SEC's Top 5 incoming LB recruits for 2017
The linebacker position is changing in the SEC as defenses become more flexible in response to more open offenses.
Conference history is strong, however, as SEC schools have produced everything from the cerebral Patrick Willis to the headhunting Von Miller in recent years.
The 2017 class of recruits will have a long way to go replicate the success of Leo Lewis of Mississippi State, who was second on his team with 79 tackles. Though he was technically a part of the 2015 class, the redshirt freshman made an impact for the Bulldogs’ defense last season. This makes sense, as he was the top-rated inside linebacker in his class.
Production has yet to be seen from the 2016 class of recruits, most of whom took a redshirt. Alabama secured two of the top three linebackers in America last recruiting season, and one of them was introduced to the public during the Texas A&M game.
Mack Wilson showed he’s ready to bring the lumber for years to come, while Ben Davis, his higher-ranked classmate, watched from the sidelines.
Let’s take a look at some of the playmakers of the future – or perhaps the next player to deliver a bone-rattling hit on a kickoff.
1. Alabama’s SEC-leading class:
Dylan Moses – No. 2 OLB, No. 13 overall
— D-Mo (@Dylan7Moses_) December 29, 2016
VanDarius Cowan – No. 5 OLB, No. 83 overall
Markail Benton – No. 7 OLB, No. 98 overall
Christopher Allen – No. 4 ILB, No. 106 overall
Alabama’s linebacker class of 2017 is rivaled only by its receiver class, LSU’s defensive backs and Georgia’s offensive line corps for best incoming unit in the SEC.
There are a ton of names here, and each one brings his own skill set to a Tide team already overflowing with talent. Though it’s tempting to dive into each one, and more specifically that borderline A.J. McCarron-level tattoo on VanDarius Cowan, it’s best to keep it to their best recruit, Dylan Moses.
Moses, the only 5-star linebacker to commit to an SEC school, is the total package. Ranking just outside the top 10 players overall, he possesses an ideal mix of the skills that has become synonymous with Alabama linebackers. From one talent factory to another, the IMG prospect is probably the most college-ready player on this list.
He is uncommonly quick, which combined with his high motor means that he is never out of a play. He is both a big hitter and a sure tackler, able to seal the edge with ease at the high school level. On blitzes, or as an edge rusher, he has a natural knack for weaseling his way to the ball.
Moses is also a versatile athlete, as many of his highlights come from making a smart play or a big hit in coverage. His ball skills have proven trusty enough to earn him an invite to play 7-on-7 at Nike’s The Opening event, and remain one of his biggest assets. This feature truly makes him a weapon in an Alabama defense that has been on the cutting edge of linebacker utilization.
Part of Alabama’s downfall in the College Football Playoff Championship was a lack of depth on defense — the Tide wore down after many successful drives by Clemson. Nick Saban decided to address the issue all at once by landing an entire linebacking corps in the same class.
2. Jacob Phillips, LSU – No. 1 ILB, No. 62 overall
When Jacob Phillips was committed to Oklahoma, LSU was the only school he would still pick up the phone for. The Tigers turned out to be the true apple of his eye, and he became one of the biggest gets in this year’s class.
Many elite linebackers in high school quickly realize that they can climb up the rankings by using their athleticism as edge rushers. Phillips is truly unique on this list because he relies on brain over brawn.
The perceptive middle linebacker has a skill set that can’t be taught, and one that goes far beyond the weight room. He reads the quarterback’s progression like a member of the offense and often hides within the coverage before striking. In terms of pure coverage, Phillips could make a case for the best player on this list.
His pass defense might play second fiddle, however, as that knack for deciphering a game plan is particularly helpful in run coverage. Cutbacks, screens, and trick plays are like entry-level classes for Phillips, who sniffs them out and blows them up with ease.
At his best, the 4-star prospect is reminiscent of another LSU player once upon a time named Bradie James, who anchored the Tigers’ defense in the early 2000s. For LSU’s defensive mastermind Dave Aranda, who coached the best red zone unit in the country last season, a cerebral linebacker such as Phillips could be the linchpin that cements the tradition.
3. Anthony Hines, Texas A&M – No. 2 ILB, No. 63 overall
Texas A&M’s Anthony Hines brings explosion and physicality to the inside linebacker spot.
Though he also excels in coverage, Hines’ true talent comes to bear when he turns toward the line of scrimmage. Like Phillips, he will make his bones by detecting and destroying runs and other plays behind the line used to create space. A player like Hines is a nightmare for the read options and outside runs that have become in vogue across the conference, as he possesses both the speed and IQ to keep them contained.
He’s an exceptional athlete but often makes the smart play by forgoing big hits, instead wrapping up with his arms and attempting to strip the ball.
The Aggies’ defensive front had a prolific season in 2016, averaging 8.54 tackles for loss per game, second-best among SEC teams over the past eight years. Their pass coverage, however, became a problem as the year continued. They finished 13th in the conference at 250 yards allowed through the air per game.
Though Hines certainly won’t be matching up with opposing number one receivers, a high-IQ linebacker can do wonders to erase the errors of busted coverages and missed assignments.
4. Willie Gay, Mississippi State – No. 3 OLB, No. 73 overall
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen looks to have hit a home run with in-state prospect Willie Gay. Gay is an Alabama-caliber player who happens to have been born in Mississippi.
The hard-hitting outside linebacker is the definition of a do-it-all playmaker, as he also effectively ran a zone-read offense from the quarterback spot in high school. At both positions, he welcomed contact and displayed the toughness expected from SEC linebackers.
His speed, combined with that bulldog mentality, make him a virtual missile coming out of the second level. He displays a hunger for the football, and while he doesn’t have overwhelming size at 6-1, 223 pounds, he could be a turnover-forcing machine for Mississippi State.
Recently, Mullen’s defensive units have lacked consistency, as they have seen seven defensive coordinators in nine years. Their newest leader, Todd Grantham, hopes to strengthen a defense that finished dead last in the league last season against the pass, allowing 281.5 yards per game. Despite the Bulldogs sending 13 defensive players to the NFL draft since 2009, this unit has been holding back their explosive offense. The new wave of highly-rated recruits such as Jeffery Simmons and Gay will look to change that.
5. Tadarian Moultry, Auburn – No. 3 ILB, No. 103 overall
— Ryan Bartow (@RyanBartow) January 1, 2017
Tadarian Moultry plays with a level of reckless abandon that will make him a joy to watch at any level.
Absent is the patient anticipation of the typical inside linebacker and in its place is a double dose of recklessness. Moultry is a disrupter, and at the high school level he just couldn’t help himself from making big plays all over the field. Across his several highlight videos, it’s clear that he went off script multiple times. But that also shows that his coaches trusted him to do so.
Obviously, this would be frowned upon at the next level, especially early on in his career, but defensive coaches love players who aren’t afraid to put their bodies on the line for the cause. Moultry’s is by far the most fun tape of this bunch, as he seems to take risks that pay off in the form of bone-crunching hits and tackles for loss.
If the goal is to find a player next season to be feared on special teams like Mack Wilson, Moultry is a safe bet.
Auburn’s run-heavy style is designed to limit opposing teams’ possessions and bury them in a mountain of points. With a playmaker such as Moultry on the field, each turnover or big hit could lead to a momentum shift for the Tigers.