MARIETTA, Ga.—In a setting usually designed to highlight the strength of skill players, a strange thing happened during last weekend’s Atlanta Nike NFTC camp.
Quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs took center stage on the main field at Lassiter High School. However, the observers and reporters in attendance slowly migrated to the practice fields below the main field to watch the offensive and defensive linemen groups work out individually and then against one another in one-on-ones.
With several of the nation’s top linemen in the 2015 class on display, so too were the potential answers on defense to the proliferation of spread offenses in college football—the modern hybrid defensive end.
According to 247Sports, four pass-rushers ranked among the top 15 weak-side defensive ends nationally were present at the camp—with each of them weighing less than 250 pounds, and three coming in lighter than 230.
In fact, this new wave of edge-rushers could have easily blended onto the fields where the linebackers and defensive backs were working. From a size and skill-set perspective, traits needed to succeed at those positions can be found in this new class of ends.
Data and rankings courtesy of 247Sports
During Alabama’s run of winning three national titles in four seasons from 2009-12, Saban’s starting defensive ends weighed an average of 295 pounds. In the Tide’s scheme, their main mission was to occupy blockers instead of rushing the passer.
That strategy helped the Tide field the most dominant defense in college football during that stretch. However, the game has undergone a face-lift in recent years—which is evidenced by the Tide’s struggles against prolific spread attacks last season.
Saban commented on the challenges these offenses pose to defenses when speaking to Sirius/XM NFL Radio’s Movin’ the Chains during his annual stop at the Senior Bowl in January.
“The whole spread offense, quarterbacks who are more athletic guys playing the position, you have to have guys playing on the edges that actually can get the guy on the ground, which never used to be a premium,” Saban said. “Now, our league has changed dramatically, so we are going to have to change a little bit in terms of the kind of fast-twitch guys we recruit to play against the kind of offenses we see."
Tempo offenses have taken the emphasis off the interior and put players on the edges in a matchup nightmare, trying to corral speedy quarterbacks, running backs and receivers in space.
Now, coaches such as Saban have been busy redefining what they are looking for—with defensive end representing the biggest change in philosophy. Getting more athletic on the edge has taken precedent in today’s football, and that’s reflected in the specialized qualities defensive coaches are currently searching for on the recruiting trail.
“I think what you are finding with college coaches is that they are looking for length,” said ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill. “They are looking for long arms. They’re not so much concerned with the size and the bulk right now. They’re concerned with height and length.”
Their fits against the run or the pass—at least initially—are secondary to their ability to bring down speedy athletes in space. Plus, coaches aren’t as concerned with weight because they can get players to add the necessary bulk on a frame that possesses traits such as length and wingspan.
“I think with some of these guys that are inherently quick-twitch players, that’s what they are and that’s what they are going to be,” Luginbill said. “If they’ve got great feet and skinny ankles, if they have coordination and body control, you are going to be able to put muscle mass on them if it’s proper weight and if it’s the type of weight that lends to enhanced athleticism.”
The biggest debate thus far in the offseason centers on the pace of play and the recently shelved 10-second rule proposal that would slow down hurry-up attacks.
Because the tempo limits defenses’ ability to substitute, offenses have seized the upper hand when changing formations to gain favorable matchups—such as splitting a tight end wide and forcing a linebacker out into coverage. The same scenario plays out in the zone when defensive ends are forced to make plays in space against speedy running backs or quarterbacks.
That’s why players who have hybrid characteristics of multiple positions are so invaluable to defenses in today’s game. Long and rangy players with the ability to explode in quick bursts are the new prototype for teams looking for answers in dealing with spread attacks and mobile quarterbacks.
Mekhi Brown, a 6’6”, 230-pound 5-star defensive end who committed to Alabama almost a year ago, said that his versatility was one of the main reasons Saban and his staff put the full-court press on him.
“They love my range,” Brown said. “They love that I have long arms and that I’m quick off the ball. I’m versatile. I can stand up or play with my hand in the dirt.”
Brown noted that Saban wants to use those traits at outside linebacker and defensive end in certain situations when he gets to Tuscaloosa.
While he is currently lighter than all of the linebackers the Tide started last season, the aspects coaches can’t teach are what make him an intriguing talent at the next level.
“You can’t put on height and length, particularly wingspan,” Luginbill said. “So a guy like Mekhi Brown, that’s one of the things he brings to the table. He doesn’t weigh a lot right now, maybe he doesn’t have the strength that he will have at some point. But he has all those other inherent traits and you have to be able to play in space on defense.”
Brown—who has piled up 17 offers before the start of his senior season—is an example of a player who has game-changing ability as a pass-rusher off the edge and the athleticism to drop into coverage against running backs, tight ends or receivers.
However, the other catch with players who have that skill set is that they are very hard to find.
“Ideally, you want to have those hybrid players that you are not going to suffer in run defense because they are not on the field, and you are not going to suffer if they are not on the field in terms of pass-rush ability,” Luginbill said. “You kind of want the best of both worlds. So they are highly coveted, but the problem is they aren’t growing on trees.”
While Atlanta’s NFTC turned out to be a showcase for the new hybrid defensive end, it’s almost fitting that Nick Dawson—who is listed as a 6’2”, 215-pound outside linebacker—took home camp MVP honors for the defensive line unit, according to Student Sports.
The four aforementioned, highly ranked defensive ends—Brown, Natrez Patrick, Chauncey Rivers and D’Andre Walker—took turns giving the top offensive linemen fits and displaying the type of talent that has the nation’s top programs aggressively in pursuit of their commitments.
When asked about the individual qualities of their respective games that drew the most attention from colleges, versatility and the ability to quickly get off the ball at the snap were the common traits each mentioned.
Like Brown, Rivers is committed to an SEC power in Georgia. Patrick’s top five are Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Clemson, while Walker mentioned Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia among the schools standing out for him.
With so many of the nation’s top programs in pursuit of these types of players, and the scarcity in which their body types are found, it’s no coincidence that their value has risen in the eyes of talent evaluators and recruiting services.
“That’s one of the reasons why in our particular rankings, we place a high volume and a high premium on defensive rush ends and guys that can play in space because those are the guys that separate the good from the great in college football,” Luginbill said.
While size and physicality will always be a requirement for defensive players lining up in the front seven at a major college football program, athleticism is the new premium for college coaches looking for an answer to the space mismatches today’s offenses are designed to create.
The spread offense craze that has enveloped college football came from the high school ranks. So it’s no coincidence that college coaches are scouring the prep ranks in search of the potential solution on defense.
The Atlanta Nike NFTC camp played host to a number of the future stars of college football. However, no group could have a bigger impact on the future of the sport than the class of sleek pass-rushers who are redefining one of the most important positions on the field.
Sanjay Kirpalani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.