Deep linebacker group ready to set the tone for UAlbany football’s defense

UAlbany football player Jackson Ambush during practice at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium in Albany on Aug. 6.

UAlbany football player Jackson Ambush during practice at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium in Albany on Aug. 6.

ALBANY —  While there have been plenty of talented linebackers at UAlbany during head coach Greg Gattuso’s tenure, he’s long lamented a lack of depth that has forced his starters to run up staggering snap counts.

This season, that’s likely to change.

UAlbany’s first group — Jackson Ambush, Danny Damico and AJ Mistler — is as strong as ever, but the second team — Damon Burton, Paul Theobald and Joe Casale — is just as ready to step up.

“The one thing we’ve struggled with is having guys we could sub in at linebacker,” Gattuso said Tuesday, “and we don’t feel that way anymore.”

The starting threesome features a pair of veterans in Damico and Mistler, both redshirt juniors, flanking redshirt freshman Ambush.

Ambush saw his first extended action during the Great Danes’ shortened spring season, manning the middle linebacker spot when starter Levi Metheny went down with an arm injury. 

With Metheny and his 253 career total tackles gone from the program after he transferred to Murray State for his final season of eligibility, Ambush is ready to be the man in the middle of the UAlbany defense when the Great Danes open their season Sept. 4 at North Dakota State.

“They gave me the reins,” Ambush said. “Coach [Gattuso] said, ‘It’s your defense. Just control it.’”

The 6-foot, 216-pound native of New Market, Maryland had 15 tackles in the four-game spring season, and has impressed his cohorts in the UAlbany linebacking corps so far this preseason.

“Playing inside, to couple with me and AJ, it’s nice because with our experience we can help guide him in the right direction,” Damico said. “He has all the tools to be one of the best players on the field, and I know that one day he will be.”

Ambush is on the small side for a middle linebacker — about 25 pounds lighter than Metheny — but Gattuso, who has an admitted preference for smaller, faster players, said that the redshirt freshman gives UAlbany the kind of speed at the position that hasn’t been there since Michael Nicastro left following the 2016 season.

Ambush, who said Metheny taught him “the ins and outs” of playing the position in UAlbany’s defense, humbly gave his former teammate some credit in the speed department.

“Levi has some speed on him — a little bit,” Ambush said. “I’d say I’m a little bit quicker.”

Ambush will start the season in between Damico, who was UAlbany’s leading tackler in the spring with 34 stops, and Mistler, a converted safety who had 21 tackles and a sack during the spring.

But the most impressive player in the entire group thus far during camp, Gattuso said, has been Burton. The redshirt junior stood out during UAlbany’s first intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday and has shown the ability to line up at all three linebacker spots while making a definite push for early playing time.

“There’s three linebacker spots,” Gattuso said, “but we consider that there’s four [players] for three [spots] right there.”

Casale, a former Troy High School standout and another converted defensive back, and Theobald, a graduate student who transferred to UAlbany from Boston College, aren’t far behind on the depth chart either.

It’s depth at the position that Damico hasn’t seen in his five years on campus.

“Going in knowing that the guys behind you have some experience and a lot of knowledge of the game, you can trust they can produce as much as you can on the field,” he said. “It’s really motivating you to give 100% when you’re out there, knowing you can fall back on your teammates whenever you have to.”

His fellow veteran Mistler echoed a similar sentiment.

“Having so much depth is only a positive,” Mistler said. “We have a lot of guys who have a lot of experience, and along with that we have depth. It gives the guys who have experience some rest, so that everyone can be able to play 100%, all of the time.”

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