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Time for Alabama A&M LBs to lead
They were supposed to be the crown jewels of the 2008 recruiting class.
Willie Fuller, Markeith Cliatt and Lewis Graham, a trio of inside linebackers, who all came with impressive resumes, were expected to be the next big things at Alabama A&M and help the Bulldogs continue climbing up the Southwestern Athletic Conference ladder.
They stumbled on the way up [- Graham is no longer on the team [- as A&M has struggled two of the last three years.
Now, with their senior year less than three weeks away, Fuller and Cliatt are left to try to fulfill the immense potential they came here with in 2008.
“We’re the leaders on defense,” said Fuller, a first-team All-SWAC preseason pick this season. “Everybody looks up to us. A lot of pressure is on us to take this defense to the promise land as well as this team.”
While Fuller will leave as a three-year starter and the top linebacker during his career, Cliatt has had a much harder time getting on the field.
He spent his first three seasons playing behind Afu Okosun, but now that Okosun is gone, Cliatt has moved into the starting lineup and has no intentions of giving it up.
“This is my time,” said Cliatt, who has been credited with just 20 career tackles. “I texted Willie this summer and told him I was ready. I texted him that more than once. It’s up to us in the middle. We’ve got to stop everything that comes through there. It’s our time to take over.”
The emergence of Cliatt could be just what A&M’s defense needs. He has always had the talent, but hasn’t always channeled it the right way.
“My mindset has prevented me from playing up to my ability,” Cliatt said. “It was so much more than football with me. It wasn’t just the on-field things. Having an internship, I saw the bigger picture and I was so focused on trying to find a job and thinking about graduation.
“I’m more focused on football this year. I want it more. I understand this is my last year ever playing football. There is no league for me. I’m hungry.”
Jay Martin, A&M’s inside linebackers coach, says if the Bulldogs are going to be good on defense, Fuller and Cliatt have to be one of the best tandems in the SWAC.
“They’ve got to carry the load,” Martin said. “Fuller is the most experienced guy that we have and the most agile guy that we have. He can play either spot with ease. Cliatt is very smart on the field. Athletically, he has to come around a little more, but he’s the brains of the outfit.
“They have to be good if we’re going to be good. There’s no doubt about that.”
Denzel Cotton and Cuevas Dargan, who are working with the second unit, have been solid during training camp and Martin believes they will be capable backups.
“Cotton is a walk-on, but he has shown us something the last two years,” Martin said. “He’s arguably the most versatile guy I have. Cuevas has improved. He’s strong and he has a knack for the football.”
Even so, Fuller is the key and he knows that better than anyone.
“That’s why I put a lot of weight on my shoulders because I know it’s up to me to carry this defense and this team,” said Fuller, who finished fourth on the team with 54 tackles a year ago, while finishing with a team-high six sacks.
“A&M hasn’t won a (SWAC) championship since 2006 and hasn’t played in it since 2009. Nobody on this team has a champonship. That’s what we want. We want to get to the championship game and win it this time. That’s why I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to keep working hard and pushing everybody else.”
By Reggie Benson, The Huntsville Times