August 12, 2011

Higgs happy at end

As a few days went by in training camp, it became more and more evident to Antwon Higgs that he had fallen deep on the depth chart at middle linebacker.

So much so that the junior felt that playing time this season would be as hard to come by, if not more so, than it was a year ago. The result of that determination was a long-anticipated - but frustratingly slow developing - move to defensive end.

"I saw I wasn't playing," Higgs said of his experience at linebacker. "I thought it'd almost be a waste of talent to not even take a chance to go down there (to the line) and see. I was really deep on the chart at linebacker, like third or fourth string, and wasn't getting any reps.

"I'm a football player. I just want to be on the field. You might as well start out closer to the ball; it's quicker to get there."

Although Coach Danny Hope left the door open for a move back, Higgs' switch to defensive end would appear to be permanent. And that's OK with him now; that, however, hasn't always been the case.

Higgs, who at 6-foot-3, 255-pounds has the size to play end, has been approached about a switch before, as far back as prior to last season and maybe longer ago. Even during his recruitment, schools often penciled him in as a defensive end prospect, but those programs were quickly eliminated from consideration.

"It was a fear of the unknown, an uncertainty, going to defensive end at the college level," said Higgs, a junior. "I didn't have any technique and really had never been in a three-point stance. It was a big difference for me.

"I've been very, very, very surprised (about how much I like it) and I was thinking to myself 'I should have just done this when I first here.' I know I would have been really super now."

Early results show that Higgs might be a natural fit. At linebacker, he was a physical run-stopper, an ability that got him on the field as a backup as a true freshman in 2009. But his pass coverage skills were lacking, and with more and more teams going to a wide-open offense that requires linebackers to play in space, that weakness was exacerbated. It left him off the field for much of 2010.

"He seems to have a knack for making plays on the defensive side of the ball," Hope said. "He had a knack at the linebacker position as well.

"I didn't want to (have to) move him, but we looked at the depth chart and started counting up numbers and thought that he might be in a better position to compete at the defensive end spot. He loves linebacker, but he loves football and wants to be on the field."

Higgs says parts of playing end have come natural. He's a physical player, and has effectively used bull-rushing to try to get to the quarterback. But he admits that his technique at this point is significantly lacking.

"Sometimes I beat them with my quick feet," he said. "I give them a move or two and I'm gone. My linebacker legs and my D-lineman body will help me."

Higgs already feels like he's made an impact. Running with the second and third units at defensive end, he's picked up some tackles; Thursday, he tracked down a runner from the backside of the play.

"It felt pretty good doing that," he said. "I was just chasing the ball and didn't have to worry about messing up because I was just going 100 percent. No thinking, just play."

The move's been good for Higgs' psyche too. A charismatic personality, he seemed almost downtrodden at times last season, when he was slowed by a wrist injury as well, and during the spring.

"I was telling myself that the other day," he said. "I feel like I'm back to my old self, like when I got here. I'm pretty healthy; my wrist is a lot better than last year and I feel good. I'm at practice chirping and getting guys in to it. I feel like myself again, and that's a good thing."

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