Linebacker High: Brockway’s Defensive Coordinator Ben Donlin Has Become a Guru When it Comes to Coaching Up Ever-Evolving Position

BROCKWAY, Pa. (EYT/D9) — When Ben Donlin played linebacker for Brockway from 2003 to 2005, high school football was a radically different game.

(Above, Brockway defensive coordinator Ben Donlin poses with senior linebackers No. 52 Tanner Guaglionne and No. 50 Seth Stewart.)

Donlin, who spent his first two years as a starter at middle linebacker before moving to outside backer for his senior season, didn’t have to worry so much about dropping into coverage.

His job was clear. Be physical. Fill gaps. Tackle the ball carrier.

But, things began to quickly change during his senior season. More teams abandoned some of the two-back and wing-T high school football staples for a new craze: wide-open, spread attacks.

His responsibilities morphed overnight.

“My senior year, I transferred to an outside linebacker,” Donlin said. “That’s when you started to see the passing game kind of come around. More teams started to adopt the pass.”

By 2010, when he became a linebackers coach at Brockway, the offensive landscape was in the midst of a radical terraform. Passing games rose to a new level of sophistication and Donlin began hunting for a new breed of linebacker — one who could fulfill the ever-changing roles of the position.

Now a defensive coordinator at his alma mater, he continues to adapt — much like the position he loved to play and to coach.

“Oh, man, the linebacker position has changed like you wouldn’t believe,” Donlin said. “Back in the day, when teams were run-heavy, run-heavy, run-heavy, you could be a big, physical kid.

“Now, with so many people playing more balanced offenses and using the spread, you have to truly be an athlete to play linebacker. You have to have outstanding linebackers who can fill in on (isolation plays) and be downhill and physical, but also be quick enough and fast enough to get to their drops and cover slot receivers.”

It may be the toughest job on the field.

Donlin, though, has a passion for coaching his linebackers up.

“He sleeps and breathes linebacker,” said Brockway coach Jake Heigel, who was actually a player at Brockway when Donlin began his coaching career with the Rovers in 2010. “He’s built a core in Seth Stewart, Tanner Guaglionne, and Carter Hickman that is top tier.”

Stewart, a senior, led Brockway in tackles last season. In many ways, he’s become a template for what a linebacker should be in this new era — strong enough at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds to be physical at the point of attack, but also nimble enough to move well in space and in coverage.

“We have to be able to do it all,” Stewart said. “We are the hardest workers out there.”

Stewart is moving from the inside to outside this season.

Guaglionne remains the anchor in the middle.

He’s also embraced the challenges of playing linebacker in an age of teams spreading the field.

“You have to do more than just be able to stop the run,” he said. “You have to be able to drop back into coverage — it’s tough sometimes. You have to constantly work at it.”

To gain an edge, Guaglionne said linebackers have to be exceptional students of the game. Preparation is vital. The more they can anticipate what is coming, the better position they’ll be in to make a pivotal play.

“I watch a lot of films, especially on the current opponent, to get to know all of their tendencies and all the different formations they run to counteract whatever they may be doing,” the senior said. “Coach Donlin breaks it down really well for us so we know what coverages we’re playing on any given play and what we’re supposed to be doing.”

It is by no means easy. Linebackers must be football savants.

“They have to be at the pinnacle of intelligence,” Donlin said. “Their football IQ has to be off the charts. They have to be able to know, when they see a formation, what that team is most likely to run out of it and process that information right now. They not only have to know what they’re doing, but what the other 10 players have to do and command them. They are the generals of the defense.”

Hickman, another senior, is moving to linebacker after meeting a challenge from Donlin to bulk up.

Hickman, who craved a chance to play linebacker again, added weight and will be an outside backer this season. He began camp last year as a backer but was shifted to the secondary.

“Carter coming out last year, he really wanted to be a linebacker,” Donlin said. “Part of the thing was he was going to be big on offense in our run game, so we wanted to try to save and preserve him as much as possible — we felt like playing him in the box, he was going to get banged around a lot.

“I kind of jokingly said, ‘Hey, buddy, you want to be a linebacker? You have to hit the weights a little harder in the offseason and put on some weight,’” Donlin added. “He kind of gave me that little smirk that he gives and did it. Man, he’s dominated in the way he’s been working. I’m just so fortunate to have all of them because they’re really good football players and they’re good kids.”

Stewart, Guaglionne, and Hickman said they also feel fortunate to have a coach like Donlin leading the linebackers and the defense.

“He’s the most hype man at any moment. It’s insane,” Stewart said. “It’s just great to match his energy. He really does a great job of pulling the intensity out of us.”

“He’s a really good coach and he fires us up before games,” Hickman said. “His energy is always there. He makes sure we’re always ready to go.”

“He’s just so emotional,” Guaglionne said. “He just kind of pushes us to play with our hearts. He just moves us to be the best that we can be.”

All three are excited to see how good the Brockway defense can be this season.

So is Donlin.

Brockway figures to have an exciting offense — the Rovers have the potential to pile up the points with a bevy of playmakers back.

Donlin, though, knows that behind every team with a flashy offense that finds success is a stout defense backing it up.

“When you look at the who’s who in District 9, the teams that go deep in the playoffs every year and win championships, they might have great offenses, but there’s a great defense behind it, too,” Donlin said. “That’s the reality of it. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. Everyone loves offense and loves to score touchdowns and points, but what I try to preach to the kids is there’s always a good defense behind a championship team.

“That’s where we want to get,” Donlin added. “That’s what we’re striving to do. To play good, disciplined defense like these teams that have had success year after year.”

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