As a redshirt freshman, Andrew Motuapuaka was thrust into the starting role at mike linebacker following an ankle injury to senior Chase Williams. Motuapuaka put up big numbers of tackles, but on a couple of occasions he did not fit his interior gap properly and it resulted in some big plays. Still, I certainly felt that barring injury, Motuapuaka was a lock to be the starter in 2015.
Imagine my surprise during the Virginia Tech Signing Day Live special when Bud Foster said of early enrollee Carson Lydon, "He is a guy who will compete for a starting position at that spot (mike linebacker.)"
I watched Lydon, a 6-2, 243 pound linebacker from East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, Florida, perform on his junior highlight reel. He looked like a kid who could set the edge, blitz, and read a quarterback's eyes while being very comfortable in coverage. I hate comparisons to former Hokies, and I wasn't a huge Cody Grimm fan. That being said, Lydon seemed to have much of the same nose for the football and playmaking ability while looking very comfortable in coverage (something that Grimm never was.) Here is a terrific example of Lydon dropping back on the boundary, reading the quarterback, and then jumping the route.
However, Lydon didn't look physically imposing on film and it certainly never occurred to me that he was mike linebacker sized until those comments from Foster. Lydon moved between the outside linebacker spot and inside linebacker as a senior, and despite fighting through injuries he managed to be selected first-team Florida All-State Class 7A and score two defensive touchdowns. He also grew and added muscle mass without losing quickness.
Foster's mike linebackers must fit interior gaps and find the football. Often, that requires the mike to identify a bubble in the defensive line (most often a cutback lane), fill the bubble, and find the football. So often, Hokie fans saw Jack Tyler or Chase Williams tackling a running back just behind where the center lined up. It wasn't because they were blitzing. Tyler and Williams were in that position because they read the play, and with their defensive line tying up blocks the bubble was unblocked. The mike has to read the play properly and get into that hole. If he can, he will put up big numbers.
After the initial gap fit, the mike has to pursue to the football, but only after the gap is secured. This nuance is a huge reason why linebackers who played downhill/north-south like Vince Hall and Jack Tyler were so effective in college, but received little NFL attention where inside linebackers play more of an east-west pursuit style.
Lydon fits that model. He has a knack for timing where to step into that interior hole without getting blocked. Here are two terrific examples. First, we have an inside zone play on the goal line.
Lydon has responsibility for the gap between the center and the right guard. Instead of barreling into the hole, he is patient. The fullback (who probably should block Lydon) instead floats to the outside. Lydon waits for him to clear, fills the hole, and makes a very solid tackle with his pads square to the running back. This is mike linebacker play 101.
On the second example, you can get a better look at Lydon's patience and technique. Here, the offense runs a trap play. Left guard pulls to his right. His assignment is to kick out the first purple jersey he sees. The left defensive tackle steps to the outside, leaving Lydon with the center-right guard gap responsibility.
Lydon is patient. He reads the play and waits for the guard to clear. He then slips in behind the guard to make the tackle (again, right behind the line of scrimmage). If he barrels into the hole, the guard can kick him out. This requires outstanding timing and understanding of the defensive scheme.
The last two seasons, Foster has not dropped his mike and backer into coverage very often, yet mobile quarterbacks have made some hay on broken plays out of the pocket. Several folks on TKP have asked me why it happens, and there are two reasons. First, defensive linemen had a tendency to get out of their lanes. Second, man coverage in the secondary meant that the quarterback had lots of room once he broke containment. The third, and less compelling reason, was that, besides Deon Clarke, Foster's linebackers over the last two seasons have been a little stiff and not particularly athletic. Tariq Edwards post-injury, Jack Tyler, and Chase Williams didn't have great bend to change direction once they got out of position during a pass rush.
Carson Lydon brings an added element. East Lake used him often as an edge blitzer, and in that role Lydon displayed tremendous ability to stop, bend his body, and change direction. This play really stood out. First, Lydon doesn't tip that he is blitzing, yet still gets a great jump on the snap.
Lydon is unblocked off the edge, but the quarterback makes a savvy play. He fakes the throw, and Lydon leaves his feet to block the pass. This leaves a lane for the quarterback to tuck and run underneath Lydon's outstretched arms. At this moment, Lydon stops his body on a dime and contorts himself so his shoulders are moving back towards the line of scrimmage while his legs are still heading towards the defensive end zone. He drags the quarterback to the ground. When watching Lydon blitz, he does a tremendous job of avoiding blockers and bending his body to get to the quarterback. I can't think of another current Hokie who does such a good job of working back to the inside after getting too far up field other than Dadi Nicolas. That is high praise indeed for a middle linebacker.
The only question mark for me with Lydon is his ability to take on blocks. There aren't many plays on his film where he takes on blocks going downhill, then chases down the ball carrier. That doesn't mean he can't, but there are not any examples on tape to make the evaluation, He plays with a bit of a high center of gravity (probably a carryover from his days on the outside) and could have a hard time if he doesn't get underneath some of the big road graders up front when he does have to take on a block. Note, that was also Chase Williams biggest weakness on film before last season, and he still had a great year. Lydon is also bigger than Williams and that extra size should help him.
Even if he doesn't win a starting job this season, you can expect Lydon to make a case for getting an immediate look on the punt block team. Both his junior and senior highlight films are chock full of punt blocks from the interior. On some plays, Lydon doesn't even get credit for the punt block because he tackles the punter before the kick happens. Coach Stinespring gave a Tim "The Toolman" Taylor grunt followed by a "that's a football play" after this play was aired during the NOVA Hokies Club Recruiting Night.
Lydon is an early enrollee, and with the end of Devin Vandyke's career and Sean Huelskamp's rehabilitation from a knee injury, Lydon will get a significant number of repetitions in the spring behind Motuapuaka and Dahman McKinnon. Don't be surprised to see Lydon move up the depth chart quickly as it gets updated throughout spring football.