Underclassman football player moves from wideout to defense

Redshirt freshman L.J. Holder is learning outside linebacker, a position he played during high school.

Redshirt freshman L.J. Holder (right) jumps for a pass near the end zone during practice at Chodoff Field on March 24. | GENEVA HEFFERNAN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The closer L.J. Holder came to graduating Manalapan High School in New Jersey, the less he played outside linebacker and the more he focused on wide receiver.

He garnered Division I scholarship offers for his pass-catching ability and verbally committed to Temple in August 2016 over interest from Monmouth University, where his father Will Holder ranks in the top 10 all-time in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

Last Tuesday, L.J. Holder practiced at outside linebacker instead of wideout. Coach Geoff Collins approached the redshirt freshman about switching positions because he’d have a better chance of playing elsewhere due to the Owls’ wide receiver depth.

“He wanted me to get on the field more, and receiver it would have been a less amount of time I would get at receiver and they don’t want to waste me on the bench,” L.J. Holder said.

“At first, I was like a bit skeptical about it,” he added. “But then I was just thinking, like, ‘I can’t be selfish when it comes to stuff like this.’ I just want to feel like I’m a big help to the team, and outside linebacker was the perfect position for me because I played it in high school. I know a bit of what I’m doing, and I feel like I’m making this team better.”

There’s a possibility L.J. Holder could return to wide receiver in the fall, wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. Regardless of his primary position, he has been playing special teams during spring practices, outside linebackers coach Larry Knight said.

L.J. Holder is working at the Sam, or strongside linebacker spot. The first-teamer at that position is junior Sam Franklin, who started five of the last six games of the 2017 season including the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. Franklin made 59 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss in 13 games last season.

Part of the reason for moving L.J. Holder to the Sam is that there isn’t much depth behind Franklin, Collins said.

“Sam Franklin’s as dynamic of an athlete as there is in college football,” Collins said. “So we need somebody else with that length, speed, athleticism. And L.J. Holder is it, and he was excited about it. I think it’s a great move for him, a great move for the team.”

L.J. Holder watched most of his first practice at linebacker last Tuesday to understand what he should do on each play. He has been leaning on Franklin and the coaching staff for guidance as he adjusts.

Junior linebacker William Kwenkeu said L.J. Holder is learning quickly.

“He’s a natural pass rusher,” Kwenkeu said. “He’s a freak [athlete], and he’s pretty smart.”

During his high school career, L.J. Holder averaged 17.8 yards per catch as a junior. He combined for 644 yards receiving and nine touchdowns in his final two seasons.

The benefit of L.J. Holder’s experience at wide receiver is his hand-eye coordination skills, Knight said, which will come into play when he has to intercept a pass.

Coaches are trying to help L.J. Holder improve how he uses his hands when trying to shed blocks and rushing the quarterback.

“It’s only been a couple of days, but he’s shown some flashes,” Knight said. “We’re excited about what he does. He has a really good skill set for what we’re looking for.”

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