Sylvestre generates big buzz in new role

Bowl game inspires position swap

Junior Sylvestre will switch from strongside linebacker over to the weakside position this season for the Rockets’ defense.
Junior Sylvestre will switch from strongside linebacker over to the weakside position this season for the Rockets’ defense.

The next smashing hit on the University of Toledo football team is a Hollywood production.

Not that Hollywood.

Linebacker Junior Sylvestre calls home to Hollywood, Fla., the 12th most populous city in the Sunshine State and about 2,700 miles east of the Los Angeles center for motion picture studios.

Sylvestre looks like a film character. Perhaps from a Science fiction piece.

“Freak of nature,” Rockets linebacker Chase Murdock said.

Sylvestre, who is poised for a breakout junior season, does things that make your eyes expand and your head shake. He ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash in the spring, trailing only wide receiver Bernard Reedy by just one one-hundredth of a second. At 222 pounds, Sylvestre outweighs Reedy by about 50 pounds.

Sylvestre is equally as brutish in the weight room. His bench press, which he said tops out at 410 or 415 pounds, ranks best on the team among nonlinemen and falls 10 pounds short of All-Mid-American Conference center Zac Kerin. At 300 pounds, Kerin outweighs Sylvestre by about 80 pounds.

“Shocking,” UT defensive coordinator Tom Matukewicz said.

Matukewicz, himself built like a linebacker, said Sylvestre’s wing span is about 10 inches longer than his own.

Sylvestre later showed off his uncanny reach, arms hanging to his sides. The result: Without bend or strain, his fingers touched the middle of his knees.

“I’m not sure how long my wing span is, but my hands reach my knees,” Sylvestre said.

To bring context to that abnormality, a reporter attempted the same. His humble reach fell about eight inches short of his knees.

Murdock wasn’t kidding about Sylvestre being a freak. Why then, one must ask, has he been an average contributor the past two seasons? His coaches think they have the answer.

Sylvestre, they say, was a poor fit at Star linebacker, where he played in coverage and needed to function in space. The switch in the spring to Will linebacker paid immediate dividends as Sylvestre cleaned up everything in the box that came his way and was named by his coaches the defensive MVP, an honor Matukewicz said “wasn’t that close” to going to anyone else.

“For 15 practices he was as violent of a player as we’ve had in that spot in a long time,” coach Matt Campbell said. “Not to say [2012 senior linebackers Dan Molls and Robert Bell] weren’t great players. They were. But he has the ability to be a violent football player as well.”

Sylvestre started five games last season, splitting time with Vladimir Emilien. He recorded 49 tackles — one for a loss — and managed zero sacks and zero interceptions. He broke up one pass.

Thoughts of a position switch first came to light early in a bowl-game loss to Utah State when Bell took over for Molls, who suffered a concussion on the opening kickoff. Sylvestre took over for Bell at Star, finished with six tackles, and played well enough to inspire change.

Matukewicz, who arrived on staff in spring 2012, said he regrets not ordering the switch to begin last season.

“Most people that have a lot of pop are tight,” Matukewicz said, explaining Sylvestre’s struggles in space. “You can’t really strike somebody and be loose. Just because he’s fast doesn’t mean he isn’t a better box player than he is a [defensive back].”

Hollywood, Fla., is located in the shadows of Miami, so Sylvestre grew up a fan of the Miami Hurricanes and lived through the team’s 34-game win streak from 2000-03. He will oppose another Florida school — the Gators — to begin a junior season laced with lofty expectations. The Rockets travel to Gainesville on Aug. 31 to play No. 10 Florida.

‘I don’t want him taking 80 plays against Florida,” Matukewicz said. “That’s what we did last year. We couldn’t play a lot of people and we just wore down.”

Even freaks have limitations.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.