SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Last year the strength of the East squad at the all-star game in San Antonio was arguably the linebacking corps. With names like Willie Williams, Dan Connor, James Bryant, Marcus Freeman and Chris Patterson, the East was loaded seven yards off the line of scrimmage. This year's group has a lot to live up to in that regard, but the talent is there.
"I think we have a lot of talent with the four of us back there," said North Carolina stud Derek Nicholson. I think we all have different strengths that we can utilize. I consider myself good at attacking the line of scrimmage and making plays in the backfield, but the good thing about all of us that we each can make up for each other's weaknesses and play off each other's strengths."
With Brian Cushing, Jerome Hayes and Rico McCoy rounding out the linebacker group, the East hopes to fare well against a strong running attack from the West.
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"We haven't really scouted anyone from the other team, but I'm sure they have a lot of talent," said Hayes, a standout at Bayonne High School in New Jersey. "The speed of the game here is so much more than anything I've seen so it's a great challenge. Even in the first day of practice you can see it, so I'm sure the West will be tough."
Hayes and Cushing are determined to represent their home state well.
"We talked about it and we want to prove to everyone that New Jersey football is for real," said Hayes. "The southern schools get a lot of the attention and they can play football year round. Up in New Jersey it's all snow and freezing in January and February so we can't do as much, but we can still represent. We plan on showing what we can do."
"Having both of us start would be cool because that would be two of the three starters from Jersey," he said. "The best thing about this group of linebackers is that we can all play each position -- we can all play all four linebacker slots or in this case all three."
Cushing will likely be an outside linebacker in the East's 4-3 defense as will McCoy. Nicholson and Hayes have both played inside for the most part.
"I think I'll be at middle linebacker," said Nicholson. "That way I can use my speed to track things down from side to side. You can't run away from me."
Nicholson, Hayes and Cushing all have an idea of which running backs that gave them the most trouble on the first day of practice.
"Toney Baker is really tough, he has a great combination of power and finesse," said Nicholson. "He's one of the best I've gone against. The best guys have been Andre Brown (NC State commitment, now prepping at Hargrave Military and not in game) and Baker that I've faced. Maurice Wells was also impressive."
"I was also impressed with Wells, but Jason Gwaltney was it for me," said Hayes. "Wells is a scat-back and super fast and then they hit you with Gwaltney, it's a great 1-2."
"I'd say Gwaltney as well," said Cushing. "He's so big and he's quick. He's hard to handle."
Preparing for the West tailbacks will be much easier when facing this group.
"Our goal as a team is to win," said Cushing. "And our goal as a unit is to shut the other team down. Going against the running backs on our own team will help."