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Monday, December 20, 2010
Class of 2011 LB superlatives

By Billy Tucker
ESPN Recruiting

Versatility defines this linebacker class as a whole and it's evident in the many different players that make up the categories below. There are multiple inside linebackers in this class with the athleticism to also play outside, as well as projected perimeter 'backers with the strength to stack in the middle. There are also a few high school ends we feel can pick their hand up and play very effectively out of a two-point stance.

There are 14 total linebackers in the ESPNU 150 and the group collectively boasts a great blend of size, speed and athleticism along with keen instincts giving it flexibility from a positional standpoint. College programs running a 3-4 or a 4-3 will have no trouble finding linebackers that could fit in varied personnel packages and defenses.

The often unheralded inside linebacker position comprises nearly half the spots in the positional superlatives, which is away from the norm. It's a strong year in the middle with four prospects rated in the top-50 range, including the explosive Tony Steward (St. Augustine, Fla./Pedro Menendez) who could head a lot of linebacker superlatives this year.

Best inside run-stoppers

Anthony Wallace
Anthony Wallace is a tough, physical prospect who plays with a serious mean streak.

What we look for: These players have the ability to shed blocks, stay square to the line of scrimmage and play strong at the point of attack, while maintaining gap integrity. Great downhill burst, closing speed, direct pursuit angles and lateral fluidity through the fast-moving traffic are imperative to stop the inside run. Of course, solid tackling skills are a must for any linebacker playing between the tackles.

Curtis Grant (Richmond, Va./Hermitage)
One of the top recruited linebackers in the country, Grant has all the attributes you look for in a middle run-stopper. Aside from good lateral quickness and explosive short-area burst, the No. 3 inside linebacker in the country is great at sifting through the fast-moving traffic and shooting quickly through gaps to meet ball carriers in the hole.

Steve Edmond (Daingerfield, Texas/Daingerfield)
Edmond makes a living in opponents' backfields. He consistently beats guards and centers to the point of attack with an explosive first step and if he meets blockers in the hole, they are shed quickly with strong hands and great leverage. There are no second efforts or tough inside yards made by backs when this future Longhorn is in on the stop.

Anthony Wallace (Dallas/Skyline)
Wallace is a hard-nosed inside run-stuffer and may be the purest ILB in this year's class. He is thick, stout and extremely tough inside versus the run with coveted downhill strength. Not the most fluid, but when the Oregon Ducks need a linebacker to blow up the inside ISO play and hold his point, they have their guy of the future.

Best outside run defenders

What we look for: These linebackers can flat-out run, close fast and cover the entire field. Range and speed to make plays sideline-to-sideline are a must. The premier ones have the outside burst and lateral range to avoid being outflanked and the hips to change directions and make plays in space. The most coveted ones are very disruptive attacking vertically out on the perimeter.

Tony Steward
The 225-pounder could be listed in the best inside run defenders category as well. He is a heat-seeking missile to the football whether filling downhill or off-tackle. He possesses explosive, striking closing burst pursuing outside and for a bulky linebacker he can open, turn and change direction to defend out on the perimeter and match up with quicker skill players.

Stephone Anthony (Wadesboro, N.C./Anson)
Anthony makes plays sideline-to-sideline as good as any with an impressive combination of speed, range and athleticism. He has the arm length and quickness to avoid being reached on the outside and a nonstop motor when in pursuit as a backside chaser. He is also great at setting the edge with strength and holding his point on the outside.

Trey DePriest (Akron, Ohio/Springfield)
Alabama has some good linebackers headed to Tuscaloosa led by DePriest. He can flat-out run and make plays. He moves well laterally and has the speed to close quickly off tackle when a running back makes his cut to the outside. The Ohio native is a smart outside run defender who takes good angles and is athletic enough to redirect when needed.

Best blitzers

Ryan Shazier
Ryan Shazier will switch to linebacker from defensive lineman.

What we look for: These players are savvy with the ability to disguise the pressure, anticipate the snap and make themselves thin when needed. An explosive first step and the ability to accelerate to full speed quickly are necessary. The players find the correct seam at full speed, attack from different angles and possess good bend with hand technique coming off the edge. The best blitzers come with reckless abandon, close fast and deliver high-impact, tempo-changing hits.

Lateek Townsend (Bennettsville, S.C./Marlboro)
You would be hard pressed to find a more experienced or productive blitzer in this class. The high-energy defender is extremely productive from the first and second level with precise timing and a quick first step that allows him to get into opponents' backfields before most blockers have a chance to even get out of their stance. He is fluid enough to change directions sharply and redirect to the ball at full speed.

Jason Gibson (Gardena, Calif./Junipero Serra)
Whether his hand is on the ground or he's rushing out of a two-point stance, one thing is for sure: Gibson can get after the quarterback and create havoc on the outside. He is extremely quick off the ball with sound snap anticipation skills with a great short-area burst to beat blockers to the edge or the inside with a counter move. He has found a perfect scheme at Cal to showcase his blitzing talents as a 3-4 OLB.

Ryan Shazier (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Plantation)
The future Buckeye's high upside as a college blitzer places him on this list. An end in high school, we expect Shazier to slide back to linebacker in Columbus and terrorize opposing offenses as a heavy pressure defender. The sack master has good get-off but it's his length and arsenal of pass-rushing moves, including a good rip and push-pull, that make his upside as a college blitzer so promising.

Best diagnostic skills

What we look for: These defenders have great reactive athleticism, which means their bodies react instantaneously and naturally to what their eyes see. Processing quickly and correctly is essential. They make quick, decisive reads by following proper keys and seeing the play develop. Instincts, football intelligence and a natural feel for the game are intangible attributes found in the best.

James Vaughters (Tucker, Ga./Tucker)
Whether it's blowing up the inside run, chasing down the sweep or dropping in coverage, Vaughters seems to consistently be around the football making plays. It's not by accident. Aside from great physical tools, he makes quick decisive reads and is a smart pursuer when it comes to angles. The future Cardinal is a very sound linebacker with the energy and toughness Jim Harbaugh is going to love in Palo Alto.

Vinnie Sunseri (Tuscaloosa, Ala./Northridge)
It doesn't take long on film to see Sunseri is the son of a coach. He is one of the smartest linebackers in this class when it comes to reads, processing and finding the quickest and most direct route to the ball. The Crimson Tide pledge knows his limitations on the field and also knows how to best exploit his strengths. He's undersized but is a great football player with a lot of intangibles you simply can't coach.

Brent Calloway (Russellville, Ala./Russelville)
Calloway could fall into a lot of these categories and overall is a dynamic football player with great field awareness, whether he's on offense or defense. There is little wasted motion or false steps when he is attacking the football from his linebacker position. The Alabama commit shows a lot of natural ability taking on blocks or slipping them and could line up at several defensive positions and still produce.

Most underappreciated

A.J. Johnson
Four-star LB A.J. Johnson chose the Vols over Florida, USC, Clemson, Miami and others.

A.J. Johnson (Gainesville, Ga./Gainesville)
You won't find a more tenacious linebacker in this class. Johnson is a tackling machine who displays good strength, quickness and power between the tackles. He consistently jolts back blockers in the hole and should continue to do so for Tennessee in college. Not the most fluid, but is an explosive inside linebacker with great downhill and short-range tools, not to mention a motor that never quits.

Armonze Daniel (Avon, Ind./Avon)
His spleen injury as a junior may have the versatile linebacker sliding under the radar. However, when healthy, he is extremely productive and flexible in position and scheme. Not great in one area but good in all and very well-rounded as a linebacker prospect. He can run, close and hit as well as cover and hold up in space. Expect recruitment to heat up for the rangy linebacker with close to ideal measurables.

Deryck Gildon (Arlington, Texas/James Martin)
TCU is getting a high-motor linebacker with BCS-level talent. He combines good agility, functional strength and high production. His strong hand and shedding technique will allow for a smoother transition to the next level, where we think he is going to shine as a Horned Frog.

Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for ESPN Recruiting and has close to a decade of coaching experience at the college and high school levels.