One of the most underrated aspects of assembling a football team is having good linebackers. With quality linebackers, a defense has more flexibility in disguising their intentions, whether it’s a designed blitz or a coverage drop, and they are more than likely to create more turnovers. The Penn State Nittany Lions know this all too well as they’ve produced some of the finest linebackers that have come into the NFL. This year, it’s no different as Michael Mauti, a 6’2”, 240 pound senior linebacker, is temporarily flying under the radar.
When it comes to evaluating linebackers, I’ve learned over the years that a successful linebacker is going to have one of two trait combinations: height-weight-speed or instincts and awareness. Both of these are vital and when a prospect possesses them, they typically become of the one best linebackers in the game regardless of where they are taken (e.g. K.J. Wright in Seattle).
In the case of Michael Mauti, he doesn’t have great size or the speed that enables him to track sideline-to-sideline. However, he brings great awareness and understanding of the game to the defense as well as the ability to play both run and pass, which should make him a productive linebacker in the NFL.
Fundamentally speaking, Michael Mauti is one of the smarter linebackers I’ve seen. He understands how to deal with certain situations that pose difficult challenges, such as dealing with Hi-Lo crossers, and understands how to attack the football against the run and pass. These two traits are vital in today’s game because of the way offenses are running their schemes, which includes a multitude of short and intermediate route combinations.
One of Mauti’s finest moments on game film came against Illinois when he intercepted a pass on the goal-line and returned it for a touchdown in the dying seconds of the first half.
Lined up at his natural weak-side linebacker spot (“WILL”), he shifted over from the right of the field to the middle. Illinois was running the Double Slants concept on the fourth and goal and the quarterback was reading inside-out, meaning the slot receiver and then the outside one.
Ideally, this concept would create a “rub” or pick against Mauti, consequently freeing up the outside receiver for the touchdown on the quick slant. Instead of getting caught up with the slot receiver, Mauti shuffled underneath him and watched the quarterback’s eyes. He was reading the concept just like the quarterback was, bypassing the slot receiver and going toward the outside receiver before jumping the route for an interception and pick-six.
The play was a significant one, halting any momentum that the Illini could have had going into the second half. Later in the game, Mauti would come up big again, this time against the noted crossers.
Once again lined up at the WILL spot, Michael Mauti was a ‘hook” defender in the typical Penn State soft Cover 3 scheme.
Initially lined up to the right of the formation, Mauti moved to the middle of the field at the snap and was faced with two crossing routes (“Mesh”) going left and right as well as a “Dig” route behind him into the middle of the field.
When faced with the first crosser, Mauti didn’t pick him up, instead passing him off to his right where he knew he had a teammate near the curl-flat area. He did pick up the receiver coming across the formation, from right to his left, and in doing so, made sure that he wasn’t going underneath the first receiver who he passed off. If he did, it would create a pick and result in, at least, a first down. Once he saw where the crossing route was going, Mauti took an anticipatory angle opposed to a direct one, which is very important to differentiate.
A direct angle would lead Mauti straight to the receiver, which sounds ideal but isn’t because the receiver is not running straight at him. Instead, the receiver is running straight across his face, so the only way to make a play on the ball is to take an anticipatory angle that would create a meshing point between Mauti, the receiver and the ball. By taking this angle, he was able to beat the receiver to the ball as he jumped in front of the route for another interception.
Moreover, being able to stack-and-shed whilst playing the run has become a trait that’s been downgraded in the eyes of personnel men. With so many defense’s playing 1-gap schemes and protecting their linebackers with burly interior linemen, it’s not so much of an issue as it was in the early days when defenses were 2-gapping. Despite this, I still look for a linebacker that has the tenacity and toughness, the fight and willingness to take on a pulling lineman.
That’s what Mauti has.
Michael Mauti’s run defense was tested early against the Iowa Hawkeyes, who dialed up a powerful run on the second play of the game. He was lined up on the left side of a balanced offensive set and was going to have to deal with a pulling Tackle.
When the ball was live, he scraped over to the outside and took the Tackle head on. Obviously outsized, Mauti engaged with the puller, dropped his pad level and attempted to keep a solid base as he slid forward, creating a wall akin to a picket fence in an attempt to force the ball carrier wide into the “force” player (corner). As the play developed, Mauti dropped his pad level lower and realized his goal of forcing the ball-carrier wide but he wasn’t done there. He would go on to shed the blocker and clean up the play with a tackle on the ball-carrier.
As one can see, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti reeks of fundamentals. He is a very smart and instinctive player that applies the teachings in practice to his on-field play. Because of this, he should be successful at the next level once he’s drafted. He is likely to be a top-75 selection if his character and medical history (Torn ACL in ’11) check out.
All snapshots used were created using draftbreakdown.com’s videos.