Versatile Weatherspoon battling for starting LB job
VERO BEACH -- USF defensive coordinator Mark Snyder prides himself on creating a defense with multiple looks and strengths, and that flexibility may best be seen in senior Curtis Weatherspoon, a small but quick linebacker who has been working as the Bulls' strongside starter.
"He's versatile," Snyder said last week as the Bulls prepared for their Sept. 3 opener at Notre Dame. "He's going to be on the field in a bunch of different roles for us, special-teams wise and on defense. He's going to wear a bunch of hats. He's the utility guy."
Weatherspoon played his high school football in Valdosta, Ga., but came to USF last year from tiny Dean College, which has a total enrollment of about 1,000 students in Massachusetts. He has a size normally associated with a safety -- 6 feet even and 218 pounds -- but made a name for himself as a blitzing outside linebacker at Dean. He was the Northeast Conference Defensive MVP in 2009 after putting up gaudy numbers, totaling 19 tackles for loss, including nine sacks.
He got a taste of major-college football last season at USF, getting 19 tackles in his first year. Most of those came early in the season against nonconference opponents, bu t he stepped up against West Virginia, getting four tackles against the Mountaineers' dangerous offense. When Jacquian Williams graduated and was drafted by the New York Giants, it opened a window for a new strongside starter, and Weatherspoon's jack-of-all-trades flexibility has him ahead of redshirt freshman Reshard Cliett, a converted safety, for the starting nod.
"Wherever he needs me to help the team, that's where I'm going to go," said Weatherspoon, whose blitzing and coverage skills make him a candidate to stay on the field in nickel situations, when USF is expecting opponents to pass the ball. "We're all trying to compete, to do the best we can to get better and help each other out."
USF doesn't have the luxury of an easy opener this season, with a trip to Notre Dame instead of the usual I-AA home debut. That means the Bulls' defense will have to be ready without the benefit of a few September tuneups, and Weatherspoon came to Tampa with a reputation for being a quick learner. His coach at Dean College, Todd Vasey, called him "the smartest player I've had in 26 years of coaching football."
Linebacker might be USF's strongest position, with two young stars in junior Sam Barrington and sophomore DeDe Lattimore and a tough run-stopper Michael Lanaris. But against pass-heavy teams like West Virginia or uptempo offenses like Pittsburgh, Weatherspoon's speed is an asset, especially when coupled with his ability to get to the opposing quarterback in a hurry.
"I've got to get him his reps, because he has to go to a different position in one package and those kinds of things," Snyder said.
USF struck gold with a first-year senior starter in Williams last season -- he led the team with 71 tackles, including 11 for losses -- but Weatherspoon is staying humble about the possibility of him playing a much larger role in his final season with the Bulls.
"I'm happy I get to compete with all the guys, to try to earn a spot," he said. "We're all competing, but we're all doing a great job."