Player to Watch: T.J. Edwards

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Man in the Middle

T.J. Edwards was the man in the middle of a Wisconsin defense that was ranked second in total defense (262.1 yards per game), third in rushing defense (98.4 ypg) and third in scoring defense (13.9 ppg). He was an integral part of a senior laden defense that lost seven starters, including four that were drafted into the NFL this year, as an inside linebacker. Edwards capped off his junior year with a first team All-Big 10 selection as well as being named an AP All-American.

He returns for his senior year after considering going pro last season. Despite losing so many starters from last year, the defense will still be stacked for the highly rated Badgers. He has started 39 of his 40 collegiate games and this will be his second season in defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s 3-4 defense.

He’ll be looking to build on his junior year where he was second on the team with 81 tackles, had eleven tackles for a loss, two sacks, 7 pass break ups and 4 interceptions including one returned for a touchdown. Compared to other All-American linebacker statistics, his don’t particularly standout. Players like Josey Jewell and Roquan Smith each had over 135 tackles each last season. But tackles are an arbitrary statistic with some stat-keepers being more liberal in giving credit for a tackle than others. And with having a defense that was so disciplined with so many solid tacklers, well, there just weren’t that many for him to get.

Against the Run

He is communicative pre-snap to move teammates and himself into the right position before showing a good ability to key and diagnose. He’s a willing gap filler and will use violent hands to stun blockers and keep them off his body. He shows good body control and balance to get inside and under blockers to get into the backfield. And he hits. Not like the wrap and drag tackles we see from a lot of linebackers today. He’s got an old school quality. He hits with good leverage, wraps up and keeps his legs under him to drive through ball carriers. He plays sideline to sideline, showing good pursuit all over the field. And he’s a sure tackler taking down all he can get his hands on.

Against the Pass

In coverage, he was used a lot in zone dropping in the middle or hook/curl area. He shows good bend in his drop and gets good depth, using his eyes to follow and flow with the quarterback. He has very good awareness of his zone. Tries to redirect those passing through his zone, shows good timing when picking up and letting receivers go and good change of direction to accelerate and break on passes to stop yards after the catch before they happen.

He’s not been used a lot as a pass rusher but they do occasionally use him as a penetrator on twists to open up gaps for outside linebackers to loop into the middle.

Here’s a look at a few of his plays from last year.

Against Michigan, we see pre snap movement to mirror the H-Back. He reads the pulling guard, dips his shoulder and gets skinny, showing good balance and body control to get penetration and a tackle in the backfield.

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Also against Michigan, he is lined up over the center on 3rd down. He’ll act as the penetrator in the twist. At the snap he shoots to the A gap to his left. He aims for the right guard to drive him out. If the center follows him, it opens a lane for his teammate to get around. In this case, the center gives him an initial push and comes off to pick up the looper, giving Edwards a gap to get in and get the sack.

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Against Minnesota, Edwards is the front side inside linebacker against an option to his left. He quickly diagnoses and shows good agility. He uses his hands well to shed the block of the H-back and nice acceleration to beat the back to the outside and get the tackle for the loss.

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Against Nebraska, I really liked this play. Edwards reads the H-back coming across the formation early to lead block. Accelerates downhill quickly, beating the blocker to the spot, and into the backfield to blow up the block and the play. You love this kind of aggressiveness in your inside linebacker.

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Also against Nebraska, on third down, he’s in the apex between the tackle and slot receiver. He starts the play making the effort moving left to disrupt the slot’s route. His head swivels left to visually pick up a receiver, at the far hash, come on a crosser under his coverage. He adjusts right to cut off that option. Then when the quarterback begins to scramble he comes back left to make the tackle at the line of scrimmage. Effort and assignment sound.

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Against Ohio State, again at the apex, he stays with the slot to redirect him off his route. Crosser underneath, that he reads, and then shows good acceleration and ball skills to get the pass break up.

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What’s Next?

He came back to school to try and improve his draft status. What can he improve upon? I don’t think there are any major flaws. Maybe taking slightly better angles against outside runs so he doesn’t have to dive at the legs of the runner. I’d like to see more man coverage to evaluate that area, as well as more pass rushing opportunities. Overall, I’d expect to see a bump in his numbers to account for the 7 starters graduating, as the defense projects to be younger and less experienced.

From his Twitter, “I couldn’t be more excited for my senior season at Wisconsin! This program means the world to me and I can’t wait to get back at work to finish what we started.”  I think the 80,321 at Camp Randall Stadium on August 31st will be pretty excited to “Jump Around” as well.

Follow Tom on Twitter @THMead3. Check out his other work here, such as his look at Washington RB Myles Gaskin, his preview of Virginia RB/WR Olamide Zaccheaus or his look at how paying a high salary veteran QB may hurt your chances of winning.

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