One of the raging debates circulating in football is how players fit into schemes. Should a team adjust their scheme to fit players more frequently, or should they just bypass talent if it doesn’t fit their requirements? More often than not, players are dropped from public and private team draft boards because they are deemed unfit for a specific scheme. There are plenty of players in this year’s draft — perhaps more than in recent years — who have to go to a specific team to be successful, but one of them is not Utah nose tackle Star Lotulelei.
Lotulelei is the best talent in this year’s draft. In college, he was a dominant lineman who could beat single blocks with unexpected hand quickness and agility, and then tie up combination blockers the following snap. He was versatile enough to slide from zero to the five technique without any significant drop-off in performance.
As more and more teams move to a base 3-4 defense or sprinkle it into their packages, the nose tackle position — specifically the zero and one techniques — becomes more important. A sturdy front must have a dominant nose tackle who can eat blocks and locate the ball to take down the ball-carrier.
Most personnel men prefer nose tackles who are long, strong and agile. They often mention how the tackle has to be able to play with leverage, which comes from the noted length and strength (and pad level), and they have to be able to play down the line of scrimmage. The three-yard box surrounding the center and nose tackle must be owned by the tackle.
Lotulelei possesses that rare blend of size, strength, and agility. He also has an impressive burst that enables him to be a pass rushing threat in addition to a strong run defender.
Against BYU, he showed off that ability when he was lined up at nose tackle across the center. When the ball was snapped, he was quick to get off the line of scrimmage and engage with the center. He punched the center in the pads, immediately knocking him back, all the while keeping his pad level low. College defensive linemen typically raise their pads straight-up when coming off the line of scrimmage, which is one of the reasons why this was impressive by Lotulelei.
On this play, he also starts to bend his knees. Knee-bend is vital to playing the nose tackle position because not only are there various techniques to be performed, such as getting down on one knee to hold up a block, but it’s an important aspect of playing with leverage.
It’s especially important on this play, as because after he makes his initial push into the pocket, the left guard slides over and helps the center fend off the Utah nose tackle. Lotulelei engages with the second lineman by moving his right arm onto him and further lowering his pads. He does this by bending his knees.
Because of the knee bend, he’s able to hold his own and not get washed out of the play.
As the play continues to unfold, the quarterback is forced to abandon the pocket and attempt to pick up yards with his feet. While most nose tackles in this case would stop moving and continue to hold onto the blockers, Lotulelei doesn’t stop. He disengages and watches the quarterback, who escapes toward the left sideline, and then follows him all the way down the line of scrimmage. He ends up pushing the quarterback out of bounds right before the marker, preventing a first down (1:10 mark).
That’s the kind of agility that impresses scouts and it’s certainly the kind that they are looking for in a nose tackle. It’s why Lotulelei is considered as one of the top prospects in this draft, and in my opinion, he’s the best talent of them all. He has the ability to line up at any of the techniques along the defensive line and in any scheme, which is the mark of an elite talent.