Littlejohn replacing Olson at linebacker
FARGO — It was FCS championship week the last time Carlton Littlejohn practiced full time at middle linebacker. That ended up being Plan B because starter Grant Olson recovered enough from an appendicitis problem to play in the title game in Frisco, Texas.
It’s Plan A this week. Littlejohn will start Saturday at Youngstown State and this time, it’s real.
“I still have teammates out there helping me,” he said. “It’s not like I’m out there all alone by myself. I have guys all around me helping me with all the checks and all my fits, that kind of stuff.”
Olson tore his ACL Saturday against Illinois State, forcing Littlejohn to move from an outside linebacker spot to the middle. Junior Esley Thorton will move into a starting role on the outside.
Thorton has been groomed for that role in the last month anyway, so there was nothing shocking to him on Tuesday in preparing for the Penguins.
“The workload is going to go up for a few guys,” Thorton said.
Thorton said it’s been business as usual this week for the linebackers, even without their senior leader.
“We don’t have much time to think about things,” Thorton said. “There’s not much down time. It went about as smooth as you could ask for.”
Thorton started two games when Littlejohn was out with a knee injury. He’s played all nine games and is seventh on the team in tackles. After spending last season learning the conversion from quarterback to linebacker, Bison coaches have obviously developed a comfort level with his new position.
Defensive coordinator Chris Klieman said senior Antonio Rodgers and freshman Nick DeLuca may be counted on for depth at linebacker.
“Anytime you lose someone the caliber of Grant Olson, there will be some changes and somebody is going to have to adjust,” Klieman said.
He said it’s possible strong safety Colten Heagle could play some outside linebacker. Safety Bryan Shepherd may take on an increased role in a five defensive back alignment.
“I think we’ve handled it pretty well,” Littlejohn said. “We’re not an up and down team, we take things one step at a time. We’ll assess the situation knowing Grant will be gone and just see what we can do the rest of the season.”
Olson is far and away the leading tackler with 79 stops. He’s second in tackles for lost yardage and third in quarterback sacks. Those are statistics that will now have to be picked up by somebody else, most likely starting with Littlejohn.
“He had on-the-job training last week which really helped,” Klieman said. “It’s something he plays in our nickel defense anyway. Carlton will do a really good job.”