Stressing speed and athleticism over power, a new breed of linebackers is changing the way teams play defense
HOMESTEAD ( FLA.) coach Bobby McCray didn't know much about Marcus Robinson when the linebacker joined the team as a sophomore in 2005. But in the Broncos' third game that season, against Killian ( Miami), McCray got a preview of the kind of spectacular play Robinson would make routine. In die third quarter Killian's quarterback ran a wide play-action bootleg toward Robinson, who had guessed wrong and let him get outside. "Marcus lost containment on the quarterback, but he still held the guy to negative yards," McCray says. "I asked one of the coaches, "Did you see that play?'" Recalls Robinson, matter-of-facdy, "The quarterback tried to turn the coiner, but I turned on my wheels."
Wheels like that aren't often found on linebackers, but high schools are following the trend that's become popular with NFL and college coaches and are putting their best athletes at the position, with less emphasis on size than on speed Case in point: The 6' 2", 225-pound Robinson, who can run the 40 in 4.47 seconds, had 22 sacks last year. He also plays wideout.
"The new breed is the guy outrunning the backs and dominating sideline to sideline," says CSTV recruiting expert Tom Lemming. "Guys that normally would have played tailback or even quarterback are now playing linebacker."
It's a banner year for second-line defenders, with quantity—Lemming ranks 15 among his top 100 prospects—and quality. Along with Robinson, who has verbally committed to Miami, here are three other seniors to watch:
Nigel Bradham, 6' 2", 225 pounds
Wakulla (Crawfordville, Fla.)
On the first day college coaches could visit high school juniors last spring, Florida's Urban Meyer showed up at Wakulla to see Bradham. "He was outside [ Nigel's] classroom doing the Gator chomp," says Wakulla coach Scott Klees. "It was 7:30 in the morning." Last season Bradham had 150 tackles, eight sacks and six defensive touchdowns; he also had seven receiving touchdowns while playing tight end. His future, though, is on defense. "When he finds the ballcarrier, his hitting ability stands out," says Klees. "He'll play linebacker [in college], but he's so fast he could play strong safety."
College choice: Despite the visit from Meyer, Bradham has verbally committed to Florida State.
Arthur Brown, 6' 1", 210 pounds
East ( Wichita, Kans.)
East hasn't had a winning record in more than a decade, but USC coach Pete Carroll and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops included south-central Kansas in their travels to get a firsthand look at Brown. Rated the No. 1 player in the class of '08 by Scout.com, Brown had 158 tackles and eight sacks last season. In East's opener, a 46--2 win over North ( Wichita), Brown showed that he's got the speed to play on the outside, but his natural position is middle linebacker. Twice he came up the middle while North's QB was in the shotgun and arrived just after the snap. "I couldn't tell if [North] was going to run or pass because he tackled the quarterback so quickly," said East coach Brian Byers.
College choice: Undecided.
Shayne Hale, 6' 3", 235 pounds
Gateway ( Monroeville, Pa.)
Fast enough (with 4.5 speed) to play middle linebacker and strong enough to play defensive end, Hale had 106 tackles (13 for loss), five sacks and three forced fumbles in 2006. He was at end in a preseason scrimmage against Bethel Park (Pa.) last month when an opposing tailback ran a toss sweep to the opposite side of the field, breaking it for 35 yards with the end zone in sight. "Shayne came all the way across the line of scrimmage and tackled him from behind," says Gateway coach Terry Smith. "It wasn't like he dove at his legs, either. He just swallowed him up."
College choices: Michigan, Ohio State, Virginia and West Virginia.
ONLY AT SI.COM Daily rankings, profiles, news and analysis.