Stuart McNair

Scouting Combine Research Series: Inside Linebackers (Part 1)

Who was a horse on his defense? Who plays for his autistic brother? Who is part of an extensive football family tree? Who was shot as a toddler? Those answers and more as we get to know the top inside linebackers.

Here are the 18 inside linebackers who have been invited to the Scouting Combine. Players are listed in alphabetical order. Heights and weights come from CBSSports.com/NFLDraftScout.com. All players are seniors unless noted. Note: Position designations might not reflect how they'd line up in all NFL defensive schemes. For Part 2, CLICK HERE.

Kendell Beckwith, LSU (6-2, 252): Beckwith started during his final two-and-a-half seasons. As a junior, he was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker, after tallying 84 tackles, including 3.5 sacks and 10 for losses, and two forced fumbles. As a senior, he earned All-America honors with 91 tackles, one sack, six tackles for losses and a career-high four passes defensed, despite missing a few games with a knee injury.

When he was 7, he got a horse for Christmas, further fueling a passion. "He treated her like she was his baby sister,” his mom said. Said Beckwith: "I pretty much grew up loving horses more than football," Beckwith said. "I've grown to love the game. Being a horseman would be my first (choice). Horses will always be No. 1 in my life." He has four horses. “They’re my boys.” He’s a cowboy “without the big belt buckles.”

A brother, Wendell, played defensive end for Tulane and a cousin, Darry Beckwith, was a two-time all-SEC linebacker for LSU who spent time with the Chargers.

Ben Boulware, Clemson (6-0, 236): Boulware racked up the honors as a senior. He won the Jack Lambert Award as the nation’s top linebacker, was a second-team All-American, ACC co-Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of the national championship game. He led the team with 131 tackles, including four sacks and 11.5 for losses, and three forced fumbles. As a junior, he had 138 tackles, 3.5 sacks, eight tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and 10 pressures. Even while only starting his final two seasons, Boulware put up prodigious career numbers: 352 tackles, 26 tackles for losses, 8.5 sacks, five interceptions, 41 quarterback pressures, 10 pass breakups, six forced fumbles and four recovered fumbles.

Boulware, a former all-state baseball player at T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson, S.C., is the brother of Garrett Boulware, who played baseball for Clemson and was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 2014. It’s his other brother who serves as his inspiration. Cameron Boulware is autistic and has endured countless seizures since he was a toddler. "I know Cameron would love to do the things we do but can't," Boulware said. "I know my time in this game is fleeting and fragile. I'm trying to exhaust every moment for him."

In a family of successful athletes, big brothers Ben and Garrett made sure Cameron was never left behind. That means boxing and wrestling and the occasional bloody nose. “There was a lot of destruction. It was very loud, very active in this house,” Ben says. “The fact that he had a disability, that didn’t cross our minds when we were growing up. He was just one of the brothers.”

Blair Brown, Ohio (5-11, 234): Brown was named first-team all-MAC and earned some All-America accolades as a senior with 128 tackles, including 4.5 sacks and 15 for losses, and one forced fumble. Brown started for most of his sophomore season (55 tackles) and all of his junior season (65 tackles).

He might be a bit small but he packs a big punch as a tackler.

Jayon Brown, UCLA (5-11, 220): Brown replaced injured star Myles Jack in the starting lineup as a junior and became an all-conference first-team selection as a senior. During his final season, Brown recorded a Pac-12 leading 119 tackles, including 2.5 sacks and seven for losses, and broke up nine passes.

Brown played linebacker but, Bruins parlance, became the “fatbacker.” That’s because he was about 200 pounds when arrived at UCLA. “I needed to gain weight after my freshman year. I ate a lot of protein and came back with a little linebacker gut.”

He’s bigger. But he’s still fast. “He was a fast dude,” Utah offensive tackle J.J. Dielman said. “When we watched him on film, we knew he was going to be fast. But then when you get on the field, it’s like, ‘Holy hell, this guy is a blur, man.’ When you get to that second level and try to find him, he’s gone. That made our job tough and that was half the reason things didn’t end up the way we wanted to in that game. He’s a good player.”

Riley Bullough, Michigan State (6-2, 228): Despite missing three games, Bullough was third-team all-Big Ten with 76 tackles, including 6.5 for losses. He earned second-team recognition as a junior with a career-high 106 tackles, four sacks, 7.5 TFLs, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.

Bullough did the family name proud. He finished his career with 214 tackles, becoming the fourth member of the family with at least 200 tackles (uncle Chuck with 391 from 1988-91; father Shane with 311 from 1983-86; brother Max with 299 from 2010-13). Riley tallied 7.5 sacks, 18 tackles for losses, four interceptions and two forced fumbles in 50 career games (23 starts). Moreover, he joined Shane and Max as Spartans captains. “I’ve loved football from Day 1. All of us, obviously, in the Bullough family play football, so when I was in third grade I was just the next one in line to start.”

That list of names doesn’t even include the most famous Bullough of them all, Hank. Hank Bullough, Riley’s paternal grandfather, was a guard for the Spartans who won national titles for the Spartans in 1952 (as a player) and 1965 and 1966 (as defensive coordinator). And if that’s not enough, a younger brother, Byron, will be a junior linebacker for MSU and a sister, Holly, qualified for the Division I championships in cross country as a freshman this past fall. “In a sprint, I'm taking her down. Anything past 50 yards, she's probably beating me.”

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Jarrad Davis, Florida (6-1, 238): Davis started as a junior and senior. As a senior, he tallied 60 tackles, two sacks, six tackles for losses, four passes defensed and five hurries. Despite missing four games due to a pair of injuries, he was named second-team all-SEC, earned some All-America recognition and was a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy and the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker. As a junior, he had 3.5 sacks and 11 TFLs among 98 stops.

Davis went from running back to linebacker at Camden County High School in his hometown of Kingsland, Ga. He wasn’t happy. “I remember the day he came home,” his mother said. “He didn't want to play that position. I told him either you can make a choice to play [it] or you can come home and do your chores every day. It didn't really make a difference to me. He chose to play linebacker.

A knee injury sustained late in 2014 led to Davis becoming more focused and dedicated to his craft. Sitting in the training room following the injury, watching his teammates in action on TV was hard to swallow. “I was thinking, ‘Please let me go on the field ... let me go out there and be with my team.’ I couldn’t. I knew [the injury] was bad, severe. I knew I couldn’t play again that yet but I wanted to be back on the field with my teammates. That’s when I knew you’re not guaranteed every play,” he said.

This year’s ankle injury, which sidelined him for the final three games of the season, will keep him out of drills at the Combine.

Kevin Davis, Colorado State (6-1, 237): Davis was a two-year starter who was all-Mountain West following back-to-back 100-tackle seasons. As a junior, Davis posted team-leading figures of 101 tackles and 14 tackles for losses. As a senior, he posted 110 tackles, 10.5 tackles for losses, four forced fumbles, four hurries, two passes defensed and one interception. He was one of only three payers in FBS with 100-plus tackles, two-plus sacks, two-plus forced fumbles and at least one interception.

Davis’ father is in the Army, meaning there was a lot of moving as a kid. He was born in South Carolina before moving to Germany, Washington, Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado. “You really had to restart every time we moved somewhere. Make new friends, reprove yourself with every sports team. You’ve got to adapt to new schools.”

Davis was a standout in football and hockey in high school and was on pace to earn degrees in sociology and interdisciplinary studies. He loved to hit in hockey and he loves to hit in football. “In Germany, even if you're still learning how to skate, it doesn't matter what age you are, you're checking," his dad said. "When we moved back to the States, I had to remind him, 'Remember, Kevin, you can't hit anybody.' He would get right up on them and cut away at the last second and look up in the stands at me. I'd be holding my breath. That first year they allowed him to check, it was, 'Oh, my goodness ...’”

Brooks Ellis, Arkansas (6-2, 245): Ellis started 41 games in four seasons. For his career, he posted 290 tackles, including 3.5 sacks and 22.5 for losses, along with four interceptions and two forced fumbles. As a senior, he had 83 tackles, including one sack and seven for losses, and added three hurries and five passes defensed. He had a career-high 102 tackles as a junior.

The two-time captain was the school’s 20th Academic All-American, the SEC’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year and was a finalist for the William Campbell Trophy — aka the Academic Heisman. During the offseason, Ellis, a pre-med student, and other biology students traveled to Belize.

Said coach Bret Bielema: “I don't think I've ever been around a player that has accomplished so much on and off the field. He's the leading tackler and all that stuff, but what he's done in the classroom. He's gone to Belize for an academic opportunity. He's a pre-med kid. He's one of 12 finalists for the highest prestigious academic award in college football. In my opinion, he should have won it. A very unique guy with a very unique skill-set.”

Ellis has surprised himself. Even though he was Arkansas’ high school player of the year as a senior in Fayetteville, Ellis wasn’t sure if he was good enough to play in the SEC. Sensing that lack of confidence, Bielema predicted Ellis would lead the SEC in tackles.

Reuben Foster, Alabama (6-1, 236): Foster was the No. 1-ranked high school linebacker coming out of Auburn (Ala.) High School and he was the No. 1 linebacker in the nation as a senior. Foster won the Butkus Award and was a unanimous first-team All-American. He paced the team with 115 tackles and added five sacks, 13 tackles for losses, eight hurries and two passes defensed. Foster had 73 tackles as a first-year starter as a junior.

Along with his obvious natural talent, Foster credits being part of a fraternity for his success. “Everything changed when I pledged Omega. I had to learn about all the history about Omega Psi Phi. I was like, ‘Dang, I’m learning all this but I can’t learn this defense?!’ I said I might as well go ahead and take the chance and really learn this with the ins and outs of the defense. That’s how it clicked when I pledged. Then I had to learn our history and our defense. After that, it was easy.”

Also leading to his big senior season was a sleeker physique.

Foster’s story is one of triumph over tragedy. In November 1995, Foster’s father, Danny, shot and seriously injured his ex-girlfriend, who happened to be holding 18-month-old Reuben, who also was wounded. Freed on bond, Foster fled to California. He was arrested there and brought back to Randolph County (Ala.) Jail, where he was found guilty of assault and sentenced to a mandatory 30 years in prison. However, he escaped and remained on the run for more than 16 years before he was arrested in February 2013. “I was relieved and sad all at the same time,” Foster’s mom, Inita Paige, said. “I was relieved because he got caught but I was sad because some of the pain and memories that our kids will have to go through about it.”

In high school, he was the Georgia player of the year as a junior. He moved to Auburn as a senior and was named MVP of the Under Armour All-American Game. Naturally, there was a recruiting war over Foster. And naturally, it was ugly. “They told me, ‘I hope you tear your ACL. It's crazy how people think and what they'd wish upon you.’”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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