DeKALB – Things are slowing down for Northern Illinois linebacker Kyle Pugh.
After spending last year behind now-graduated Jamaal Payton, Pugh is now the man in the middle for the first-string defense as a redshirt sophomore heading into the closing of the spring season.
"Freshman year, I was jittery and excited to get the play and shaking up a little bit," said Pugh, who came to Northern Illinois from Bloom Township High School in Chicago Heights. "Now I'm more comfortable and I see the field a lot better. Really, it's starting to happen right now. Last year I had trouble seeing it, this year it's slowed down and I'm comfortable with the playbook."
Pugh has given Northern Illinois first-year linebackers coach Jeff Knowles plenty to be optimistic about. During a practice earlier this month, the Huskies were doing a team drill near the goal line and the offense gave the ball to running back Tre Harbison on a toss to the right side. Pugh read the play and chased down Harbison for a tackle before he could get into the end zone.
"With Kyle, with how he's picking it up – I think we were a little nervous with the youth, at first, when I came in they said, 'You have some young backers,' – but they're picking it up," Knowles said. "I'm not nervous with Kyle in the middle. He's getting it and he's running with it and doing a good job of getting them lined up and in the right call.
"He's a sophomore right now, but he don't play like it."
Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said Pugh is fast and physical – "that's a good place to start with linebackers," he quipped – and that he would have no worries starting a sophomore as the middle linebacker. He cited that the Huskies started Boomer Mays as a sophomore in all 14 games and he even started as a freshman in the 2013 Orange Bowl.
As far as Pugh, Carey said he can tell the linebacker is maturing by the way he's verbally handling himself on the field.
"You hear it in the way they communicate," Carey said. "You hear it before you see it. When he's making his call, it isn't rushed. It's understood. It's calm. When you start to hear those things defensively, you understand the game is slowing down."
Pugh, who played in 10 games last year but didn't record a tackle, spent last year behind Payton, who led the team with 81 tackles and 8.5 for a loss and added three sacks and an interception. Pugh said that he struggled with the playbook as a freshman, but that he's feeling more confident about it. He added that being a sophomore in the middle backer position comes with added weight.
"It's a lot of responsibility, especially when you got older guys and you're trying to yell and get things going and they hold you accountable to get them in the right spots," Pugh said. "I have to watch more film than anybody and make sure I'm doing my responsibilities."
Knowles has said this year's linebacker group is "relentless" in running to the ball and has liked what he's seen from. As far as Pugh, the speed is already there, Knowles said.
"Kyle has got a great burst," Knowles said. "When he diagnoses a play and triggers, he goes. That's what you love to see."