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B/R CFB 250: Top 10 Hybrid Linebackers in College Football

Michael FelderNational CFB Lead WriterDecember 28, 2013

B/R CFB 250: Top 10 Hybrid Linebackers in College Football

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    USA Today

    Editor's note: This is the 14th installment in Bleacher Report's CFB 250 for the 2013 season. This signature series runs through December, with National College Football Lead Writer Michael Felder ranking the best players at every position. You can read more about the series in this introductory article. See the CFB 250 page for more rankings.

    Who is the best hybrid linebacker of 2013?

    The position has risen to prominence in recent seasons, with quality players showcased there every year. This year is no different, with an abundance of teams allowing athletes to play in space and both get after the quarterback and sink into coverage.

    The criteria for this list take that ability to play with a hand in the dirt or standing up into account, while also putting a premium on a player’s ability to rush the passer. Through watching these athletes and grading them based upon their pass rush, run defense, ability in coverage and tackling, we’ve put together the top 10 hybrid players.

    If there were any ties, the edge went to the player we would rather have.

    Keep in mind, these hybrid linebackers are being rated on their performance in college, not NFL potential. But to see where these players may go in the NFL draft (whether they are eligible in 2014 or later), check out Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller's projections at the end of each player slide.

10. Marcus Whitfield, Maryland

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    No. 41
    No. 41Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

     

    Pass Rush

    25/30

    Marcus Whitfield has a knack for getting off the edge and pressing the pocket from the exterior. He’s capable of running the hump well and has the strength to push tackles backward when he uses his leverage.

    Run Defense

    24/30

    The senior was exceptional this season at finding his way to the mesh point and disrupting plays in the backfield. He is not the edge-setter that people need out of the combo linebacker-defensive end spot, which allows teams to move him out of the way, but he can get into the backfield and make plays.

    Coverage

    5/10

    Whitfield is at his best added to the pass rush. He’s not fluid or comfortable moving away from the line. He’s a great athlete downhilll, but moving backward gives him trouble.

    Tackling

    25/30

    Sound tackler who gets to his target with good speed and control. He has the strength to put bodies into the dirt with strong impacts, but his skill set also allows him to take the air out with a plan and corral opponents.

    Overall

    79/100

    Whitfield’s a fighter in pass rushing. As teams paid more attention to him, he struggled at times. He did come on strong in the last half of the season. He can play the run straight up with mixed results, but he’s at his best splitting defenders and getting into the backfield to disrupt.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Seventh round. Has a pass-rusher's body, but he lacks the speed to go with it.

9. Prince Shembo, Notre Dame

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    24/30

    Prince Shembo is not a pass-rushing specialist at the hybrid spot. The senior can get to the quarterback, but his skills are rooted in squeezing the pocket, pushing against offensive tackles and forcing the quarterback to move toward other defenders.

    Run Defense

    26/30

    Shembo is a very good run defender from a rules and discipline standpoint. He sets the edge for the Irish defense and is very good at turning plays back into the pursuing defenders. He lacks some of the quickness to knife between blockers and struggles to disengage at times, but he is a good edge linebacker.

    Coverage

    3/10

    Shembo is a player who does not belong in pass coverage. On passing downs, he’s of greater benefit squeezing the pocket and playing with his hand down than he could possibly be dropping off the line. Changing directions in coverage is not something his skill set allows.

    Tackling

    26/30

    Shembo is a good tackler both in the open field and in close quarters. He brings high-level effort to every play and tremendous body control, which stops him from lunging and missing tackles.

    Overall

    79/100

    He could easily transition into being a full-time 4-3 defensive end because Notre Dame uses those skills of his the most. He sets a good edge to turn runs inside, is very adept at squeezing the pocket and is a sure tackler at the linebacker spot.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fifth round. A bit short-armed and tight-hipped for the edge in the NFL.

8. Christian Jones, Florida State

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    23/30

    As a newcomer to the position, Christian Jones’ evolution has been interesting to watch. He is not a good pass-rusher because of his lack of experience. Jones has no plan of attack, lacks true pass-rushing techniques and thus is often a nonfactor on the rush, outside of squeezing the pocket.

    Run Defense

    27/30

    Jones’ background as a 4-3 linebacker helps him excel against the run. He understands how to flow backside and shut down the cutback lane, and he has shown the ability to set the edge and disengage to force the issue. His ability to play both quarterback and running back on the zone read is tremendous.

    Coverage

    7/10

    Part of what made Jones such an asset at the linebacker spot was his ability to get into coverage and be a factor. As a hybrid linebacker, he still has those skills to turn and run with a back out of the backfield or sink into coverage. Although Florida State does not ask him to do this much, he is one of the smoothest in transition at the position.

    Tackling

    24/30

    He's a very good tackler, and his speed and agility help mask some of his misreads from the position. Few can pursue as quickly across the formation the way he does.

    Overall

    81/100

    Jones is the best athlete at this position in college football, bar none. His inexperience has slowed down his production, but all of the tools are there to be great. This season he went from having his move to hybrid linebacker questioned to becoming a legitimate power player at the position.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Second round. Has the quickness you want as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

7. Noah Spence, Ohio State

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

     

    Pass Rush

    26/30

    In his first year as a starter, Noah Spence has been a revelation at the position. He is still learning and developing his pass-rush skills, but he’s put together a great season on athleticism and just winning his one-on-one battles. Spence started out overrunning the passer and not having a plan to work back downhill. But as the season progressed, he’s stopped relying solely on speed and used his stop-and-spin or a swim move to push the tackle upfield and go underneath.

    Run Defense

    26/30

    Spence has been interesting to watch in run defense because he’s not a particularly big player who sets the edge. He can hold on the edge, but his best quality is the quickness to go from setting a hard edge to shaking off a blocker and forcing a cutback or making a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

    Coverage

    5/10

    The Buckeyes sophomore has the physical tools to be a high-quality coverage man out of this scheme, a development that would free the Buckeyes to use more zone blitzes and confuse quarterbacks. Unfortunately, as a young player transitioning from more of a full-time defensive end to a hybrid player, Spence has not been able to show just what he can do in coverage.

    Tackling

    24/30

    Speed is Spence’s greatest asset and was his worst enemy early in the season. He overran both runs and passes, which took him out of position to make tackles. As the season has continued, his tackling improved because he was under control and in position.

    Overall

    81/100

    Spence is not just the future, he’s the right now. He is the Buckeyes’ best pass-rusher and is a freakish athlete who can terrorize offensive tackles with his speed. As he developed more control to his game, he truly became a high-level ballplayer in 2013.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Second round. An impressive athlete, but he should dominate and he doesn't.

6. Dante Fowler, Florida

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    25/30

    Dante Fowler does not have a wide variety of pass-rush moves. His best quality is playing in a defense that uses shifts and motions pre-snap to confuse the offensive line. Fowler needs to develop a swim-and-rip move in addition to his speed to consistently get pressure on the quarterback.

    Run Defense

    27/30

    Despite his lack of pass-rush consistency, Fowler is a force against the run. The shifts at the line allow him to use his quickness to knife into the backfield and disrupt plays before they happen. Fowler also has the speed to get to the edge and track down ball-carriers from the backside.

    Coverage

    5/10

    Fowler is not a pass defender. The Gators don’t have a strong pass rush, so Fowler is needed in that dimension. The sophomore is also not a plus in coverage. He is much better going forward and getting into the backfield than he is sinking into open spaces to defend the pass.

    Tackling

    27/30

    Fowler is a good tackler. He is a guy who runs to the football, gets players on the ground and looks for chances to create turnovers. He is an athlete who understands how to track the ball-carrier and stop him for minimal gains.

    Overall

    84/100

    Florida’s hybrid linebacker is a quality player. He is among the nation’s best against the run, finding a way to get penetration and create problems in the backfield. He needs to develop pass-rush moves and coverage skills to be a well-rounded player. But against the run, he is a beast.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Early first round. We're looking at a future top pick. There's nothing he can't do.

5. Devon Kennard, USC

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    28/30

    Devon Kennard has returned with a vengeance from the torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him in 2012. In a new defensive scheme, Kennard, somewhat undersized as a 4-3 defensive end, is allowed to flex his skills as a pass-rush linebacker. The senior brings big pass-rush moves, relentless pursuit and the skill set of a 4-3 defensive end to the linebacker spot. Because he’s standing up, the freedom he gets makes him even more dangerous.

    Run Defense

    26/30

    After spending three years as a smallish rush end, Kennard entered the linebacker ranks with plenty of skills against the run. He shows a strong ability to hold the edge against bigger players, a knack for disengaging and still has the quickness to shoot the gap and create chaos in the backfield.

    Coverage

    6/10

    While the skills of the 4-3 end translate well to the rush aspects of the game, Kennard is still not comfortable against the pass. He is athletic, but he does not have a lot of experience opening his hips, sinking into coverage or running with backs out of the backfield.

    Tackling

    25/30

    Speed is Kennard’s biggest weapon, but it can hurt him when he overruns plays. As a whole, he is a reliable tackler who consistently gets ball-carriers on the ground for minimal gains.

    Overall

    85/100

    Kennard is an elite pass-rush specialist at the hybrid linebacker position. The Trojan boasts speed off the edge, pass-rush moves and a plan of attack rooted in causing disruption. He must become a reliable option in coverage to be more complete. But when it comes to getting after the quarterback, he’s among the nation’s best.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fourth round. Productive, but speed to the edges has to get better.

4. Khalil Mack, Buffalo

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    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor

     

    Pass Rush

    27/30

    Khalil Mack is a pass-rush guy who has to be respected. Teams scheme to run away from him, which is a testament to his blend of speed and power in getting to the quarterback. Mack has shown good strength in pushing back tackles into quarterbacks and has a strong up-and-under move.

    Run Defense

    26/30

    The senior is a skilled run player, using the same assets that benefit his pass rush. He has the quickness to split defenders in order to make tackles and disrupt the mesh point. He also has the strength to set a hard edge and turn ball-carriers back into the interior of the defense.

    Coverage

    6/10

    Mack is not an accomplished pass defender, but he has shown some capabilities in coverage. He is a fluid athlete who can physically get into coverage. His issue is with technique and needing more experience and reps to get comfortable reading keys in the pass game.

    Tackling

    27/30

    Mack is a sure tackler against the run and pass. He works relentlessly to get the ball-carrier on the ground. When he gets his paws on an offensive player, he is able to wrestle him down. His closing speed gives him the ability to run plays down.

    Overall

    86/100

    Mack excelled against the Ohio State Buckeyes and Jack Mewhort, one of the nation’s best tackles, and the rest of his 2013 season has been solid. As teams in the MAC scheme to avoid the pass-rusher, he’s started playing more in coverage and is developing that aspect of his game. Mack lives on the opponent’s side of the line of scrimmage and is a problem every time he gets to defend against the rush, run or pass.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Early first round. Mack has it all from an athletic standpoint. Should be a top-15 pick.

3. Marcus Smith, Louisville

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    26/30

    Originally a pure defensive end, Marcus Smith has spent a lot more time standing up in 2013, and he’s produced solid results. Smith moves well to the football and has the ability to beat a tackle off the edge or get underneath the tackle en route to the quarterback.

    Run Defense

    27/30

    Because he is a converted end who has been asked to stand up, Smith brings toughness to the position. He sets a hard edge and has the strength to disengage to make a tackle while maintaining outside leverage. He also has good quickness that gives him plenty of leeway in the run game.

    Coverage

    7/10

    The Louisville senior was impressive when asked to sink into coverage, something that is a rarity for converters at the position. He sees the field well, recognizes routes and has the agility to drive on the football.

    Tackling

    27/30

    Smith is playing in more space now than when he had his hand down every play, and at times the space gives offensive players advantageous angles. However, because he is a defensive end at the core, he pushes ball-carriers to his teammates.

    Overall

    87/100

    With Louisville using more versatile looks out of its front seven, Smith may be a surprise to some. But he has emerged as one of the premier hybrid linebacker-types in the nation. He fights to the football, pushes through contact and has the athleticism to be a problem for linemen in space.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Third round. A monster 2013 season showed pass-rushing skills. Just OK versus the run.

2. Trent Murphy, Stanford

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    No. 93
    No. 93Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    28/30

    Trent Murphy has a number of pass-rush moves. He can slap a tackle’s hands off him while getting upfield to get around the edge. Murphy’s also shown a quality upfield push, followed by a spin back to the inside. He is a polished pass-rusher with not just a single plan for getting to the quarterback.

    Run Defense

    28/30

    Similar to his passing skill set, Murphy has evolved in getting to the running back. He uses the up-and-under move to shift from rushing the passer to tracking the running back, and his discipline and patience are phenomenal against the zone read. He is more than a “see ball, hit ball” player. Murphy pursues down the line, head behind the runner to take away the cutback and force the issue.

    Coverage

    4/10

    Getting into coverage is not Murphy’s strong suit, and he's rarely used there. Even on plays where he is supposed to peel with a back out of the backfield, he is not comfortable changing directions to turn and run. He’s a far better rusher and throwing-lane defender than an in-space pass-defense option.

    Tackling

    27/30

    He is a high-level tackler. Murphy uses tremendous pursuit angles, has an understanding of squeezing the cutback lanes and uses his disciplined approach to force the ball-carrier into choosing to run into him or back into the teeth of the defense.

    Overall

    87/100

    Murphy can play with his hand down or standing up coming off the edge. He brings a physical, attacking style to the game, and he always plays on the opponent’s side of the line of scrimmage. When it comes to simply getting after the quarterback and stopping runs behind the line, the Stanford senior is at the top of the hybrid linebacking class.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Late first round. Not the flashiest pass-rusher, but Murphy gets the job done.

1. Kyle Van Noy, BYU

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    Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

     

    Pass Rush

    27/30

    Without a capable rusher on the opposite side to keep quarterbacks contained, Kyle Van Noy’s numbers have gone down, but his ability to rush the passer is no less tremendous. The linebacker has the speed to get around the edge on linemen, and he has the agility and body control to give tackles the up-and-under move as well as swim or rip-through blocks.

    Run Defense

    26/30

    The BYU Cougar is versatile in his approach to the run game. He’s capable of engaging with linemen, tight ends and fullbacks and then disengaging to make tackles. Van Noy is also adept at knifing between blockers to disrupt runs at the mesh point.

    Coverage

    8/10

    Van Noy is an all-around beast of a defensive player, and nowhere is his freakish talent more evident than in coverage. Unlike most players at his position, he is a fluid athlete who moves well in both zone and man coverage. He can transition from a pass rush into coverage with a flaring running back. And when he sinks into zone coverage, he reads the quarterback extremely well.

    Tackling

    28/30

    In Van Noy, the Cougars have a sure tackler. The linebacker has balance, does not lurch, takes the air out of the play, uses the sideline and seems to always get the ball-carrier down on the ground. In his pass rush, he secures the sack as well as pushing to force the fumble, something many rushers fail to do.

    Overall

    89/100

    Van Noy is a tremendous football player. He is not the same elite athlete as other players at the position, but he is versatile enough to be a problem against the run, pass and in coverage. His football savvy is a big weapon that puts him in the right place at the right time.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Late first round. A gifted athlete, but where to play him in the NFL is the big question.

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