February 19, 2013

Evolution of inside linebackers continues

MORE: Big backs making a comeback?

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
There are nearly 450 animals on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered list. Could inside linebackers soon be added?

The spreading of the field on offense -- and increased shift
to 3-4 defenses -- has forced an evolution of the ILB toward speed and versatility and away from five-star high school performers such as Manti Te'o and Vontaze Burfict.

In fact, in the initial list of the Rivals100 for the Class of 2014, there are no five-star players at ILB or OLB.

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said that linebackers, especially inside 'backers, are tough to find, let alone project and evaluate.

"Everyone is looking for big, athletic kids who can turn and cover as well as support the run," Farrell said. "The last few years, it has been really slim pickings on the inside.

"Now some of that is because they are playing outside linebacker in high school since they are more versatile there, and some of it is just because there aren't many pure inside linebackers out there at the top level."

The class of 2013 had two five-star players listed at inside linebacker, with Alabama signee Reuben Foster and Florida signee Alex Anzalone.

Anzalone fit the new mentality, according to Farrell.

"Anzalone was a kid who played outside in high school but we think will have to move inside in college," Farrrell said. "It is hard at times to know when to make those kinds of adjustments in the rankings because you have to project what kind of weight they can add to their frame and make sure it isn't something that will take away from their speed.

"Anzalone was a kid who was running in the 4.6 or 4.7 range in the 40, and he can probably gain a little weight, play inside, and not be slowed. There are other guys that it is harder to do that with."

At the top of the class of 2014 are Raekwon McMillan of Hinesville (Ga.) Liberty County at No. 16 in the Rivals100 and Hoza Scott of La Porte (Texas) High at No. 23.

McMillan is listed at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds. He was compared to Foster throughout the recruiting process and figures to be the most prototypical inside linebacker in the class.

Scott is listed at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds. He has committed to Texas A&M and could see a slide to the inside with added weight gain.

Farrell said that his speed -- combined with the defense the Aggies run -- might make Scott an ideal fit at the position even if he is undersized.

"There is an emphasis on the outside linebackers, and you see that in the recruiting," Farrell said. "In that system, often the inside linebackers are really outside linebackers for other teams."

Teams such as Alabama, Notre Dame and Georgia have been successful in running the 3-4 defense, and more programs are making that transition.

Scott has been preparing for the move even if it isn't something that is coming in the near future, saying that La Porte coaches move him all over the field.

"I start at inside linebacker against teams that run the ball a lot," he told Rivals.com. "They put me outside against spread teams."

Not having the speed of a corner has made staying outside in the spread tough.

"I man them up, the slot guys," Scott said. "They get away from me on the outs."

As more programs are eliminating the "Mike" linebacker, they are also looking to slide high school safeties inside.

One player who figures to benefit from a move away from the secondary is Ponte Vedra (Fla.) Nease prospect Dillon Bates.

Bates is the son of former Dallas Cowboy player Bill Bates and was named linebacker MVP at the U.S. Army National Combine in January.

Bates is listed at 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds and was rated as the No. 58 player in the Rivals100.

Farrell said Bates is among the players who will be easy to project to a different position.

"It is simple for Bates; he will get too big to play safety," Farrell said. "He has good coverage skills in space from playing safety, but his game translates better as an inside player going forward.

"He has good size, a good frame to build on and good speed. With the evolution of the tight end position, he will be in a good place to play down the seam or support the run."

Bates has embraced the move into the middle.

"Perfecting the fundamentals and never taking any reps off is something I take great pride in," he told Rivals.com. "(My family) always tells me to better myself as a player. Find ways to separate myself from the next linebacker out there."

Farrell said part of the transition derives from the speed of the game and part of it is the athleticism being developed.

"Kids don't want to play inside linebacker anymore," Farrell said. "Really, that may have more to do with it than we are giving credit to. There is an athletic edge gained by being a certain weight and having speed, and kids take pride in that. Playing on the inside is a spot that kids view as a place to hide slower guys and let them support the run. It isn't a position that kids grow up wanting to play anymore.

"With an increased emphasis on angular linebackers who can rush and cover, there are fewer schools recruiting traditionally sized inside guys. So there are fewer kids who try to get to that size at the sacrifice of speed. The position isn't going to go away, obviously, but it is going to be a different type of player lining up there."



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