On the second play of NC State‘s win over Georgia Tech last fall, Payton Wilson separated his left shoulder. The bone jarred loose from the socket, slipping down through his arm pit, a grizzly detail he reenacts with less emotion than if he were giving directions to the post office. A dull pain pulsed through his shoulder, he said, but he found that if he kept his arm lowered, it didn’t hurt. Wilson played on.
A few series later, just before halftime, Wilson delivered another hit — this time with his right shoulder. Again, a pop. The bone flexed downward, completely separating from the joint. He didn’t bother to inform the trainer.
“I actually had to just twist it back up in there,” Wilson said.
He finished the game with 11 tackles.
It’s the type of story that would’ve earned Wilson a place in the pantheon of tough-guy linebackers just a decade ago. Wilson fits the throwback mold, both in persona — hard-nosed, aggressive, high energy — and in performance, where he’s a ferocious inside-the-box presence who racks up huge tackle numbers and strikes fear into the hearts of opposing tailbacks.
But the increased awareness of the toll football’s brutality takes on players’ bodies has curbed the public’s fascination with the gory details, and the rulebook has legislated away many of the game’s biggest hits. Meanwhile, offenses are dominated by run-pass option schemes and mobile QBs, making the blue-collar, inside-the-box linebacker something of an anachronism. Faster, smaller guys have largely supplanted bruisers.
“It’s a different world,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “You’ve got to have guys that can cover. Everybody now is looking for a little different [type of] guy.”
What’s fashionable at linebacker in 2021 is the hybrid player — a guy who can rush off the edge, hold up against the run and cover a slot receiver downfield, all with equal precision. Defensive coaches are looking for the speed of a Corvette and the utility of a Jeep. In comparison, the old-school linebackers feel like taking a spin in the family minivan.
Take a look at the ACC Defensive Player of the Year voting from 2020, in which Wilson, the league’s leading tackler, finished fifth. Notre Dame‘s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a 215-pound Swiss Army knife, won the award in a landslide despite fewer QB hurries, sacks and tackles for loss and a whopping 46 fewer tackles.
Wilson’s coach, Dave Doeren, has a few theories to explain the voting, from Notre Dame’s pedigree to COVID-19’s impact, but perhaps the most glaring explanation is that Wilson’s style of play simply isn’t en vogue these days.
“It’s changed, even in the last five years, with the speed of the game,” said Colorado‘s Nate Landman, one of the Pac-12’s most productive linebackers — averaging nearly 11 tackles per game — despite his more traditional skill set. “I’m not a 4.4 kid, and players in my position who rack up tackles have to adjust. My strength is definitely being in the box and plugging those A- and B-gaps, but as the game changes, you have to change, too.”
Landman said the “old-school” moniker is still a compliment, even if it occasionally is employed as shorthand for bigger, slower and meaner. Although it’s not fashionable to be the in-the-box bruiser, he still embraces the legacy of the hard hitters who came before him and wants to live up to their standards as much as meet the modern NFL prototype.
When you watch Landman, Wilson or some of the country’s other “old-school” linebackers play, it’s easy to picture them fitting in alongside the ferocious Pittsburgh Steelers‘ defenses of the 1970s, boasting toothless grins or horrifying scowls to complete the image. But that’s no longer what coaches picture in an ideal linebacker.
In last month’s NFL draft, Owusu-Koramoah was considered a prized prospect, and he was selected in the second round. Penn State‘s Micah Parsons and Tulsa‘s Zaven Collins — two more do-it-all hybrids — went in the first round. Northwestern‘s Paddy Fisher, an old-school player who’s been among the Big Ten’s most prolific tacklers for four straight years, went undrafted.
“The position has more on its plate than ever before,” said Pat Fitzgerald, Fisher’s coach at Northwestern. “It’s got to be a ridiculous athlete because offenses have a lot to their advantage right now.”
Here’s the rub: There simply aren’t that many ridiculous athletes out there.
So while offenses churn out one athletic QB or speedy slot receiver after another, the harsh reality of supply and demand makes players such as Wilson, Landman or Virginia Tech‘s Rayshard Ashby — all of whom turned down entry into the 2021 NFL draft hoping to boost their standing with scouts — reliable alternatives, even if it requires a little reverse engineering to find the right fit.
“Everybody’s spreading you out and getting more innovative, which is great for the game,” Ashby said. “But I also think there’s still enough space in this game for more old-school linebackers like me. Owusu-Koramoah, Isaiah Simmons — I love watching those guys play. At the end of the day, players like me have to just go in there and show we can do both.”
Ashby said a little physicality inside the box can make a speedy slot receiver or mobile QB just a bit more hesitant to really turn on the gas, evening the playing field a bit. Fitzgerald is a believer that a linebacker without all the hybrid skills can make up a step or two with good instincts. For Landman, that means more preparation than ever. If he’s not going to be faster than a slot receiver or a QB scrambling out of the backfield, he can at least make sure he knows what to expect.
“Knowing where the ball is going to be before the ball is there, I’m able to put myself in those positions,” Landman said. “I’m not reacting. Film study and experience and time on the field allows me to make those same plays as the converted safety type of linebackers, it’s just my way of doing it with instinct and study.”
Then when he finds himself in the right position, he delivers a blow that reminds those 5-foot-9 slot receivers that football is still a physical game. That reminder can add a few ticks to their 40 time, too, Landman said.
Fitzgerald agrees, a bit begrudgingly. He still loves watching the throwback types lay a lick on a tailback or take on a blocker at the line of scrimmage.
“I kind of enjoy seeing those Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots who can take on a block and cut to the ball with bad intentions,” Fitzgerald said.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has a simpler term for it: moxie. He wants a linebacker who plays smart, plays mean and prepares better than anyone else on the field.
“I’m always looking for the best of all worlds,” Venables said. “But you still want an instinctive guy. You want to have some athletic ability and speed, but football IQ, instincts, savviness and moxie all trump that long speed.
“But if you can get the long speed, too, that’s awesome.”
Venables recruited Wilson out of high school for exactly that reason. He saw a kid with instincts and toughness — and some legitimate speed and athleticism. In the end, Wilson wanted to stay closer to home and landed at NC State, where the throwback style has made him the centerpiece of the Wolfpack’s defense, even if his athleticism is still a bit overlooked.
Perhaps the key is finding a happy medium. Owusu-Koramoah was widely projected as a top-15 pick but tumbled to the mid-second round due to concerns about a heart issue and his size: Would his hybrid frame hold up at the next level? Wilson’s draft potential seemed to be more of a middle-rounds pick, and his biggest flaw might be all that physicality. Two separated shoulders in the same game might sell the “throwback” narrative, but it also makes it tough to stay on the field. Doeren said he’d like to see Wilson corral all that old-school energy he plays with and use it more efficiently.
“I want to be the most physical, violent guy on the field every play,” Wilson said. “One thing I’ve learned is nothing beats effort.”
Five ‘throwback’ linebackers to watch in 2021
Wilson, Landman and Ashby are among the best linebackers in the country entering 2021, and all qualify as old-school — in technique and temperament. But they’re not the only throwbacks poised to make life unpleasant for opposing offenses this season.
Henry To’o To’o, Alabama: In two seasons at Tennessee, To’o To’o racked up 148 tackles, including double-digit tackle games against Georgia and Texas A&M last year. His 17 run stuffs last year tied for the league lead, and for the season, he allowed just 3.7 yards per tackle, just ahead of Alabama star Dylan Moses among SEC linebackers. He entered the transfer portal last month and announced Saturday that he’s headed to Alabama, where he figures to be a terrific addition.
Olakunle Fatukasi, Rutgers: He averaged better than 11 tackles per game, finishing with 101 on the year. But most impressive was his work in the box, where he allowed just 2.8 yards per tackle on run plays last season, third best in the Power 5.
SirVocea Dennis, Pitt: It helped to play behind one of the most productive D-lines in the country, but Dennis deserves ample credit for Pitt’s stout run defense, which surrendered just 0.85 yards per carry before contact, second best in FBS. Dennis’ 7.5% run stuff rate ranked ninth among Power 5 linebackers, and he finished the season with 20 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Drew White, Notre Dame: Playing second fiddle to Owusu-Koramoah last season, White was exceptional in his own right. He has excellent lateral speed, but he ate up gaps for Notre Dame’s defense, including nine tackles, a TFL and a PBU in the Irish’s win over Clemson in November. For the year, he allowed just 2.1 yards per tackle, eighth among Power 5 linebackers.
Mike Rose, Iowa State: While the Cyclones’ dark horse playoff candidacy for 2021 is built by their returners at QB and tailback, Rose deserves plenty of credit. He finished last season with 16 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage on run plays, fifth best among returning Power 5 linebackers, while Iowa State allowed the eighth-fewest rush yards per game.