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Linebacker McPhail driven by Tigers' defensive depth





Fort Hays State University junior linebacker Justin McPhail is just one good example on the Tigers' team of how one year can make a world of difference.

But he might be one of the best examples.

As a freshman in 2012, the Liberal High School graduate played in all 11 games, but had just nine tackles with a season-high four against Northwest Missouri State.

Fast forward to last season, McPhail led the Tigers in tackles (90), recorded two sacks and four tackles for loss, and nabbed one of the Tigers' 18 interceptions. He earned all-MIAA honorable mention honors at linebacker in his first year as a starter.

Now he looks to build on that success on a deep Tiger defense that he feels can go two-deep at any position -- and not lose a step.

"If someone goes down, we have someone that can step in and fill that role,"  said McPhail, a former Class 5A all-state player, also a 5A state wrestling champion. "To play in the MIAA, you have to have depth. You can't do it with just 11 guys.

"Your 2s have to be solid, and that's the main difference (now). People can step in."

McPhail is a shining example of a player improving through the program. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound inside linebacker is one of nine returning starters on the Tiger defense.

"Mostly it's just developing players,"  McPhail said of FHSU's depth on defense. "We had a lot of guys here in the spring that are going to be playing. Spring ball is huge. We've brought in a few players from other programs, but mostly we've developed (here)."

And it's led to an overall better defense, he said. Knowing there is a guy right behind you that can, and will, take your spot, makes a player work that much harder.

"That pushes you every day," McPhail said. "They feel like someone could easily step in and take their spot. I feel like that pushes everyone and makes the defense better."

When McPhail came to FHSU as a freshman in 2012, he had missed most of his senior season with a knee injury, but worked his way onto the field for the Tigers as a true freshman. He was voted one of three team captains for the defense earlier this week --  along with seniors Jesse Trent and Micheal Jordan. The Tiger defense has eight senior starters.

"Having a good defense in this league is huge," McPhail said. "The offenses are going to put up a lot of points, but it helps out our offense if we can keep the pressure off them, at least keep teams under say 21 points. That's huge."

Turnovers are going to be key as well. McPhail had one interception and recovered a fumble he forced.

"Every practice we have a goal. We have to get at least two turnovers," he said. "If we don't we have to run. Last year, pretty much every game we won, we had three turnovers defensively. That goes to show those defensive turnovers are huge.

"That's something we've gotten better at as a defense."