HUNTINGTON – It wasn’t that long ago that Raheem Waiters was a 175-pound wide receiver and track star at Riverside High School.
That was a torn ACL and broken hand ago, but anyone who saw Waiters then and watched him in these early Marshall 2012 preseason football practices would be, well, in somewhat disbelief.
Waiters is a 6-foot, 205-pound … linebacker … a strongside linebacker, at that. And he couldn’t be happier … and he could even be a starter there.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Marshall defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Chris Rippon said when asked if Waiters could be the strongside starter.
Waiters, a sophomore, never figured it would be like this, but he is the beneficiary of taking advantage of his own opportunity to impress, plus the nature of a game that has seen offenses drawn in a much larger alphabet selection than just Xs and Os.
“I never saw myself playing linebacker at all,” Waiters said after another steamy Herd split-squad practice. “I came up here and just assumed I’d be playing receiver, but obviously they had other intentions for me.”
Waiters committed to Marshall when former Coach Mark Snyder was in charge, but after the torn ACL late in his senior football season (2009) for the Warriors, he enrolled with Coach Doc Holliday’s program under the same plan Snyder’s staff had for him – with a grayshirt.
He arrived in January 2011, and the delayed start “helped me a lot because I was able to get into the weight room and rehab my knee and also get a little bit stronger before I came here,” Waiters said.
Then, in his first spring practice, Waiters suffered a broken hand.
“I couldn’t catch the ball anymore,” he said, laughing, “so they moved me to defense.”
He was a backup free safety, not on the two-deep, but he impressed on special teams last season as one of those “missiles” on punt and kickoff coverage. His combination of speed and strength made for a unique player.
He has run the 40-yard dash in 4.37. He’s done in the 10-yard burst in 1.45 seconds … and he’s a safety in a linebacker’s clothing, so to speak.
Waiters was a two-time Class AAA discus champion in the State Track Meet (2009 and ’10). He was the ’09 Class AAA high-point man with the discus title and seconds in the 200 and 400 meters and a sixth in the 100.
Then the ACL tear came, limited his track and field work in the spring of 2010.
He said he is faster now than he was before surgery.
Waiters was moved to LB from safety last December, during the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl practices.
“The coaches took a lot of time talking to me about the move,” Waiters said. “It’s been worth it, in my mind. It’s a great advantage to me because it’s given me the opportunity to get on the field as a sophomore, rather than being a receiver and still not having as much of a chance of getting on the field, or as much time.”
Rippon said if it’s not Waiters at the strongside spot, it could be Evan McKelvey, moved from safety when the Herd landed Boston College graduate transfers Okechukwu Okoroha and Dominick LeGrande.
Besides production, what Rippon wants is flexibility in the back two lines of defense.
“We can do anything we want with it like this,” Rippon said. “We’re playing 11 teams (where a defense has to account for the quarterback) or 10 teams, two wides and four wides. It’s not I-formation, two wides, a tight end and two backs and you need a heavy guy (at strongside LB) to control the tight end anymore.”
Rippon said that’s especially true in Conference USA – he called it “Conference NBA” – because of the wide-open offenses that last season included five 3,000-yard career passers who are C-USA history.
“We had to get more speed on the field, especially on the perimeter,” the Herd coordinator said of a set in which veteran Devin Arrington – a linebacker-turned-safety-turned-linebacker – is the weakside man and potentially a big playmaker.
“You’ve got to find him. It depends on whether we’re in a field defense or formation defense. It’s kind of that hybrid that four years ago TCU came out with in the 4-2-5. That’s kind of what we can get to there.
“Or, we can put a DB in there. If we get into teams a little bit more stout, our choices are keeping Raheem in there and covering him up with a tight end at the line of scrimmage, or put another of the strongside backers in there.”
Waiters said he’s just “trying to get better every day, taking it step-by-step.”And when he’s blitzing, the protected red-jerseyed quarterbacks have found out his steps are very fast.
“This group of kids, what we are developing, recruiting, is to get the personnel where you can be multiple enough to handle the offenses we’re seeing,” Rippon said. “Raheem being out there, and some of the other guys because of their skills, we can be able to do those things.
“McKelvey can be out there. If want to get into strong safety it can be a D.J. Hunter or an “O” (Okoroha). There’s endless flexibility. There’s a real correlation between those safeties and our outside linebackers. “Waiters ran well, is a physical kid, really stepped up on special teams. And knowing the limited amount of time he’s got to play in the box, we just felt that he was a perimeter kid.”
Waiters, who was a Warrior in high school, still is a warrior.
“One, I’m closer to the ball than at safety, and I like the move,” Waiters said. “I feel like it’s a little less field to cover, and with my speed, it helps me out with that … and I get to come in on the blitzes, which I like a lot.”