As the 2021 college football season draws near, it’s almost time to break out the notepads. The Philadelphia Eagles did a great job retooling their roster this year, but now their attention must turn do next year’s draft targets. Here are 5 linebackers who you should keep an eye on this upcoming season.
Merlin Robertson – Arizona State
Merlin Robertson has been a 3 year starter so far for Arizona State and there were some beliefs that he would enter the 2021 NFL Draft. Instead, he decided to return to Arizona State for the 2021 season.
At 6’3, 251 lbs, the inside linebacker has great athleticism and a strong tackling ability. He tracks the ball as good as anyone and does his best work when running downhill, using his excellent instincts to read where the ball carrier is going.
Robertson does a good job when dropping into coverage. I’d like to see him in pass coverage more this season, just so he can build on that area of his game.
I’d also like to see Merlin improve his production a little more. He was named Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2018 but his numbers have slowly fallen over the past 2 seasons, so if he can have a strong statistical year, that would go a long way in proving his draft stock.
Tre Walker – Idaho
Tre Walker has been a star in the making for the Vandals defense since he made his debut as a freshman against Eastern Washington, a game he recorded 8 tackles in. After playing all 11 games for the Vandals in his freshman year, recording 41 tackles and a pass break up, Tre started all 12 games as a sophomore.
Tre’s sophomore year in 2019 was simply fantastic, he ended up on HERO Sports Sophomore All-America First Team and Second Team All-Big Sky. Playing as an inside linebacker for Idaho, Tre is an energetic player who is all over the field on every play. It’s clear his fellow teammates feed off his energy and he’s a player who will give 110% on every single down of the game.
Playing as an inside linebacker, Tre has become a tackling monster. He ended his sophomore year with 138 total tackles and the followed that up with 54 total tackles in just 4 games during the shortened Spring season of 2021. During this season he earned 5 All-America honors including with the Associate Press, Stats Perform, Hero Sports, and Phil Steele FCS.
Walker has the potential to be the next big prospect that comes out of a small school. He has unlimited and unrivaled energy on every play, can rush the quarterback, drop back in pass coverage, has great ball tracking skills, and I feel like you’d struggle to find a better tackler in the entirety of college ball.
Kuony Deng – California
Kuony Deng is just a freak of nature at the linebacker position. 6’6 and a former basketball player, Deng has an advantage over most. He’s an extremely fluid athlete and moves much quicker than the majority of players his size.
These traits allow Deng to be a great boundary protector, he can quickly get across the field horizontally and take down the ball carrier, or catch up with a route runner who may have found some space and stop the ball from getting to him.
The one thing you always look for in a player with the size of Deng is whether he uses all of his size to his advantage, as it’s such a unique weapon to have. Deng does this brilliantly, he’s a violent tackler who will hit people with everything he has on every play he’s a part of.
Deng uses this physicality to shoot gaps at a high level and it’s the best part of his game. A mixture of his sheer size and power, alongside that basketball movement of his feet and hips make it seriously difficult for guards and tackles from stopping him.
Deng returns to California this year, although many expected him to declare for the 2021 draft. I’m glad he has because he still needs to improve his pass coverage skills. He needs to learn how to diagnose routes quicker and he can still be fooled by fakes and RPO’s. If Deng can improve these skills during this upcoming season, he’s set to be a very intriguing linebacker prospect for NFL teams come April 2022.
Quay Walker – Georgia
Another inside linebacker with the name Walker, Quay should excite scouts throughout the NFL. In recent years, Georgia have created some of the best defensive prospects in college football and this year is no different. Walker will have to beat out some other great, talented linebackers for a starting role but I have a feeling he will find a way to shine.
Co-winner of the Most Improved Defensive Player of the year award in 2019, Walker is a 6’4, 240 lbs, monster who has been used, primarily, as a run stuffer. He played a lot of snaps in 2020 for the Bulldogs and ended up with 43 total tackles on the season, the 4th highest on the team.
He’s also shown his worth and skillset as a pass rusher. I’d like to see Georgia use him in this role a little more often this season, to see what he can truly offer as a rusher.
Walker can definitely improve in pass coverage, although he hasn’t been asked to do too much of it. He’s yet to record a single pass defended or interception during his college career. I’d like to see him tackle with more power given his size and frame too, he should be forced fumbles in the role he plays and the size he is. Walker has the basics down perfectly, he just needs to add some more advances traits to his game to really take him to the next level.
Ventrell Miller – Florida
Florida’s offense was the focus of the nation last year with names like Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney, and Kyle Trask. However, this season, Florida’s defense will be a key factor during this upcoming season with guys like Kaiir Elam, Amari Burney, and Ventrell Miller, the linebacker I’ve chosen to focus on here.
At 6’0, 222 lbs, he’s built like a Greek god in his upper body, which allows him to be a real physical tackler who immediately brings down his targets. Florida have been really smart with how they’ve used Miller, mainly as a MIKE but he has lined up as a SAM during passing situations.
Miller is a great delayed blitzer, once the defensive line are engaged with their targets on the offensive line, Miller springs into action with great closing speed. He’s very active with his hands when in pass coverage and will do his best to widen routes at the second level.
Overall, Miller has to improve if he’s to continue playing as a pass coverage linebacker. It’s clear he doesn’t have the hip movement to keep up with receivers when dropping back in zone coverage. Miller also needs to improve as a block shedder, he’s pretty much forced out of plays when blockers square up and land their hands on the inside of his frame. He’s in terms of frame but hasn’t got the best of length to go with it and it can hurt him when making extended tackles and meeting players head on.
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