By Curtis Webb, Fresno State Media Relations
It was a crucial point in the game and the 1999 season. The Bulldogs were faced with either dropping their conference record to 1-2 or getting back on track and gaining momentum for the remainder of WAC play. With more than 35,000 fans on its feet, it was do or die for the Fresno State football team in an overtime game with UTEP at Bulldogs Stadium.
After answering Fresno State's touchdown in the extra period with the `Dogs holding a narrow margin of one point, the UTEP Miners lined up for the two-point conversion to either win - or lose. UTEP quarterback Jay Stuckey completed his pass to tight end Elzie Johnson, but a fierce tackle by Fresno State linebacker Giachino Chiaramonte just in front of the goal line preserved the game and perhaps the season for the Bulldogs.
It was one of the biggest plays of the season last year for the WAC Champion Bulldogs. It was a play made on instincts, smarts and preparedness and those are the qualities that compose one of the premier linebacking corps in the nation. Orlando Huff, Tim Skipper and Chiaramonte, Fresno State's starting linebackers, have become the strength of Fresno State's impressive defense this season.
Skipper, a team captain, started the first five games of the `99 season before suffering a knee injury that kept him out of two and a half games. However, he finished the season strong, starting the final four contests, earning second team All-WAC recognition and tying for second on the team in tackles.
Huff began the season as a reserve, worked his way into the starting line-up and developed into a dominating presence. He tied with Skipper for second on the team in total tackles (86) and was one of three defensive starters to earn first-team All-WAC honors.
Chiaramonte also did some shuffling throughout the season in `99. He started the first seven games at defensive end, before moving to outside linebacker for the remainder of the year in which he was named All-WAC honorable mention.
Chiaramonte finished with 52 tackles, four tackles for a loss, three quarterback sacks, four pass break-ups, two fumble recoveries and let us not forget his game saving tackle.
The evidence is there, all have overcome adversity to shine individually, but as a unit, they shine above all.
"Our basically mentality as a linebacker is to stop the run," Chiaramonte said. "We've got to be the hardest hitters on the team. We want to knock the ball carrier backwards and not find ourselves on our own back."
To clear up any misconceptions, a linebacker's duties consist of more than just running and hitting. Playing position requires a precise knowledge of the defense and the opposing team's offense.
Skipper is the field general. His first assignment after the huddle is broken, is to recognize who is in the game for the opposition. Next, he must read the offense and make sure everyone is properly lined up. He also said the team must be balanced and correct any weak links that might exist before the snap.
"I've got to see everything and know everything," Skipper said. "If I see any misalignments I've got to fix it."
Communication is key. When any of the senior linebackers identify an offensive set, they swiftly make the adjustments needed establish the best possible formation for defense. `Bump, Bump, Bump,' Huff would say if the tight end goes in motion to the opposite side of the line.
"We have to read the offense as quick as possible," Huff said. "We can't be out leveraged by the opposition and communicating with the rest of the guys is how it gets done."
Watching film is another key ingredient in the game preparation of a linebacker. Viewing the opposition on film is usually the first opportunity a team gets to see the enemy's running back, receivers and quarterback. The linebackers look for tips that the opponent might give on a certain play and analyze their tendencies. It is also important that these men watch their own performance on film to recognize what they are doing right and wrong.
"I evaluate myself as much as I do other teams," Skipper said. "Every game you've got to be prepared and watching film gives you the best opportunity to see what the opposition is like."
When game time arrives, everything else is put to the side. It is time to play football.
"I just relax," Huff said. "When you get pumped up and psyched out you forget your responsibilities. We just have to stay relaxed, stay composed, read the offense and make the tackle."
Chiaramonte said he admits he had shivers running through his hairs during the season opener at Ohio State, but he agrees, the mind must be clear to accomplish the task at hand. And despite all the reading of formations, tackling techniques and communication with others, Chiaramonte put it best when he said, "we have to be the leaders."
The season is still young and there are many big plays yet to be made. One, if not all the linebackers will be right in the middle of it.
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