The junior season for Texas Longhorns defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway didn't exactly go to plan, as the 6'3, 303-pounder suffered a pre-season back injury that limited him in fall camp and battled a number of injuries throughout the season. However, that didn't stop Ridgeway from earning a first-team All-Big 12 selection from ESPN.com or declaring early for the 2016 NFL Draft.
"Not just my back," he said in March. "I had shoulder, ankle, back, so I had three different injuries that happened throughout the year that slowed me down. I caught my speed then I would get hindered again. I caught my speed and got hindered again. But it's not something that I'll have to sit out through. You have to push through those games. My team needed me and you have to play."
When Ridgeway was healthy, he continued to demonstrate the significant upside he flashed as a redshirt freshman when he got into the backfield so quickly against New Mexico State that he pretty much managed to tackle the quarterback and the running back at the same time. As a sophomore, the Mansfield product built on that potential by finishing second on the team in sacks (6) and fourth in tackles for loss (11).
Last season, the former US Army All-American played in 11 games, including starts in the last eight he played in before missing the Baylor game due to injury. He posted 36 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss and led the team with two fumble recoveries. In two games he registered six tackles, including his best performance of the season against Oklahoma State, when he added one sack, 1.5 tackles for loss, one pressure and a 34-yard fumble recovery return for a touchdown (with only one shoe).
"Hassan is a really talented young player whose best years are ahead of him," head coach Charlie Strong said when Ridgeway declared for the draft. "We appreciate everything he's done for Texas, and though we're disappointed to lose him, we will continue to support him any way we can. We wish Hassan the best."
"Coach Strong has always had a lot of faith in me and my ability, and he's always pushed me," Ridgeway said. "It's been a great help, both him and the coaching staff -- coach (Brick) Haley, coach (Vance) Bedford -- they've really pushed me and helped me become a better player and person. That's not saying I can't still get better, but they've pushed me farther than I thought was possible."
Ridgeway drew some criticism from fans who thought that he was leaving too early, but made that decision based on a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board.
At the NFL Combine in February, Ridgeway posted good numbers in the measurements of straight-line athleticism, but struggled a bit when changing direction:
Let's parse these numbers a little bit -- at a little bit over 6'3 and 303 pounds, Ridgeway's height and weight aren't really a concern moving forward. Hand size and arm length? Two factors that are more important for quarterbacks and offensive linemen, though Ridgeway does have a little bit less ability to keep opposing linemen from getting their hands on him first because of his arm length. And so while all of those measurements could be more ideal, none of them are going to single-handedly keep him from being successful.
The true athleticism numbers are much more important. On the plus side, Ridgeway's 40-yard dash of 5.02 seconds was just behind "athletic freak" Shawn Oakman, the former Baylor defensive end.
His broad jump nearly matched that of another "athletic freak" in Robert Nkemdiche. Where Ridgeway struggles much more athletically is in changing direction, as evidenced by his poor three-cone drill and short shuttle. In other words, Ridgeway has the athleticism to get into the backfield, but can struggle when when he has to break down and re-direct.
However, Ridgeway helped himself at the Texas Pro Day in late March by improving on the agility numbers he posted in Indianapolis with a 4.69 20-yard shuttle and a 7.33 three-cone drill.
At the time, his agent anticipated that Ridgeway would interview with eight to 10 teams prior to the draft.
Ridgeway has excellent straight-line athleticism for his size and combines adequate arm length with a massively powerful lower body that allows him to both anchor and explode off the ball with a good first step. When he is healthy and well-conditioned, he's difficult to stop -- even playing through injuries last season, Ridgeway posted the fifth-best pass-rushing productivity among all defensive tackles in a deep and talented 2016 group.
Pro Football Focus commends his balance and flexibility and further notes that he also had the fifth-best win rate against the run and didn't miss a single tackle as a junior.
He can recognize plays, he can show violent activity with his hands, and has the base to hold his ground against double teams. When opponents attempt to single block him, he can generally win those battles, whether against the run or the pass, as evidenced by his productivity rates.
Here's an example of his play recognition and pursuit ability:
While it wasn't a poor decision to come out a year early, scouts would have liked to see another year of Ridgeway on tape to answer questions about his conditioning and ability to stay healthy. Another year playing outside in odd fronts may have allowed him to become more productive when playing at defensive end and show more trust in his teammates to make plays -- at times Ridgeway lost his gap integrity last season in his efforts to make plays.
The biggest weakness with Ridgeway is his lack of high-level production as a junior because of his injury issues and the fact that he often got winded and lost effectiveness when he stayed on the field for a prolonged number of snaps in a row.
Ridgeway didn't start playing football until he was 14 and experienced a great deal of physical maturation between the time that he committed to Texas in 2011 at around 240 pounds. Because of his relative inexperience with the game and the injuries he dealt with last season, there's still some significant upside for Ridgeway, with some scouts believing that he's more talented than former Longhorns defensive tackle Malcom Brown, the last pick of the first round by the New England Patriots last season.
However, because Ridgeway isn't an elite athlete overall or in terms of his lateral agility and has dealt with those health and conditioning issues, there are some concerns that his floor might be a little bit lower than scouts would like.
Despite those concerns, Ridgeway looks like a risk worth taking because he managed such a high level of per-snap productivity last year even though he was dealing with so many injuries -- the NFL Draft is all about upside and Ridgeway oozes it. He's probably not as ready to make a quick impact as Brown, but he might ultimately have a better career.
Back in the fall of 2014, Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said it all about Ridgeway.
"One of these days, Hassan is actually going to get mad," said Bedford. "He is one the nicest young people I've ever been around. If he ever gets mad, I'm going to be the first person to leave the room because he will hurt somebody. My man could be a beast."
Draft projection -- Second round
There was some buzz in NFL circles about Ridgeway moving into the first round after his Pro Day performance, but CBSSports.com has him as the No. 79 play overall and the No. 10 defensive tackle, slotting him between rounds two and three. ESPN has him a little bit higher -- No. 69 overall, though No. 11 among defensive tackles. SB Nation isn't as high on the Texas product, placing him No. 99 overall and No. 15 among defensive tackles.
Based on all the talk about Ridgeway throughout the late part of the draft process, it would be extremely surprising to see him drop into the third day of the draft and hearing his name called in the second round by a team tantalized by his potential would hardly come as a shock.