27 Oct 2020

Home of the NFL Offseason

Pac-12 Preview: Off-Ball Linebackers (Part I)

The Pac-12 may not be known for their defenses, but it is one of the more talented conferences overall, and that is the case for players on the defensive side of the ball as well.

My last primer was on wide receivers from the American Conference. This time we will be headed west and covering one of my favorite positions to scout, linebackers, from the Pac-12.

First, I’ll start with my favorite prospect of the bunch, Tony Fields II out of Arizona.

Tony Fields II, Arizona

6’0 | 220 LBS | Las Vegas, Nevada | Sr.

Tony Fields was a three-star recruit coming out of college. He was the 44th ranked ATH of the 2017 class and received 15 offers.

Fields was quick to start producing. He started all 13 games as a true freshman and was named a freshman All-American by ESPN. He finished the season second among all freshmen in tackles.

The next two seasons he once again, started every single game. This puts him at 37/37 on starts since arriving at Arizona.

Fields played ILB in a 4-2-5 last season, but his first two seasons he manned the WILL spot.

Fields possesses nice speed for the position, but he is definitely more of a run stopper than a coverage backer. He really excels at slipping blocks, as well as going head up at the point of attack and shedding blocks.

Meets blocker at 2nd level, disengages and tracks down the ball carrier

Fields is also an adept blitzer, both shooting the inside gaps and rushing from the edge which he was tasked with quite a bit despite being an ILB.

While I mentioned he has nice speed and overall athleticism, his coverage ability needs work. He can cover tight ends and rb’s one on one in man, but his movement in zone is sloppy. His footwork needs work as does his hip movement. His hips are not tight, in fact they are loose, but he moves around wildly in zone, and because of that can lose receivers.

All in all, Fields is a good run-stopper with upside in coverage. At the next level he projects as either a 3-4 ILB or a backside run-and-chase WILL in a 4-3.

Of the Pac-12 linebackers I covered, Fields has the most talent in my opinion, and I would not be surprised to see him earn 1st team Pac-12 honors this upcoming season.

Kuony Deng, CAL

6’5 | 225 LBS | Aldie, Virginia | RS Sr.

Kuony Deng was a 0-star recruit coming out of high school and received no scholarship offers. He did, however, receive multiple offers for basketball, but football was his true love and he decided to go to the Virginia Military Institute to continue to put on the pads.

He only played in two games at the Virginia Military Institute in 2017 recording 16 tackles. His time there does show he possesess an important trait to have for someone with aspirations to make it as a professional athlete, and that trait is the ability to balance many responsibilities. Not only was he playing two sports (football and basketball), but he also had to balance his life as an athlete with his life as a cadet.

In 2018 Deng decided to transfer to Independence Community College, a school that was featured on ESPN’s “Last Chance U” on the shows third season in 2018, the season Deng was there.

After a great season at Independence, FBS programs took notice. He was ranked the #1 OLB recruit of the 2019 JUCO circuit. Deng received 24 offers after receiving none coming out of high school. A lot of the offers came from programs more prestigious than Cal, such as LSU, but he decided to head to the Bay Area for his final two seasons.

In his first year playing at the FBS level, he and Evan Weaver combined for 301 tackles which was good for tops in the league as a duo. He started all 13 games and put up a stat line of 119 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, 3.0 sacks, 8 deflections, 5 hurries, and a fumble recovery. He goes into 2019 as a second-team All-Pac-12 preseason selection.

Now onto his skill set…

At 6’5 Deng has rare size for the linebacker position. He played ILB in a 3-4 for CAL but I think his skill-set allows him to play either OLB spot in a 4-3 as well, though the best fit would be at WILL.

Deng is a tackling machine. He uses his rare length well which allows him to easily disengage with blockers at the 2nd level. Despite his height he can actually shoot the inside gaps and fill lanes in between multiple bodies. This also shows in his blitzing ability.

Deng fills the inside gap and makes the initial hit for the run-stop

Moving on to his weaknesses, Deng definitely needs to gain strength and fill out his frame. While he is able to shed blocks consistently, he relies on his length to do so and is actually rather weak at the point of attack.

His height also limits his quickness. He has sideline-to-sideline speed but he lacks flexibility which especially shows when he is dropping back in zone coverage. His movement in coverage is clunky and mechanical, and he struggles to stay with receivers in man through their cuts/breaks.

Deng also needs to be more patient while the play is developing. Too often he is too ready to attack downhill before properly diagnosing where the runner is going with it.

If Deng can improve his coverage ability, his blend of size, length, and speed will make front offices take notice, and with a duplicate of his production last season, he has a good chance of being drafted at some point come 2021.

Nate Landman, Colorado

6’3 | 230 LBS | Danville, California | Sr.

While athletic hybrid safety-linebackers are all the rage in today’s pass-heavy league, the old-school thumpers who excel against the run will always have a place in the league, even if not valuable. Nate Landman is the definition of one of those guys.

Landman has had a highly productive career for Colorado thus far. As a sophomore in 2018 he made 104 total tackles, 15.0 for a loss, 4.0 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 deflections, and a forced fumble. As a junior last year, Landman finished with 113 tackles, 8.0 for a loss, 2.0 sacks, 1 interception, and 4 deflections.

Before the snap you will consistently notice Landman barking out orders and putting his players in the proper position. He is clearly the quarterback of the defense and his football IQ shows in his instincts and ability to diagnose the run.

His strength is as good as it gets for a linebacker, and he is extremely tough at the point of attack. His block destruction in turn is spectacular; he really excels in the box.

Landman lacks speed and overall athleticism, but his instincts are so good and he is just a straight-up ball-finder that he will often get there before the back does, and therefore does make a lot of splash plays behind the line.

Not at all fooled by the counter, Landman is already waiting for the back at the intended cut-back lane

This lack of speed and athleticism is a huge knock on Landman when it comes to coverage, however. His ability there is basically non-existent. His hips are extremely stiff, he lacks flexibility, and he has slow feet. Overall his movement in coverage is clunky and awkward.

Landman’s labored movement in coverage on display

Nick Landman is fun to watch, and I have no doubt his run-stopping ability will translate to the next level, but even if he was to start at MLB for a team, he would likely see less than 50% of the snaps due to his limitations in coverage.

As I said before, old school thumper’s like Landman are devalued in today’s league. You need no better evidence of this other than the fact that Evan Weaver wasn’t drafted until the 6th round this past April. Still, they do have a place in the league as two-down linebackers. If you put three athletic but weaker WILL’s out there, opposing offenses can just run it down your throat.

That is it for Part I, look out for Part II in the near future which will be featuring Devin Lloyd out of Utah, Merlin Robertson out of Arizona State, Palaie Gaoteote out of USC, and Curtis Robinson from Stanford.

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