FootballFootball Recruiting

First Evaluations: MJ and McNeal

Malik Jefferson. (Justin Wells/IT)
Malik Jefferson. (Justin Wells/IT)

Two of the top athletes in the C/O 2015 committed to Texas today.

Malik Jefferson:

Malik is one of the most freakishly athletic players to come out of the state in recent memory. He’s a SPARQ finalist with absurd numbers (4.39 40, 4.19 shuttle, 39.7” vertical, 42’ power ball) and a highlight tape that features him physically dominating any player across from him.

He can overpower HS OL with relative ease and there’s no taking the edge or embarrassing him in the open field if you’re a skill player since he’s quicker than any of them as well.

So how does Texas harness that athleticism in the Strong 3-3 Under defense?

At Poteet he played an outside linebacker position similar to what Eric Striker has done this year at OU, but that position doesn’t exist at Texas and arguably shouldn’t exist at OU either given how teams have managed to neutralize the Sooner talent.

Within the 3-3 Under there are three positions where Malik’s explosiveness could be put to use:

First there’s the Fox linebacker/DE hybrid spot. In the 4-3 alignments this position needs to be able to play across from an OT and get low in the trenches but in the 3-3 he can move around and attack at different angles while occasionally being asked to play as a sort of will linebacker. Depending on how heavy Malik gets, he could end up here if the coaches want to make things simple and just sic him on the opposing backfield.

Then there’s the inside linebacker spots, will and mike. Now in this defense, those positions also get to attack from all angles depending on what the players are best at. Hicks had 138 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks while Edmond had 122 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks playing those spots in this scheme.

The linebackers are really the heart of the defense and the positions are well set up to make plays by the ever-shifting nature of the scheme. Since Malik is more of a true linebacker at heart than a DE, these spots are more ideal for him since they will set him up to use his suddenness and explosive power to attack OL at favorable angles both on the edge as well as inside.

Malik also fits very well within this schematic design because when you aren’t blitzing as a linebacker in the Texas D, you need to have the quickness to match receivers in coverage underneath or to clean up in the run game with lateral speed. In those instances, the will linebacker is his best fit as Texas would rather not have to use him at mike to plug lead blocks in order for someone else to clean things up in pursuit.

Although he seems to see himself as a 3-4 outside linebacker who simply attacks the edge or stunts inside, Malik’s athleticism actually suggests great potential to play coverage and flow to the ball from the middle as well. In today’s era of spread offenses, there’s an argument that this is where the freak athletes need to go. Michigan discovered this with their outside linebacker turned mike backer, Jake Ryan, in 2014. They moved him inside and found offenses could no longer avoid him by spreading the field.

Since Texas’ scheme is designed to attack with freak athletes positioned in the middle, this could be a match made in heaven.

DeAndre McNeal:

DeAndre McNeal. (courtesy of Poteet ISD)
DeAndre McNeal. (courtesy of Poteet ISD)

Malik’s teammate McNeal is another very interesting player with a unique blend of size and athleticism. He projected as another linebacker until his senior film when he demonstrated some interesting abilities at WR that prompted Strong’s promise to get him the ball on the first play against Notre Dame.

McNeal has fantastic balance and a lot of short area quickness that make him surprisingly hard to cover or tackle for such a big guy.

The pathway for him to become a dominant skill player at Texas is to study tape of Iowa St TE EJ Bibbs and work on his blocking. McNeal already has the quickness and hands to be a great possession receiver now he can use that size and power to become an effective blocker as well.

If he can master the routes at the H slot receiver position as well as the blocks at the H-back spot he could give Texas a match-up nightmare who moves all over the field and puts opposing defenses in personnel binds.

On one snap he could line up as an H-back and block around the edge on a zone read play. The next play he’s motioning out wide as a slot receiver and taking advantage of open spaces on a route. The next play the defense subs in smaller player to cover him and he’s driving them off the ball on a screen pass to another receiver. A player with this kind of versatility becomes very difficult to manage for a defense that doesn’t have hybrid players of their own that can follow him all over the field and match-up with him as both a blocker or a receiver.

Additionally, he becomes a useful weapon at the line of scrimmage for Texas’ QBs in simply getting Texas into the right play. They can motion him around to gauge defensive reactions and get the right play call in, perhaps sending him out wide to run a quick route if they discern the defense is running a man blitz and have him matched up with some slow-footed linebacker.

If McNeal’s unusual size, athleticism, and skills are put to hard work in the offseason at Texas he can become a very versatile and dangerous piece on the chessboard for Texas in the coming seasons.

History major, football theorist.