Hopefully, Connecticut's Yawin Smallwood will not regret his decision to leave school a year early for the National Football League. Regarded as one of the rising stars in the college game after a sophomore season that saw him lead the team and rank third in the Big East Conference with 120 tackles that included 15.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, he nearly matched those figures during the strangest of strange seasons and postseasons for the Worcester, Mass., native.
During the 2013 season that quickly nosedived, the Huskies fired head coach Paul Pasqualoni and replaced him on an interim basis with assistant Bob Diaco, who finally got the ship righted after they lost their first nine games to finish with three consecutive victories. Strangely, Smallwood, who recorded double-figure tackle totals in six of the team's first eight games, went into a slump and did not reach that figure again.
The junior did manage to lead the team again while ranking second in the new American Athletic Conference with 118 tackles, matching his sack figures from the previous season (four) to go with 9.5 stops-for-loss. In late February, Smallwood was hoping to "light a fire" under NFL teams with a stellar performance at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
It would turn out to be a disastrous performance. While he checked into Indianapolis weighing 246 pounds, he failed to impress in the weight room, recording 18 reps in the 225-pound bench press. Out on the field, he ran the worst 40-yard dash time (5.01 seconds) for all of the linebackers in attendance. On his second attempt, he pulled up lame with a left hamstring strain and could not participate in the shuttle drills.
Back on campus for Pro Day on March 11, Smallwood was still unable to run and scouts went home with "5.01" checked off next to the player's name. To the uneducated, it could be a career-killer, but those that have seen Smallwood perform know that some team will luck out with a "steal" on the third day of the draft. Even the junior concedes that there is nothing he can do to get back into the Round 2 picture he resided in before the 2013 campaign and postseason blew up for the junior.
Since enrolling at Connecticut, Smallwood delivered 332 tackles, making 39 of his stops behind the line of scrimmage (solos and assists) His range saw him deliver 42 touchdown-saving tackles, as he posted 35 third-down hits vs. the ground game and 66 more third-down plays vs. the passing attack. He produced 60 of his tackles inside the red zone, with 11 coming on goal-line snaps.
Opponents have averaged only 0.67 yards per rushing attempt and completed just 17.68 percent of the passes targeted into Smallwood's area, as he rerouted/jammed receivers on 68 of those 181 targeted tosses. He caused 11 turnovers, returning one interception for a touchdown and a fumble recovery for a score, becoming only the second player in school history to score via a pass theft and a fumble recovery.
Among active NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision players, his average of 9.22 tackles per game (defense only, through 36 appearances for that unit) is fourth-best among active NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision performers. The only defenders with higher averages are Trevin Stewart of Houston (9.38 pg; 225 tackles in 24 games), Keith Smith of San Jose State (9.71 pg; 476 through 49 contests) and Tyler Matakevich of Temple (10.35 pg; 238 in 23 games).
Smallwood's 332 total tackles rank 10th among active players, as that figure is the second-highest among underclassmen, topped by only junior Derrick Matthews of Houston (342 in 38 contests). His 186 assisted tackles rank fifth-best among active participants. He would close out his career as the 11th player in school history to reach the 325-tackle level.
Smallwood has a compact, well-built frame with thick muscle structure and good core strength. He is shorter than ideal for a possible switch to outside linebacker, but has good lower-body thickness in his thighs, calves and ankles, along with a good bubble. He has good arm length and wingspan, along with adequate hands. He has room to add at least another 10 pounds of bulk with no loss in quickness, if he to remain at inside linebacker in a 4-3 defensive alignment.
Smallwood is more quick than fast, but shows good closing speed vs. plays in front of him (while timed at 5.01 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, his verified clocking during UConn's 2013 August camp was 4.68), as he has had good success as a downhill thumper. He builds his acceleration steadily and stays low in his pads to slip under blocks and make plays in pursuit. He has improved his change-of-direction agility as a senior, but still has some hip stiffness that causes him to struggle some when attempting to redirect, especially when he bites on misdirection. He has a good short-area burst to string plays wide, showing good balance working his way through trash. He has enough speed to pressure the pocket on the blitz, but must work on opening his hips quicker in pass coverage. As his junior year progressed, Smallwood displayed the quickness, agility, balance and body control that could see him be an efficient middle linebacker at the next level, but you would like to see him protect his legs better on the move (must keep hands inside his frame to combat chop blocks and double teams). He runs with a normal stride and shows enough burst on the ball to be a potential weak-side linebacker in the pro ranks.
Smallwood takes the plays from the chalkboard to the field with no problems and has a firm grasp of the playbook, but there are some concerns that his lack of great height and adequate vision leads to him being fooled by misdirection (see 2013 Central Florida and Southern Methodist games). He is capable of calling defensive signals when he doesn't bite on pump fakes or play action. He does a good job of lining up his teammates and is quick to react to plays in front of him, especially vs. the inside run, as he demonstrates above-average gap discipline. He has a knack for getting back quickly to invert tight ends and handle backs and slot receivers in underneath coverage. If he can prove that his lack of speed at the NFL Scouting Combine was a fluke, he might be a fit for the "will" position, but for teams using a 4-3 defensive alignment, he does a nice job of scraping down the line to follow the flow of run plays as a middle linebacker.
Smallwood is an aggressive tackler with little regard for his own safety. He will not hesitate to take on the bigger blockers and is the type that will play with injuries rather than head to the sidelines. He is not a blow-up type of tackler, but has improved his hand usage as a senior, doing a better job of keeping them inside his frame to counter the blocker's moves (can still be washed out of plays when he fails to use his hands to protect his feet from chop blocks and double-teams though). He has a relentless motor and gives total effort on every play, but can be fooled by misdirection. He is a focused athlete and when allowed to play his game (underneath and downhill), he can produce with big plays (see 2013 Maryland, Michigan and Temple games).
Key and Diagnostic Skills
There are some concerns that Smallwood lack of height, along with adequate field vision make him a better candidate for weak-side linebacker in a 3-4 alignment or remain at middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. While he is quick to locate the ball in front of him when he does not get caught up in a crowd and shows good urgency closing on plays in front of him, he is susceptible to play action and misdirection. He might not have the hip swerve to come out of his breaks with explosion, but he plays until the whistle and knows how to get around traffic in attempts to make plays on the ball (see 2013 Maryland, Michigan and Temple games). He is quick to fill the inside holes, when he uses his hands to keep blockers away from his feet. He anticipates gaps well when blitzing and has shown improvement using his hands to execute counter moves. With his strength, he shows better run-through ability than he did in the past. He sometimes takes soft angles to the ball, but when he stays low in his pads and opens his hips quicker, he can get a quick drop into underneath coverage.
Playing Strength and Explosion
Prior to 2011, Smallwood did not get good hand placement in attempts to play off blocks. He has shown the ability to keep his hands inside his frame as a junio, but in the past, he would get too wide with his arm extension, which allowed blockers to get underneath and grab a piece of his jersey. He is best making plays on the move, where his body control is much better than at the point of attack. He has the bulk to handle the bigger offensive linemen, but needs to be more consistent shooting his hands to keep his opponent from attacking his body, especially vs. chop blocks and double-teams. He has enough functional strength to take on opponents at the point of attack, but only when he keeps his hands active in attempts to shed (inside strength is a concern in attempts to lock out). With his low pad level, he has proven very capable of generating enough strength needed to shoot the inside gaps and plays with enough stoutness to make scouts feel he could handle the trash at the next level playing an inside position in a 4-3 alignment. When he gains quick advantage in his shed, he is very good at making lots of plays.
Smallwood has good balance on the move, flowing to the ball nicely to push the outside run back in, but must improve his hip swerve to be more effective. He demonstrates good desire and wrap-up form to close and is slippery enough to elude some blockers working in space. As a junior, he demonstrated much better chasing ability than in the past, as he gets through traffic and is able to come through the back door to make plays from behind (see 2013 Maryland, Michigan and South Florida games). He is best playing in the short area, where he takes good pursuit angles, but needs to open his hips better coming out of his backpedal in long pursuit.
Use of Hands
Smallwood is much more active with his hands as a senior than in the past. He has a good array of counter moves and can surprise a lethargic blocker with his rip-&-swim moves (see 2013 Towson, Michigan and Temple games). He has had just limited opportunities to secure the interception, but there is not enough there to evaluate and see if he has natural hands in this area. Now, he demonstrates much better ability and strength taking on blocks, as he refined his hand placement and improved his hand technique to prevent the lineman from gaining leverage. He has shown improvement with his hand placement in attempts to reroute short-area receivers and uses them efficiently to control and shed blocks. He still needs to generate a stronger jolt and stack at the point of attack, but has improved in those areas as a senior.
Smallwood has greatly improved his wrap-up tackling technique since learning to keep his hands inside his frame. He won't explode behind his hits, but when he keeps his pad level down, he is effective at driving into and pushing back the ball-carrier by consistently attacking the opposing runner's legs to impede their forward progress. He gets a little out of control trying to make plays in long pursuit and when he fails to redirect fluidly, he struggles to recover (see 2013 Central Florida and Southern Methodist games). He is a better tackler on the move, as he knows how to avoid the bigger blockers than when making plays at the point of attack. He has good body control in space, showing the ability to break down and hit with functional pop. During the 2011 season, he has been used more often in run containment, but he does have slippery moves to shoot the gaps and disrupt the pocket (see 2013 Rutgers and Memphis games), as he demonstrated solid square-up ability, showing good form taking on blockers in-line and in space.
Once he sees the play develop, Smallwood shows urgency closing and stepping up to take on the lead blocker in attempts to clog up the inside rushing lanes. He doesn't have the explosive speed to give a long chase on the outside, making him a more likely a 4-3 middle linebacker candidate, but plays on his feet well and regains his balance to play off blocks in tight areas. He is quick to fill the inside holes and is more stout than he looks. Against the outside run, Smallwood does a nice job of sifting through traffic and timing his hits, but he will bite on misdirection more than you would like. Still, he is a stout downhill player who has shown better feel for taking angles to the ball (would soft angle in the past). He uses his frame well to collide with the ball-carriers and does a good job of forcing the action back inside. With his balance, he is capable of playing on his feet and is quick to get up when he is cut.
In short-area man coverage, Smallwood has the quickness to stay with tight ends and slot receivers. He has some tightness in his hips when trying to redirect, but will close with good form on plays in front of him. He plays more in the zone than in man coverage and has the feel to handle switch-offs in the open. He has a decent burst when turning in coverage and showed improved hand placement as a senior to prevent separation and make plays on the ball in flight (hands are not natural as an interceptor, though). When he gets a bead on a receiver in front of him, he will hit with a thud to drive his man back (see 2013 Maryland, South Florida and Louisville games). He does not have the timed speed to stay with quicker receivers past the second level, but he is quick enough to get to the corner in attempts to take out the outside leg of backs and slot receivers to impede their forward progress. When he reverts to taking soft angles, he has to gather himself too much and that takes away from his closing burst on the ball, though.
Smallwood is very capable of sifting through traffic to locate the ball. He has good hand placement to keep plays in front of him and has developed the hand strength to easily reroute the receiver or impede the route's progression working underneath. He must improve his burst and acceleration in the deep zone, but in the short area, he excels at settling and reacting to the ball in flight. He shows decent range to the sidelines and a burst to close on plays in front of him when he opens his hips, but when he eyeballs the quarterback too long, he will bite on misdirection.
Pass Rush and Blitz
Over the last two seasons, Smallwood has steadily improved his pad level and burst shooting the gaps. He no longer gets out of control in his pursuit and plays with good determination when asked to pressure the pocket, but for some reason, the coaches never took advantage of this asset, leaving him more in containment than pressuring (has had good success in limited chances shooting the gaps though, making 23.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage). He compensates for a lack of blazing speed with good timing and feel for the rush lanes, making him productive executing the blitz. When he keeps his pads down and hands inside his frame, he is much more effective combating blockers to prevent himself from getting stacked or stopped on his inside burst.
KEITH RIVERS-Buffalo: If Smallwood is allowed to play the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 alignment, an NFL team will find him to be a high-intensity type who does a fine job of making plays in front of him. He has just adequate field vision and ball awareness skills to bring some concerns about him producing as an outside linebacker in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme, but he has made good strides improving his hand placement and punch as a junior and is relentless in his pursuit of the ball working through traffic.
Dave-Te' Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.