Tweener LBs stop the spread

NORMAN, Okla. -- Eric Striker's job description doesn't fit on a depth chart or a flip card.

"I'm an outside linebacker or a Sam, a nickel, whatever you want to call it, and I rush," the Oklahoma junior said.

It's a mouthful, but outside linebackers such as Striker are proving to be a handful for opposing offenses. They should also show up more and more on college defenses.

As the sport becomes increasingly more of a space game, defensive coaches, especially those employing three-man fronts, are prioritizing speed over size at the outside linebacker position. The burly box linebacker is virtually extinct.

"The neck roll is dead," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, a former two-time national defensive player of the year who once sported an impressive neck roll. "The game is played more vertically and horizontally than it's ever been, as compared to 10-15 years ago."

Consequently, teams are using more versatile players such as Striker, who last season led Oklahoma in both sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (10.5). He showed up to OU at barely 6-foot and 198 pounds. He played most of last season south of 220 and is now listed at 221.

"[Striker] broke the mold, being as dynamic as he was," Indiana defensive coordinator Brian Knorr said. "You don't have to be a 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive end to rush the passer.

"We're searching for those guys, that kind of athlete."

Those guys are typically called "tweeners" in recruiting, and they can fall through the cracks. Striker knows. He was one of them despite recording a record 42 sacks at Armwood High School, a central Florida powerhouse.

"Coaches were like, 'I don't know where you fit,'" Striker said. "Some had me at safety, some had me at outside linebacker. I probably didn't get offers [because of it]."

But once coaches figure out how to best use tweeners, as Oklahoma did with Striker, the upshot is significant. They fill up box scores, providing both tackles for loss and takeaways.

And they rarely have to leave the field.

"He can cover wide receivers, he has great change of direction, he sees everything and he's very rarely wrong," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "He's such a hybrid guy, but he has so many unique characteristics.

"You don't want him off the field. Ever."

Offensive coaches are also noticing the change.

"When you were 3 yards and a cloud of dust and you had two tight ends and these bigger fullbacks, the linebackers were 240 pounds and it was a fistfight," Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said. "Now that things have become more spread out, defenses have had to adapt their personnel.

"The more athletic those outside linebackers are, the glorified strong safety types who can still pack a punch and be physical, those guys are at a premium."

Why is the tweener so valuable to today's defenses?