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Group AA, Div. 3 Football: Top ’backers are front and center in JM’s scheme

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When asked to name some of the best linebackers to ever come through his football program, James Monroe head coach Rich Serbay considered the request for a moment and then took a deep breath.

After listing a half dozen former players, the coach chuckled and said, “I’ve been blessed with linebackers. I cannot tell you how good those kids have played.”

The linebacking corps is the lifeblood of JM’s defense. It always has been since Serbay took control of the program in 1985.

The Yellow Jackets have churned out some great players at the position over the years, and the fraternity is still growing.

Serbay considers current senior linebackers Tony Scott and Eric Nelson among the best he has ever coached. Together, along with fellow seniors Tevin Brooks and Sean Bates, they form an unyielding playmaking unit.

“I’ve had individual linebackers that I thought were really good, but in terms of the group, it’s probably one of the best groups I’ve had,” Serbay said.

James Monroe (11–1) hosts Kettle Run (11–2) today in the Group AA, Division 3 semifinals at Maury Stadium.

Bates, who is also the Yellow Jackets’ leading rusher, will sit out the game for disciplinary reasons. His status for next week, should JM advance to the state championship, is “pending,” Serbay said.

Kettle Run, which is located just south of Manassas and plays in the Evergreen District, poses a major challenge for JM’s defense. The Cougars have a multifaceted rushing attack that churned out 292 yards on the ground in last week’s Region II championship win over Monticello.

But run-heavy offenses play right into the wheelhouse of JM’s defense. The Yellow Jackets funnel all the action to their linebackers, who have made a living this year on making big plays.

“We know we’re strong. We know how hard we work to prepare for games like this,” said Scott, the Battlefield District’s co-defensive player of the year. “We know they’re going to try to run at us, but it’s our job to stop it.”

James Monroe’s linebackers form a tight-knit group. Their bond has been forged through years of friendship.

They hang out together off the field and often spend their down time breaking down film of each other and their opponents.

“We watch film all the time,” said Nelson, who has a team-leading 134 tackles and four sacks this season. “We watch at school. We watch in the coaches’ office or if I’m at Tony’s house or if he happens to be over at my house.”

They’ve developed a symmetry on the field through years of playing together and studying film.

“We have a strong connection. Most of us are like family,” Nelson said. “We all know each other, and we can help each other and give each other constructive criticism to make us better.”

Nelson is the run-stopper of the group, and he’s the quarterback of the defense at the middle linebacker spot. He makes all the calls and pre-snap adjustments.

Scott, who has 128 tackles and three interceptions this season, is the most versatile of the group. He could play cornerback, safety or linebacker if needed.

“When we’ve got teams with a star tight end or star person in the slot, we put Tony Scott on them. Tony Scott is a lockdown defender. He covers like a cornerback and he hits like a linebacker, so he’s the perfect person to play outside,” Nelson said.

Brooks, who has 126 tackles and seven sacks, brings a lot of physical talent to the group.

“Tevin is just stronger than everybody. He just bullies his way around, basically,” Scott said.

It’s hard for Serbay to settle on just one player when asked to select his best all-time linebacker. He leans toward Stephen Meadows, but then in rapid fire he mentions Curtis Krauth, Ronell Coghill, Derrick Johnson, Warren Lewis, Matt Bailey, Kilo Brooks and Gage Ford.

And then he stops at Scott and Nelson. The two senior leaders have done great things at James Monroe, and they have a chance to stamp their legacies with a second straight trip to the state championship game.

“We find the toughest kids we can find and we make them linebackers. And then we build around them and go from there,” Serbay said. “Those other guys were bigger and stronger, but these guys collectively as a group are deadly tacklers.”

Nathan Warters: 540/374-5442