Commentary

Hnatiuk looks to follow in footsteps of teammates

Updated: April 22, 2009, 9:00 PM ET
By Mike Loveday | ESPNRISE.com

Loyola (Md.) head coach Brian Abbott has seen his share of top linebackers wear the Dons uniform. Bubba Harris and Matt Heacock were consensus All-State picks in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Hnatiuk
Mike Loveday for ESPN RISE Hnatiuk will play both linebacker and fullback for Loyola this season.
Stepping into those shoes will be difficult, but Abbott thinks he has the man for the job in Matthew Hnatiuk.

Hnatiuk (pronounced Nat-ik) is a 5-foot-10, 180-pound junior who earned a spot at outside linebacker in the Dons' starting lineup in the fourth game of the season last year.

"He's got these long arms and these huge hands," Abbott said. "When you're touched, you're tackled. He packs a wallop. He's a tackling machine."

Hnatiuk recorded 54 tackles and five sacks last season, helping an impressive defense that allowed only 76 points in 10 games.

Hnatiuk is also a wrestler, and his weight is down from what Abbott expects him to be by the beginning of football season. By the start of summer practice, Abbott expects Hnatiuk to be close to 200 pounds and ready to play both the inside and strongside linebacker positions -- the same positions both Harris and Heacock played.

"He's the hard-nosed kid that you need," Abbott said. "He's one of those kids that I see having a breakout season. The experience he gained last year and the amount of playing time and given his athletic ability I just think he's one of those kids that will have a great season."

In addition to playing linebacker, Hnatiuk will also play some running back and fullback for the Dons.

Heacock's graduation leaves a spot open at fullback, and Abbott thinks that with Hnatiuk's wrestling experience and ability to gain leverage on opponents, the starting job will be Hnatiuk's.

Abbott said Hnatiuk could get recruiting interest once the season begins, as Heacock, who signed to play with Wagner, and Harris, who is now playing for North Carolina Central, did last season. Abbot thinks Hnatiuk could fit well with a Division I-AA or Division II school.

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Mike Loveday covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com. Mike can be reached at Michael.Loveday@espn.com