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Haason Reddick and the tip of the spear

Teams often put their best linebacker at defensive end these days and that’s where we find this future NFL LB wreaking havoc.

SMU v Temple Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

One of many difficulties in the NFL relying on private and public schools to handle player development is in the windows of opportunity that kids get to show what they’re capable of. If you deal with injuries when your chance at varsity comes up and you aren’t a traveling camp star, there’s a good chance that no one knows your name. That was the case for Haason Reddick and the reason why he walked on at Temple and tried to work his way up the depth chart at defensive back.

Then Matt Rhule took over the program and realized they had a fiery athlete so he moved him to linebacker and eventually a hybrid defensive end position. Now Reddick is a potential day one pick in the 2017 NFL draft and one of the more intriguing prospects available.

His junior and senior seasons as a starter neatly coincide with Temple’s rise to prominence under Rhule:

Reddick was an absolute terror in 2016 who played all over the field but regularly lived in opposing backfields against both the run and the pass. In the NFL, where versatility is king, he has a lot to offer in many dimensions of play that will unquestionably show up.

Where the modern game is won and lost

Back in the day teams would tend to deploy their biggest, best athletes on defense at middle linebacker. In the era of the I-formation and lead runs the name of the game was coming downhill to the point of attack with power and precision.

Nowadays things are much more horizontal, space plays a factor in everything, and offenses are hitting different areas of the field on standard downs. In the world of option football in particular, defensive end is now a key position in run defense who has to be precise and athletic to survive and give the defense the advantage at the point of attack. That’s now the tip of the spear for the defense.

Reddick proved uniquely skilled for that role at Temple when he started packing on weight in Philly while maintaining the athleticism he’d had when he was a DB. His combine numbers are instructive for illustrating his capacity for explosive movements. He was measured at 6’1” 237 pounds and ran a 4.52 40, a 4.37 shuttle, and put up a 36.5” vertical.

From watching his film you can see that athleticism at play but it isn’t even necessarily the first thing you’d note in explaining what makes Haason such a good pro prospect. His production and versatility were standout attributes as well as all of the different roles he took on for the Owls. They were regularly able to move him around in a variety of ways to attack what offenses wanted to do. Here’s a peak into all the different ways he was used last year.

Spearing the run

Temple played one of the better spread-option teams in the country last year when they faced Willie Taggart’s USF Bulls. They didn’t exactly stuff this attack, more like they “survived it,” with a 46-30 victory. The win was achieved primarily because Coach Rhule’s “let’s line up in 22 personnel, control possession, and keep Quinton Flowers off the field” strategy produced not only time of possession dominance but also over 500 yards of offense. Thus, they ended up with a lot more margin on defense.

However, the Owls defense did play the USF offense quite well at times and Reddick was a major component in their successes despite his relatively quiet day statistically (two tackles, 1.5 TFL). With Reddick at DE the Owls were able to embrace USF’s option plays as a race to the sideline.

They played 5’11” 206 pound Stephaun Marshall at weak side LB and 5’10” 224 pound Avery Williams as their nickel/sam space-backer out wide. Then they had Reddick play USF’s option plays by stepping upfield and inside to encourage a sweep option and then help his fleet-footed compadres in the LB corps run the sweep down:

USF was able to make the Owls pay for this aggressiveness later when Flowers figured out to make a late pull and then run into the space Reddick and the weak side LB were a tad quick to vacate. Nevertheless, this was a principally sound and effective way to force the Bulls to play to the strengths of the Owl defense and it held up well over the course of the game.

Against the option-oriented Memphis Tigers, Reddick had a series where he nearly single-handedly forced a three and out. The drive started with Memphis attempting an inside zone run with a sweep attached to hold the edge defender. Temple interestingly chose to play a rather conservative Tampa-2 on this down but with the inclusion of a tackle-end stunt involving Reddick:

He actually missed the tackle but his penetration and getting a hold of the Memphis back unquestionably blew the play up. Facing second and 11 the Tigers then turned to a power-read type play with a sweep to the boundary against Reddick:

Again we see him step inside to encourage the give before using his acceleration and burst to run the sweep down. It’s usually not a great idea to leave an athlete of this caliber unblocked but Temple opponents were slow learners.

On third down, the Tigers were obviously forced to pass to try and pick up the first down.

Spearing the pass

One of the things that Rhule’s Temple defenses were truly excellent at was disguising their coverages and blitzes. They had a few different base passing down calls they liked to rotate through and they were good at disguising which one was coming next.

With Memphis looking at third and 13 after a few disastrous plays inflicted by Reddick, the Owls got into a very light package with Reddick as a stand-up rusher on the edge. They showed a possible man-blitz before backing into Tampa-2 late:

The Tigers actually sent their RB to help keep Haason off their QB (Riley Ferguson) but when the unexpectedly deep coverage took away the first reads and Ferguson tried to step up into the pocket it was all too easy for Reddick to chase him down.

But Reddick is more of a classic linebacker than a pure defensive end, he can rush the passer but his greatest attributes are found in his overall athleticism and ability to play all over the field. As often as the Owls would send him off the edge they’d also drop him into coverage, sometimes allowing them to roll their safeties and play creative and aggressive varieties of cover two, including cover 2 behind “America’s blitz”

This kind of blitz is a favorite of Rhule, to play two-deep/four-under while bringing five pass-rushers. They overload the edge with two linebackers coming off the edge but then it’s essential that the underneath defenders take away quick hitting inside routes and protect the two deep defenders.

In these instances Reddick would be asked to play underneath coverage on that iso-side WR, who’s often a favorite target for offenses in these types of moments and formations, essentially as a trap cornerback. He was up to it, suggesting he hasn’t lost his aptitude for coverage from his days as a DB.

One of the trickiest things for pass-rushers to learn when they reach the NFL is being able to play in multiple spots in coverage to allow the exotic zone blitzes that define many modern defenses. Reddick is already more than halfway there thanks to all of the ways that Temple utilized him over the last few years. He can play blocks, set the edge, rush the passer, drop into coverage, he could potentially end up playing a lot of different positions at the next level. Guys like that are easy to build around and he may be the best outside linebacker in the draft for that reason.

The NFL will be lucky to have him because he very nearly slipped through the cracks in their haphazard development plan.