FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — When O’Brien Schofield reported to Cardinals training camp this week, there was no talk of making music. There were no predictions about the Wisconsin football team, and his colorful Schohawk had been replaced with an ordinary, one-tone hairdo.
“I’m not messing with it right now,” he said. “It’s just straight football. My whole summer, I focused on just getting out here. I knew what the expectation was from Coach Whiz (Ken Whisenhunt). I didn’t want to let anything get in the way.”
That is music to Whisenhunt’s ears, because the sixth-year coach has anointed Schofield his starting left outside linebacker, ahead of veteran Clark Haggans.
It’s a bold move to throw the third-year player into the fray considering that he missed half of his rookie season while rehabbing a catastrophic knee injury. It’s even bolder when you consider that the Cards plan to start second-year man Sam Acho at the right outside linebacker position.
But the Cards need consistent pressure from the edge to complete an emerging defense, so defensive coordinator Ray Horton is ready to take that gamble.
“One man’s philosophy is this is a young man’s sport,” Horton said. “We had two 33 going on 34-year-old outside linebackers. Sometimes you bite the bullet and say we’re going to go young over experience and hope that they’re getting the experience as we go.”
After the rest of his unit showed signs of progress over the second half of last season, Horton has chosen to focus on the possibilities rather than the risks with his young linebackers.
“The possibilities of getting great with young guys coming together and a mix of old guys — it’s a nice salt-and-pepper sprinkle,” he said. “You got this. You got that. You put it together, you come up with some good ingredients, and hopefully it’s a very tasty meal.”
Schofield and Acho both whet Horton’s appetite last season when called upon. Acho replaced injured and aging veteran Joey Porter and finished second on the team in sacks with seven to go along with 40 tackles.
“My goal was to be a starter by the end of the season and have a certain amount of sacks. Really high goals, dream big,” Acho said. “By God’s grace, I was prepared and I got an opportunity.”
Schofield came along a little more slowly but finished with 37 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. The Cards coaches always believed the physical tools were there with Schofield. It was Schofield’s grasp of the defense that held him back.
“I don’t think he has the complete grasp of the defense (still),” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “He needs to continue to work, but he’s worked hard to understand what’s required of him. He worked with a wristband, he did flashcards. He did a lot of things last year.
“He obviously is a lot more comfortable. He understands the terminology and how it applies to him. But a lot of times in this defense, it’s reaction based — based on what formations you get, how you have to make adjustments and how you have to communicate.”
Schofield understands that there are no guarantees that he’ll hold onto his starter’s role. Horton has made that clear to him, to Haggans and even to Acho.
“I never feel like you’re anointed a starter, per se,” Acho said. “You always have a lot to work for, and you always want to have that chip on your shoulder. I try to remember to keep on playing like it’s my last play.”
But both are eager for the opportunity. Schofield put on some weight (he said he weighed 250 pounds at the start of camp) to better manage the run game and double teams. He dove into the playbook the entire offseason and insists he’s still grateful to have Haggans around as a shoulder to lean on.
“He still coaches me up on certain things, and it’s good to have a guy behind you telling you what you’re doing wrong,” Schofield said. “He knows this defense. He knows a lot of things because of his experience. And when I do make improvements, it’s good to get that compliment from him.” Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter