After a somewhat down year in 2011, this year's outside linebacker class is deep and very athletic, headlined by 11 ESPNU 150 prospects. The theme of this class, particularly up top, is range. It is filled with linebackers who possess lengthy frames and the speed to cover the field sideline to sideline. The top tier of this group not only displays the ability to run but also excellent versatility. This OLB class is loaded with prospects who can make plays versus the run, in coverage and particularly as pass rushers. Overall, this may be one of the better classes in recent years for vertical attackers.
It was a tough call for the No. 1 spot. Kwon Alexander (Oxford, Ala./Oxford) and Noor Davis (Leesburg, Fla./Leesburg) have similar games as productive up-field guys who can flat out run and close on the football. We gave the early nod to Alexander as he may be more of a complete linebacker at this point. While there is an argument for the nation's best, there is no dispute Davis and Alexander are two of the most disruptive defenders in the country. Our No. 3 OLB, Josh Harvey-Clemons (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes), shows flashes of being a disruptive edge guy, and at 6-foot-4 the lengthy body is there to bulk up if this terrific athlete is asked to play as a stand-up rusher in college.
Programs still in need of outside linebackers are out of luck, at least when looking at the premier defenders of the group. Alexander and Clemons are the only remaining uncommitted OLBs in the ESPNU 150.
Fast, athletic and physical, Alexander made a living last fall in opponents' backfields, piling up close to 20 sacks from his linebacker position. He can run, close and hit as well as any in this class and plays with the type of motor coaches covet at the position. Colleges are looking for dynamic, every-down linebackers today who can stay on the field regardless of down and distance, and Alexander projects to be one of those guys. He can cover in space, rush the passer or stack the run downhill. We believe the best football is still ahead of the country's No. 1 overall linebacker as his body continues to physically develop and he increases his already impressive speed to power.
Noor Davis (Leesburg, Fla./Leesburg)
The top pure pass rusher in this group, Davis is an ideal 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level and should fit right in the Cardinal's defensive scheme. With his large frame to hold point versus the run and great up-field speed to pressure the quarterback, this is the type of defender you can align through different fronts, not just a 3-4, and turn loose to create havoc. It's rare to find edge rushers who also can drop into coverage and provide favorable matchups with their athleticism -- but this future Cardinal is one of them. Davis tore up a smaller level of football in the Orlando area last year, and skeptics may be looking to see if he can do the same as he recently transferred to Leesburg, which is up a division. We have no doubt.
Josh Harvey-Clemons (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes)
While Davis may be the most gifted pass rusher and Alexander the best rounded, Harvey-Clemons is the most athletic in this crop of great outside linebackers. He possesses a freakish combination of size/speed measurables and skill set. How often do you find a receiver with great ball skills who also can be a menace as a blitzer and pass rusher on defense? This tall and rangy athlete could project at a number of different positions in college, but we feel his most upside is at outside linebacker. Like Davis, he may be best suited in a hybrid role, deployed near the line of scrimmage and set free to chase and pursue the football. At this point, coaches may tell Harvey-Clemons he can play wherever he wants at the next level just to gain his signature in February.
Players to watch
Peter Jinkens (Dallas/Skyline)
Jinkens is perhaps the outside linebacker prospect with the best chance to move up our board next fall with a big senior season and continued physical development. He took a lot of snaps at tailback last year due to Skyline's injuries in the backfield and showed his great athleticism, speed and versatility. As a true linebacker he has the wiry strength to shed blockers at the point and lateral agility and range to chase backs down to the sideline. Still lean with a lot of room for growth, this is the type of quick-twitch linebacker that should pack on the bulk without losing a step.
(Edgard, La./West Saint John)
An intriguing prospect to evaluate, Feist is a high school defensive end we project will slide back to linebacker. It's not always a natural progression but for lean, athletic edge rushers who can really run in high school, it makes sense in our eyes. Feist reminds us of another explosive end made linebacker Ryan Shazier in the 2011 class. The Tigers could have a future stud if they are patient in his development as he adjusts to his diagnosing skills from a 5-yard depth. In the meantime, don't be surprised if LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis deploys him in situational pressure schemes, this guy can flat out get after the quarterback.
Wolverine fans have to be pleased with the emphasis Brady Hoke is putting on defense in this class, particularly at linebacker. It appears the instinctive linebacker is being recruited to play inside for coordinator Greg Mattison's defense and be the anchor of the front seven, similar to the role Ray Lewis played for him in Baltimore. In Jenkins-Stone, Mattison is getting a linebacker who could be that stout middle backer in a 4-3 scheme or also line up on the strong side as he has shown on film the quickness, speed and flexibility to play in space.
How versatile is Dillon Lee (Buford, Ga./Buford)? We feel he could play either linebacker or tight end in the Under Armour All-America Game in January. ... The commitment from Vince Biegel (Wisconsin Rapids, Wis./ Lincoln) could mark the second consecutive year Wisconsin retains the state's top linebacker and overall defensive prospect. ... Brian Nance (Euless, Texas/Trinity) is a well-rounded linebacker who could rise up our board if he can bounce back from offseason knee surgery. ... Miami linebacker coach Micheal Barrow was instrumental in the recruitment of Raphael Kirby (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson) and now can reap the benefit of coaching this explosive 150 linebacker. ... Texas A&M commit Jordan Richmond (Denton, Texas/Billy Ryan) may be overshadowed a bit playing on the same team as the No. 1 player in the ESPNU 150, but this guy can overpower blockers or beat them with quickness. He's a great prospect in his own right. ... Feist isn't the only explosive edge defender out of Louisiana who flew under the radar in the early going. Florida has a great one to develop in Lorenzo Phillips (Patterson, La./Patterson). ... We feel Seth Jacobs (Arroyo Grande, Calif./Arroyo Grande) is another national sleeper. ... Future Trojan Scott Starr (Norco, Calif./Norco Senior) could be the best-looking OLB in this class and will surprise you with athleticism and ability to cover. ... Crimson Tide commit Tyler Hayes (Thomasville, Ala./Thomasville) is a national sleeper in our eyes; hard to find prospects that big and athletic.