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Zi’Yon Hill-Green: Name change, but same game

It is not often that a player changes his name. In Zyon Hill’s case, the Father’s Day change to the new name (nearly a half-year ago) was an ode to his stepfather. Chris Green had been raising Hill since he was one years old.

On the field, there haven’t been many alterations for the 6-foot, 290-pounder’s game. He has always played bigger than his size and that has resulted in a number of challenges over time.

Entering the team’s final game against Texas State, the team needs Hill-Green to put his best foot forward. A win could ensure the Ragin Cajuns a sixth win and possible bowl berth.

But there is more on the line for Hill-Green.

Over the years, he’s dealt with a bevy of scrapes and bruises that have forced some missed starts. In 2021, he even missed time due to a lower body injury.

“His career here started with an injury…..in the summer when he got here,” ULL-head coach Michael Desormeaux said. “It seems like for him it’s been battling that, managing that and pushing through those things his whole career. Our kids see him every day, they know the shape that he’s in after a game.”

It has truly been a full body experience for the sixth-year Super Senior.

Zi'Yon Green-Hill working in the pregame vs. UAB in 2020
Green-Hill (No. 4 pictured) put together one of the better performances in school history this past season,

Despite the setbacks, Hill-Green’s school-record 21.5 career quarterback sacks have come due to a combination of quickness, lower body torque and endurance. Frequently, he has been at his best late in games (see Georgia Southern ’20).

The former Catholic High School (La.) product plays like he weighs at least 20-to-30 more pounds with the heavy-handed approach taking on guards or double teams. Not only does he fight versus double teams, but he can win by playing to half a man as a pass rusher. All in all, it has resulted in an impressive total of 33 tackles for losses. Hill-Green is a big reason the team has played in four conference championship games the last four seasons.

It is a not a fact that gets lost on first-year Louisiana head coach Michael Desormeaux, who himself put up two 1,000-yard rushing seasons as a former standout quarterback at the school.

“On the field, it’s easy to see how important he (Hill-Green) is,” Desormeaux explained. “In the run game, the throw game, he’s constantly putting pressure on the quarterbacks. He wins one-on-one battles. He commands a double team and when he doesn’t get one, he’s a problem for the other team.”

And on the days when Hill-Green has not been able to practice due to the myriad of injury hiccups?

“He’s coaching the D-line, the other guys that are in there,” said Desormeaux. “It’s not a day off for him. That’s why he is able to go out and perform at a high level. The guy knows the defense front and back.”

Hill-Green posted just one tackle versus Florida State in a 49-17 defeat last weekend.

Facing a pass-oriented offense this time around against Layne Hatcher and the Texas State Bobcats, can Hill-Green pick up at least a half-sack to break the school record?

Perhaps as long as things get back to normal and don’t change as they did a week ago.

Wright on time

The 2022 season couldn’t have started out any better for Vanderbilt quarterback Mike Wright. After ending the prior season with respectable performances against Missouri, Ole Miss and even Tennessee, Wright was named a team captain prior to the year.

His foot speed, decision-making and improved passing fundamentals all stood out during the team’s summer training camp. It was during that time that he held off a strong push from former starter Ken Seals and highly-touted incoming freshman A.J. Swann.

In Vandy’s season opener, Wright accounted for four total touchdowns, with two coming on the ground and two via the airwaves. He led the team’s postgame celebration and it was on to the next week against Elon. In that contest, he delivered with a career-best four touchdown passes to go along with two more on the ground. Perhaps most encouraging was the touch he showed on a 75-yard touchdown pass to true freshman speedster Jayden McGowan in a 245-yard passing performance.

At the time the Commodores were beginning to pick up steam as a much-improved offense with Wake Forest coming to town. On a wet, rainy afternoon, Wright struggled in the first half with turnovers and inaccuracy throwing the ball. He was benched in the second half and his number was called sporadically over the next five weeks as Swann (who threw two touchdown passes in the second half vs. Wake Forest) held onto quarterbacking duties.

Down 17 points against Missouri, Wright came off the bench for an injured Swann to lead one touchdown drive in a three-point loss.

He also came off the bench for an injured Swann against South Carolina, throwing for 145 yards and one score.

Fast forward to the contest versus the 24th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats just a couple of weeks ago.

Swann was no longer in the lineup due to the aforementioned injuries and Wright got the start.

Reminiscent of the rainy afternoon versus Wake Forest -although much colder overall- and Wright had a chance to erase any memories from that early season outing. He led the team to a game-winning drive with just 32 seconds remaining and finished it off with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Will Sheppard. His most impressive throw on the drive may have been an incomplete corner route to Sheppard versus man coverage on a third down. He came back on the subsequent fourth down (4th and 11) to make a clutch downfield 40-yard throw to wide receiver Quincy Skinner, Jr.

Wright also found time to rush for 126 yards in this contest, which included a 59-yard touchdown scamper in the first half. On that run, the 21.8 200-meter sprinter’s speed brought back memories of his 87-yard jaunt against Hawaii in the team’s opener.

Last weekend, he helped author an upset versus the Florida Gators on the strength of three touchdown passes.

In back-to-back weeks, he battled two potential NFL quarterbacks in Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson.

Despite not starting for much of the season, the Georgia product has thrown 12 touchdowns to just four interceptions. In addition, he has averaged 7.4 yards per rush on 63 carries (5 TDs).

His 17 total touchdowns are the most from a Vanderbilt quarterback since 2018.

In a day and age where the transfer portal is often the fastest option for many collegians, the speedy Wright decided to slow down and play the long game. When a second opportunity arose, he sprinted through the finish line with an unabated confidence and calm.

As a result, the Commodores captain has a chance to accomplish something only six other quarterbacks (Whit Taylor, Chris Nickson, Mackenzi Adams, Jordan Rodgers, Larry Smith, Kyle Shurmur) have had a hand in over the last 40 years…lead the team to a bowl game.

Two of those bowl teams (2008, 2011) had quarterbacks share time during the year.

Perhaps this team will be the third.

And he will operate against another backup quarterback in former Michigan signal-caller and new Tennessee starter Joe Milton III.

Or did Wright ever think he was the backup?

After the team’s opening victory versus Hawaii, Wright said, ““Winning is hard,” he explained. “That’s what we want to be this year, and we just took a growing step today.”

The next step could very well lead to a bowl game if he can find a way to lead his team to another ” hard” victory over the nation’s 10th-ranked team in the Tennessee Volunteers.

In any case, his insertion back into the team’s starting lineup has come Wright on time for the Commodores.

NickNok

No matter when you turn on the film, Wisconsin OLB Nick Herbig shows up.

To the tune of 21 quarterback sacks and 36 tackles for losses over a three-year period (through 11-19-22).

Look no further than last year’s 2021 Las Vegas Bowl.

In that contest, he was dominant from the first through fourth quarter.

Final stat line: 7 tackles, 2 QB sacks, 2.5 TFLs

But his presence shows up well beyond the numbers.

In the Iowa contest a couple of weeks ago, he set the edge versus offensive tackle Jack Plumb on the first play of the game. The result? He dropped him to the ground with a simple two-hand jolt.

Is Herbig even 6-foot-2? That is the question many NFL teams will have to ponder when projecting him to the outside or inside exchange linebacker spot (most likely Will linebacker).

New Orleans Saints linebacker Zach Baun had a similar impact as a rush artist for the Badgers, but has since struggled in his transition to off the ball linebacker in the NFL.

The difference?

Baun was much more of a one-year wonder in terms of dominant production.

Herbig has averaged over a tackle for loss per game (1.2) since arriving on campus three years ago.

And how he does it is different.

He sets the edge versus tight ends (see 3rd QTR, Las Vegas Bowl ’21-Chenal’s tackle for loss).

By no means are there not repetitions where he can look outmatched versus longer personnel (see vs. Diesch, 3rd and 9, 2nd QTR, Las Vegas Bowl ’21). At the same time, however, his combativeness allows him to run through bigger tackles off the edge with an element of ferocity (QB sack, 4th QTR, vs. Scott, Las Vegas Bowl ’21).

He bends his knees well to break down for space tackles and generally plays with solid footwork. He gets on top of offensive tackles due to no false steps coming off the line of scrimmage.

“It’s a great presence. Him rushing off the edge, it’s nothing like it,” Badgers cornerback Alexander Smith explained. “He’s one of the best in the country. It helps us a lot on the back end and in the secondary. We don’t have to cover for that long.”

Nick Herbig (No. 19 pictured) walked out over Arizona State's tight end Jalin Conyers in the 2021 Las Vegas Bowl
Wisconsin’s Nick Herbig leads the Big Ten in sacks (through 11-19-22), but he has also broken up six passes over the last two seasons.

Herbig does flash some coverage capability dropping into the curl-hook areas of the field on some of the team’s zone blitz concepts (see NMSU ’22), but has largely been used to create havoc in the backfield.

Can he snap the pictures in a timely fashion to produce in an exchange linebacker capacity?

Will it matter if Herbig continues to defeat tackles? His suddenness complements enough pop to jolt back offensive linemen.

Even if he doesn’t make it at that position, however, there are other examples of players in his size/weight/speed ratio who have begun to have success rushing the passer.

While many point to Baun’s slow transition to the NFL, what about New Orleans Saints 2019 seventh-round draft pick Kaden Elliss? Elliss had to wait to get an opportunity as a late-round draft pick, but he has slowly turned into a viable pass rusher at 238 pounds.

In fact, Elliss has nearly as many starts this season (six) as Baun’s over a three-year period (seven).

In Herbig’s case, the actual final measurements (he was just over 200 pounds entering Wisconsin) could be the most important part of his evaluation process.

Regardless of the weight, everyone believes in the recipe. Just ask Wisconsin’s top pro prospect and fellow team captain, defensive tackle Keeanu Benton:

“Nick’s a dawg,” Benton said. “Even when he was gone (due to injury), he was bringing that energy on the sideline. Making sure everybody was upbeat. That’s my dawg. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him.” (https://badgerextra.com/a-healthy-nick-herbig-changes-wisconsins-defense/video_6b99a110-45ee-5821-ada2-ccb27aa6d202.html).

Just in the Nick of time

There has to be a place for Appalachian State’s Nick Hampton on the next level.

If there is a play to be made, the Mountaineer will find a way to make it. In 2022, he changed his number from 31 to nine. There has been no subtraction from his steady four-year run of production.

Over the course of the last four seasons (through 10-2-22), Hampton has tallied 36 tackles for losses. That total includes 24.5 quarterback sacks.

Not bad for a 6-foot-2, 225-pounder.

Nick Hampton OLB Appalachian State
There are few defenders who have been productive as Mountaineers OLB Nick Hampton.

So how does he consistently win rushing the passer?

Although relatively high in his two-point stance, he can turn the corner when running the hoop. Hampton uses his 81-inch wingspan to keep blockers off of his frame when twisting from the outside-in on stunts (3rd and 9, 3rd QTR, ECU ’21).

Cleaning up the false step that he has getting out of his two-point stance at either outside linebacker spot could be a focus. Even with it, he transfers speed-to-power on occasion versus much bigger offensive tackles.

Nick Hampton lines up on the kickoff team
Nick Hampton has made a number of plays on the team’s kickoff team during the course of his career.

Team have to prepare for the work he puts forth on the kick coverage units as well, where his skill at dislodging from blockers has paid dividends in the past (see 1st QTR, ECU ’21).

In 2022, Hampton has gotten off to another fast start after finishing second in the Sun Belt Conference with 11 quarterback sacks as a junior.

The former Westside High School (S.C.) product puts up amazing numbers in the weight room (600-lb sumo deadlift according to Appalachian State’s website-https://appstatesports.com/sports/football/roster/nick-hampton/7624) and matches them with similar production on the field. He should impress with his testing numbers whenever he declares for the draft.

However, it is the numbers he puts up on the field that continue to draw praise from opposing teams.

Want proof?

Check out his miles per hour when chasing some of college football’s fastest players (runs down ECU RB Keaton Mitchell, 3rd QTR, ECU ’21).

Mitchell hit 22.6 miles per hour on an 81-yard touchdown run against Old Dominion in 2022. This is this fastest time recorded in college football this season.

So how fast is Hampton?

He gets to most of his destinations in just the Nick of time.

JARED

In today’s world of college football, freshmen are often tasked with making an immediate impact. How many can get it done in a variety of ways from a mental perspective?

Quarterback Grayson McCall returned from a late injury against Georgia State the week prior to not only lead the Chanticleers to a 34-30 back-and-forth victory over Georgia Southern, but he did it to the tune of 335 yards passing with 34 more yards on the ground.

Grayson McCall rolling to his right vs. Georgia State in 2022
Coastal Carolina QB Grayson McCall is asked to run a spread triple option attack which features RPO slants/posts and outside the numbers throws.

For his efforts, McCall was named the Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Week. With just over 10 minutes remaining in the game, McCall threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to senior wideout Tyler Roberts on a post route in-between two defenders to cut Georgia Southern’s lead to 24-21.

So who else was he throwing the ball to?

Enter Jared Brown. His 61-yard touchdown reception versus the Eagles put the Chanticleers 28-27 in the fourth quarter. It was the team’s first lead since the beginning of the first quarter. Needless to say, Head Coach Jamey Chadwell was not surprised.

“He (McCall) pumped to the right, they covered a couple of guys there to the right…he found Jared, we had great protection,” Chadwell explained. “He had a huge pocket that was very clean, and he put that throw right over there and then JB (Jared Brown) has some speed. He outran all those guys.”
——Coach Chadwell Radio Show (October 5, 2022)

Brown came into the season perhaps lightly regarded with the addition of Georgia State transfer Sam Pinckney, who has been no slouch either in his teal and black debut season (28 receptions for 377 yards, 13.5 YPR, TD).

But teams preparing for the Chanticleers have to take notice of the ever-emerging redshirt freshman, currently ranked fourth in the conference in yards per reception through five weeks (20.63).

Why?

Jared Brown goes in motion for the Chanticleers
Jared Brown (No. 14 pictured) is often brought in motion for the Chanticleers or lines up in the backfield as part of their triple option spread attack.

You don’t know where Jared Brown will line up. On the first play of the Georgia State contest (9-22-22), he lined up at an offset position (shotgun) in the backfield and scored on a 50-yard wheel route reception from McCall up the left sidelines. Later, he outpaced the Panthers defense after receiving a forward pitch from McCall on a 53-yard touchdown reception that was originally scheduled to be a pitch on a triple option.

Two 50-yard plus touchdown receptions in one quarter.

They bring him in motion as part of the team’s triple option spread attack as the pitch element. He comes in speed motion to provide eye dirt for linebackers when they’re running their speed inside zone reads. He lines up outside or in the slot.

Remember that part when we talked about him being a redshirt freshman.

At this point, he is shining in a myriad of roles.

That glow is reminiscent of Jared.

You know, the jewelry.

So far, he’s been a gift for the Chanticleers.

Avila continues to flash voracity

The TCU running game has been on fire this year and part of the reason revolves around the team’s interior offensive line. Led by Esteban Avila (6’4 339) and SMU transfer Alan Ali (6’5, 300), there are a number of possibilities down-to-down with their inside run schemes.

Look no further than TCU’s fourth quarter goal line touchdown against SMU two weeks ago. The Mustangs aligned in a three-man front with two stacked linebackers. Ali (6’3, 300) sat on zero-or-one-technique nose guard Terrance Newman early in the down, allowing Avila to quickly climb to SMU linebacker and Oregon transfer Isaac Slade-Matautia. After left tackle Brandon Coleman controlled defensive end DeVere Levelston, it provided a walk-in touchdown for running back Emari Demercado.

Earlier in the third quarter, Avila flashed an adequate ability to get out in front for Demercado on a screen pass that netted a big gain for the Horned Frogs. On the play, Avila hit a moving target in space (LB Shanon Reid) to open up hidden yardage for Demercado.

Both of these plays occurred while Avila manned the left guard spot.

When Ali left the game briefly in the third quarter due to injury, Avila slid over to the center position. This is the spot he started at during his second-team All-Big 12 campaign as a junior. As a left-handed snapper, he is most comfortable in pass protection going left, but his overall awareness remains more than satisfactory at the position.

TCU Steve Avila practicing center snap vs. SMU in 2022
TCU offensive lineman Steve Avila, pictured, has started at all of the three interior line spots for the Horned Frogs. He moved to center for a couple of snaps against SMU when starter Alan Ali went down to injury.

The question for NFL teams will inevitably revolve around his projection in zone-based run schemes. The Horned Frogs All-Big 12 lineman most likely projects in a man blocking scheme due to a few hiccups reaching opponents laterally on a consistent basis. With that said he started at all three interior line spots as a sophomore in 2020. The theme has continued thus far in 2022.

The four-year starter gobbles up defenders half or equal to his size and -once he gets his hands on the opposition- can be tough to dislodge from down-to-down. The quick hands alternate when punching while sitting down to anchor. His trunk strength and bulk frequently wins for him in the elevator battles without having to jump around to catch his opponents.

As is typical of most Horned Frogs, Avila showcases voracity on the field.

Here’s Johnny

The Florida State Seminoles (4-1) lost a hard-fought 31-21 contest to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (4-1) last weekend, but it did not take away from the early season performance of wide receiver Johnny Wilson (6’7 235). The Pacoima, California native and Arizona State transfer had limited productivity for the Sun Devils due to a 2021 hamstring injury.

Wilson’s touches go back-and-forth depending on the team’s game plans from week-to-week. What doesn’t get noticed is the blocking downfield that has been at least adequate through five games. This provides him with possibilities as an F or H-back-type for the next level.

It has not all been perfect.

FSU WR Johnny Wilson versus LSU in Week 1 of the 2022 campaign
Wilson (No. 14 pictured) is often required to use his 6-foot-7, 235-pound frame to block opponents in the run game.

In some of those cases, Wilson has overrun crack block opportunities versus safeties (see vs. Burns, 3rd QTR, LSU ’22). In addition, the former Sun Devil was unable to corral a potential slant-and-go touchdown grab in the end zone versus the cornerback when LSU safety Jay Ward knocked the ball out of his hand (3rd QTR, LSU ’22).

Those missed chances do not erase the numerous pass interference penalties he has drawn versus quick, fluid cornerbacks (see Clark, Louisville ’22). The stride length (five yards in first three steps) presents different pictures for cornerbacks. Wilson tallied nearly 150 yards in this contest (7 receptions, 149 yards, TD vs. Louisville ’22). He turned around Cardinals safety Kenderick Duncan, Jr. on a post route that led to a 69-yard catch-and-run. His full extension high-point touchdown grab in the fourth quarter versus cornerback Jarvis Brownlee, Jr. was artistic. All three of his touchdowns this season have come in the fourth quarter.

There are still some high-level opponents for him to overcome the rest of the year. NC State’s defense should provide one-on-one opportunities if they commit to stopping FSU’s powerful ground game. Can they shut down the Seminoles three-headed monster of running backs Treshaun Ward, Trey Benson and Lawrance Toafili? The trio has combined for nine rushing touchdowns. Conversely, the Wolfpack defense is allowing a measly 3.4 yards per carry and ranks 15th nationally in rushing defense (as of 10-3-22).

If so, then Wilson’s size and catch radius have to win in isolation on the outside for the Seminoles. Perhaps surprisingly, FSU ranks 35th nationally in passing offense (278 YPG) thus far in 2022. This represents nearly a 77-yard improvement over last season’s final totals. Wilson’s 18.8 yards per reception (19 catches) certainly ranks as a big part of the team’s sudden resurgence through the air.

Tomorrow’s performance could bring more spotlight for the budding star in Tallahassee.

Here’s Johnny.

RedHawk transfers paying dividends for Jayhawks, Bearcats

Through the season’s first month, two former Miami (Ohio) stars have helped take their new teams to the next level. The MAC’s leading tackler from a season ago, Ivan Pace, Jr., joined his younger brother, Deshawn (20 tackles, QB sack, 3 TFLs, INT-TD, PBU and one blocked kick), in the Cincinnati linebacking corps. The chemistry has been palpable for the nation’s 22nd-ranked defense. Ivan leads the nation with 13.5 tackles for loss entering Week 6, and he also has six quarterback sacks with two forced fumbles.

While at Miami (Ohio), he displayed a knack for reading the action instinctively and always flashed a short-area burst to reach the quarterback. Pace has often been far too much for running backs to handle in blitz pickup at various stages (2nd QTR/6:40, Ohio ’21).

Ivan Pace LB Cincinnati in the 2021 Frisco Football Classic
Pace, Jr. (No. 0 pictured for Miami in 2021) transferred to Cincinnati in 2022 and currently leads the nation with 13.5 tackles for losses (through five games).

On Ohio’s next drive during that game, Pace, Jr. forced a fumble (2nd QTR, Ohio ’21).

Never a threat to pass the eye test, teams around the AAC have their sights fixated on Pace, Jr. when they turn on Cincinnati’s game film. He began the year with 12 tackles, one quarterback sack and three-and-a-half tackles for loss against Arkansas on the road. He has posted four double-digit tackle performances and is currently tied for fifth nationally in that category (56 tackles).

Prior to the 2020 campaign, Pace, Jr. changed his number from 23 to zero for the Redhawks. And he’s responded by averaging nearly 10 tackles per game over that time span.

Statistically, there have been none better than the Bearcats’ latest star.

In Lawrence, Kansas (5-0) also got a boost from a former RedHawk with the addition of Phelps. He is the same explosive player who nearly decapitated two blockers in kickoff coverage during the 2021 Frisco Classic Bowl. That type of intensity is nothing new for Phelps, who plays the game with an attitude that tips the scales of angry play. His kickoff cover prowess was evident during the 2021 season at various points (tackle, 3rd QTR/8:26, Ohio ’21).

He’s strong with his hands and can win at the point of attack. Phelps has posted sacks in each of his last two outings after starting the year with a dominant three-sack performance against Tennessee Tech. The Big 12 Conference named him the Defensive Player of the Week after the performance (9-5-22).

Nine-and-a-half of his 30 tackles in 2021 went for quarterback sacks, but it was the manner in which he finished those which catches the eyes of opponents.

Lonnie Phelps in the 2021 Frisco Football Classic
Phelps, pictured, led Miami (Ohio) with 13.5 tackles for losses in 2021. He already has five quarterback sacks in 2022 for the Jayhawks.

The team faces its biggest test of the year this week against TCU. The Jayhawks are counting on Phelps, a redshirt junior, to continue his torrid pace. The Horned Frogs rushing attack ranks second in the Big 12 and sixth nationally at 252 yards per game. One of Phelps’ strengths is suddenness. His hands have to be ready for combat due to the size of TCU offensive tackles Brandon Coleman (6’6, 325) and Andrew Coker (6’7, 315). Coleman is a former guard who moves bodies in the run game and Coker’s size often engulfs opponents.

Kansas, however, ranks 39th in the country in rushing defense and allowed just 26 yards on the ground to Iowa State (3-2) in last week’s 14-11 victory.

2021 CSJ Bahamas Bowl Preview: Shafer’s Three-fers

The 2021 CSJ Bahamas Bowl features a number of healthy individual storylines, but perhaps none more so than a three-fers approach for one of the nation’s top defenses. Injuries and improved play have been a theme for both teams heading into the contest. Toledo (7-5), led by first-year starting quarterback DeQuan Finn, reeled off victories in four of its last five games. Middle Tennessee (6-6) rebounded from a 2-4 start by winning four of its final six contests to achieve bowl eligibility. The Blue Raiders eventually settled on freshman quarterback Nicholas Vattiato, a Plantation, Florida native, in its last four games. Today, however, we spotlight one of the game’s top defensive minds and a philosophy that has led to eye-popping results.

MTSU Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer’s three-fers

Shafer, the former Syracuse head coach, is one of the more creative defensive minds in all of college football. Shafer-led defenses are known for producing turnovers and touchdowns, and they do so on a regular basis. In 2021, his unit has forced a whopping 18 fumbles (T-2nd nationally), recovered 15 fumbles (T-1st nationally) and picked off 16 passes (314 yards, 3 TDs). For good measure, the team has also returned three fumbles for scores. Their six defensive touchdowns are tied for first in all of FBS football with Nevada and Ohio State. One of the reasons? Shafer’s recruiting philosophy. He talks about recruiting three-fers. Three-fers are high school athletes who play three different positions (in football) and three different sports.

So which players on MTSU’s explosive defense have contributed to his unique philosophy?

12 Reed Blankenship 6’1 200 FS-Senior MTSU

The first-team All-C-USA safety was a star quarterback at West Limestone High School (Ala.), where he rushed for over 3,000 yards, passed for over 1,000 yards and tallied 1,004 receiving yards. The former state championship basketball player is the unquestioned leader of the defense, combining a coach’s intelligence with positive movement skills. After back-to-back injury-plagued seasons, Blankenship has largely returned to his 2018 form, when he picked off four passes and returned one of the interceptions 100 yards for a score. His angles have been hit-or-miss at times as a tackler, but he typically posts at least one highlight film play per game. Blankenship was forced to miss over 40 days of summer workouts in 2020 due to quarantine for COVID-19, but never tested positive. That absence gave him an even stronger appetite to be around both teammates and coaches, whom he steadily gives credit to both on and off the field.

“It starts off just listening to the coaches,” Blankenship said when asked about his long run of big plays at the school. “It’s all about your teammates on the plays you make.”

Reed Blankenship S-MTSU 2022 NFL Draft
Blankenship was named an all-conference performer in 2021 after notching a career-high 10 tackles for loss.

He finished third on the team in 2021 with 10 tackles for loss, returned a fumble 90 yards for a score and forced two fumbles. The respect he has for those around him is definitely reciprocal.

“He has a high football IQ. Good vision. Patience. Very good football player,” Shafer said of Blankenship. “There’s a comfort factor there.”

Blankenship recently received an invite to the 2022 East-West Shrine All-Star Game in Las Vegas, Nevada.

3 Quincy Riley 6’0 181 CB-R-Freshman MTSU

The next of Shafer’s three-fers who stood out in 2021 was Riley, a former A.C. Flora High School (S.C.) product with blazing recovery speed.

Want proof?

Riley won the South Carolina Class 4A state track and field championship with a blazing 10.48 100-meter time back in 2019. His confidence on the field allows for him to jump routes early in the down, as UTSA quarterback Frank Harris discovered early in 2021 when trying to throw an out pattern to Riley’s side that he picked and nearly took back the distance.

Injuries have been a bit of a hiccup for Riley, who missed four games in 2021. Technically, he is eligible for the 2022 NFL Draft after having played in three games back in 2019, his first year on campus. During that season, a season-ending injury also thwarted his charge. In fact, the first-team All-C-USA freshman corner posted five interceptions for 153 yards (TD) in just eight games this season. In 2020, prior to injury, he picked off two passes (77 yards) in an All-C-USA freshman campaign.

First-team All-C-USA CB Quincy Riley (pictured in press) finished tied for second in the nation with five interceptions (153 yds, TD).

So what other sport made him one of the three-fers?

“He was a great basketball player in high school,” Shafer said.

Yes. Another player who fits the bill. And in football, he stood out playing wide receiver at the prep level, notching over 300 yards receiving as a senior with six special teams scores.

91 Jordan Ferguson 6’2 262 DL-Junior MTSU

The permanent team captain rounds out our list on Shafer’s philosophy, although the defense is littered with players who fit the bill. Ferguson is actually tied with another of the three-fers, safety Gregory Grate (5’11, 197, JR), for the team lead in forced fumbles (three). The Cartersville High School (Ga.) product plays a variety of roles for the team, as he aligns at defensive tackle, defensive end and rush outside linebacker. In fact, he has seen time as a personal protector on the punt team.

In high school he was a star tight end, racking up 15 touchdowns as a junior alone. Shafer found him somewhere else.

“He played high school basketball as a kid,” Shafer said. “Great leader. He is capable of playing inside or outside (on the defensive line). Ran practices for the team when we weren’t there.”

The second-team All-C-USA performer certainly was there for the team in 2021, when he notched career-highs in sacks (eight), tackles for loss (16.5), forced fumbles (three) and quarterback hurries (14). In the team’s bowl-clinching win versus Florida Atlantic, he took a fumble return back 71 yards for a score.

The three-fers don’t stop with those three, no pun intended, as second-team All-C-USA linebacker DQ Thomas (80 tackles, 5 QB sacks, 14.5 TFLs, FF, 2 INTs (43 yds, TD), 2 PBUs) was a powerlifter at the prep level. Versus Virginia Tech, he ran down quarterback Braxton Burmeister for a sack and was in on several pressures. The Oxford, Mississippi native is the school’s all-time leader in tackles for loss (51.5) heading into his final career game.

But it all goes back to the former collegiate quarterback drawing up the defenses and his own unique recruiting philosophy. Shafer’s mix of pre-snap defensive movement (involving safeties and linebackers), zone blitzes, six-man pressures, five-man fire zones and multiple looks leads to confusion for opposing offenses.

MTSU defensive coordinator Scott Shafer gives Marshall a unique defensive pre-snap look back in 2019.

He credits MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill for being open to his various suggestions during games.

“He’s open to thoughts before, during and after games,” the longtime defensive coordinator said.

And with three head coaches on one coaching staff (Stockstill, Shafer and former Clemson HC Tommy West), perhaps they meet the three-fers philosophy on their own.

After all, as Shafer put it, “there’s nothing we’re afraid to communicate.”

Ryan Bowman DL-Senior Washington Huskies

Over the course of Washington Huskies defensive lineman Ryan Bowman’s career, he’s been a versatile, intense playmaker. As his play has proven, average size is only part of his story. The unique combination of savvy and power often allowed him to out-muscle the competition, if you will. We look inside his game in our breakdown on the former Husky and give a sneak preview of our scouting report.

Washington Huskies DL Ryan Bowman (No. 55 pictured on the tackle) often out-worked opponents in school. Some of his opponents in practice were NFL-caliber.

What makes this player NASTY…(Strengths): Football player! Former walk-on who made himself a factor in the Pac-12. Has played LB, DE and OLB. Sudden on line spikes to beat OGs from the RDE spot (four-technique, QBH, 2nd QTR, BYU ’19). Wins on these types of spikes from the stand-up two-point LOLB spot due to quickness (tackle vs. Holani, 4th QTR, Las Vegas Bowl ’19). Sinks his hips and got around the OG vs. BYU in 2019 to force a QB sack (FF, FR-TD). Times snap counts and will crease the backfield (TFL, Colorado ’18). From the OLB spot, he displays some LB-like ability to capture contain vs. speed sweeps to force the ball back inside (2nd QTR, Las Vegas Bowl ’19). Uses spin/roll moves when OTs set high against him to his outside hip (Oregon State ’19). As an interior DL, he spins out of blocks to make tackles inside (UCLA ’18). In these moments, he extends his inside hand as he makes the move. Deft roll moves elude OTs (tackle, third down, 3rd QTR, USC ’19).