Similar to 2008, this year's outside linebacker class is deep in talent and comprised of fast and rangy undersized prospects. That the classes are comparable makes sense; the position is changing at the college level. As evaluators, we are now seeking out prospects who can adjust to the increased speed of the game. With wide-open, spread offenses becoming so prevalent, defenses cannot afford to have perimeter linebackers who can't make plays in space or cover the field sideline-to-sideline.
Only two out of the impressive 12 OLBs who comprise the 2009 ESPNU 150 are taller than 6-foot-2, and just one tips the scale at more than 230 pounds. In most cases, speed trumps size for better impending college matchups. In a few cases, we have even projected smaller, inexperienced high school strong safeties as top outside linebacker prospects. The recruiting philosophy that size can be gained in a fulltime college weight-training program and speed and fast-twitch athleticism simply cannot be coached is popular among college defensive coordinators across the country and in the eyes of Scouts Inc.
Though there are fewer prototypical-sized linebackers in this class, there is definitely no shortage of big-time hitters. In fact, collectively, this may be one the more explosive groups of OLBs we have seen in recent years. It is filled with smaller linebackers whose blend of elite speed and closing burst in the short-area masks their leaner frames and gives them the apparent power on contact of a defender 20-25 pounds heavier. However, we did notice that these high-impact hits occasionally compromised proper tackling technique with this group, which we are sure will be refined quickly at the next level.
The striking part about this year's No 1. outside and overall linebacker prospect is that he fits the aforementioned speed and explosiveness attributes but actually checks in at solid 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. Manti Te'o (Honolulu/Punahou School) is one of the better overall football prospects to come out of Hawaii in recent years, and we project he will be wreaking havoc in the continenal U.S. the moment he straps on the pads. It's very difficult to find many physical weaknesses in Te'o's game at outside linebacker; he shows awesome power and strength at the point of attack and displays great burst and closing quickness, blowing up plays on the perimeter. One of the top undecided prospects in the country, Te'o has the measurables and coveted scheme versatility to develop into an outstanding strong or inside linebacker at the next level.
While Te'o may be one of the more college-ready OLBs right now, in terms of pure upside, we have not seen a defensive prospect like Jelani Jenkins (Wheaton, Md./Good Counsel) in years. ESPN's No. 2-rated OLB turned heads as a junior last fall with his great range and rare explosiveness closing in space. The intriguing part -- he was only 15 years old. The only traits this fast, attacking defender lacks right now are size and strength to shed bigger blockers, but we expect his longer, leaner frame to blossom to the 6-foot-2, 230-pound range in college -- while he retains his great speed and athleticism.
Te'o and Jenkins are both top-10 overall prospects in our recently released ESPNU 150 and currently are two of the most coveted, undecided defenders in the country. Dorian Bell (Monroeville, Pa./Gateway) possesses a similar ability to disrupt the offense's game plan, holds the label of being the top-rated player in his respective state, but is different because he made his commitment several months ago. The future Buckeye has already packed on impressive size from a year ago, when he terrorized opponents with his elite explosiveness and first-step quickness off the edge. He has game-changing closing speed, burst on the perimeter and is the type of defender Big Ten offensive coordinators will need to game plan around. Bell is a fierce hitter, and a kid whose motor never gears down on the football field.
Has Miami freshman Sean Spence been cloned?
Although it is not ideal to use a current freshman without any official college production as a measuring stick, we feel current University of Miami outside linebacker Sean Spence (Miami, Northwestern) may be the new breed at the position. We raised some eyebrows last year when Spence claimed our No. 2 OLB slot at a mere 6-feet, 190 pounds. But he displayed he was one of the better linebackers in the country in January with his performance as an Under Armour All-American, then continued to wow last spring as an early enrollee at Miami.
OLB grading criteria
Scouts Inc. grades outside linebackers in eight categories:
1. Versus inside run: Do they step up and fill the hole? Are they physical? Can they take on blocks and shed quickly?
2. Versus outside run: Can they ward off a block? Do they have the speed to get to the sideline? Do they take good angles in pursuit?
3. Blitz/pass rush: Are they a power-rusher or a finesse-rusher? How is their hand use? Do they have good feet?
4. Key and diagnose: Can they read and react quickly? Do they get a good jump on the ball? How are their football instincts?
5. Lateral pursuit: Can they get over trash? How is the movement in their hips? Can they chase sideline to sideline?
6. Tackling: Do they wrap up well? Do they tackle low or high? Are they able to drag down? Do they tackle with power and are they punishing?
7. Pass drop: How are their hips and their turns? Do they get adequate depth? Do they show the ability to play in zone coverage?
8. Pass coverage/hands: Can they cover man-to-man? How are their hips and turns?
Do they have the ability to long snap, and are they proficient at it?
We feel this year's class has a handful of Spence-esque linebackers who will be similarly productive if employed on the weakside, covered up and given the green light to ball hawk the football.
No two might be more alike than Eric Fields (Warner Robins, Ga./Northside) and Frankie Telfort (Miami/Gulliver prep) who round out our top-five 2009 OLBs. Aside from their matching measurables, they share Spence's natural instincts, great range and rare explosiveness tracking down ball-carriers.
Fields can run and hit as good as any outside linebacker in this class. The Clemson pledge takes direct angles to the ball-carrier and might have some of the best short-area burst and acceleration in the class, aside from Telfort. When this Florida native has a clear read to the ball, he looks like a heat-seeking missile or -- as Scouts Inc.'s Bill Conley termed him when viewing him at the Miami Nike camp this past spring -- "a little keg of dynamite."
Jarvis Jones (Columbus, Ga./Carver) checks in as our No. 6 OLB and breaks the trend of smaller, fast-twitched linebackers. Jones, like Te'o, could make the move inside at the next level, particularly if he continues to fill out to land in the 240-pound range. He lacks the reactive burst possessed by the previous five linebackers, but his blend of size, range and strength at the point of attack is very much coveted on the recruiting trail as he is still undecided.
Tom Wort (New Braunfels, Texas) showed up in our ESPN 150 sleepers article and looking back, Dexter Moody (Twin City, Ga./Emmanuel County Institute) probably should have too. Wort, an Oklahoma pledge, grew up in England but quickly adapted to American football. It's hard to fathom how his 6-foot-1, 210-pound frame can generate so much force and power in the short-area; he is by far the highest-impact hitter in this class. Moody has tremendous upside on the perimeter when you look at his tall, muscular frame and large wingspan. The future Georgia Bulldog has great sideline-to-sideline range and closing speed in space you can't coach.
Jon Bostic (Wellington, Fla./Palm Beach Central) starts to round out our upper-tier OLBs in '09. He is a linebacker we have thoroughly analyzed this year on film and in person. His body looks like it has been carved out of clay and he still runs very well for a kid with his thickness. Our concern comes with his hip-fluidity; we question his ability to turn and run in coverage and break down sharply in space if employed on the outside.
Tana Patrick (Stevenson, Ala./North Jackson) concludes our top-10, and he may be the best two-way outside linebacker in this class. He could very well get a look at tight end before his college career is over. The highly-coveted Alabama native can chase sideline-to-sideline and shows good strength at the point of attack, which should only improve with his great frame for future physical development.
Two explosive 6-footers are the final OLBs who claimed spots in the first release of the ESPNU 150. Kevin Minter (Suwanee, Ga./Peachtree Ridge) has a great blend of size and speed and is physically ready to make the jump to the next level (committed to LSU). Minter offers good scheme versatility; he could just as easily slide inside if he does not make the transition outside. Jerrod Askew (Chesapeake, Va./Oscar Frommel Smith) has similar straight-line attacking skills and is an explosive prospect we are going to watch closely this fall for top-10 consideration.
Brandon Mahoney (Keller, Texas/Fossil Ridge) is one of three outside linebackers in the top-20 heading to play for defensive coordinator Brent Venables at Oklahoma. The Texas native has a great frame for future growth and matching explosiveness.
Slide 'em down
To get more team speed on defense, particularly on the perimeter, a lot of programs slide guys down closer to the line of scrimmage from their natural high school positions, despite potential physical limitations. We buy into that philosophy; hence the next three prospects.
Chris Metcalf (Compton, Calif.) is a great example of a 6-foot-2, rangy high school safety who projects better as a perimeter linebacker with his great frame, speed and aggressiveness. The future Trojan is very disruptive playing in the box and has the impressive closing speed and athleticism desired in a USC linebacker.
Ronnell Lewis (Dewar, Okla.) may be one of the best kept secrets in Oklahoma -- his Dewar high school team competes in 8-man football. Competition aside, this future Sooner covers the whole field as a high-point safety, already has impressive size and boasts a very high ceiling.
Shayne Skov (Pawling, N.Y./Trinity Pawling) is similar to Lewis in that he took a lot of snaps last year as a thickly-built high school safety and his level of competition is a bit shaky. Regardless, he can flat-out run and is a fast-twitched athlete who projects to be highly productive during his career at Stanford.
Mike Gilliard (Valdosta, Ga.) is the sixth OLB from the state of Georgia in the top-20 this year. He possesses the speed and vertical attacking skills to shine on the outside. The future Bulldog is only 200 pounds but is tall, very rangy and should tip the scales at 225 in Athens without compromising his good hips and ability to match up in space.
We feel Tennessee has a steal at OLB in Nigel Mitchell-Thornton (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson). The Georgia native has a great blend of size and closing burst off the edge and the coveted ability to get after the quarterback. He may be slipping through the cracks due to a lack of game film with him performing strictly at linebacker.
Luke Kuechly (Cincinnati/Saint Xavier) may not blow you away with size and speed measurables at a combine, but he is a very sound, well-rounded linebacker prospect who can sift through the wash or chase plays down sideline-to-sideline. Kuechly was very dominant versus good Ohio competition.
It's hard not to see great upside when looking at Quandon Christian (Lakeview, S.C.) on film. His rangy, extremely high-cut frame is dripping with upside, he has excellent sideline-to-sideline range and closes fast in space. Christian's a bit raw, but Clemson may have landed this OLB class' diamond in the rough.
Like his older brother Maurice who committed to USC last year, we feel Marquis Simmons (Compton, Calif./Dominquez) is a better "football player" at this point than perhaps an outside linebacker prospect. At the high school level his very high motor can often mask his marginal hip-fluidity and average speed -- but it could get exploited on the perimeter in college.
Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for Scouts Inc. and has close to a decade of coaching experience at the college and high school level. Tucker has served as a recruiting coordinator for two nationally ranked Division II colleges. Most recently, he was the associate head coach and defensive coordinator for Merrimack College, which advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 2006 NCAA Division II playoffs.