TCU’s star linebacker ran a plodding 4.93 in the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine. That performance perhaps knocked him out of the first round of next month’s draft and off his pedestal of being the top-ranked inside linebacker.
What scouts must determine is what — if anything — that 40-yard time means.
“I’ve talked to many teams,” Dawson said at the Scouting Combine. “They want me to be the starter when I first come in.”
He looked to be that type of player during a superb senior season, during which he proved that despite what the stopwatch might indicate, he is light on his feet, showing the acceleration and change-of-direction skill to excel in space — requirements needed to handle the trash inside as a middle linebacker.
Dawson (6-1, 235) relies on this athleticism to slip by blocks, rather than physically taking them on, but he is a reliable open-field tackler who recorded 227 tackles during his last two seasons. He’s a savvy defender who plays at a low pad level and does a nice job of attacking ball-carriers’ legs to prevent forward progress and he wraps securely, in order to compensate for only average strength and technique to disengage from blockers once they've latched on.
“Just using my quickness, mostly my instincts,” Dawson said. “It comes with that just watching film, knowing what’s about to happen. With my quickness, watching film and my instincts, I’m going to be the first one to the ball. That’s my strengths.”
Doubts stemming from the Combine — he also had just a 28-inch vertical jump — are nothing new. Dawson has had to overcome others doubting his talent ever since he first suited up to play the game at Skyline High School in his hometown of Dallas. He was “just a guy” until his senior season, as he grabbed 34 passes for 435 yards and six touchdowns to help the team compile a 9-3 record. The 2010 All-District choice also competed as a linebacker, but was just a consensus two-star recruit.
Hoping to receive an opportunity to play at a major college, Dawson enrolled at local Trinity Valley Community College, a team known for sending quality defensive players on to four-year universities. Even though he tipped the scales at 210 pounds, he started eight of the 11 games he played in as a linebacker, posting 52 tackles with four sacks, eight stops behind the line of scrimmage and one interception.
Dawson captured the attention of the Texas Christian staff and was enticed to join the team for the 2012 season. Five games into the 2013 season, he finally received his starting opportunity, taking over middle linebacker chores for the final seven contests. He led team with 91 tackles and placed second with 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage, but had just one assisted sack.
Looking to get Dawson more involved in the opposing backfields, he was shifted to strong-side outside linebacker in 2014. He responded with 136 tackles (81 solos), improving his sacks total to six, as he also made 20 stops for losses, reaching double-digit tackle totals in nine of his thirteen appearances to receive All-American and all-Big 12 Conference recognition.
Concerns run deeper than the stopwatch. Not only is he not fast, but he’s not big, either, at just a sliver taller than 6-feet. That potentially will put him off-limits for the Packers, no matter how dire their need at inside linebacker.
“I feel like I’ve already broken the stereotypes,” Dawson said of his height. “It’s just going out and being able to do what I do and make plays. Size doesn’t really matter. It’s all about your heart. I plan on showing that every day in my game.”
There are some off-field issues, as well. He admitted to failing a drug test as a sophomore at TCU and being “tardy a lot” to meetings and weight-room sessions. He said he’s put those problems behind him.
“Just realizing that this is my life,” Dawson said. “I’ve got to make the best of what I can do, especially to provide for my daughter. She’s 2 years old. Just having the best life for her, like my parents tried to have for me.”
Put together the film with the concerns and what do you get if you’re a team like the Packers and in dire need of an inside linebacker?
“Of course I feel like I’m a first-round pick,” he said. “I feel like I am the best linebacker in this draft. It’s all about what teams need and want. I won’t be upset. I know I’ll be gone in the second if I’m not in the first. So it’s all good.”
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