Even though shifting from Spur to outside linebacker has presented fresh challenges for Damario Jeffery, he believes he will flourish in his new spot.
After an entire spring (15 practices) and now 13 workouts of preseason camp, Jeffery's comfort level with his new position after two years of sharing duties at Spur with Antonio Allen is growing.
While not 100 percent comfortable yet, Jeffery said he was 85 percent there.
"It's great. Every day I've gotten better," Jeffery said Monday night. "I'm starting to become more of a leader. In the spring, I was just a guy out there trying to figure out what I was doing. Now I'm trying to make a lot more calls. I know the playbook and I know my assignments. But I can still be a lot better. Overall, I'm fairly pleased."
Jeffery approached Assistant Head Coach for Defense Ellis Johnson prior to the start of spring practice and requested the switch because the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder felt he had outgrown the demands of the Spur position.
Seven months later, Jeffery is still adjusting to his new digs, but maintains he has made major progress and believes he is ready for significant playing time in 2011.
"I'm a lot farther along," Jeffery said. "In the spring, I was nowhere close. I was lost out there a little bit. I didn't know where I was supposed to be. I was just trying to run and get the ball. Now, I pretty much know all my fits and all the checks. Everything is coming along great.
"I'm happy I made the move. I can't move out there (at Spur) anymore. I'm almost 240 (pounds).
Yet, Jeffery acknowledges speed remains his best attribute.
"I'm a guy who can run," Jeffery said. "Physically, I haven't really developed that 'go blow up the block' mentality yet. But I can get out there and run down anything from sideline to sideline. If someone breaks out, I can probably catch them."
Jeffery, a local product from Columbia High School, started the first three games at Spur last season while Allen recovered from a hamstring injury. He registered a career high six tackles and one quarterback hurry in the lopsided win over Southern Miss.
Jeffery finished the season with 35 tackles, more than double the number he had as a true freshman in 2009.
The pre-camp depth chart listed Jeffery third at weakside (outside) linebacker behind Rodney Paulk and Quin Smith. However, Shaq Wilson, listed as the starter at middle linebacker, and Paulk appear to have changed spots. Also, Smith suffered a mild concussion in Saturday's scrimmage, opening the door for Jeffery to gain more practice reps and accelerate his development.
"(Johnson) told me I'm coming along very well and making good progress," Jeffery said. "The play book is a lot easier. I pretty much know everything. Every day I learn something new from our offense. I see it as preparing for ECU. I kind of scout our offense and look for things and tips to make me better as a linebacker."
Watching Wilson and/or Paulk at practice - whichever one happens to be playing outside linebacker that day - has taught Jeffery a lot as well.
"It's been great to learn from them," Jeffery said. "They have a lot of experience behind those big uglies up there. Shaq brings a lot of energy and he's very smart. He can make any check for the defense and he's always knows what he's doing. Paulk is very physical and brings a head-bustin' mentality. He knows one speed. He's always blowing up people. I've tried to take a little bit from both their games. They're always coming to me telling me what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong."
Some habits, though, are tough to break. As a Spur, Jeffery was rarely asked to engage blockers and help in run defense. Instead, his job was to chase running backs, tight ends or wide receivers in space and mainly defending against the pass.
As a result, Jeffery didn't concern himself with pad level or securing leverage. Now he does.
"I still play too high, that's my biggest problem. It's not really taking on the blocks, it's when I get there I'm high," Jeffery said. "So it's easier for the O-linemen to get under my pads. And I'm already 6-4. Coach Johnson gets on me every day about staying low and playing lower. I'm not used to standing in the box. I'm used to playing smaller wide receivers where I can easily overpower them and throw them out of the way."
Jeffery has discovered defending the run and the pass requires different mindsets and different techniques between Spur linebacker and outside linebacker.
"It's a lot different," Jeffery said. "When I was at Spur and defending the pass, I was getting out of there. Now, when I'm playing the pass over here, I have to watch out for the draw or something else. I have to watch the quarterback's eyes because he might take off running. I have to be concerned with him running because then I have to go get him."
How close is Jeffery to securing a spot in the rotation at outside linebacker?
"I don't really know the rotation," Jeffery said. "Every four plays, new backers rotate in. Nobody knows the starting lineup besides the coaches. Whoever they choose to start, we'll all go in as they please. They'll tell us who they want. We're all getting reps with all the linebackers. I feel like I have a chance to start, but if I don't, I'll play a lot."
Jeffery is still looking for his first career sack, and the change to outside linebacker could see him achieve that goal.
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