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All-22 Review: the curious case of the inside linebackers, part 1

Five returning potential inside linebackers took snaps against the Hokies in 2021.

Virginia Tech v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Miami Hurricanes bring back almost a dozen linebackers that saw some duty during the 2021 season, and an incoming freshman early enrollee in Wesley Bissainthe who has a ton of promise heading into his freshman campaign.

New ‘Cane DC Kevin Steele and his LB coach Charlie Strong are known for signing and developing athletic freaks at the linebacker position. On Auburn’s highly regarded 2019 defense, the Tigers had K.J. Britt, Owen Pappoe, and Zakoby McClain. Britt clocked in at six-foot, 230 pounds. Pappoe is six-foot-one, 226 pounds, and McClain six-foot, 219 pounds.

These aren’t exactly the huge inside linebackers of the past in 3-4 and 4-2 type of defenses. With today’s changing landscape of RPO’s and versatile skills; linebackers have to be able to rotate and shift around covering hook-curls, flats, and running seams with TE’s and RB’s.

Auburn 2019-2020

Above- You can see Auburn under Steele as DC, against Bama. The Auburn D-Line are in a 3-tech (left DT is aligned on the outside shoulder of the guard), a 2i from the NT (inside shoulder of the other guard) and a 5-tech (DT/E is outside shoulder of the tackle).

The outside linebacker, 29, is in a 7-tech playing off the shoulder of the TE. No. 1, the Edge, is playing in a 5-tech off the right tackle’s shoulder.

The inside backers are in a 20 (no. 0 is more or less over the guard) and a 30 (no. 9 is outside shoulder of his guard).

Hall’s Buck role could go to a beefed up Gilbert Frierson. Frierson plays well at the point of attack, he can roll into the box, and I like him in coverage. I felt he was an extremely underrated and under-used player under Manny Diaz.

The Doppler

There are a ton of guys that will be vying for the two inside linebacker spots for the ‘Canes. Expect someone to also come in via the transfer portal to round-out the room, too. I would also expect a few transfers heading out of the program after spring.

Against Virginia Tech in ‘21, FIVE of the returning linebackers for ‘22 logged at least one stat. The biggest playmakers against the Hokies at LB were Gil Frierson (Striker / OLB) and Keontra Smith, who logged six tackles a piece. Former head coach and defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, rotated his ILB’s so much they never seemed to get into much of a rhythm. And while the ‘21 LB’s were often criticized, and deserved some of the criticism, they did have flashes of what they could have been.

Against Tech in ‘21, Corey Flagg Jr made five tackles including a tackle for loss. Ryan Ragone and Chase Smith each picked up three tackles, but Ragone added two tackles for loss and a sack to the stat sheet. Smith had a pass breakup. While Waynmon Steed had two tackles of his own against the Hokies. We will look at five other potential ILB’s currently on the roster, including Bissainthe, in part 2.

Some guys fit the mold and look great coming off the bus, others just play damn ball. Do you want both, ala Jaelan Phillips or Sean Taylor? Hell yeah. Can you always get both? Nah. I wouldn’t say Ed Reed was physically imposing over anyone, but I consider him the best defensive player in NFL history.

The film

Keontra Smith (4)

Keontra Smith is one of the inside linebackers vying for PT in ‘22 under the new staff. Smith isn’t the biggest dude on the block at five-foot-eleven, 205 pounds. A fourth year junior out of Chaminade-Madonna in Florida, Smith has range, elite closing speed, and the power to be able to shed blockers and bring down ball carriers on his own.

Above- Smith is fighting off a block and rips under the blocker. He comes free for a TFL.

Above- Smith played well with 34 in the game alongside of him, but here he overruns the run play. Smith is the cutback LB and he’s even with Ragone here. That means when the RB cuts back on Ragone’s force, no one is there to clean it up.

Smith should be working on a chain, hip to hip, with Ragone. Both staying square and working together. As 34 comes down and out, Smith is pulled on a scrape step down and out.

As you’ll see in the cut-up tape, Smith also has the range to run sideline to sideline like an old school 4-3 MLB. Sometimes he over runs plays because of that speed, learning to tempo his scallups, scrapes, and finishes will be vital moving forward.

Above- The thing most people won’t be comfortable with is how much better Smith played with walk-on spark plug Ryan Ragone in next to him. Smith still over-ran a few plays but he worked on a chain well with Ragone, even taking on blocks for 34 so Ragone could make the play.

Ryan Ragone (34)

As previously stated, when 34 was on the field Smith looked better. They seemed comfortable together and when Gil Frierson (3) was at Striker instead of Amari Carter (5), they looked like a solid trio.

Above- Again, on the fill, Smith takes on the block and Ragone is free to make the play. Should Ragone be to the field being asked to wall 2 or 3 or deep dropping in cover 2? Hell no. But can he sniff out screens, and fill in the hole? Yeah, he actually can.

Above- Against VT, Ragone came away with a sack against mobile enough QB’s.

Above- Ragone sniffs out the screen and blows the play up that other LB’s were letting up for big gains.

Above- The video is titled “34 making everyone look better” for a reason. Enjoy. K. Smith and Ragone are making plays together on this cut, and that was an okay duo to throw out there against run-first teams (you have no idea how much this is killing me).

Corey Flagg Jr. (11)

Against VT, Flagg had up and down plays at linebacker. He would make a really nice TFL, but follow it up by being completely lost in coverage. Flagg fits the stocky LB mold, too. He’s five-foot-eleven, 230 pounds. I think he can be fixed by great LB coaches like Charlie Strong and Kevin Steele.

Above- Flagg is lost in coverage. Frierson seems to have the flat, and both ILB’s wound up to the boundary and you can see the slant coming behind Frierson and Flagg, and in front of Avantae Williams (not his fault).

Above- There are clips that’ll make your head explode. ie. When the LB’s are reading cross-back but both run to the RB instead of reading the QB’s action, too.

Above- It’s true, Flagg makes K. Smith look worse. Smith looks exceptionally better when he shares the field with Ragone than Flagg. On the pass play, Smith should NOT have let the TE go. On the next cut, Smith flashes his range.

The third play isn’t 4’s fault, Flagg over runs him and isn’t there for the cutback, and then 11 does it again. That’s on Diaz for a variety of reasons.

Waynmon Steed, Jr. (17)

Steed is going to be a 6th year senior out of Miami Central. He’s six-foot tall and 225 pounds. Steed has the build, he looks like a million bucks, but he’s a minus-rate version of Flagg. His eye discipline is bad, he has no OODA Loop, more like an OODA burst. When he was in with K. Smith or Flagg- they got worse.

Above- Watching Manny’s defense tackle on All-22 is as painful as you would think. Flagg and Steed with big misses.

Above- This video is aptly titled “11 and 17 should never share the field together.” Honestly, I think 17 is a likely transfer to a Group of 5 to play his final season of college football. Then you go from 11 looking okay next to 4 to looking completely lost with 17.

17 has no Football IQ, no vision for the game, his OODA Loop doesn’t exist. His ability to Observe and Orient never happens. So his Decisions are slow and his actions wrong. He played under Diaz, and linebacker coach, for FIVE YEARS. That is all.

The Wrap

Chase Smith played outside linebacker in this game and had some solid plays in coverage, and a couple of nice stops. He also had a few boneheaded plays, but nothing to write home to mom about re film review.

K. Smith has to have the eye of the new staff. He can cover, run the field, blitz, shed blocks and with coaching can be a potential All-ACC type of linebacker. Consistency will be the key, I don’t see this staff shuffling through players at the rate Diaz did. When Strong teaches him to slow play runs going away and gets Smith’s OODA Loop aligned, he’ll start playing more elite football next to what I’m assuming will be a transfer linebacker.

Part 2: part 2 will be done this weekend and feature Avery Huff, Tirek Austin-Cave, Sam Brooks, Gil Frierson and early enrollee freshman Wesley Bissainthe.