2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 9: Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State

Monday April 10th, 2017

What you need to know: A star at New Castle (Pa.) High School, Hooker twice made it on to SportsCenter’s “Top 10 Plays” countdown ... as a basketball player. Hooker was a standout on the hardwood, so much so that he did not begin playing football until his junior year. Not surprisingly, given his lack of previous experience, Hooker redshirted in 2014 at Ohio State. He saw action in all 13 games the next season, mainly as a special teams contributor. Finally a starter in ’16, Hooker claimed an All-America nod and first-team All-Big Ten, as he recorded 74 tackles and picked off seven passes. He took three of those turnovers back for TDs (against Tulsa, Nebraska and Michigan). Hooker led the Big Ten in both interceptions and INT return yards last season.

Strengths: It is borderline ridiculous the amount of ground Hooker can cover when the ball is in the air. He possesses rare closing speed as a free safety, and his presence alone allowed Ohio State’s cornerbacks—like fellow Round 1 hopefuls Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley—to roll the dice near the line.

Hooker glides from the middle of the field to the boundary in a heartbeat, doing so while keeping tabs on the flight of the football so he can make a play.

“Just having the mindset that any ball that’s in the air, it’s my ball,” said Hooker at the combine when asked how he became such a prolific turnover producer. “I feel like I’m a playmaker. Any time I had a chance to make a play or change momentum of a game, I took it upon myself to do so.”

Speed alone isn’t enough. As with any truly effective deep safety, Hooker shows the ability to read a quarterback’s eyes or sniff out the development of a play. He trusts his instincts, then allows his athleticism to take over.

He’s also nowhere near a finished product. With limited experience under his belt, Hooker emerged as arguably the best coverage safety in college football last season. Who knows how good he can be with a few more years of experience.

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Weaknesses: Hooker did have those 74 tackles last season, so he obviously is not totally lost when he has to bring down a ballcarrier. And yet, there is little question that his presence against the run currently lags far behind what he can do against the pass.

The issue that will require the most immediate attention: tackling. Hooker appears to have the mentality that could turn him into a physical presence, but that’s part of the problem—he flows downhill to the football in the same gear that he tracks the deep ball, and thus has a difficult time adjusting to any cuts. His technique leaves something to be desired, too—he’ll often try to go low with the shoulder, rather than wrap up.

NFL quarterbacks are better than those in college at manipulating deep safeties, so Hooker will have to be careful at jumping routes by reading the QB. Pump fakes or play-actions might catch him in the wrong spot.

He needed surgeries in January to repair a torn labrum plus sports hernias on each side.

NFL player comparison: Devin McCourty, two inches taller

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