College Football Recruiting LB Rankings 2015: Top 10 After The Opening
Ferocious, instinctive, athletic and disruptive. These adjectives apply to many of the nation's premier linebacker prospects who have commanded continuous collegiate interest throughout the 2015 recruiting cycle.
Seasons of high school game film and standout performances at showcase events like The Opening—an annual invite-only July camp in Beaverton, Oregon—have provided a strong sample size for several top-tier defenders. Recent recruiting-service rating alterations continue to alter the landscape when it comes to establishing a pecking order for playmakers at the position.
In the aftermath of newly released 247Sports composite rankings, we broke down the top 10 linebackers from a talent-packed group. Here's our analysis based on film study sessions and firsthand accounts of what we witnessed at The Opening.
This article is part of Bleacher Report's CFB 200 Recruiting Rankings Series. The overall rankings are based on the 247Sports composite, which takes into account every recruiting service's rankings. The positional rankings also correspond with those composite scores. Stay tuned over the next two weeks as we take an in-depth look at college football's stars of tomorrow.
10. Porter Gustin, Salem Hills High School (Salem, Utah)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: USC (100 percent)
Porter Gustin gained increased notoriety after looking like a "workout warrior" during SPARQ testing at The Opening. His measurables are great, and he moves well in shorts and a T-shirt, but there's a lot more to like about this intriguing defender than his shuttle time and vertical leap.
The 6'5", 240-pound prospect simply harasses opponents and, now that he's solidified his spot on the national radar, could soar up this list as a senior. He tallied 78 tackles, including 17 for loss, two sacks and an interception in 2013.
Gustin gives college teams immediate options due to his physical frame and natural power. Even though most recruiting services list him as an outside linebacker, the best scheme fit seems to be inside in a 3-4 front, though he's certainly not restricted to that defense.
He already takes on blocks with a head full of steam and plows through linemen and backs alike en route to the football. Gustin needs to enhance his use of hand technique upon engagement, but that refinement is required of many young defenders.
His tackling form can be described as thumping. He drives through opponents, finishing off plays with his head up and feet churning.
There's a chance Gustin evolves into a defensive end because he does have significant experience as a blitzer and has the build to handle himself in the trenches. However, he impressed at The Opening as a heady player in pass coverage, an element of his game that's a relatively unknown commodity since he hasn't been tasked with those duties much in high school.
Few players are on the rise as much as Gustin after his effort in Oregon.
"This whole recruiting process has been great and it really seems to be taking off now," he said. "Hopefully I opened some eyes out here and showed people what I'm capable of doing."
9. Leo Lewis, Brookhaven High School (Brookhaven, Mississippi)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: Mississippi State (67 percent); Alabama (29 percent); Ole Miss (5 percent)
Alabama initially claimed a commitment from the country's top-ranked inside linebacker, but Leo Lewis backed off that pledge in July. Upon his decision, the 6'3", 225-pound punisher immediately became one of the premier uncommitted defensive players in this class.
His intensity (some may call it a mean streak) makes him the kind of middle linebacker you want setting the tone for a defensive attack. He's a complete prospect at the position who flashes tremendous anticipation and exploits offensive weaknesses.
“I’m very explosive,” Lewis said this spring. “My instincts are good. I know exactly where to go and when I need to be there.”
When he's in position to make a play, it's rare to see the ball-carrier escape his grasp. He wraps up and drives through with a powerful lower body to put opponents on their backs.
Lewis dominates in one-on-one situations when backs or tight ends attempt to chip him off the edge, proving himself as a dynamic and relentless blitzer. He's the guy you want shooting through the gap on 4th-and-inches, making life difficult for everyone on the other side of the football.
Lewis, who recorded 100 tackles last season, believes he can thrive in a variety of defensive game plans.
“I think I could play in any scheme," he said. "I can work hard and develop enough to play any position, outside or inside. I’m not worried about what kind of defense a team plays."
Inside linebacker is his most likely landing spot, but don't be surprised if Lewis lands at the weak-side position. Enhancements in perimeter pass coverage would go a long way toward easing that transition.
8. Ricky DeBerry, St. Christopher's School (Richmond, Virginia)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: Ohio State (38 percent); Oklahoma (29 percent); Virginia (14 percent); Tennessee (10 percent)
Ricky DeBerry already appears prepared for prime time from a physical standpoint, standing at 6'2.5", 255 pounds. Given his size and skill set, he's a tweener who could line up at outside linebacker or weak-side defensive end depending on defensive scheme and his development.
His stout build creates options for defensive coordinators, who undoubtedly assess him differently within various college programs. DeBerry bulldozes through blocks, and despite lacking ideal arm length, he is highly effective while engaging offensive linemen.
This suggests a career at defensive end could be in his future, but he's even more impressive when given room to roam in space. DeBerry provides an intimidating presence from the second level, building momentum and thundering downfield once he identifies a play.
He explodes off the edge, using proper pad level to gain an advantage in leverage at the point of contact. He uses a strong one-handed punch to push his opponents back on their heels before making a move inside.
DeBerry doesn't have many tricks up his sleeve as a pass-rusher but penetrates the pocket consistently and displays a blend of power and quickness that could eventually result in double-digit sack totals. However, unlike some sack-minded defenders, he is patient in his pursuit and doesn't allow rushers to beat him inside by firing too far upfield.
The biggest concern about his role at outside linebacker comes in pass coverage. DeBerry is a terrific athlete, but it remains to be seen whether he can play comfortably downfield while contending with shifty receivers.
His best fit appears to be at outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme that allows him to focus on off-tackle rushing attempts and zone blitzes. If DeBerry ends up in a 4-3 front, he's versatile enough to get a shot at the strong-side position.
7. Osa Masina, Brighton High School (Salt Lake City, Utah)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: UCLA (53 percent); Utah (41 percent)
Osa Masina was one of the most uniquely gifted defenders at The Opening, which speaks volumes about his potential. The 6'4", 230-pound playmaker tantalizes some as a running back or defensive end prospect, but outside linebacker is where his most promise lies.
Masina, who rushed for 1,643 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2013, is a menace with the ball in hands. While he appears slightly raw on defense, the versatile athlete wreaked havoc along the line of scrimmage as a junior, compiling 87 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
"I enjoy getting after it on defense," Masina said at The Opening. "I'm working to improve and build up my strength. I think I can make an early impact in college on."
Based on film and in-person assessment, that's hard to argue. He has the physique and motor to contribute as a true freshman, likely in a defined role that limits his snaps.
Masina's above-average speed puts him in place to make plays, but his fundamentals really set him apart. He takes excellent angles in pursuit, doesn't take plays off and does an excellent job of discarding blockers on his way to the ball.
He hits the line of scrimmage with low pad level, presenting a smaller target while wading through the scrum and into the backfield. Masina looks best when working downhill against the run, filling gaps and firing upfield.
There's room for substantial growth as an edge-rusher if he can develop pass-rushing skills to pair with his athleticism. He appears capable of covering plenty of ground in pass coverage and could match up against top-tier tight ends, especially near the goal line.
6. Roquan Smith, Macon County High School (Montezuma, Georgia)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: Georgia (85 percent); Florida (10 percent); Auburn (5 percent)
Roquan Smith may not become a key contributor as quickly as other members of this list, but he has all the natural tools to develop into a special multiyear starter in college. The 6'2", 205-pound prospect possesses elite athleticism and chases down plays with tremendous burst.
Still, he has strides to make from a physical standpoint. Smith will likely require a year of collegiate weight training with a nutrition regimen to achieve the weight gain required for him to be an effective three-down linebacker. Where he stands now, it's difficult to imagine him holding up against SEC offensive linemen in the trenches.
His closing speed puts him in position to blow up the offensive backfield, where he made 27 of his 100 tackles last season, via Scout.com. Smith also claimed six sacks as a junior, weaving through traffic in pursuit of the passer.
He may not find as much success as a blitzer in college, but there's reason to believe Smith can manage a few sacks per year based on his high motor. His duties on passing downs are more likely to come downfield.
"I can help a team in different ways," Smith said at The Opening. "Stop the run, chase the quarterback, drop back and cover receivers. Teams like my versatility."
Smith covers the pass well, particularly while patrolling the flat when working against running backs. His hips and agility are impressive enough to trust him against receivers, though that may be a difficult assignment if he is asked to cover beyond intermediate range.
College coaches may choose to implement him as a pass-protection linebacker when first working him into the lineup. That could be his quickest path to the field.
5. Jerome Baker, Benedictine High School (Cleveland, Ohio)
Committed to: Florida
Jerome Baker surprised some when he pledged to Florida over the in-state Buckeyes, but he fits in well with a front seven filled with versatile athletes in Gainesville. The 6'2", 210-pound prospect is typically categorized as an "athlete" but projects favorably at outside linebacker, where he brings a well-rounded skill set to the field.
Baker, who tallied 120 tackles and rushed for 1,400 yards as a junior, via Cleveland.com, is tailor-made for the weak-side position in a 4-3 scheme. He dominates in space, running sideline to sideline with speed that makes it difficult for offensive linemen and lead blockers to reach him at the second level.
His persistence against the run game is a strong attribute. While other players give up during the progression of a play that seems too far past them, he chases down ball-carriers.
Coaches can trust a player who demonstrates personal accountability like that.
Baker is patient at the snap before keying in on where the ball is going. Once he identifies the rushing lane, he shows no hesitation while bursting off his back foot and shooting toward the gap.
His elusiveness is enough to plug up holes and halt plays at this point in his career, but Baker will need to bulk up to shed blocks in college. He has the physical frame to take on this task, and some added power would complement an array of effective finesse moves.
Baker has the ability to dominate in zone pass coverage and become an impact playmaker on third down. He has the hands and athleticism to turn interceptions into points.
4. Jeffery Holland, Trinity Christian Academy (Jacksonville, Florida)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: Florida (58 percent); Auburn (42 percent)
Quarterbacks beware: Jeffery Holland is on the hunt.
The 6'2", 230-pound playmaker is the latest edge-rusher to emerge in Florida, and he should only continue to improve as he develops more power moves in his pursuit of the passer. Holland secured 12.5 sacks in 2013, via MaxPreps.com, providing a relentless presence at outside linebacker for state champion Trinity Christian Academy.
Holland, who tallied 45 tackles, relied on speed for the majority of his big plays. He often blew by offensive tackles without getting more than a hand laid on him because of this quickness.
Holland already implements a few moves that put him in position to reach the passer.
He exploits the attempts of tackles who overcompensate for his speed by extending wide, countering with an inside dip that leaves them looking silly. His agility lends itself well to developing a strong spin move.
Holland's strength shines in the backfield, where he dismantles secondary blocking schemes by bull-rushing through running backs in pass protection. His athleticism allows him to pursue a quarterback who evacuates the passing pocket, and he usually wins that footrace to finish the play.
It remains to be seen how college coaches will use Holland on obvious passing downs, but it's a safe bet he'll routinely rush the passer instead of dropping back. However, the skills are in place for him to provide coverage in the intermediate zone when called upon.
Holland's long frame, pass-rushing skills and impressive pursuit should make him a dangerous threat to opposing passers for years to come. As the rest of his game becomes more polished, there's plenty of potential for him to become a complete outside linebacker prospect.
3. John Houston, Junipero Serra High School (Gardena, California)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: USC (96 percent); Oregon (4 percent)
John Houston is a hybrid outside linebacker with considerable length and a massive wingspan. Coming off a career season, he appears primed for a dominant senior campaign before carrying instant-impact potential to college.
The 6'3", 211-pound prospect remains a bit lanky, but with more than a year until his first freshman game, there's a strong chance Houston will hover in at least the 225-pound range by then. The power aspect of his game is already in place, as he withstands the initial blow from blockers and diligently scrapes along the line before jolting ball-carriers.
He secured 137 tackles last season, giving him 239 tackles since 2012. His sideline-to-sideline run coverage is outstanding, as he darts to cut off angles with above-average speed.
Houston's versatility stands out, making him largely scheme-diverse. An inside backer role in a 3-4 scheme sounds ideal, but he presents plenty of options in a 4-3 front, where he could flourish at the strong-side spot.
Houston doesn't just bring ball-carriers down; he sends them back to the huddle wincing. This thumper also makes receivers and tight ends think twice before fully extending for a high pass.
Houston has the potential to blanket pass targets, particularly in short areas of the field. His backpedal footwork requires refinement, but this phenomenal athlete is still gaining coordination as he grows into an imposing frame.
2. Justin Hilliard, St. Xavier High School (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Committed to: Ohio State
You'll be hard-pressed to find a more fundamental run defender in the 2015 class than Justin Hilliard. Listed at 6'0", 225 pounds, he's slightly undersized from a height perspective but already possesses college-ready physicality.
Hilliard, who tallied 80 tackles and five sacks as a junior, via GoUpstate.com, despite missing multiple games, is extremely disciplined. He displays patience that so many high school linebackers lack during the initial moments after the ball is snapped.
Once he keys in on how a play is developing, he pursues without a shred of hesitancy. Hilliard wins battles against blockers who have 80-pound size advantages by cracking them with an explosive punch to the chest plate, disengaging as they lose balance and bursting into the offensive backfield.
His first few steps are elite, putting him in position to identify an angle and get there with above-average closing speed. Despite being rather musclebound for his age, Hilliard shows off strong lateral agility.
He isn't a hybrid defender who will put his hand in the dirt to rush the passer, but Hilliard is extremely effective in blitz packages and can force the quarterback to make ill-advised decisions.
"I want to be in the back of the quarterback's mind when they snap the ball," Hilliard said. "Part of my job is to keep him uncomfortable."
Ohio State fans could see him crack into the rotation as early as midseason during his freshman campaign. Hilliard was on the recruiting path for the program at The Opening and made top-ranked running back Damien Harris wear his Buckeyes hat after closing ceremonies.
"My phone is going to blow up about this," Harris joked as media members took photos.
1. Malik Jefferson, Poteet High School (Mesquite, Texas)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: Texas A&M (66 percent); Texas (31) percent; Baylor (3 percent)
Malik Jefferson began his experience at The Opening with a scintillating sprint in the 40-yard dash, which he completed in 4.39 seconds. That's a remarkable time for an athlete who carries 215 pounds at 6'2.5".
The outside linebacker validated his top ranking throughout drills and seven-on-seven scrimmage action, despite not being able to put his pass-rushing skills on display. Jefferson compiled a career-high 12 sacks in 2013 to go with 83 tackles and three forced fumbles.
He primarily plays an edge-rushing role in his high school scheme, relying predominately on downhill pursuit, so it was interesting to see him challenged in pass coverage by many of the country's top quarterbacks.
"I think I'm a balanced linebacker and coaches can count on me to get the job done whatever we need to do," Jefferson said. "I like stuffing the run, but I have no problem dropping back to cover passes."
Jefferson was impressive with his downfield reaction time. He did an excellent job of patrolling the flat and disrupting intermediate pass attempts.
He was just as relentless as what shows up on game film, giving everything he has on every play. Whichever college program lands him is acquiring an accomplished and focused competitor.
He spent his junior season tossing aside blockers while shattering the offensive backfield. Jefferson lays punishing hits on running backs who are unfortunate to come across him in the trenches.
A memorable moment along the sidelines during seven-on-seven competition occurred when his mother met the father of Alabama quarterback commit Blake Barnett.
"I apologize in advance," she said lightheartedly. "Malik isn't very nice to quarterbacks."
Fortunately for Barnett, Alabama remains in the mix for his commitment, though it will be difficult to pry Jefferson away from the Lone Star State.
No linebacker in this class can touch his read-and-react quickness or lateral mobility. Durability is perhaps the only slight concern for Jefferson at this stage because it's difficult to tell how his relatively slender frame will develop.
All quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report national recruiting columnist Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.
Recruit information and statistics courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.