Senior Jeff Epps leads the Wildcats in tackles in his first season at linebacker. CNJ photo by Eric Kluth.
Night after night, Jeff Epps watches film, trying to cram years of learning to play linebacker into one season.
In charge of getting the Clovis Wildcats aligned correctly, he first checks the offensive formation. He also studies the guards because “they will tell me where to go” and the running backs and quarterback to find any tendencies.
Over and over he watches the tapes hoping to gain an edge the best way he knows how — through hard work and studying.
“It helps a lot,” said Epps, coming off a career game in Saturday’s 34-28 win over Manzano when he made 12 tackles, returned an interception 50 yards to set up a touchdown and threw a TD pass when pressed into action for a few plays as backup quarterback. “I kind of know what they’re going to do sometimes, which gives me a quicker read and helps me get an extra step.”
Epps is used to studying. He’s a straight-A student.
At 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds, Epps has plenty of size to play linebacker, where he is asked to step up and stuff powerful runs up the middle and chase swift running backs from sideline to sideline.
What he lacks is speed — he’s the first to admit he can’t “run out of sight in a day” — he makes up for with brains and brute strength, according to defensive coordinator Darren Kelly.
“I think I’ve tried everything to increase my speed,” Epps said with a shrug of his shoulders.
Nobody gets more out of his talent than Epps, Kelley said.
“The thing about Jeff is he’s going to give you everything he’s got,” Kelley said. “Nobody is going to outwork or out-think him.
“The biggest thing about Jeff is we can talk about something on the sideline and he can go out there and make the adjustment.”
Kelley also said his senior defensive signal-caller is as tough as they come.
“Even if he had a broken leg, he’d be out there Friday night,” Kelley said.
Epps played quarterback until this year, when he was asked to move to a position he hadn’t played since Play Inc. youth football, where his teammates dubbed him “Baby Butkus,” after his favorite player, Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Dick Butkus.
“I’ve shared time at quarterback since I was a sophomore,” said Epps, who has applied for West Point, the U.S. Army’s service academy, where he hopes to learn to fly helicopters. “I wanted a position of my own. I told the coaches I would do anything.”
He’s found a home at linebacker.
“I love it because I get to run around and hit people,” said Epps, the leading tackler with 92 for the 7-2 Wildcats, who on Friday host Carlsbad with the District 4-5A title on the line. Both teams are 3-0 in district.
The learning curve was steep and it showed early as the Wildcats lost two of their first three games, giving up 30-plus points in losses to Mayfield and Highland.
“He’s still improving,” Kelley said. “The biggest jump for him was adjusting to the speed of the game and tackling angles.”