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Haason Reddick surges from walk-on to 1st-round pick for Cardinals

Temple linebacker wowed at Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, and Arizona noticed, drafting him Thursday.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Temple Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Haason Reddick’s incredible spring started with a dynamite performance at the Senior Bowl. It blew up after the Arizona Cardinals made him the 13th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Reddick, an All-AAC standout at Temple University, went from mid-round prospect to first-round selection after wowing scouts with his athleticism and strength throughout the pre-draft process. His intriguing combination of versatility, strength, and athleticism was too tempting for the Cardinals, who made him the first linebacker taken off the board Thursday night.

How did Reddick go from walk-on to a first-rounder?

Few people could have seen Reddick’s rise coming back in 2011. A broken leg cost the New Jersey native the bulk of his final season of high school, making him an under-the-radar recruit who was forced to walk-on for the Owls. After redshirting in 2012, he spent 2013 and 2014 as a rotational player before breaking through in 2015 with 13 tackles for loss. That set the stage for a monster senior season, when Reddick terrorized quarterbacks for 9.5 sacks en route to first-team All-AAC honors.

His 22.5 tackles for loss were enough to spark draft interest, but the dynamic pass rusher’s best work may have come after the season had ended. He was lumped in with defensive ends at the NFL Combine and separated himself with the kind of athleticism that will make him an explosive pass rusher at the next level. He ran a 4.52-second 40, and his 133-inch broad jump was second-best among defensive players — and longer than any running back at the event.

Will Haason Reddick’s athleticism translate to production in the NFL?

But Reddick’s athleticism alone isn’t why he was coveted. His ability to fluster quarterbacks and make big stops in the backfield was showcased in some of Temple’s biggest games in 2016 — three tackles for loss in a showdown with Big Ten champion Penn State, two sacks and five tackles for losses against eight-win Memphis, and two sacks and two forced fumbles against SMU.

While he was unable to sustain that productivity through the end of the season, he was still a major reason why the Owls won the AAC title last winter.

Reddick’s ability to cover a ton of ground in limited time makes him extremely valuable as a potential every-down linebacker. He’ll be most valuable as an edge rusher, as his speed and ability to make quick cuts are enough to give most offensive linemen headaches. Here he is using that speed to embarrass SMU’s poor right tackle, lay waste to quarterback Ben Hicks, and generate six easy points for Temple.

But he’s also valuable in coverage as his speed and mobility enable him to cover even the NFL’s most athletic tight ends. He’s too small to spend much time as a defensive end, but his past as a high school safety gives him the background to handle any two-way assignments the Cardinals afford him at the next level.

Why might the Cardinals regret taking him this high?

If one thing holds him back, it will be his size. At 6’1 and 237 pounds, he’s relatively small for an edge rusher, and the more nimble giants on NFL offensive lines will be able to swallow him up if he can’t turn the corner on blitzes. His fundamentals — technique and wrapping up, in particular -- are also aspects he’ll need to work on, but the good news is those are problems that can be solved with coaching.

Reddick missed 15 tackles last year, a combination of raw technique and overzealous pursuit. Once he gets revved up in one direction, smart blockers will allow him to coast right by the play, effectively removing him from it. He’ll also need to diversify his moves when it comes to attacking tackles — his speed rush is dandy, but he’ll need a spin or juke to keep blockers from getting used to his rigid approach.