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Thoughts On Who Should Start At Middle Linebacker For WSU

It's appearing more and more unlikely that Mike Ledgerwood, who started the season opener for WSU at middle linebacker, is going to be able to play against Montana State tomorrow.

This leaves the coaching staff with a decision to make regarding his replacement: Senior Hallston Higgins or true freshman C.J. Mizell?

Brian made the case earlier this week to go ahead and start Mizell, and that was even before we knew of Ledgerwood's persistent stinger injury. In the short amount of time Mizell played against Oklahoma State, it was clear he is the most physically gifted of all of WSU's linebackers. With athleticism at such a premium for WSU, it seemed the obvious move was to move Mizell into the starting lineup, inexperience be darned.

But then Vince Grippi weighed in with some observations gleaned from watching Mizell practice for the past month:

If you were at practice every day you would see a player who still hasn’t learned to work ethic needed to be an every down player at WSU – or any college for that matter. Mizell just doesn’t work hard enough at practice. Let me amend that. He hasn’t worked hard enough yet. No matter how talented he is – and wow, he’s got talents, you saw just a glimpse of them on Saturday – he can’t be handed a starting spot. He has to earn it.

One guy who seems to have "earned it" is Higgins. We kept hearing out of fall camp that the coaches were especially pleased with his progress. Higgins shed some weight in an effort to improve his speed, however, he's only 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds -- pretty undersized for a middle linebacker. Heck, Louis Bland is 220 pounds.

Here's how I think it should shake out: Higgins starts, but Mizell gets some pretty significant playing time -- maybe picking up some series in the second quarter, and then more into the second half before finishing the game.

Two reasons.

First, Higgins, by all accounts, has truly worked himself into this position. Here's a guy who has toiled on special teams for three years who demonstrated a commitment to offseason conditioning and came into camp ready to play himself into the linebacker rotation. On some level, you want to see that rewarded to continue to encourage that kind of behavior on the part of the rest of the team.

Second, Grippi's been hinting that Mizell's effort looks better this week in practice. That, my friends, is what you call using a carrot. Mizell got his first football action in two years on Saturday, and I'm sure he'd love some more. If you can give him a little more of a taste while still keeping the carrot -- starting a game -- out in front of him in order to keep him motivated, then go for it. We don't need him playing his best now; we need him playing his best against USC.

Besides, while Higgins might be undersized for the rigors of Pac-10 play, he certainly won't be as undersized against an FCS school, no matter how talented it is. The Bobcats have just one 300-pounder on their line. It really should be less of an issue than it might otherwise be.

I really do hope, though, that Mizell sees some extended time, especially if his effort truly is improved. You can only cling hard and fast to principles for so long before you have to let talent see the field. Brian wrote about how Mizell's handling by the staff is an example to his teammates, who are watching, but those same teammates are sick and tired of losing and also undoubtedly see what Mizell can do for them. It's important for the coaching staff to show the players that they can strike a balance between sending the right message and putting the team in the best possible position to win.

Higgins first, with a healthy dose of Mizell.