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An undersized linebacker out of Lone Star High School in Frisco, Texas, Nick Bolton was just a three-star recruit, missing out on being one of the top 1,000 high school seniors in the country. He only visited Kansas and Missouri and decided rather quickly that he wanted to be a Tiger. As a true freshman, Bolton played in all 13 games, impressing on special teams with his physicality and tackling.
After another offseason with the Missouri program, he quickly transformed into one of the best linebackers in the country as a sophomore, far outplaying his recruitment ranking. In this 2019 season, he had 100 total tackles as well as a sack and two picks, earning first-team All-SEC honors. His success would not be a one-year outlier as the leader of the Tigers defense made first-team All-SEC again in 2020, cementing himself as one of the best Missouri players over the past decade.
After putting his stamp on the program, Bolton decided to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft, expecting to be one of the top linebackers in a strong class.
Despite falling short in the size department, coming in a shade under six-foot and weighing 235 pounds, Bolton is one of the most physical players in college football. When he arrives to the ball-carrier he explodes into tackles, delivering a clean but hard hit, while also wrapping up and securing the tackle. His lower body flexibility and low center of gravity allow him to adjust to moving targets and bring down opponents in the open field reliably.
The Texas native’s physicality is apparent when he has to take on blocks, showing violent hands with some serious pop in them. Bolton does well to stay clean as his hands are quick, utilizing a dip-and-rip move, flashing pass-rush tendencies. His quick burst and ability to stay clean make him a great gap shooter, as he demonstrates the ability to penetrate the backfield as both a run defender or on a blitz.
Due to his lack of length, Bolton is unable to truly stack blockers consistently. Stuffing holes with the authority with which Bolton does it requires discipline and excellent eyes. He flows with run plays, playing patiently but also decisively when he decides to trigger downhill. When studying his tape, the growth he has gone through is apparent compared to past seasons. Previously, Bolton would take overly-aggressive angles and miss tackles because of it, forcing teammates to pick up the pieces.
With more playing time, he has become more patient and eliminated many of the mistakes he made in past seasons. His flexible ankles and knees allow him to change directions quickly, which helps him avoid blocks; this is very useful in the open field and in zone coverage as well. His flexibility, paired with his spatial awareness and zone instincts make him a capable defender in underneath zones.
Bolton flashes the ability to anticipate and take away routes coming in behind him, he would be excellent in space, if he did this consistently. In man coverage he gets the job done in condensed spaces, staying square and getting his hands on the opponent at the top of the route without getting grabby. Athletic running backs stressing him vertically are bad matchups for Bolton, as he lacks the speed and discipline to pick them up at times.
This lack of long speed also hurts his range, preventing him from getting sideline-to-sideline consistently. Bolton makes up for some of his shortcomings with terrific effort, with his motor running hot all game he finds himself around the football on almost every play.
Staying clean and shooting gaps to make plays in the backfield is Bolton at his best and against Alabama he was able to do just that, beating the right guard to his spot:
An excellent player when blitzing, Bolton comes in and pressures the quarterback into throwing an interception:
He can flow laterally and attack gaps to bring down even the most physical running backs for a loss of yardage:
Bolton can get lateral even when he has to take on a block:
His impressive open-field tackling is on full display here as he brings down one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football:
Some of the patience he has developed as he matured as a player shows here as he sticks with Toney the entire way and makes the tackle:
The fiery Bolton projects as a starting inside linebacker who will be a big asset as a run defender. His ability to be around the ball consistently and deliver hard hits will make him a tone-setter for a defense. Certain offenses will look to exploit his athletic shortcomings with dynamic playmakers out of the backfield. A running mate who is a more athletic linebacker with man coverage ability would help him out. Bolton is an excellent fit for teams that like to blitz on third down as he generates pressure on the passer consistently.