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What college coaches look for in a linebacker prospect

Miami is Linebacker U, so what are the coaches looking for in the most athletic position on the field?

Miami Hurricanes v Colorado Buffaloes Photo by Miami/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

The University of Miami has produced NFL players at all positions, but linebacker has been one of Miami’s biggest contributions to the league as any other. Dating back to the early 80’s and linebacker Jay Brophy, Miami has put LB’s in the league. Brophy was a member of the 1983 national championship squad that knocked off the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 1984 Orange Bowl. In 1984, Brophy was a 2nd round selection by the Miami Dolphins.

Over the years, Miami produced future NFL stars at linebacker like Winston Moss (2nd round), Richard Newbill (5th round), Randy Shannon, Tiger Clark (3rd round), Mike Barrow (2nd round), Darrin Smith (2nd round), Jessie Armstead (8th round), Ray Lewis (1st round), Nate Webster (3rd round), Dan Morgan (1st round), Jon Vilma and DJ Williams (1st round), Rocky McIntosh, Colin McCarthy, and Jon Beason (1st round) to name a bunch but not all of Miami’s elite linebackers. Not to mention Shaq Quarterman is NFL bound from the 2019 squad.

Dan Morgan #44

As the game has changed so has what coaches are looking for in linebackers. In the 80’s, teams were still looking for size over speed as it was a 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) world in the 80’s and early 90’s. With the high school and college shift to the shotgun spread, and rule changes in the NFL to protect QB’s, wide receivers and score more points- linebackers have to be able to cover more than stuff the run.

Also the run-pass option (RPO) and Pass-Run Option (PRO) elements added at all three levels have required linebackers to be more athletic, just like dual-threat QB’s have pushed defensive ends and linebackers to be more athletic, too. We’ve learned what coaches are looking for in Quarterbacks (read here), offensive linemen (read here) and defensive linemen (read here)- now let’s look at linebackers!

The highlight tape

In Bruce Feldman’s book, “Meat Market,” Coach Ed Orgeron and his recruiting chops take center stage. Orgeron, who was at Miami from 1988-1992, was part of two national championship ‘Canes teams and was on the coaching staff of some of Miami’s greatest linebackers, such as: Tiger Clark, Jessie Armstead, Darrin Smith, Mike Barrow, and Maurice Crum, Sr.

While serving as the recruiting coordinator at USC, Orgeron created his ideal look for each position. While ideal isn’t always realistic, especially at Ole Miss, there is a standard set and what he wants to see on tape. We’ll cover size more when discussing camps, but, something Coach O emphasized in his program was SIZE-SPEED RATIO. When I coached linebackers at one stop we called it “hitters and runners” or “runners and hitters,” and there are runners only and hitters only but they sure can’t play linebacker or in the kicking game.

Of course as a recruiter you want to see linebackers making tons of plays on film. Production at linebacker is important. Orgeron liked to see production from LB’s, he also liked to see intangibles. The ability for a linebacker to use their instincts, dissect a play, and have the physical ability to get there to make the play. Of course toughness is another LB intangible Orgeron brings up time and again.

Some of that ‘get there’ comes from quickness. When Coach O was watching film in Meat Market, linebackers that drew his interest had first-step quickness, and there’s two that have five-step quickness. Orgeron wanted to see two-stride guys, which meant they could cover five yards in two strides. One guy Orgeron loved and definitely lacked in size was “The Rat” aka Rohan Marley. Orgeron loved his speed, quickness, and explosive hips as Marley was a big hitter at The U.

When it comes to speed though, Orgeron cut off one prospect’s tape because, “He’s alligator fast (Pg. 187).” To Coach O, that meant the player had straight line speed (think: 40-yard dash), but couldn’t move well laterally. Closing speed and chasing plays down is imperative at the position, but the ability to change directions, flip hips fluidly, and be explosive in the power angles (ankles, knees and hips) was imperative to be a Rebel linebacker.

At camps

Of course, Orgeron took nothing a prospect listed about themselves for granted outside of their name. The first thing coaches want to get down is a prospect’s height and weight. So what is the ideal size for a linebacker? It’s changing. You want height (6’1-6’3) and weight for an Inside Linebacker (ILB) to be around 220-245; to take on guards and h-backs. But you still have to move as a linebacker so stiff won’t win in the Power 5.

In coverage LB’s (like a Striker at Miami) you want length, but they can be lighter in the ass. Typically it will be a hybrid safety-linebacker who outgrew defensive back or never grew into an ILB. For an “edge” or pass rushing linebacker, coaches need them to be bigger and stronger but still able to drop into the flat to confuse QB’s (think: Quincy Roche, who weighs in around 235).

The 40-yard dash: The “40” matters more at LB than at QB, D-Line, or on the O-Line. Miami’s best linebacking trio, “The Bermuda Triangle,” all ran in the 4.45 to 4.55 range. But linebackers are hardly running straight in 40 yard stretches, as Orgeron’s alligator quote pointed out so eloquently. There definitely has to be a baseline standard for speed to keep up with skill guys at the P5 level. I don’t want to see a linebacker clocking in at anything above a 4.8 in the 40.

Vertical Jump: The VJ, as said previously in the posts on QB, OL and DL, points to hamstring and quad strength. If explosiveness is a trait coaches are looking for the VJ will tip an athlete’s hand in that direction. Again, I’m not sure why the Broad Jump is being neglected at camps (or at least, was being)- it’s a great indicator of explosiveness in the power angles (ankles, knees, hips) which is imperative for a LB.

20-yard Shuttle: Sure, I need to see if a LB can change direction without sliding all over or falling, and whether or not the prospect can accelerate after the change. But I’m not sure if a closed-ended COD is the ticket to show that as well as open-ended agility drills based on read and react would be.

So what drills show how a linebacker can really move?

The Come to Balance drill from Kurt Hester’s Combine 2.0 video is one.

Another is the Scrape and Accelerate drill

Now, I prefer in the scrape and accelerate that the linebacker rotates his arms at the shoulder while working laterally but you can see how the drill works.

As far as not testable, but something for the eye candy could be the Square Up and Scallup drill. I don’t have film of this one yet but you can see its viability.

Linebackers have to have a chip on their shoulders. Barrow, Smith, Armstead, Morgan, Lewis, Moss, Vilma, George Mira Jr.- those guys played with a chip. You know who was a linebacker in college? “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Linebacker have to be competitive, hard nosed, tough, gritty, and able to take hard coaching. Defensive coordinators are often linebacker coaches and their paycheck is in the hands of the linebacking corps. It’s a cerebral position, too. Especially the middle linebacker. Football IQ is must for the leader of your defense.

The linebacker total package

Playing and coaching linebackers is no easy feat. In order to get the most out of your defense you have to have great linebacker play. When you think of all-time greats in college football or the NFL typically my mind goes to Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary and Ray Lewis in the NFL, and Brian Bosworth and Dan Morgan at the college level.

When talking to Power 5 and Group of 5 recruiting assistants and assistant coaches- they’re looking for very similar things in their linebackers. At one G5 they list their top 5 recruiting factors as the following:

1- Read and react

2- Strength at POA

3- Balance and Ankle flexibility

4- Burst

5- Strength and leverage

Factors 6-10 are, Hand use and block destruction, lateral agility, tackling, coverage and pass rush.

At one P5 school, they go into great detail on what a linebacker prospect needs to look like in order to play in the big time. They ask:

1. Size and length: Do they meet our size requirements? What is their growth potential? Are they long limbed?

2. Position flexibility: When they come in, do they project to start as a safety from a skill standpoint and grow to move in the box? Do they fit the ILB mold now and perhaps have growth potential to move down to play DL? Strictly an ILB type?

3. Initial quickness: Can they read quickly and move out of their stance? Can they fire downhill?

4. Strength at Point of Attack: Are they strong enough to hold gap integrity?

5. Block protection: Can they engage and shed blocks? Are they able to make plays while still engaged?

6. Toughness and Motor: Is he able to continue on a play after engaging and shedding a block or even multiple blocks?

7. Range and Speed: Can they run the field laterally? Are they fast enough to match/catch O Skill players in space? Can they close space?

8. Burst, Acceleration and COD: Do they have short-area quickness? Can they effectively Change Directions and generate speed coming out of breaks? How effectively can they play in space?

9. Tackling: Are they thumpers? Can they strike through ball carriers on contact? Do they have wrap and roll form? Are they effective tackling in space?

10. Blitz/Pass Rush: Can they combine their skills to be effective rushing the passer? Do they have the initial quickness and acceleration to be effective blitzers?

11. Flexibility: Can they bend at the knees and ankles? Do they have natural athletic ability?

12. Instinct/eyes through traffic: How well can he read keys initially? Does he have instincts to work around blocks? Can he see through the box and make plays with chaos around him?


At the G5 school, they even break it down by outside and inside for their recruiters. For outside linebackers they’re concerned with blitz and pass rush ability, playmaking ability, tackling in space, and coverage ability. Their OLB critical factors are: instincts and awareness, intensity and motor, strength at the POA, pass rush ability, and tackling.


For ILB’s, the key recruiting points at the same G5 are size and ability at the POA, tackling and explosion in the hips, instincts and speed. The critical factors are instincts and awareness, vision, range and speed, tackling, and reaction time.

What does this mean for Miami?

The Miami Hurricanes have to replace both starting inside linebackers for the 2020 season. The Hurricanes have a dozen linebackers on the roster but Manny Diaz didn’t do a great job of bringing in linebackers, which as defensive coordinator and inside linebacker coach is a testament to a lot of the issues at Miami.

Blake Baker, the current DC and LB coach, brought in Corey Flagg and Tirek Austin-Cave. Miami will have to hope they’re more impactful as youngsters than Bradley Jennings Jr, Patrick Joyner and Waymon Steed have been thus far. Zach McCloud seems to have owned the middle linebacker spot but the will linebacker is still up for grabs. Flagg, Austin-Cave, Sam Brooks, Avery Huff and Joyner really need to step up and make it a competition for both the mike and will positions.

Miami shouldn’t be in the position to have to give a walk-on major playing time at inside linebacker when there are only two that go on the field of a dozen on the roster. That’s poor acquisition, development and roster management by the man in charge.