FLAGSTAFF – Every time Sam Acho signs an autograph – and he does that a lot these days – the second-year linebacker adds a reference to a Bible verse: Hebrew 11:1.
It reads “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Acho uses it as a reminder to his own religious thoughts and how he wants to live his life. But, given where the Cardinals stand at outside linebacker, it works in football too.
The Cards are putting their faith in Acho and O’Brien Schofield at a position crucial for any team running a 3-4 defensive alignment. There are positives on their résumés -- Acho started the final 10 games of the season and had seven sacks as a rookie, while Schofield had 4½ sacks in limited time behind
“There is a lot to prove and O’Brien and I both have a chip on our shoulders,” Acho said. “At the same time we don’t see it as pressure but an opportunity. An opportunity to perform and make plays. We thought it was a great compliment that the coaches believed in us and trusted us that they told us, ‘Sam and O.B., we’ll give you this chance.’ ”
The search for young outside linebackers that fit the scheme has been going on since coach Ken Whisenhunt arrived in 2007. At first, the Cards put long-time NFL defensive ends like Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor in the role. Early draftees like 2009 second-rounder Cody Brown didn’t pan out. Eventually, older veterans Haggans and Joey Porter, were signed.
In the meantime, the Cardinals took Schofield in the fourth-round in 2010, hoping he could return from a devastating torn ACL suffered at a Senior Bowl practice. Acho was the fourth-round pick in 2011. Now, they are the starters.
“One man’s philosophy is this is a young man’s sport,” defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “We had two 33-going-on-34-year-old outside linebackers and it’s hard because it’s a young man’s game. Sometimes you bite the bullet and say, ‘We are going to go young over experience.’ ”
Acho came on quickly. He surprisingly surpassed Schofield on the depth chart in training camp last season, one of the reasons he and not Schofield got the nod once Porter’s injuries and effectiveness took him out. His play left a confidence the Cards had found a gem in the draft. Schofield earned more playing time in the back half of the season despite playing with injured shoulders that he never let limit him in practice.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he wants consistency from Schofield. Schofield, who used flashcards and a wristband last season to help him learn the defense, believes he’s ready. One of his goals right now is to simply work on game conditioning, because he hasn’t played a full game on defense since college.
“I feel a lot more prepared,” Schofield said. “I know the defense. Now it’s going out and playing ball, perfecting my craft and showing I can be consistent.”
Schofield already has impressed coaches with his grasp of the defense. Haggans, who returned after becoming a free agent, hasn’t been ruled out as a starter but it would be an upset if Schofield isn’t the guy when the season begins Sept. 9. It would be a relief for Schofield given his journey since being drafted, although he understands the need to make it work.
“It’s nothing I’m going to give up easily or take for granted,” Schofield said. “Coaches ordained me as a starter but I’m still competing.”
If he can come on like Acho did as a rookie, and Acho can continue to trend upward, the Cards will have more than just faith to go on.