Sullivan headlines talented LB group
Mid-sentence, Mike Clark stopped. A smile crept across his face knowing the reaction the next words out of his mouth would bring.
“He might be our best linebacker right now,” Clark said, pausing a second to wait for the reaction he anticipated.
Said about reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year Kabongo Bukasa, the statement from Lycoming’s head football coach wouldn’t have raised a disbelieving reaction. But he wasn’t talking about the uber-athletic, freakishly fast middle linebacker.
He was talking about junior linebacker Kyle Sullivan.
It’s not as though Sullivan has been a benchwarmer, mired in futility during his time at Lycoming. He’s a two-year starter for the Warriors at linebacker whose production has picked up exponentially this year as Bukasa has battled a hamstring injury which has limited his time on the field.
“It’s a bold statement,” Clark said. “He’s awesome. And it’s important to Kyle. He doesn’t want to defer to anybody. I love Kabongo and I love Tyler Denike, but Kyle Sullivan is a great one.”
Week to week you could put the names of Lycoming’s three starting linebackers – Sullivan, Bukasa and Denike – in a hat and pull out one to determine which of the three is the best. But it’s almost like the three are in an election, and every Saturday afternoon football game is their debate against one another.
This past Saturday, when Lycoming beat Delaware Valley, 19-16, to gain sole position of first place in the Middle Atlantic Conference, Sullivan won the debate running away despite a six-tackle, one-interception day from Bukasa and an eight-tackle day from Denike.
Since the start of last season when Bukasa, Denike and Sullivan all became starting linebackers, one of the three has been of the top two tackler for the Warriors in 14 of 15 games. Denike and Sullivan are each averaging 4.9 tackles per game and Bukasa is averaging 7 tackles per game over that time.
Not one of the three starters takes a back seat to the others. Saturday just happened to be Sullivan’s opportunity to shine.
He filled interior holes with strength and chased down Delaware Valley running back Kyle Schuberth on the perimeter as the Aggies tried to establish their running game in the first half last week. His 12 tackles were a career-high, bettering the eight he recorded against Stevenson last year.
“I think I had some really good reads out there. I just played football, really. It was just a good day,” Sullivan said. “Obviously I want to play the best I can. But we all know there’s a defensive system we have to follow and we can’t do our own thing. It’s a team effort.”
But Sullivan admitted there’s a bit of competition between he and Bukasa and Denike. Each of the three has recorded a 10-tackle game this year. Denike is averaging seven tackles per game, Sullivan is averaging six and Bukasa is averaging five.
What makes the three so tough is their backgrounds. Sullivan and Bukasa were high school defensive backs who have moved down a level in college and bring the speed and athleticism of a safety to linebacker. Denike was a walk-on basketball player at Central Michigan University as a freshman before coming to Lycoming to play football.
“He’s really starting to make a name for himself,” Clark said of Sullivan. “He gives us athleticism and he can cover people man-to-man and it makes it hard to get him off the field. That’s fine, because he’s really productive when he’s on the field.”
Sullivan has a better understanding of the history surrounding Lycoming football than maybe anybody else on the team. His uncle is Ed Dougherty who holds almost every significant passing record in Lycoming football history.
Nobody in Warriors history has accounted for more yards than Dougherty, who helped guide Lycoming to the 1990 national championship game where the Warriors fell in overtime to Allegheny. It was the first of two trips to the national championship game in the 90s for Lycoming.
“Kyle understands what we’re about and Kyle wants to make sure we have a chance to get our program to where we think it has the chance to be,” Clark said. “He loves Lycoming football and we’re thrilled he’s here. He’s a fantastic player.”
And it’s a short limb to go out on to call him the Warriors’ best linebacker.
Mitch Rupert covers Lycoming football for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mitch_Rupert.