McKelvey adds athleticism to Herd's linebacker corps
HUNTINGTON - Part of Marshall's goal for bringing more athleticism to the linebacker position was bringing Evan McKelvey up from his old free safety spot.
Listed at 6-foot-1, 198 pounds, the brother of former Thundering Herd safety and NFL aspirant Omar Brown doesn't yet look like a linebacker. At least not for those who think 230 pounds is a minimum size on the major-college level.
At Marshall, just a few linebackers fill that bill. Jermaine Holmes is a horse in the middle at 5-11, 245, and Billy Mitchell is 6-3, 238. A few youngsters are in the mid-220s, but that's about it.
Then there is McKelvey, the leanest of the bunch. He has been a quick study at the "Will," or weak-side position, and is playing on the first unit with Devin Arrington being held out. (Arrington is a 6-3, 210-pound linebacker-turned-safety-turned-linebacker.)
Coordinator Chris Rippon and his defensive coaches pondered what to do with McKelvey, who played sparingly last year as a true freshman.
"We had Evan for a semester and a year," Rippon said. "And looking at his skills and why that type of athlete - that size, that speed, that agility, everything else - why wasn't he on the field? That comes down to our responsibility.
"Each kid reacts differently. Evan works better when he doesn't have time to think. At the safety position, there's so much time and distance, and things go through your mind - am I doing this, am I doing that? At linebacker, it's more reactive."
McKelvey went through spring in the secondary, then was summoned to the second level during the summer. He was initially assigned to the "Sam," or strong-side position, but was shifted to "Will" before camp.
Contrary the strong/weak lingo, life at "Will" will get you hit more often, on the whole.
"A 'Sam' is usually lined up outside the box. They're more outside on the slot," McKelvey said. "Wills and Mikes [middle linebackers] are the ones inside the box, hitting the offensive line almost every play. Inside, you're hitting constantly and it takes a toll."
Shouldn't that be a problem for an "undersized" 200-pounder? Not necessarily, as Rippon describes.
"There's a lot of times he's in the box," Rippon said. "So now he's dealing with backs, fullbacks leading up on him. He's dealing with big, fat offensive linemen, athletic offensive linemen, all different shapes, quickness that he can't stay blocked on. And he could get swallowed very easily because he's thin."
So why won't he get swallowed up on every snap?
"He's got excellent vision of what the play is, plus he has a feel for staying alive," Rippon said. "When they're running 'downhill' plays, that's an advantage for the offense. You get up to the second level, our thinking is those big guys are playing in space. That's our advantage, if you play it smart. And I think that's where he's making a big impact for us."
That's what coach Doc Holliday was looking for when he approved the position change.
"He's gone from a pretty average athlete at safety to a really good athlete at linebacker," McKelvey said. "He's going to reap the benefits because of it."
Wearing Brown's No. 31, McKelvey is keeping tabs on his older brother, who turned in a fine effort in the Baltimore Ravens' preseason opener.
Brown (5-11, 195 pounds) is considered a bit undersized for an NFL safety, but that didn't stop him from recovering two fumbles and intercepting a pass. The Ravens played their second preseason game Friday night against the Detroit Lions.
An undrafted free agent, Brown still faces an uphill battle to make the team, especially if the Ravens decide to keep four safeties instead of five. Those four would likely be Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Christian Thompson and Sean Considine, with Brown battling journeyman Emmanuel Cook for that possible fifth spot.
"He always tells me he's going to beat Ed Reed and all of that," McKelvey said. "I laugh, but he can do anything if he puts his mind to it. He works hard for it, so he deserves it."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.