SI All-American Watch List: Linebacker Prospects

Breaking down the top off-ball linebackers in the college football recruiting class of 2022
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As the 2021 football season draws near, SI All-American continues to evaluate the nation's top prospects at every position for the college football recruiting class of 2022. The first wave of the evaluations are the 'Watch List' selections, also known as SI All-American candidates, to be released throughout the month of July.

It precedes the SI99 rankings, our preseason mark of America's top college football prospects regardless of position, to be released the first week of August.

Naturally, the quarterback watch list was up first, rolled out in several releases two weeks ago. Last week we moved to skill positions, beginning with a pair of cornerback releases ahead of the nickel defensive back watch list. To cap the week, the flip side is considered in a look at the nation's most impressive wide receiver projections. The top 10 wide receivers were released on Friday and slot receivers debuted Monday.

Edge rushers capped last week's releases, including the first batch released Thursday ahead of the top 10 reveal Friday. After a step back on offense at running back Tuesday, the interior defensive line took center stage Wednesday. Friday, we flipped back to the offensive side of the ball with our tackle rankings and broke down the interior prospects soon after.

The final positions are upon us and tight ends were atop the discussion this week. Now we move over to linebacker. 

1. CJ Hicks

Vitals: 6'4", 220 pounds

School: Dayton (Ohio) Archbishop Alter

Recruiting: Committed to Ohio State

The Ohioan paces one of the stronger position groups at the top with the combination of elite length, three-phase athleticism and that knack for finding the football. Hicks will return punts and make plays on offense, but he is most at home attacking the ball carrier and/or quarterback from depth. The twitch is easy to see on tape and he can finish behind his pads as well. As he continues to focus on the intricacies of being a college linebacker, like taking more efficient paths to the football, Hicks has the chance to get a lot better in a relatively short amount of time. 

2. Shemar James

Vitals: 6'2", 220 pounds

School: Navarre (Fla.) High School

Recruiting: Committed to Florida

James is one of the best football players in the country. That’s not meant to be generally or in regards to his national ranking. What it means is that James is an elite football player, the kind of rare athlete that could thrive on both sides of the ball and at multiple positions. Where his upside is highest is at linebacker, where he has the tools to be an elite defender at the next level. James is an explosive athlete that can drive downhill just as well as he can open up and run sideline-to-sideline. James shows the box power to dominate the run, the speed to attack the perimeter run and outside screen game and his man coverage skills look more like a safety than a linebacker.

3. Harold Perkins

Vitals: 6'2", 210 pounds

School: Cypress (Texas) Cy Park

Recruiting: Considering Texas, Texas A&M, LSU, others

Few linebacker tapes are as fun as Perkins's. The Texan lines up at running back and off the ball on defense, where his vision, overall athleticism and play-making instincts can take over. As a linebacker, he is comfortable down hill, works well in the wash and explodes through contact. Perkins attacks the football under control with true pop, with seemingly the speed to keep up with wide receivers to boot. He'll need to fill out his frame to combat a collegiate running game, but the space skill is right there among the best at the position. 

4. David Bailey

Vitals: 6'3", 220 pounds

School: Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei

Recruiting: Considering USC, UCLA, Stanford, Cal, others

The possibilities appear to be endless within Bailey's game. Much like SI99 2021 Mater Dei linebacker Raesjon Davis, he works outside-in under the Monarch scheme, utilizing his length and speed in space and on the edge incredibly effectively. Turn on the Servite game from this spring and one could feel comfortable projecting Bailey as a true edge talent or an off-ball 'backer. We go with the latter because of his instincts, twitch, lateral ability and awareness. It doesn't mean he won't moonlight off the edge in college, though.

5. Jaylen Sneed

Vitals: 6'2", 210 pounds

School: Hilton Head Island (S.C.) High

Recruiting: Committed to Notre Dame

Sneed had a brilliant summer, putting on display the elite athleticism that made him a top ranked player while also answering some of the questions about his game. A defensive end as a junior, Sneed shows an explosive first step on film as both an end and when he was still at linebacker during his sophomore season. He possesses excellent length despite not being overly tall and his change of direction skills stand out. This summer Sneed showed himself to be an outstanding player in coverage, something that didn’t show up on film due to him playing on the edge. Sneed also showed off much better long speed than we saw on film, which only bolstered his standing as one of the nation’s top linebackers.

6. Josh Burnham

Vitals: 6'4", 215 pounds

School: Traverse City (Mich.) Central

Recruiting: Committed to Notre Dame

Burnham is a unique athlete with an incredibly high ceiling. He has the combination of size, length, athleticism and intelligence to dominate. The scary part about Burnham’s game is that he’s not even close to getting to his full potential. Also a quarterback for Central, Burnham dominates right now on the tools that God gave him. His length is exceptional, which helps him be an effective block destructor despite still needing technical work in that part of the game. His first step is outstanding, Burnham has outstanding agility and his closing speed is top notch. Once he focuses just on playing defense his game is going to explode.

7. Jalon Walker

Vitals: 6'3", 220 pounds

School: Salisbury (N.C.) High

Recruiting: Committed to Georgia

A physical specimen with experience rushing the passer and playing in space, Walker eats up space in front of him and explodes through contact. Few second-level defenders are as comfortable on linear attacks as he, whether coming from the box or the edge. Once he identifies the assignment, his reaction time and size prove too much for most blockers to attempt to get in front of, and even when they do he is tough to handle at the point of attack. Walker has a future moonlighting as a pass rusher, but as he matures with more off-ball experience as well as in coverage, he could be a candidate to play a three-down role at Georgia. 

8. Jaron Willis

Vitals: 6-2, 215

School: Leesburg (Ga.) Lee County

Recruiting: Committed to Georgia Tech

Willis is a unique player that could end up skyrocketing up these rankings before all is said and done. He’s the perfect modern day linebacker projection in build and skill set. He possesses the length, explosiveness, speed and coverage skills to thrive in space. He has the short-area power and strength to play inside and thrive against the run. Willis is listed at just 215 pounds, but the Georgia Tech commit can take two steps and explode his hips through a ball carrier. What makes him unique is his ability in space. Willis is a force against perimeter run and perimeter screen throws and his burst off the edge as a blitzer adds yet another weapon to his arsenal.

9. Shawn Murphy

Vitals: 6'2, 215 pounds

School: Manassas (Va.) Unity Reed

Recruiting: Committed to Alabama

Murphy is proof there is still room for that twitchy, downhill 'backer with fast-flow principles and flashy finishing ability. He works especially well in the wash with great vision and instincts despite a filled out 6'2", 225-pound frame. Efficient in working through tight windows, the Virginian can beat blockers by engaging or avoiding with short-area quickness and pop. Good upper-body strength and suddenness allow for the capability to take on linemen and lead blockers alike with success. Murphy times up the blitz well and that explosion helps him to disrupt the running and passing game alike, and he recently showed strong base coverage principles on the camp circuit to help round out his game. 

10. Kobie McKinzie

Vitals: 6-3, 225

School: Lubbock (Texas) Cooper

Recruiting: Committed to Oklahoma

If you like old-school football where linebackers arrived at the football with punishing force then you’ll love watching McKinzie play. What the Oklahoma commit lacks is sideline-to-sideline speed he makes up for with instincts and exceptional power. His short-area burst and downhill quickness makes him a force against the run, but McKinzie also has the nimble feet and smarts to thrive up the middle. He’ll need to work on playing with more consistent pad level and improve his ability to beat blocks once engaged, but the tools are there for him to develop into a force against the run. 

Best of the Rest

* Gabe Powers is another linebacker who worked well with the ball in his hands earlier in his prep career. As he became an upperclassman, the Ohio State commitment showed more ability to play outside-in with effectiveness behind the line of scrimmage. Good linear speed and plus ball skills will help him develop into a three-down prospect at the next level, but the physique, finishing force and football instincts are there. The in-state star plays behind his pads and flashes some lateral ability, too. 

* TJ Dudley fits more of the modern middle linebacker role. He’s built well, checking in at 6-3 and 225 pounds, but there’s plenty of room to add strength and some girth. He has strong hands, shows good block destruction and Dudley absolutely explodes through ball carriers. What makes Dudley such a top prospect is the athleticism he brings inside. He shows slot-to-slot range, his top end speed is quite impressive and Dudley shows the range needed to thrive in zone coverage plus the speed needed to run with tight ends and backs. Oregon stealing him out of the south was a huge coup for the Ducks.

* Niuafe Tuihalamaka is a throw back linebacker. He’s not a defender you’re going to put in space or ask to play in man coverage. The California native is the kind of player that you put right in the middle of the your defense and tell him to dominate the run game, and that’s what he does. Tuihalamaka is a thickly built defender that needs to reshape his body a bit at the next level. Despite this he shows good short-area quickness and power, and his feel for the game is outstanding. Tuihalamaka has powerful hands and high-level instincts, which allows him to consistently beat blockers to the point of attack.

* Kip Lewis is a smooth and rangy linebacker that can play in space and has the potential to be an inside backer at the next level as well. Lewis is listed at just 6-2, 200 pounds and he’s thin at this point, but he shows enough pop when he arrives at the ball and the ability to quickly step to power to handle the inside run game, assuming he can add the requisite size and strength. Even if he can’t handle playing inside on a full-time basis, Lewis has the range to play in space, something more and more teams are wanting from their linebackers. Lewis makes quick decisions in the pass game and he shows good man coverage traits.

* Jordan Crook lacks the length of many other linebackers on this list and he’s not the “prototype” linebacker from a size standpoint, but this is a young man that can flat out play. Despite a lack of length, Crook is a well-built defender that packs a punch in the run game, and his ability to get downhill is outstanding. Not only can he explode vertically, Crook shows impressive lateral quickness and change of direction skills, which only adds to his ability to shut down the run. When he opens up and goes the Arkansas commit can really move, and that range makes him a highly effective player, and gives him the skills needed to play the modern game.