As a former off-the-ball linebacker, and strong safety, I take pride in my ability to spot transcendent talent on the defensive side of the ball.

Every recruiting cycle I try to identify the top guys who play the position I played and truly try to determine if they have what it takes to play in the great Southeastern Conference. As offenses have evolved from from a more ground-centric approach — well, not the teams that actually win — to schemes that rely on spreading the ball around in a horizontal and vertical fashion, complete off-the-ball linebackers have become virtually extinct.

Don’t get me wrong, the SEC has had a ton of talent at the position in the last five years or so — especially at the University of Alabama under famed head coach, and defensive guru, Nick Saban.

Rolando McClain (Dallas Cowboys), Dont’a Hightower (New England Patriots), C.J. Mosley (Baltimore Ravens), and now Reggie Ragland, are all impact players who’ve made their presence felt.

So when the Tide set their sights on 247 Sports’ No. 1-rated off-the-ball LB, Leo Lewis of Brookhaven High School (Mississippi), I immediately became intrigued. The combination of the Tide’s interest and what I saw on film from him had me convinced that we were working with a traditional LB in the mode of those aforementioned stars.

But then Lewis de-committed from ‘Bama, completely dashing my hopes of seeing him team up with Ragland to form a Hightower-McClain style duo.

But after flirting with the University of Mississippi real hard, and flat-out teasing Louisiana State University, Lewis made it official on National Signing Day that he would be taking his talents to Starkville to play for newly re-acquired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and the Mississippi State Bulldogs in a move that will pay off significantly for all parties involved.

The Diaz Factor

At one point in time, Diaz was considered one of the brightest, young defensive minds in the entire sport.

After cutting his teeth at Middle Tennessee State University for all over four seasons, as the defensive coordinator/LB coach, Diaz was brought onboard as the the DC for State’s Dan Mullen in the head coach’s second year of tenure in Starkville.

At just 34 years old, Diaz proved his worth as he helped administer a turnaround which saw the defensive unit go from 71st to 22nd behind his philosophy.

This success provided him with the opportunity of a lifetime to be the DC at, perhaps, the most prestigious program in the country, the University of Texas.

But then the bottom fell out.

Diaz had the unfortunate task of coaching at UT when other programs in the state were on a come up, which in turn diluted the talent pool as a whole. Gone were the days where the Longhorns would have their pick of the litter.

Now they had to guard against Texas A&M, Texas Christian and Baylor for the top athletes in the state of Texas.

And the results were damning: Texas went from playing in the BCS Title game in 2010, to an 8-5 record in Diaz’s first season. An although his unit finished as the 11th-ranked total defense in his first season, its 32nd ranking the subsequent season was pretty much the beginning of the end of Diaz’s star shining bright.

And when Texas’ defense finished ranked 67th in 2013, Diaz’s career — along with legendary head coach Mack Brown — was sent to the flames. But Diaz landed on his feet at Louisiana Tech last season, and now he’s afforded the chance to resurrect his promising career at the spot where it all stated.

He inherits a team with talent at the position he specializes in, linebacker, and he’s blessed with the type of off-the-ball ‘backer that he had in his first go ’round.

Recent LB History At State: Wright, McKinney & Lewis

Although a place like Alabama can boast having some of the most highly touted LB’s around, State, in recent lore, can lay claim to having two players who are every bit as talented as what Bama has to offer.

One of the most underrated LB’s in recent memory has to be former State star K.J. Wright — now a key cog of the best defense in the world, the Seattle Seahawks.

Wright has “Mike” LB size, 6’4″, 250 pounds, and he’s one of the most technique-savvy players you’ll see at any position. And despite the fact that he doesn’t possess 4.4 40-yard dash speed — he actually ran a 4.7 at the NFL Scouting Combine — his supreme technique has made him a terror in pass coverage against some of the best tight ends in the game — not named Rob Gronkowski (Patriots).

He was a great fit for Diaz’s scheme, which incorporates a ton of area-based principles for second- and third-level defenders, as he equally adept playing in reverse as he is forward. He scraped to the ball and used excellent angles in pursuit. But most importantly, he was a sure tackler.


Plays like the above sequence were the norm for Wright.

We will be hearing about former State LB Benardrick McKinney for years to come as the junior made himself an early entrant for the upcoming NFL Draft. Listed at 6’5″, 245 pounds, McKinney is built a lot like Wright, and he possesses a lot of the same traits that makes Wright the truth: scrape ability, impact tackling, zone awareness and adaptability.

We just missed out on having Lewis team up with McKinney, and the underrated Beniquez Brown, to form a complete head-to-toe LB corps.


Case in point: Brown displayed his ability to anticipate snaps and knife gaps to make this explosive play.

But State has a rising junior LB in Richie Brown, no relation, who’s shown he may be budding star in his own right.

Lewis is first and foremost a striker; he brings the thunder upon impact and will set the tone for the defense with his physicality.

At 6’3″, 225 pounds, he’s built a lot like McKinney and Wright — more like edge-players — but he certainly has the frame to fill-out to around 250 pounds. What he will excel at, initially, is in his ability to seek-and-destroy tackle.

He “scrapes” and “fills” about as well as I’ve seen from anyone at the position at such a young age.

And just like Wright had with defensive tackle Fletcher Adams playing in the opponent’s lap, Lewis will receive similar benefit from playing behind the uber-talented, versatile lineman Chris Jones.


When it comes to playing in reverse as a linebacker, I’m here to tell you, there’s nothing like in-your-face pressure — as seen in the above sequence — that forces a quick decision from the QB. While I believe Lewis’ ability to retain will accelerate his progress, he needs improvement in the coverage aspect — but don’t count out State’s ability to generate pressure helping him out early on. But Lewis’ fluidity as an athlete, combined with Diaz’s teaching ability, will find the ‘backer improving in coverage the moment he steps foot on campus.

But Lewis’ natural instincts will guide him to make splash tackles from day one.


Check out how he sifted through the trash on his way to a back-breaking play, in a figurative sense (I think?!), which undoubtedly sent a message to not only the opposition, but to his teammates, as well.

I cannot wait to watch Lewis grow over the next three to four years under Diaz; there’s a new star at State.