Third Time's a Charm for Slezak, North Central
Sitting behind his desk in the Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium coaches' offices, first-year defensive coordinator Mike Murray recalls watching Nick Slezak during a spring practice earlier this year. Murray had just informed Slezak that he would be moving from safety to linebacker, a transition that would prove challenging for any player who encountered it.
"By the second play, I knew we made the right decision," Murray said.
In an era of specialists and single-position players, Slezak has stood out as one of the most versatile athletes the North Central College football program has ever seen. The Warrenville native was a regular in the Cardinals receiving corps his sophomore year before ranking fourth on the team in tackles and tying for second in interceptions last season at free safety.
Changing positions once would be challenging enough, but playing each side of the ball and a different position three straight seasons has required a rare ability and willingness to. It hasn't been an easy road, but Slezak, who enters this week's game at North Park University as the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin's (CCIW) leading tackler, isn't complaining.
"I've really enjoyed (the transition)," said Slezak. "I've been trying to do whatever the team needs and whatever the coaches ask of me."
But why try to move someone out of the secondary who played the safety position so capably last season? With a need for soild defensive backs after several graduation losses, the team could have used a player of Slezak's caliber in the backfield to take some pressure off Preseason All-American Shane Dierking. Murray saw things a little differently.
After taking the defensive coordinator job in February, Murray's first order of business was to watch film from last season. Rather than viewing the defensive unit as a whole, he focused on each individual and their particular skill set. It was then that he saw the potential in Slezak.
"Nick has a great combination of size and athletic ability," explains Murray. "We felt there was a need at the linebacker position and that he could fill it successfully."
Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is a newly-adjusted linebacker. The thesaurus lists progress as a synonym for transition. But in order for progress to happen, there is a process that must be put into place and followed.
Slezak played the linebacker position at Glenbard South High School, but playing two other positions at such a high level for the past three years, with one of those spots being on the opposite side of the field, made for a major adjustment.
"My head was spinning those first few weeks," recalls Slezak with a smile. "But I feel like I picked it up pretty quickly."
Murray knew it was going to be a process for Slezak in acclimating to his new location on the field, and it was expected that there would be more than a few things for him to work on after his first week of practice there. Even so, Murray found plenty of positive things to take away from those few days.
"It took him a while to get some reactionary skills down," remembers Murray. "But we saw his ability to excel in coverage."
Slezak's ability to move from safety to the linebacker position this year pales in comparison to the switch he made last offseason. After lining up at wide receiver throughout the 2011 campaign, Slezak switched to the opposite side of the ball to safety for the 2012 season.
It would be easy for an athlete to gravitate toward the negatives in switching positions. Experience and instincts are two things a newcomer to a position lacks. Slezak, however, believes his experience at both wide receiver and safety gives him a distinct advantage at linebacker.
"Being at safety definitely helped me with open-field tackling," says Slezak. "From being a receiver, I'm able to recognize routes and that's helped me a good amount (at linebacker)."
Would it have been easier for Slezak to stay at a position he thrived in last season? Sure. Would he still be having a great season if he stayed at defensive back? More than likely. Has it been a tough transition for him? Of course. Is he willing to do whatever it takes to help this team be successful, even if that means moving to a new position in his final year of football? Absolutely.
"He's a gamer," proclaims Murray. "He would line up at nose tackle if we asked him to."