.
Smith (6 feet 2, 239 pounds) was second to Patton in tackles last year, with 157, including 103 solo tackles and five for a loss. Of his 32 games as a Redskin, he has started 31--all at outside linebacker.
Smith says he is able to read plays better from the middle and is already more comfortable there. "I see things a lot better on the field," Smith says. "I enjoy covering tight ends more than those shifty little backs out in the open."
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan says he is confident the leadership aspects of the new position will come.
"You don't have to be a leader by mouthy stuff," Nolan said. "When you play and work hard, the guys know you've paid the price. And they follow those kind of guys. Derek fits a lot of things you want. Now, he just needs to play and play well, and then he'll gain respect as he goes."
According to Barber, Smith is well on his way.
"He'll get on you just as hard as Marvcus last year," Barber said. "Marvcus was a lot more vocal, as far as on the sideline. But Derek demands respect in the huddle, and that's really all you ask of the play-caller."
Huff, now a color commentator for Redskins radio broadcasts, has been studying the unit closely in the early days of camp. Like Turner and Nolan, he thinks Smith is better suited to the middle. But he worries Smith may be too nice for the job.
"If you have a son, you want him to be like Derek Smith," Huff said. "That's the only thing I see wrong with him. Maybe if he gets knocked around in there, he'll learn to be like us kind of guys [Butkus, Bednarik and other Hall of Fame linebackers]."
Smith smiles when informed of the analysis. It's nothing Huff hasn't told him before. "He talks to me about it a lot: That you've got to be mean and tough like that, kind of old school," Smith said. "I think once I get out on the field at game time, I crank it up."
Jones and Barber share Smith's easy-going off-field demeanor. But according to Barber, they all switch personas on the field.
Barber (6-2, 224) is the playmaker of the bunch. He's fast, explosive and seems to have an instinct for the ball. Against Arizona in Game 11 last season, he stuffed fullback Larry Centers (now a Redskin) on the goal line. The next week against the Oakland Raiders, he intercepted a ball that had been tipped by cornerback Darrell Green to set up a touchdown.
Jones played in all 16 games last season, starting the last five in place of injured Ken Harvey, who is slated to play just third downs this season. Jones has returned for his third season with 10 pounds more bulk (6-4, 238) and so far no trace of the back problems that bothered him last year.
Youth has two faces in football. If energy is one, inexperience is the other. Barber believes that the linebackers can turn both into strengths this season.
"Being so young and inexperienced, we don't have a lot of the habits as far as reading a lot and watching a lot," Barber said. "We're going to make our reads and take off full-speed. That's one of the positive things of us being so young."
They should be helped by playing behind a defensive line that is composed of four former first-round draft picks. The addition of San Diego's Marco Coleman at defensive end has lit a fire under everyone. "He has one of those engines that goes the whole practice," Barber said. "Any time you even think about letting up a little, you've got him in your ear: 'Pick it up, D!' Every defense needs a guy like that."
It's enough to make Huff, 64, want to strap on his dented helmet.
"Who wouldn't want to play behind that line!" Huff said. "This team is a young team, now. This team has to prove itself on the field. From what I've seen, they look good. But we've seen them look good before. What is reality? It's the performance when you go up against the opponent."