When talking about a safety class that has a chance to be very special, there are a lot of options that could fit different molds for NFL teams. Jamaal Adams of LSU is the dominant athlete who could make plays near the line of scrimmage who also has the speed and range to hold up in coverage, and Quin Blanding of Virginia is from the same mold. Budda Baker of Washington is one of the best in the country in coverage, with Marcus Maye of Florida and Orion Stewart of Baylor representing other versatile options in deep centerfield.
Texas A&M has both options in Justin Evans and Armani Watts, and Eddie Jackson has theÂ range and ball-hawking ability that could surpass all his peers. All these players and we havenâ€™t even talked about all-around athlete Jabrill Peppers, who needs no introduction at this point.
Yet the wild card of this group comes from the rival of Peppersâ€™ Michigan squad. Starting safety Malik Hooker might have the most upside of anyone in the class. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds Hooker has ideal size for a defensive back, big enough to take on blocks and running backs close to the line of scrimmage.
However, he is an ultra-quick player with top-end speed who isnâ€™t only capable of covering the deep area of the field from sideline to sidelineÂ but prowls that section of the field as well as any player at the position in recent years, similar to Jackson. Without the injury, he now clearly sits ahead of Jackson as an NFL prospect, and many would have placed him there anyway.
These skills were on display from the moment he stepped on the field this seasonÂ when he picked off two passes against Bowling Green. Apologies to anyone who is a slave to chronological order, but here is Hookerâ€™s second interception where he shows off the ability to play the entire field from his spot on the defense.
From the snap, Hooker retreats to his left to get deep into the middle of the field. Seeing him moving right to left, the quarterback assesses that he has one-on-one coverage on the outside, and tries to land a bomb by the Ohio State linebacker on a sideline throw. Hooker sees the ball coming out and immediately reverses course to make it to the sideline, arriving at the same time as the ball tracks ball at the boundary.
Not that Ohio State needed it on that time in the game, Hooker is able to turn defense into offense with spectacular range. On deep sideline throws, he has the ability to give help to both corners on either side. And it isnâ€™t only that he can get there in a hurry, but he just has that knack for the big play that could make him dangerous NFL prospect.
Earlier in the same Bowling Green game, Hooker makes this spectacular play. It is hard to see him in frame early on, but the throw is much more of a rope giving him less of a chance to get under the ball. He takes an aggressive angle to undercut the routeÂ and leaps at full speed to knock the ball away.
It is this type of athleticism that would make him a first-round talent if he declares for the NFL draft as a redshirt sophomore. To come away with the football for a turnover in addition to the pass defense is only more impressive, but just getting to this pass breakup was enough to qualify as a spectacular play.
Hooker already has four interceptions on the year, and teams learned very quickly to avoid him in coverage. Bowling Green was at the distinct disadvantage of not having game tape of him in week one, and their quarterback didnâ€™t know any better.
Last year, despite all that talent Hooker was stuck behind Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, both of whom advanced to the NFL as part of a historic draft class for the Buckeyes. Because of that logjam in front of him, he only hadÂ 25 career snaps heading into this season according to Pro Football Focus.
That inexperience is the No. 1 knock against Hooker as a one-year starter. There isnâ€™t much doubt that Urban Meyer would appreciate more time with him commanding the back end of the defense, and that Hooker will only improve as an all-around player. However, there is very little room to improve his draft stock at this point, which is why so many draft analysts are feeling more comfortable projecting him to declare.
Still, the inexperience was on display at times, and Penn State was able to make some big plays where Hooker wasnâ€™t playing conservatively enough, looking to make a big play himself.
On this fourth-quarter play, Hooker has a chance to cut off this run before it turns into a big gain. However, he comes up very quickly trying to stop the back close to the line of scrimmage, but heÂ misplays the angle and winds up in aÂ bad position to make a play. As the last line of defense on the defense, Hooker puts the rest of his team in a bad spot chasing the play from the sides.
Whiffing on the tackle and misreading the running lane turns a five-yard run and maybe a first down into something closer to 40 yards to jumpstart a Penn State drive and change field position. With this defense and a two-touchdown lead that doesnâ€™t seem like much, but a few gaffes on special teams later and Ohio State is on the outside looking in for a playoff berth.
This isnâ€™t necessarily an issue with Hooker as a tackler either. Although he did miss three tackles in that game, he came back with 14 tackles against Northwestern this past weekend and it hasnâ€™t been an alarming number, even if he has a few key misses. Teams arenâ€™t going to knock him as a tackler because they likely wonâ€™t be looking at him as an in-the-box safety even though he has the size to do so.
With only a handful of games a starter in college under his belt, Hooker still plays like an athlete who has a significant physical advantage over his opponents. In college, he still does have those advantages, but those will go away at the next level. He will catch up quick with an NFL coaching staff, and his ability to cover huge swaths of theÂ field from his position will make it worth the learning curve if he enters the draft this year.