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What college coaches look for in a defensive line prospect

The U has been known for defensive linemen dating back to Ted Hendricks in 1968. Let’s deep dive into what coaches are looking for at the position.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Louisville at Miami Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The University of Miami Hurricanes have been known for their dominant defensive line play dating all the way back to Ted Hendricks in the days before Woodstock. Hendricks, aka The Mad Stork, was a two-time All-American at Miami in 1967 and ‘68, and even finished 5th in Heisman Trophy voting in the latter.

After Hendricks, Howard Schnellenberger was able to get the Miami program going by signing Lester Williams out of Carol City High School. Williams was an eventual All-American and 1st round draft pick of the New England Patriots in an era of Miami football that built to acquire the next ‘Canes legend- Jerome Brown.

While Hendricks personified length at six-foot-seven; Brown personified power and girth as the six-foot-two, 295 pound defensive tackle dominated the run-centric college football world from 1983-1986. Brown, a national champion and All-American, was also drafted in the 1st round of the NFL Draft at 9th overall to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Jerome Brown - Miami Hurricanes

Along the way, many defensive linemen have risen to fame in the Jimmy Johnson, Sonny Lubick, Manny Diaz, and Randy Shannon defenses at Miami. Danny Stubbs, Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland, Vince Wilfork, Kenny Holmes, Kenard Lang and Warren Sapp are just a few of the illustrious names to play the position for The U.

Because the evaluation of a defensive lineman is much more so based on raw physical ability than say, quarterback (read more about QB recruiting here) or offensive line (read more about recruiting the O-Line here), it’s not as difficult to predict who will be a star and who won’t. Jadeveon Clowney, for instance, was the top-rated prospect in the class of 2011 and an eventual 1st overall pick of the Houston Texans in the 2014 NFL Draft. Are there diamonds in the rough? Sure. Sapp came to Miami as a tight end, but his raw ability was there as he began to see playing time in the rotation as early as the 1992 season.

Much more so than offensive line, the defensive line has to be segmented off into two groups: the ends and the tackles. While offensive tackles have to be better in space and guards are typically seen more as maulers; the defensive ends and tackles typically have different frames and skillsets.

Background information

Before you ever even get the tape on a kid, it’s always good to find out if a big man plays multiple sports. Jalen Rivers (yes, an OL, but you get the point) is also a state champion thrower for his track and field team. That’s a great sign of explosive movement and balance. Also a great sign that he likes to train because of his dedication to a second sport. Julius Peppers was a UNC basketball star; and Greg Hardy, the Ole Miss defensive end, also played basketball and wide receiver at Ole Miss in addition to the line.

Being able to play multiple sports at the high school level is a great indicator of athleticism and competitive edge. Think of Brock Lesnar: the future WWE Superstar and UFC World Heavyweight Champion was a football player (also later tried out for the Vikings) and wrestler in high school. J.J. Watt is another example. Watt played competitive hockey as a youth, as well as baseball and basketball while being on the track and field team while in high school.

The Hurricanes have had their own two-sport big man in defensive end Kenard Lang. Lang, who lettered in football, baseball, and basketball at Evans High School in Orlando, also played baseball at the University of Miami.

Pitt V Miami

The highlight tape

In Bruce Feldman’s book, Meat Market, Coach Orgeron was obviously obsessive about signing defensive linemen, and especially defensive tackles. Orgeron liked to have a comparison for each prospect to a former prospect and was always looking for his next Warren Sapp.

When Orgeron popped on a good film, like the one of Jerrell Powe, Orgeron had to compare all other prospects to his eye popping raw athleticism. Powe, a six-foot-two, 330 pound tackle, had a well documented recruitment that led him from Mississippi to Hargrave in Virginia, to a prep school in Pennsylvania before finally being cleared by the NCAA. Orgeron was impressed by Powe’s first step quickness, raw power, and size.

When looking at a defensive lineman’s tape Orgeron wanted to see a guy who was strong at the point of attack, who used their hands well, and played hard. He felt he could work some laziness out of kids like he had with Cortez Kennedy while the two were at Miami. To Orgeron that laziness in big men is often a sign of poor conditioning and motivation, which he felt he could fix.

When Coach O would “gong” a tape, meaning cut it off and toss it out before it was even done, it was often over things like this: “He’s stiff as a board. Maybe he has an ankle problem or something. See how he waddles?” (Feldman 150). That’s again the ankle and hip flexion as well as groin tightness that coaches worry so much about in evaluations. It’s a hard thing to repair in 12 months and could take a full two or three years to correct. Coach O would prefer to see guys able to squat, heels down, and get a heavy load deep into the squat (below parallel).

The 90-90 is a great way to stretch the hips and groin

At camps

Of course, coaches want to get the height and weight measurements first and foremost of these big guys when they arrive at camps. So much of the data high school coaches offer to colleges is either inflated or negligently wrong (I typically would ask “OK give me your height and weight” to my players) that you have to get a real measurement yourself as a college recruiter. It also helps to see a kid in person and really look at their build. Everyone carries weight differently and some guys who are 290 look a lot sloppier than a muscled up guy at 310. It depends how you carry the weight and your body composition.

In Meat Market, the Ole Miss coaching staff wanted the heights and weights of each camper, but also their Vertical Jump, 40-yard dash time, and 20-yard shuttle time. The 40 time of a defensive lineman may not lead to a direct causation for success but data does lend itself to the lower the 40 time for an offensive lineman and defensive tackle the more career longevity they tend to have.

For big men, you’d love to get them in the weight room and see how they move with 500 ponds on their shoulders or 350 on their front rack, however, that’s not the safest way to test a high school player’s ability. The Vertical Jump is a great test for explosiveness with little risk involved. The VJ will show the coaches the power in the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

The 20-yard shuttle is a good but not great indicator of a defensive lineman’s ability to change direction and pursue. It’s a closed-course, meaning the player can practice at home before coming and get really good at gaming the test but not necessarily at playing football. Football is a read and react world, and I would much rather see athletes perform in open-course drills that require an athlete to read and react to movement cues.

Another test I’m surprised they don’t employ is the Broad Jump. The BJ is a great way to test an athlete’s clean and jerk and snatch without having to up the risk of performing those lifts. The BJ will show the explosion of the quads, hamstrings and almighty hip flexors. Hips and groins are two of the tightest areas on male athletes. Tight hips and groins will cause poor lift movements, injuries and finish through plays.

In the end, especially on the defensive line, coaches want to get hands on, in your face time with prospects. The defensive line coach is typically the hardest of the hard asses on a coaching staff with the broadest shoulders and most boom in their voice. Think of former ‘Canes legend Kevin Patrick who is now a defensive line coach at FAU. Ed Orgeron fits the mold himself, too.

Can the athlete take hard coaching? Can they compete in 1-on-1’s with everyone watching? And can they run the hoops showing flexibility and stability in the ankles, knees and hips while showing the drive to compete against other linemen?

The defensive line total package

When one ACC recruiter described what his boss wanted in a defensive lineman, his first response was, “LENGTH!” The ability to keep an offensive lineman off of you and at bay while dissecting the play is a major key to defensive line play. They want to see tough guys who have the drive to compete on every rep, not a “Two-play Tez.” Cortez Kennedy wound up a top-5 NFL Draft pick (and the namesake of my cat) once he became a three-down lineman.

The Defensive Ends

So in the end, what are coaches looking for in a defensive end? Of course Gregory Rousseau, Julius Peppers and Rusty Medearis are the prototypes. If length is the keyword guys need to have their shared frame. Calais Campbell would be high on the list, too.

One Group of 5 recruiter said his defensive end priorities were:

1- Quickness

2- Strength at point of attack (same as for Coach O)

3- Lateral quickness and balance (20 shuttle and the hoops)

4- Power rush

5- Speed or edge rush

6- Pursuit and effort

Their “Critical Factors” at the defensive end position are: size, explosion, and first step. That’s why the 10-yard dash makes so much more sense than a 40-yard dash. Coaches really want to see the first step and first three steps more than down line, straight ahead speed.

One of my favorite drills to prepare a defensive lineman is to have them start in their stance, and on the movement of the ball the DL will punch, press and drive a one-man sled while having to watch a ball carrier. When the ball carrier picks a side (horizontally turns to run left or right) the DL will shed the sled, scrape while the back runs horizontally and then pursue near hip once the back turns up field. It incorporates all of the things a DL coach could want to see from 1st step to point of attack, read & react, lateral movement and closing speed and pursuit.

The Defensive Tackles

The same G5 program also looks for particulars on the interior of the D-Line. Their priorities are:

1- Quickness

2- Read, react and identify blocks (think: zone versus trap)

3- Lateral quickness

4- Balance, body control, and flexibility (running the hoops!)

5- Burst (Can the big man provide a pass rush and get tackles for loss?)

The same program’s “Critical Factors” for DT’s are: size, explosion, and body control. All of the defensive linemen are going to have to meet a size and quickness baseline. From there is where the roads diverge.

Coaches are worried about the ends being able to hold their own against H-backs, tackles and fullbacks in the run game. Setting the edge at the point of attack. The same coaches are worried about the tackles being able to bend and move well enough laterally that they’re not just a big guy who dominated at a lower level.

What does this mean for Miami?

One Power 5 assistant coach told me, “If you can get home with four, and you’re getting effective pressure B gap to B gap, you’re going to disrupt a lot of drives and win a lot of games.” My first two thoughts were 4th and 17 against UNC and the difference for the linebackers it makes between having a 3-technique that commands a double team and one that lets centers and guard get to the 2nd level.

Gerald Willis being at the 3-tech versus someone of lesser athleticism is a night and day difference in the performance and wear and tear on the middle or inside linebackers. When Jon Vilma shined his brightest at Miami he had Vince Wilfork on the defensive line, George Mira Jr. had Jerome Brown and Ray Lewis had Warren Sapp.

Even as a lowly high school coach I was blessed to have really good 3-technique defensive tackles for our level of play. They were dominant players who commanded double teams, moved well laterally, had a great first step, and ate up a ton of space. All three were college level linemen at different levels (two JUCO and one D3). Their 50 to 100 (yes, 101 to be exact!) tackles and double-digit tackles for loss numbers were difference makers in a number of games.

Miami has some highly rated defensive tackles on the roster in Nesta Silvera, Jon Ford, Jordan Miller and Jalar Holley. Those are three and four star prospects that will need to develop into NFL caliber players with entirely new inside linebackers on the field. While Zach McCloud has played before, he’s played limited duty at inside linebacker in his four seasons at Miami.

On the edge, Miami has talent to burn. The ‘Canes have the best returning end duo in the country with Greg Rousseau and Quincy Roche. Rousseau is going to have to prove he can bring the intensity on a consistent basis on all downs and against all opponents. Roche is going to have to prove he can get it done against the ACC week in and week out after transferring from Temple. Roche and Rousseau have length at six-foot-four and six-foot-seven, respectively, but strength at the point of attack may be lacking as they’re only 235 and 255 pounds, respectively.