Defending the spread warrants new needs with ILBs

Vontaze Burfict and Nico Johnson are two of only three ESPNU 150 inside linebackers in the 2009 class. Tom Hauck/Jeremy Henderson/Andalusia Star-News

One major question we had when configuring the 2009 ESPNU 150 was where were the inside linebackers? The position was solid in 2008 with 10 middle 'backers represented in the 150, but just three inside guys made the cut this year and a paltry four earned a grade of 80 or higher. It could be chalked up as just a down year for ILBs, but it may be more than that if you look closer.

The position itself is changing at the college level, and we may be in a transitional year for finding prototypical inside guys who fit the new mold. Gone are the days when stiff, immobile linebackers who excelled at plugging the inside run are most coveted for a college defensive coordinator. The traditional fullback is almost extinct, so the guy who can isolate him in the hole is also becoming obsolete.

LB grading criteria

Scouts Inc. grades linebackers in eight categories:
1. Versus inside run: Do they step up and fill the hole? Are they physical? Can they take on blocks and shed quickly?
2. Versus outside run: Can they ward off a block? Do they have the speed to get to the sideline? Do they take good angles in pursuit?
3. Blitz/pass rush: Are they a power rusher or a finesse rusher? How is their hand use? Do they have good feet?
4. Key and diagnose: Can they read and react quickly? Do they get a good jump on ball? How are their football instincts?
5. Lateral pursuit: Can they get over trash? How is the movement in their hips? Can they chase sideline to sideline?
6. Tackling: Do they wrap up well? Do they tackle low or high? Are they able to drag down? Do they tackle with power and are they punishing?
7. Pass drop: How are their hips and their turns? Do they get adequate depth? Do they show the ability to play in zone coverage?
8. Pass coverage/hands: Can they cover man-to-man? How are their hips and turns?

Faster inside guys who play in space and match up against quicker spread teams but are still powerful enough to plug the hole on third-and-one are now most sought-after. Most college programs and we at Scouts Inc. are currently looking for ILB prospects fitting those attributes -- and they are difficult to find.

Guys like Chicago Bears MLB Brian Urlacher who can stack the inside run on first-and-10 and then basically drop to a deep-third coverage on second-and-long don't grow on trees. Urlacher actually played safety at New Mexico before transitioning down and bulking up to play inside linebacker in the NFL. Similarly, this class has a handful of lighter, yet physical perimeter defenders we project will slide inside at the next level, fill out their bodies in a full-time weight-training program and retain their current speed.

There are also a selective few in this class who can do those things right now. They can flat out run and cover at a powerful, yet agile 230-plus pounds.

Complete packages
While there is a considerable drop-off in talent shortly after, we feel our top-two inside linebackers are very well-rounded and have all the physical tools needed to succeed as every-down linebackers at the college level. Vontaze Burfict (Corona, Calif./Centennial) and Nico Johnson (Andalusia, Ala.) both can run sideline-to-sideline, play in space against the pass and stuff the inside run with measurables averaging 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds. The talented middle 'backers impressively sit at No. 20 and 24, respectively, in the ESPNU 150.

At 244 pounds, Burfict has great speed, quickness and athleticism. Aside from his striking hits and physical gifts, he has a natural feel for the position and should adjust quickly to the speed at the next level. The game slows down for him in the fast-moving traffic, and he has the ability to run through the cutoff block with power or slip it with deceptive lateral quickness. The USC pledge does need to get depth quicker in coverage but still has room for continued physical development and should only get better as he polishes up his game.

As we broke down this inside linebacker class on film when compiling the ESPNU 150, we actually only found a small margin of difference between Johnson and Burfict. While the Alabama native's hips might be a bit stiffer, one of the top undecided defenders in the country has very few physical flaws at the position. Like our No. 1 ILB, he can run, is fluid sifting through the trash for his size, fills strong at the point of attack and matches up well with backs in space. Like any good linebacker, Johnson is a solid tackler who packs a punch on contact.

Tariq Allen (Irving, Texas/MacArthur) is the final middle linebacker in the ESPNU 150 and it is well deserved. The Texas pledge is an explosive, downhill run filler with good short-area speed for a 231-pounder. Allen is an effective blitzer but can also get caught flat-footed when asked to read and react from normal linebacker depth. He should develop into a very productive Big 12 linebacker with some refinement; all the physical tools are there for Mack Brown's defensive staff to mold into a good one.

On the cusp
Petey Smith (Seffner, Fla./Armwood) is an intriguing prospect who could make his way into the ESPNU 150 with a breakout fall. A very talented athlete for his size, Smith dominated his competition as a sophomore and really stood out when we covered one of his Armwood games on ESPNU. However, he struggled with an abdominal injury last season and never quite regained his form.

That said, for a thicker linebacker, he has very good athleticism while being dominant versus the inside run. His lack of fluidity pursuing laterally, marginal height and non-productive junior year is what has the state of Florida's top ILB currently sitting outside of the 150.

Trevor Erno (Lakewood, Calif.) is one of this class' better inside run stoppers with his great strength, solid base and power on contact -- his relentless pursuit to the football doesn't hurt either. The Arizona pledge excels at blowing up the downhill run but will also surprise you with his athleticism in space. Expect early playing time as he is physically ready to play at the next level and is a huge land for the Wildcats. Their biggest challenge may be keeping him until signing day.

Sunshine State Stuffers
Willie Ferrell (Tallahassee, Fla./Florida A&M), Quan Fletcher (Miami/Dr. Krop) and Shane Gordon (Weston, Fla./Cypress Bay) follow Smith as top-10 ILBs and continue to impressively represent the state of Florida at the position. The trio is not flashy and under the radar but have the physical ability to be very productive at the college level.

Ferrell is just a great football player and a kid we feel is vastly underrated. An early steal for LSU last April, the future Tiger has great size in the middle and equally impressive power and explosiveness closing on ball carriers.

Fletcher has similar short-area power and strength filling his middle run gaps, and despite lacking ideal speed, he is deceptively athletic in space. The 244-pounder has superior size and strength but is need of some fundamental polish.

Gordon's motor never stops and is equally impressive filling inside or chasing to the sideline. His lack of ideal measurables makes him a major national sleeper in our eyes.

Under the radar
This inside linebacker class is definitely short on top-tier talent but is comprised of some good quality depth. There are a handful of prospects like Gordon we feel are currently underrated and could blossom at the college level. Gus Jones (Wagoner, Okla.) and Corico Hawkins (Milledgeville, Ga./Baldwin) did not have a slew of prominent scholarship offers when they committed to Oklahoma and Clemson, respectively, but we project both will be very productive in college despite their lack of ideal measurables.

It looks like the Sooners are taking a chance with in-state talent Jones, but we feel they probably just got a better look at his well-rounded skills and realize his high ceiling for upside. ESPN's No. 7-rated ILB is not going to wow you at a combine with his numbers (211 pounds/ 4.6 40), but he plays much bigger between the white lines and has great burst to the football. Jones is very instinctive finding the ball in traffic but will need to add considerable bulk to produce in a full-time move to the inside.

Clemson has done a good job landing blue-chip studs in recent years but also developing under-the-radar talent. Hawkins is another sleeper in this class whose 6-foot, 220-pound frame maybe hiding him nationally. While a bit on the shorter side, our No. 9 inside 'backer is very thick and explosive closing on the football between the tackles and can be difficult to turn when filling. He lacks some polish and flexibility but we project both will be refined under defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.

Jersey Boys
The Garden State has a knack for producing fundamentally-sound, tough linebackers and 2009 is no different. Carlo Calabrese (Verona, N.J.) and Glenn Carson (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional) certainly fit the mold of blue-collar, hard-nosed Jersey 'backers and are both deserving of their top-15 ratings.

Calabrese is a strong, aggressive ILB who is all business on the football field. One of the better run fillers and tacklers in this class, he steps up hard with a wide base and good short-area power. He should continue to effectively stack and shed the cutoff block while playing at Notre Dame and develop into a demon on special teams.

Like Calabrese, the undecided Carson is very instinctive and has great size for the middle. He's not overly flashy but is a very strong, downhill run stuffer and highly-coveted on the recruiting trail.

Flying around
Devekeyan Lattimore (Athens, Ga./Cedar Shoals) and Jaydan Bird (Conway Springs, Kan.) are a pair of inside guys who have not garnered a whole lot of recognition on the recruiting trail but play like they want to earn it. Both are a bit undersized but mask it well with their relentless motors and high intensity pursuing the football.

Lattimore plays fast on every snap, closes extremely quick on the football and is very explosive on his final steps of contact. A future stud on special teams, expect the undecided prospect's stock to continue to rise.

Bird may not be flashy, but like Jones this hard-nosed linebacker showed Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables enough on film to earn an early scholarship. He needs to make sure he stays under control when pursuing but plays 100 miles per hour and delivers great force as a tackler -- one of the tougher inside guys in this class.

Slightly Overrated
While Todd Golper (Arcadia, Calif.) and Jordan Whiting (Louisville, Ky./Trinity) are solid ILB prospects committed to prominent BSC schools, we do not see the ability on film that justifies their national exposure.

We had a chance to see Golper live and came away with the same conclusion. ESPN's No. 20 ILB is fundamentally sound and a good inside run stopper but is also a bit stiff, inflexible and his overall athleticism is limited -- that's a concern for a smaller 220-pound ILB.

Similarly Whiting is a strong vertical run stopper with his compact frame, but his hip fluidity is marginal and his lateral pursuit through traffic is a weaker area. He can blow up the "ISO" but we are a bit surprised the Buckeyes went after an ILB with limited range, speed and agility outside the tackles.

Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for Scouts Inc. and has close to a decade of coaching experience at the college and high school level. Tucker has served as a recruiting coordinator for two nationally ranked Division II colleges. Most recently, he was the associate head coach and defensive coordinator for Merrimack College, which advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 2006 NCAA Division II playoffs.