the lookout list: LB
By Simon Carroll
Tough Tackling, blitz packages, pass coverage – playing in a defense’s second level requires many different elements to your game. Here are ten off-ball linebackers to keep an eye out for in 2019:
Joe Bachie, Michigan State Spartans
One of the reasons for the optimism in East Lansing this offseason is the Spartan’s defense. It has elite talent at pretty much every spot. None more so than at linebacker, where Joe Bachie returns for his senior year. An absolute hitting machine, Bachie has led the second level of this unit for the last two years, racking up over 200 tackles.
Bachie could have been a high draft pick but decided to have one more season at Michigan State. Everyone is expecting rivals Michigan to be the big challengers to Ohio State in 2019. But don’t forget about the noisy neighbours – with Bachie back as captain this defense could be formidable.
Isaiah Simmons, Clemson Tigers
One of the most complete players in college football, Isaiah Simmons will step into a leading role on the Tigers defense following a lot of talent heading to the NFL this offseason. Adept at run defense, pass coverage, some blitz duties and even masquerading as a safety on occasion, Simmons is one of the new breed of linebacker. His athelticism puts him in a position to make plays no matter where he lines up or the role he has been given.
Simmons stock will be high with NFL scouts as the linebacker-safety hybrid becomes more vogue in the pro game. But with 88 tackles as a sophomore and an increased workload on the horizon for 2019, Clemson will be hoping he has plenty more to offer at the college level first. Seeing how he will be utilised in Brent Venables’ defense will be one of the more intriguing storylines heading into this season.
Paddy Fisher, Northwestern Wildcats
A throwback to the linebackers of old, Paddy Fisher is a downhill thumper who keys onto the ball early and comes down to make the stop. But to think his game is one-dimensional is to do Fisher a disservice – his proficiency in pass coverage makes him a valuable asset in the passing game. Holding zone or in man, Fisher has a nose for the danger on any play:
As you can see from the highlight video above, Fisher really does have an all-round game. He doesn’t possess elite speed but can get to the sidelines on time thanks to smart play recognition. And the angles he takes to the ball carrier are exemplary. If Northwestern are to avoid a dropoff following their Big Ten Championship Game appearance last year then Fisher will be a big reason why.
Troy Dye, Oregon Ducks
If The Big 10 is the conference of edge rushers, then the PAC 12 might be the conference for linebackers. And Troy Dye might just be the most productive out of the lot. A three year starter in Eugene, Dye has racked up 307 tackles in his college career, 34.5 of which are for a loss. He’s also had 10.5 sacks, which, for an off-the-ball linebacker is astonishing.
Heading into 2019 hopes are high for Oregon. Andy Avalos comes in as the new defensive co-ordinator and he’ll be looking to take advantage of Dye’s playmaking skills. The rest of the college football world and maybe the PAC 12 too seem to be sleeping on Dye’s talent, a foolish idea when you look at his production. If I was an opposing quarterback he would be the first person I find on every snap.
Evan Weaver, California Golden Bears
Much like Bachie, Weaver is a seek-and-destroy linebacker who racks up tackles for fun. His last season at Berkeley saw him post 159 tackles, the second most in the nation. And with his return The Golden Bears will hope to improve a defense that already held opposition teams to less than 20 points a game last year.
Picking out Weaver when watching game tape isn’t hard – he’s the 6’3”, 235lb beast who wears a wide receiver’s number (89). But it’s his non-stop motor and hard hitting that stands out. Another year like 2018 and Weaver will be on the NFL radar come next April.
Colin Schooler, Arizona Wildcats
Instincts, speed and laying the wood. They’re the attributes that best describe Colin Schooler, who has been the main souce of production on this Wildcats defense for the past two seasons. What impressed me most about Schooler is his ability to drop into deep coverage and make plays. Sometimes he held such a deep zone that he was picking off quarterbacks in traditional cornerback positions, and has four interceptions in his college career.
His speed allows him to be a threat in the passing game, but it also helps him come downhill hard when he needs to. With 35 tackles for a loss Schooler has the smarts to identify the play and quickly come through the line and hit the ball carrier. When spread out he effortlessly chases the ball down, navigating the mess and with good angles makes the tackle as the running back comes round the corner. Reminiscent of Brian Cushing but with ball skills, Schooler looks set to have another big year in Tucson.
Micah Parsons, Penn State Nittany Lions
First Yetur Gross-Matos and now Micah Parsons, Penn State really are just knocking out physical specimens on their defense this year. At 6’3” and 245lbs of pure muscle, Parsons is the prototypical linebacker. And the scary thing is that he was just a freshman last year. Used in a rotation as he adapted to the college game, Parsons might not have had the highest volume of production but made plenty of wow plays.
Working out Parsons in 2019 requires a bit of projecting. He’ll undoubtedly be utilised more on this defense, and with his aggression, measurables & playmaking ability he looks set to take the NCAA by storm this year. The upside is through the roof and it would not surprise me in the least if he forced his way into the Big 10 DPOY reckoning.
David Woodward, Utah State Aggies
The ultimate three-down linebacker, Woodward can do it all. Technically sound fundamentals and a high football IQ form the basis of his game, meaning he minimises yardage allowed on every play. According to PFF, Woodward allowed just four first downs in pass coverage and missed just one tackle in run defense in 2018. His work ethic is second to none – Hans Olsen (@975Hans) from The Zone Sports Network excellently highlights an example of a play where Woodward’s hustle saved a big gain:
Woodward recorded 134 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles in 2018, further alluding to his all-round game. Returning as a junior this year I see no reason why he can’t kick on and take his game up to the next level. Utah State will be relying on him to anchor that defense as they make a run at the Mountain West.
Dylan Moses, Alabama Crimson Tide
Labelled as the next CJ Mosley, Moses didn’t disappoint in his sophomore campaign. He led the Crimson Tide in tackles with 86 last year – a smaller number than most on this list but then on a depth chart as deep as Alabama’s and leading by forty points at halftime that’s bound to be the case. Much like Parson’s it’s the upside that has people excited about Moses – he’s good now but just how great can he be?
Watching the game tape and listening to coaches, the sky is the limit for Moses. His first step gives him the advantage and when coming into the backfield he’s able to stay low and evade a lineman’s hands. He’s clever in space, often marshalling the middle of that defense on his own. And with his length he can often disrupt the pass even if he doesn’t quite have the ball skills of others at his position. Moses will be showcasing his abilities as Alabama set fire to the rest of college football once again.
Markus Bailey, Purdue Boilermakers
This guy is my favourite linebacker in college football. A semi-finalist for the Butkus Award in 2018, Markus Bailey is unquestionably the leader on this Purdue defense. In their shock win over Ohio State last year it was naturally Rondale Moore who took most of the credit. But Bailey had a huge game too, returning an interception to the house to nix the game with two minutes remaining.
An excellent open field tackler, Bailey has shown a proficiency for spying the quarterback and hunting them down if they decide to take off. He is a ruthless hitter, exploding upwards into the ball carrier every time he makes the strike. Once he gets his hands on you he just doesn’t let go. He shows a good awareness of down and distance, frequently making stops just before the line to gain, and is savvy on play action. The Boilermaker’s defense is an underwhelming unit as a whole but I pity any team that fails to account for number 21.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.