Depth. Talent. Proven playmakers.
There’s no lack of options at the linebacker position for the Texas Longhorns and new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.
The 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes both brought highly-rated players at this position to Texas with Malik Jefferson and Jeffrey McCulloch. In 2017, the nation’s No. junior college linebacker, Gary Johnson, signed with the Horns.
Jefferson has been often criticized for his lack of physicality at inside linebacker, and many feel that he has been out of position the past two seasons, as he profiled as an outside linebacker out of high school. While some have listed Johnson at 6’0 and 215 pounds, both 247Sports and ESPN have him listed at 225 pounds and 6’1 to 6’2, with Texas officially listing Johnson at 211 pounds. One of the biggest concerns with Johnson is his ability to play on this inside with his smaller stature.
The physicality of either linebacker should not be of concern in Todd Orlando’s scheme. Lets start by pointing out that Orlando’s 2016 defense featured Stephen Taylor in the Mac spot (an inside linebacker position). Taylor is listed at 6’1, 224 pounds. Taylor also managed to earn first-team all-conference honors in 2016 and was included in numerous national awards watch lists after leading the Cougars defense with 8.5 sacks, finishing second on the team with 74 tackles and also second with 12 tackles for a loss in 2016.
The other inside linebacker for the Cougars was Matthew Adams, who is not much bigger than Taylor at 6’1, 230 pounds.
Another concern for Johnson is the mental responsibilities that accompany playing the inside, or Mac position in Todd Orlando’s defense. Orlando recruited Johnson, and it is my belief he recruited specifically for this position — if Orlando did not think Johnson could fit into that role mentally, he would not have made the push, convincing Tom Herman to give him the freedom to bring in the junior college transfer. The reason Johnson is here is to start, immediately, and to do it at inside linebacker.
With either Johnson or Jefferson playing the Mac position in 2017, it’s fair to expect similar results. The reason for this is the design of Orlando’s defense, which favors speed over size at the middle linebacker position. Orlando’s favorite scheme against the run in his multiple 3-4 defense is an “eagle” look, which covers both guards and the center with a slanted nose and a three technique. The scheme looks something like this:
In this alignment, strength, or the position of the Mac and associated players can be determined by the wide/short side of the field, the position of the tight end, or the position of a key player on the offense, depending on the scouting report.
This can change from week to week, but one thing that is consistent is that the Mac linebacker is protected in this alignment. The tackle is in a three technique, and is taught that his main responsibility is to prevent the guard from reaching the linebacker off the line of scrimmage.
The nose is taught to attack the center, preventing his ability to block at the second level. In addition, the nose’s body position (slightly less than 45 degrees slanted to the center) puts his lower half in the path of the backside guard, making it difficult for him to block the Mac.
The only block the backside guard has with a free release is a reach block on the Will, but that leaves the center man-to-man on the nose, a match up that Orlando will take all day, given the nose’s position in regards to the center.
This alignment allows for both the Will and the Mac to read the play and use their speed to outrun offensive linemen, reducing the need to take on the bigger, more physical players by the linebackers. Because of this design, the linebackers are able to use their greatest asset — their speed to defeat the blocks of the linemen shifting the advantage to the defense.
Against the pass, Orlando uses a variety of line stunts to open holes for the blitzing linebackers, who can run free to pressure the quarterback. These stunts, combined with a split coverage scheme (which a later post will discuss), will give both Jefferson and Johnson the opportunity to do what they do best — pressure the quarterback — while forcing the offensive linemen to focus on blocking big-on-big. One such simple stunt is the Tackle A Gap, combined with a Mac blitz as shown below.
Here, the tackle forces the guard to block him as he crosses the tackle’s face. Additionally, the Rush uses an outside speed move to lure the offensive tackle outside, opening a gap right off the tail end of the three technique. A variety of backside pressure schemes can also be used on conjunction with this blitz while dropping the Rush into a Cover 2 look play side, using what is called Blue coverage (once again, a different post). One such brings the Buck off the edge while reducing the end like this:
Or the will can rush across the offensive tackles face while the buck drops into coverage like this:
From the above play designs, it can be seen that this front gives Orlando many options to free up the inside linebackers to make plays against both the run and the pass.
Now on to the outside linebackers, starting with the Rush, a position occupied in 2016 at Houston by Tyus Bowser. The John Tyler product tied for the team lead with 8.5 sacks and was second on the team with 12 tackles for a loss in his senior season — this is another playmaking position in Orlando’s defense.
The Rush is often used as a fourth lineman in this scheme, and can either put his hand in the dirt, or play from a two-point stance, as Bowser preferred to do.
Although many believe that this is a perfect position for Jefferson, he may be more valuable playing inside for the Longhorns, due to his leadership abilities and the fact that he will have a full spring of practice to learn the position. Only time will tell how Orlando uses Jefferson in the future, but he could play any of the four linebacker positions.
If Jefferson’s physicality remains in question, this position would not be a good fit for him, because he will be required to match up with offensive tackles on the line of scrimmage from the rush spot, a more physically demanding situation than the inside linebacker spot.
Making the assumption that Jefferson stays in the middle, my favorite for this position is Breckyn Hager. This is essentially the same position as the Fox end that Hager played in 2016, from which which allowed Hager made 65 tackles and six sacks last season.
Another potential player for this position is Malcolm Roach, but at 6’2 and 263 pounds, Roach may fit better at the defensive end position. Playing there would also allow for both Roach and Hager to be on the field as edge rushers simultaneously which could be bad news for opposing quarterbacks.
The last linebacker position to preview is the Buck position. This position is a hybrid linebacker/safety position, and in 2016, Houston deployed defensive back Brandon Wilson a great deal at this position. I originally had Jefferson penciled in at this position, but after more consideration, he is simply too valuable both as a pass rusher and a leader to play as the buck.
Additionally, Edwin Freeman fits this position perfectly, as he played safety in high school, and has skills which could translate to this position at the collegiate level.
It may also be necessary in the Big 12 conference to use a safety, like P.J. Locke or Jason Hall here, especially when Blue coverage is used (as we will see later), which means in nickel situations, Jefferson is even more likely to move to the middle if he is deployed at Buck.
In addition to Jefferson, Johnson, Hager, and Freeman, Anthony Wheeler, Jeffery McCulloch, Nashon Hughes and Demarco Boyd could all push for playing time at linebacker in 2017.
As you can see, the possibilities are endless for this group, and the potential that each of these eight can be role players on the defense in 2017 is there. This position group should give Longhorns fans hope and something to be excited about for this coming fall.
Best of all, Orlando’s use of his fronts should ideally help the linebacker stay clean and be free to make plays.
There’s a Predator, a Shark, and a Hammerhead. And a host of others.
Think the Texas defensive coordinator might be a little bit excited about coaching the most highly-regarded athletes in his coaching career, by a wide margin?