On National Signing Day, there was a consensus amongst Rivals, 247Sports, Scout, and ESPN about who the best player in the high schools ranks was. That player, Paramus Catholic's (NJ) Rashan Gary, announced to Michigan during the afternoon of recruiting's holy day.
Gary is an extraordinary DL prospect who spent most of his high school career as a weakside defensive end, because that's where dominant pass rushers who accumulate 27.5 sacks in two years tend to be found. The catch with Gary is that he's 6'4 and 293, putting him firmly among players who end up inside at defensive tackle after gaining college weight.
When you watch Gary's tape, taking stock of his developed skills and athletic possibilities, you see he's the rare athlete who's not a tweener. He's not trapped between college positions without a firm command of the skills needed to excel in either. He is instead legitimately versatile enough to project as a dominant player in many roles.
The big question is how Michigan will make the most of his ability to devastate college offenses.
Rashan Gary in high school
Numbers like a prospect's 40 time or bench press count are inexact measures of football aptitude. Sometimes you'll find a workout warrior who lacks the flexibility and technique to translate that massive power into results.
That said, some workout scores can be valuable in supplementing what you're seeing in how a player moves. Is he as sudden and quick to react as he appears on film? Usually the film doesn't lie, but quantifiable numbers are always nice.
The numbers on Gary are jaw-dropping, no matter how inflated high schooler measurables can be. In a partially laser-timed SPARQ test before his junior year, he produced the following results, blowing away all other 2016 stars tested at the national event.
|Height||Weight||40 time||Shuttle time||Vertical leap|
|Rashan Gary as a high school junior||6'4"||287||4.74||4.38||32.1"|
|Average 2015 NFL Combine defensive lineman||6'3 1/2"||286||4.96||4.5||32.2"|
That group includes some relatively lean defensive ends; Gary's got a big enough body to play defensive tackle. His 40 time was better than what 15 linebackers produced at last year's Combine. Three wide receivers had slower shuttle times, and five linebackers had lesser vertical leaps. Some of those NFL prospects were as many as 80 pounds lighter than Gary.
Even if Combine-grade testing would've lessened his numbers, it's still clear he was years ahead of schedule.
Here's how those measurable traits played out on the field in his senior year:
You can see the height come into play. Gary's exceptional reach allows him to keep blockers at bay.
His absurd 40 time and vertical leap ability help explain how he gets off the ball so fast and is able to beat offensive tackles to the edge.
You can see the lightning quick shuttle time reflected by his lateral quickness and ability to play in space on the edge or stunt across multiple gaps as a blitzer.
When he's had the opportunity to beat opposing OL to a spot, he's truly dominated. His hands swat away their feeble attempts to control them, and then he closes on the ball carrier with the lateral quickness to swallow up attempted jukes.
Fantastic SPARQ numbers aside, Gary's hands are probably his greatest attribute, or a close second behind his motor. (He has great ability to play multiple high-effort snaps in succession). Rashan has violent and active hands that make it very difficult for athletically overmatched OL to slow him down.
He was at his best as a weakside DE, but he flashed ability to shuck offensive tackles in the run game and protect LBs from blockers. He occasionally did some work as an interior DL, where he was generally too quick for high school OL to effectively double team.
His developed skills at this point include beating OTs in the outside rush lane with a speed-to-power move (he beats them to a spot outside, then turns into them when their feet aren't set and blows past them with active hands), setting the edge against the run, shooting gaps in the run game, and beating interior OL with a club-and-swim arm move.
Gary's developed hands, combined with his speed, indicate his pass rush arsenal could be greatly expanded.
Weaponizing the No. 1 player
What will eventually endear Gary to NFL scouts are his possibilities as a pass rusher. But if he were to compete against other pass-rushing defensive ends, his ability to beat tackles with speed-to-power moves would no longer look as impressive as it does now.
Vic Beasley, for instance, ran a 4.53 40 at 6'3, 246. LSU's Danielle Hunter ran a 4.57 at 6'5, 252. Gary might be able to continue to dominate college-level offensive tackles with his speed and heavy hands, but his upside as an outside rusher is not as high. He'd likely see diminishing returns during every step up in competition.
Another confounding factor: rushing the passer is less important at the college level than in the NFL, where precision passing games rule the day. In college, being able to stop the run is not something that can be taken for granted. Look at national champion Alabama's calling card on both sides of the ball.
So the ideal deployment of Gary would be letting him rush the edge sometimes, but keeping him prominently involved in stopping the run. He should be positioned to loop inside on pressures. Often, he should start on the inside.
Consider a player like Mario Edwards Jr., another former five-star who was All-ACC at Florida State before being picked in the second round. He often played in a stand-up jack linebacker position for Florida State, and while he was disruptive in that role, there are lots of college players who can be disruptive in that position. It was impressive that he did so at 290 pounds, but he didn't do it better than many 240-pound players might've.
Where Edwards was terrifying, and where Gary could be, was swinging between playing as an end, a three-technique defensive tackle, and even a nose tackle on passing downs.
This is how Alabama used Jonathan Allen, a 6'3, 283-pounder who had 12 sacks this season as a part of a dominant pass-rushing line. Because of how far along Gary is (Allen switched to DL from WR as a high school sophomore and came to Alabama weighing 260), he could quickly learn to play multiple positions. He could move around based on matchups with different OL or where he might be needed to plug creases against the run.
A multiple-front defense like Michigan's would be easy to move Gary around in. The Wolverines have done so with 6'5, 300-pounder Chris Wormley, who had 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in 2015. Against a pro-style team like the hated Michigan State, perhaps Gary would be best as an under-front three-technique.
On any runs to the tight end side, Gary would have the opportunity to be an interior disruptor, penetrating from the backside and utilizing his ability to shuck blockers and dart through gaps.
But against a spread squad like Ohio State, perhaps Gary could also contribute as a DE who has the agility to rush the passer, play the option on the edge, and handle the techniques teams have for getting playmakers loose on the perimeter.
Here, Gary would be at the crucial point in any schemes that try to attack with a pulling H-back, guard, or option read. Since he has the agility to play the option honestly, it's hard to attack him in that way. His great use of hands and sheer size would make him a difficult target to block.
The key is whether Gary becomes a jack of all trades, a master of one, or a master of all. The former would make him a valuable contributor to any team. The second could make him the strongest weapon on the field. The latter would mean dictating matchups and make him the queen of the chessboard, so to speak.
Either way, he'll have a chance to prove he deserved to be the consensus No. 1 recruit.