Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The rise of the undersized linebacker

Allow me to introduce you to an unheralded gem from Texas high school football. A player from Cedar Park, Texas named Thomas Hutchings.

His highlight film reveals a fast and powerful linebacker with the change of direction, balance, and leverage to dominate Texas 5A ball and find a role in the college game's wide open offenses. He's hand timed as running a 4.45 40 (whatever his real speed is, it's no higher than 4.6, imo), who can squat 490 pounds, bench 400, and clean 250.

Here's the problem, he's 5'10" and 210 pounds. Because of his short height, he has zero scholarship offers from D1 universities heading into his senior year.

Scouts don't love short players for a few reasons, some valid and some not. Scouts often create a stereotype of the ideal player to meet a position's requirements and then get overly caught up in the stereotype rather than finding people who can check off the essential competencies that led to the creation of the stereotype in the first place.

For instance, people often look for tall quarterbacks with strong arms. Why? Because tall people can often see the field more clearly and because a strong arm will deliver the ball into tighter windows and open up more of the field for the offense to attack. This is a totally reasonable metric for evaluating players.

But if a QB is shorter and doesn't have elite arm strength but is still seeing the field, spreading the ball around, and hitting tight windows then who cares if he doesn't match the stereotype? Drew Brees is nodding right now.

At linebacker, you'd like to see longer players for two reasons:

1) They have an easier time fighting blocks because they can create more separation between their own body and a larger blocker.

2) They can use that length to disrupt passing windows or otherwise aid in pass coverage.

The essential points to note here are that you are looking for someone who beats blocks and is good in coverage. Those are the competencies you are looking to check off as a scout. A look at Hutchings highlight film reveals a player who's exceptional at using his low center of gravity, tremendous power, and blazing fast feet to beat blockers without the aid of great length. You also see a player with the kind of change of direction, overall speed, and football IQ to make for a good coverage player.

Many players who are taller lack the change of direction and lateral speed to play linebacker and often their poor positioning leads to them getting blocked despite their length. After all, if an OL reaches a linebacker with an angle he's still going to have a bigger frame and longer arms than the linebacker. The 6'2" 240 pounder will be driven back just as the 5'10" 210 pounder would be.

Here's the biggest kicker, a look around college football today demonstrates that sub 6'0" linebackers are DOMINATING the landscape. Let's take a look around, shall we?

Big 12

Eddie Lackey: 5'10" 220, Baylor

Lackey was probably the best linebacker in the B12 in 2013 and played both the Will and Mike positions for Baylor. His speed allowed him to make interceptions, win the edge vs runs, and just fly around the field. Ask Baylor if they'd like another Eddie Lackey on their team. Their recruitment of speedy, 6'0" LB Clay Johnston suggests the answer is a resounding YES!

Jonathan Truman: 5'11" 215, Kansas State

Truman plays Will linebacker for KSU and made Bruce Feldman's freak list thanks to his ability to bench 430, squat 535, and clean 400. Sound familiar? He was a walk-on to KSU and wasn't originally offered many scholarships because of his height, now there's a chance he'll finish on the All-Big 12 teams after 2014.

Blake Slaughter: 5'9" 227, Kansas State

Slaughter led KSU in tackles in 2013 playing their Mike linebacker position. He's not amazing but he wasn't bad and nor was he tall.

Jeremiah George: 5'11" 234, Iowa State

George led the entire league in 2013 in total tackles and added 2 interceptions and 6 pass break-ups. He played middle linebacker.

Shaun Lewis: 5'11" 226, Oklahoma State

Lewis was a 4 year starter for the Cowboys as their "Sam" linebacker who played a hybrid safety/linebacker position and excelled in coverage and as an edge blitzer. As an upperclassman he would move inside to the mike linebacker position in the Cowboys' 3rd down/dime packages and control the middle of the field as a Tampa-2 player.

Eric Striker: 5'11" 215, Oklahoma

Striker might be the most dominant defensive player in the B12 in 2014. He played a Jack outside linebacker for OU's 3-4 defense in 2013 and this year will move out to a field position similar to what Shaun Lewis played for OSU. His ability to get out in coverage, play the run on the edge, and be a virtually unblockable blitzer on the edge makes him a terrifying weapon.

Other leagues?

Okay, you may ask, hasn't the B12 had some low recruiting rankings in recent years? Are undersized linebackers all they have available? Isn't that conference known more for wonky spread offenses than defense and linebackers?

Well, in the B1G they had

Chris Borland: 5'11" 245, Wisconsin

The ferocious Badger inside linebacker had 111 tackles, 4 sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss this year playing in the B1G. They'd blitz him off the edge on 3rd down as well and found him a versatile weapon. All-American player.

Denicos Allen: 5'11" 218, Michigan State

Allen was one of the key playmakers in Michigan State's elite defense and led their defense with 98 tackles, 16.5 of which occurred behind the line of scrimmage.

and in the vaunted SEC

Denzel Nkemdiche: 5'11" 207, Ole Miss

When healthy, the older and smaller Nkemdiche was an impact player at one of Ole Miss' outside linebacker spots.

Serderius Bryant: 5'9" 220, Ole Miss

When Nkemdiche went down, Bryant stepped into his spot and had 78 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, in that same "Spur" position which is more or less equivalent to a Will linebacker position in another scheme.

Sharrod Golightly: 5'10" 205, South Carolina

Golightly played a hybrid position for South Carolina, also known as a "Spur" although in this instance it's more akin to Shaun Lewis' LB/S field linebacker role then the position at Ole Miss.

Robinson Therezie: 5'9" 212, Auburn

Therezie played the Sam/S position as well and returns for another run with an experienced Tiger LB corp in 2014.

Here's the takeaway: the demands of defending modern offenses puts a premium on change of direction but the linebacker position still requires some balance, bulk, and power in order to beat blocks and bring down ball carriers.

These traits come up more often with shorter, even sub 6'0" linebackers. At the nickel/lb hybrid positions in particular, more and more teams are looking for fierce athletes who can pack a punch but also move around in space. Other teams are even using these players as 3-4 outside backers (thanks Elvis Dumervil!) and Will linebackers because of their ability to get to the places on the field where defenses need them.

Thomas Hutchings will be a steal for whichever program stops viewing shorter players like this as a stopgap or plan B and actually prioritizes the athleticism and traits here that have been proven to be essential in today's game.

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