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SPOTLIGHT
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FHSU's Woodall takes over for All-American

Published on -8/29/2012, 10:15 AM

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By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

A.J. Woodall was one of the younger Fort Hays State University linebackers in 2011. He played with three experienced Tigers: Nick Dreitz, Brock Einspahr and Alex Whitehill, who earned All-American honors and paced NCAA Division II with a Tiger school record 164 tackles. As well, Whitehill set a Division II mark with 106 assisted tackles and also tied for second on the team in tackles for loss (7.5), pass breakups (five) and forced fumbles (two). Whitehill finished third all-time in Tiger history with 329 career stops.

Woodall, who played in all 11 games and recorded 53 tackles, saw Whitehill continually make plays.

"Hard work, effort, he went all out all the time, and even if he was hurting, he was 110 percent on the field," Woodall said. "Even if he made a mistake, he was still going. He is an idol and I've got to be that guy. I have got to go even if I am hurt, even if my legs aren't 110 percent, I've still got to push it, because I know that Alex did."

This fall, Woodall is easily the most experienced linebacker in the Tigers' 4-2-5 look. As well, the coaching staff has praised Woodall for his leadership.

"Last year, it was kind of like my first fall to actually start and I was real nervous and this year I am back at it and ready to go," Woodall said. "I got to lead this defense and I have got to lead the inside backers. I got to be the guy to call everything and make adjustments. I really take that on myself to do a good job."

The senior, despite starting just seven of 28 games in his career, is one of the six team captains.

"Even though he hasn't had a ton of playing experience in the past, he has been in this program, he is a veteran leader," first-year defensive coordinator Cooper Harris said. "He understands what we are asking him to do and he can communicate that to the rest of the defense."

Fort Hays opens the season at Emporia State University on Thursday. Game time is 7 p.m. at Welch Stadium.

"Alex left some shoes to fill and he is a good friend of mine and I always take it up on myself to fill that challenge, and I want to be the guy to break his records," Woodall said. "...I don't want to be a shadow. I want to be the next guy up."

Sophomore transfer Michael Terry, a pickup from Arizona Western College, is expected to start alongside Woodall. Junior Shane Smith, from Hutchinson Community College, and true freshman Justin McPhail, from Liberal, are the backups. Second-year Tiger coach Chris Brown has been impressed with the linebacker play this week in preparation for the Hornets' option, gun-run offense paced by veteran senior quarterback Tyler Eckenrode.

"They have really developed this past week," Brown said. "They have done a good job of understanding. This is probably one of the tougher weeks, too, with being the run-gun and being assignment-sound. They have really picked it up well and they have done a good job. Michael Terry has really come along. He is starting to play with some confidence and some explosiveness. A.J. Woodall, you can tell that he is starting to be a leader out there, getting people lined up where they need to be."

In 2011, the Tiger defense ranked in the bottom third of the MIAA in virtually every defensive statistic, but Whitehill was one of the nation's best players. He put together back-to-back seasons of 100-plus tackles and saw an improvement of 46 tackles from his junior year.

"Alex is a special player, but you have got to have that one go-to guy in the linebacking corps," senior defensive end Kyle Perry said. "There has got to be almost like that rock back there, you know you can always count on him. Alex was that guy, it seemed like if a ball carrier broke loose, then Alex was there to make the tackle. He was always there, and I think A.J. has really stepped into those shoes, and so far, he has done a great job in camp and been a great leader out there. I am hoping that we won't miss a beat."

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