One of the most underrated prospects in this particular draft class is staring at the draft world in the face. Last year, the Michigan State Spartans finished with an 11-2 record, landing them at the fifth spot in the final Coaches and AP polls. Of those 13 games, six of them were televised nationally on either ABC or Fox, and the seven others landed on the ESPN family of networks or the Big Ten Network.
In short, if you wanted to, you could have seen every Michigan State game in 2014 from anywhere in the country with just a basic cable sports package. It seems unlikely that a "hidden gem" could emerge from that sort of publicity, but the conditions surrounding him kept him in the back of the minds of evaluators. This late in the process, though, every media and team scout should know the name of Marcus Rush, the Spartan's boundary defensive end in their 4-3 scheme.
My attention was first driven toward Rush after his pro day results were posted. I had seen plenty of Michigan State games in 2014, but he was nowhere on watch lists, so I didn't seek him out. Instead, I turned my eyes to Trae Waynes—who many believe is going to be a first-round cornerback—Kurtis Drummond, Taiwan Jones and Shilique Calhoun—who returned to school for his final year—when watching their defense.
After Zach Libby of The State News, Michigan State's school paper, reported that Rush had run a 4.68 40-yard dash time and posted up a 34" vertical, though, I was intrigued. Because of the effort, Zach Whitman of 3 Sigma Athlete compared him athletically to Jerry Hughes, who was a first-round selection and recently signed a five-year deal with the Buffalo Bills.
Watching him on film with his workout numbers in mind, I was shocked. He looked like not only a draftable prospect, but someone who could easily land in the top 100 when put head-to-head with other edge-rushers in this class. For example, I think more of him than Shane Ray of Missouri, who is projected as a first-round selection and is someone I'm not much of a fan of.
On paper, the two largest concerns with Rush are clear. He measured in just over 6'1", which isn't the ideal size for a pass-rusher. That goes for either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, but Rush's arm length comes in at 32.5" according to CBS Sports' Dane Brugler. Height only matters on the relative scale of projecting arm length for pass-rushers, unless for some reason you value his ability to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage greatly. Rush's arms check the box, as he's got the same length as a player like Vic Beasley of Clemson, who many think can be a top-10 selection at the same position.
Pushing away his height as a concern, the next big question is his age. He's not Brandon Weeden, who famously was a 28-year-old rookie, but Rush was 19 when arrived at Michigan State and took a redshirt season his first year. By midsummer, before he plays a down of live NFL action, he'll be 24. He's essentially a year younger than Robert Quinn, who was drafted in 2011.
At his age, and with his frame, you have to worry if he's physically maxed out. With that being said, if he is at the next level who he is in college, he'll be fine. A four-time honorable-mention Big Ten player, Rush is seventh in both tackles for losses and sacks in Michigan State history, also locking down the school record for the most starts of a player in the program.
All of that led him to an invite to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, viewed as a step behind the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game as far as all-star games are concerned, but that lets us know that he was on the radar of those scouting in the league, even if the media hadn't picked up yet. To be totally frank, he should have been in one of the other two games, but his size could have crossed him off early viewing lists, leaving him to be one of those late-in-the-process "risers" that seem to pop up every season.
He was a better pass-rusher for Michigan State than Calhoun, who some thought could have been a first-round pick if he would have declared after his junior season in 2014. Calhoun was a field defensive end, which forced Rush on the right side of the defensive line often, allowing for one-on-one matchups with left tackles, the premier offensive line position, in the Big Ten, a conference noted for their ability to pump out linemen like Joe Thomas, Marshal Yanda and Travis Frederick, who have all been on NFL All-Pro teams over the last two seasons.
The way Rush plays on the edge is a lot like Beasley. He needs to win the outside lane early, but he has amazing bend and hand usage, which allows him to test the athleticism of an offensive lineman, who usually is larger and slower than him.
The play above is a good example of this. The left tackle is Donovan Smith of Penn State, who participated at the Senior Bowl. He's a legitimate NFL tackle prospect, and Rush beats him on the edge.
Taking an outside route to the quarterback, Rush first gets his inside hand quickly in the tackle's chest, then tosses his hands away, forcing Smith to lose balance and grab air as he's pointed at the ground. From there, Rush rips through, essentially throwing his inside hand up for balance to bend the edge and limit his surface area, leaving Smith behind him. He continues to the quarterback by running the arch and closes in for the sack.
You see that often on Rush's tape. Against Oregon, Penn State, Nebraska or whomever you choose, he consistently wins in the same way. The only issue I have with his pass-rushing ability is that he can't win in the "big game." The "small game" is a finesse pass rush, like being able to bend the edge or gaming the tackle for an inside-outside counter move. He can do that, but he's not the type of defender who is going to win with a speed-to-power conversion and leave a lineman on his back or bump inside to a tackle position on nickel or dime reps.
He's also a very good run defender on top of what he can do when he pins his ears back. A lot of the issues elite pass-rushers have at the college level surround their aggressiveness. Whenever they're in space, they want to close in on wherever the ball is and "be a hero," instead of participating in sound assignment football.
Rush lines up on the play above against Nebraska on the right side. The left tackle avoids initial contact with him, instead turning toward the defensive tackle on his side to secure the block while the right guard pulls in to take out Rush. Rush doesn't burn into the backfield to get kicked out, though.
Acknowledging that he was most likely in space because of the offensive design, he gets slight depth on the play before shuffling to the left, but while keeping his outside shoulder clean, therefore keeping containment on a run play. He drops his inside shoulder to take on the block of the guard while still holding his space and containment, then when the quarterback had to bounce the ball outside, he wrapped him up behind the line of scrimmage.
Again, you see this often with Rush. Every plus value trait he possesses is as consistent as you can ask from a college player. If played in the correct role, as a weak-side defender as a complement to a premier strong-side pass-rusher, Rush can be an immediate starter. There is no hole in his game that cannot be fixed, which is why, even at his age, he shows value.
The clock may be closing on the window of his prime, but when seconds are ticking away on draft weekend, don't be surprised if a team rightly selects Rush much higher than he's currently projected to come off the board, which to nearly everyone else is after the event closes in Chicago.