NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
In the coming weeks and months leading up to the 2014 NFL draft, NEPatriotsDraft.com will profile college prospects that potentially fit the needs and draft seating of the New England Patriots. In this first installment, we will take a closer look at the film behind Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III.
Louis Nix III won’t win a track meet. He won’t run a 40-yard dash in under 5.2 seconds, either. But his 6’2”, 342-pound mass, multiplied by his downhill quickness off the snap, has equaled force for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish defense.
And largely due to his fulfillment of Isaac Newton’s second law, the 22-year-old redshirt junior finds himself ranked as the top nose tackle prospect in the 2014 NFL draft.
The Jacksonville, Fla., native’s ability to generate force has drawn resemblance to fellow Floridian Vince Wilfork, a New England Patriots first-round pick back in 2004. Based on Nix’s body of work as a pocket-pusher and run-stuffer, the comparison is well-deserved.
Nix proved to be a cornerstone in the middle of Notre Dame’s front over the last three seasons. In 2011, he started 11 of 13 games, compiling 45 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, half a sack and a pass breakup. In 2012, he started another 11 games, registering 50 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and three pass breakups. A knee injury in the 2012 National Championship Game, however, held him back this fall.
Nix totaled 27 tackles, two tackles for loss and two pass breakups through eight games before having season-ending surgery to repair the torn meniscus. He decided to declare shortly thereafter.
Now despite an unceremonious finish to his collegiate career, Nix is expected to be a Day 1 selection this May. He will have many suitors due to his ability to take on double-teams and use his athleticism to disrupt in more ways than one.
So with that said, here is a closer look at two sought-after facets seen in Nix’s game film, which has been made accessible thanks to the folks at DraftBreakdown.com.
Closing the Pocket
Now most nose tackles lag behind in quest of the quarterback. Quite often, they’re the last one off the line and struggle to disengage as edge-rushers swarm.
Nix’s purpose in the passing game isn’t prototypical.
He knows how to use his wide frame, long arms and burst to swim or bull rush towards the quarterback. He does so rather consistently, anchoring his lower body to drive instead of being driven back. His impact, in that respect, is realized even when a sack isn’t.
This was illustrated against Stanford on Oct. 13, 2012, during Nix’s redshirt sophomore campaign.
On a 2nd-and-5, the Cardinal offense employed “11” personnel with one running back deep and one tight end inline. The play call itself was a “levels” concept out left, orchestrating five- and 10-yard in routes by the receivers. And out right, the flanker set up for a curl, while current Atlanta Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo hunkered for a seam pattern.
The Notre Dame defense countered with a 4-3, calling on Nix to play the one-technique between center Sam Schwartzstein and left guard Khalil Wilkes. Schwartstein, though, was combing to block left defensive tackle Sheldon Day, which left Wilkes to take on No. 9.
As then-Stanford QB Josh Nunes received the snap, he diagnosed his tight end’s vertical route – which drew attention from both linebacker Dan Fox and safety Matthias Farley – Nix established the interior.
He locked his arms high onto the chest plate of the guard and pedaled his feet. In this case, the blocker had out-leveraged him, but Nix had out-angled him. He had a clear view of the A-gap and fought towards it.
The blocker leaned to the point where stability was lost, and Nix was the beneficiary. He stayed balanced and swept his arms out of engagement, thrusting himself into the quarterback’s foreground.
Nix lifted his arm up into the QB’s line of sight, further interfering after having already collapsed the pocket.
Nunes didn’t have room to sufficiently guide with his front foot, nor did he have the time to make a calculated decision under duress.
Nix lunged at the quarterback and got a hand the non-throwing shoulder. With the arrival of pressure, the QB floated one up in the direction of his tight end.
It was overshot and intercepted Farley.
On this particular play, Nix’s short-area quickness and flexibility through blocks hindered the quarterback’s ability to drive the ball downfield. His teammates were rewarded.
Now it’s unreasonable to expect Nix to become a sack-amassing pass-rusher, but it’s reasonable to expect Nix to become a play-creator for his teammates. He chases the passer; he raises his arms to deter passes. And while he may not dominate an offense’s pass protection, an offense’s pass protection has to account for him.
In a four-man line, Nix would likely move over to the one-technique or three-technique – shading the center or guard. Favoring one gap instead of two would figure to accentuate his effectiveness versus the pass.
It did on occasion in South Bend, Ind.
Pursuing the Run
Nix’s success as a pass-rusher will go a long way towards him staying on the field in 3rd-and-long situations. Conversely, his success as a run-stopper will go a long way towards him getting on the field in the first place.
From the zero-technique – directly against the offensive center – Nix draws multiple blocks. With heavy hands, active feet and leverage, he shoves his opponents back and out of position. Although he gets knocked upright or down and loses sight of the ball at times, usually he does not.
His improved endurance and nimble feet allow him to work fast. And when stifling double-teams are replaced by single or zone blocks, he doesn’t waste time ripping his arms outside the offensive lineman’s shoulder.
That was the case on a 2nd-and-12 against Michigan on Sept. 7.
The Wolverines assembled in “22” personnel for with an inline tight end, an “F” tight end in motion, and a fullback in I-formation in front of halfback Fitzgerald Toussaint. The play’s intentions were an off-tackle run to the loaded side.
Nix was in the center of a three down-lineman, five-linebacker alignment vying to stop it.
Yet the blocker Nix was about to face wasn’t the center across from him.
As quarterback Devin Gardner handled the snap and turned to hand off, the Michigan line swayed leftward. Center Jack Miller brushed around Nix on his way to linebacker territory, while right guard Kyle Kalis swapped underneath to stall Nix.
As the two interior O-linemen did so, Nix reacted rapidly, leaning his left shoulder into the mesh point before the guard could engage.
Nix spread his arms to detach from the shoulder block and propelled diagonally through the right A-gap. Meanwhile, Toussaint collected the handoff.
Nix took an angle conducive to meeting the ball-carrier in the backfield. In the process, he snuck behind the lead block.
Nix closed fast. He was suddenly within two yards of his target, who was looking to split between his left tackle and tight ends.
Toussaint cut at the numbers. Yet as he did, Nix wrapped him by the shoulder pads and pulled him to the turf for a loss of one.
Nix attacked the lateral block before it could attack him. And while the transition between blocking assignments played a role in his triumph versus Michigan, so did his innate burst off the snap and fluid pursuit.
Running backs have a hard time finding the lane when Nix is on the field. He can congest space or shoot the gap. It is, at least in part, because he’s the first one off the line and can convert his speed into power.
Nix’s performance and subsequent production wavered in 2013 largely due to health. But ultimately, Nix embodies what 3-4 defenses want in a nose.
His blend of reaction, power and stamina are visible versus both the run and pass. So even though he may never control a game, there’s reason to believe he will be a force within it.
Whether it is from the zero-, one- or three-technique, Nix has the versatile traits to adapt to a multiple defense like New England’s. And while his availability at pick 29 overall is in question, his value certainly isn’t.