Zack Follett, California LB: In researching this 6'-1", 238-pound spark plug, it quickly became obvious: Zach Follett is going to be the next inductee into the Lions Fan Hall of Fame. Players like David Kircus, Scotty Anderson, Casey Fitzsimmons, David "Blue" Adams, Greg Blue, and Buster Davis have been drafted late (or signed as a UFA) by the Lions, made a big play or two in training camp or preseason, and become cult heroes--often, with fans insisting that these practice squadders and/or bench riders would be immediate upgrades over the current starters, if only they were given the opportunity. Zack Follett perfectly fits this profile; I have no doubt we'll be seeing Follett jerseys in the stands sooner rather than later.
Follett's official bio tells the story: Follett's a wrecking ball of a linebacker. Coming in as a four-star recruit, Follett was ranked by Rivals as the eleventh-best inside linebacker in the nation (Maualuga was #1, Laurenitis was #28). As an interesting side note, during four years at Cal, Follett apparently shrunk an inch and lost a step. You gotta love the recruiting racket . . . Anyway, unlike Dan Gronkowski, Follett was not a self-made player. Gronkowski was recruited by nobody--at least, not as a quarterback--then switched positions, and through sheer brains and strength, played his way into some playing time. Follett, however, was a highly touted recruit, and Cal didn't bother redshirting him--Follett was expected to contribute immediately, and did.
As a true freshman, Follett garnered 32 tackles and two sacks. He saw action in every game, came up hugein Cal's bowl game, and was named to Rivals' Freshman All-America first team. His sophomore year, he only started one game--yet lead the team in tackles for loss (12.5), tied for the team lead in sacks (5.5), led the Pac-10 in forced fumbles (4), had 62 total tackles, and was honorable mention All-Pac 10. Again, this is all coming off the bench. In his only start, he had 10 of those tackles, three for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble (returned by another Bear for a TD). As a junior, he was second-team All-Pac 10, again with 12.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks, plus 64 total tackles. This, despite missing part of one game and all of two more with a neck stinger--thanks to an aggravation of a bulging neck disc discovered in high school. Finally, came his senior year, where the Bears switched to a 3-4, partly to maximize Follett's abilities. Here's a great interview with Follett immediately prior to his senior year:
"The 3-4 defense is really going to increase my role," Follett said. "Last year, I was eating up blocks when I played outside. We tried different schemes to give me the chance to pressure the quarterback, but now with the 3-4, it's inevitable that I'll have my chances to go after the passer and go off the edge for sacks. I had 5.5 sacks the last two years, but that should be two games now with this defense. Anything less than double digits this season will be a disappointment."
Follett was anything but a disappointment in 2008, finishing fourth in the Pac-10 with 10.5 sacks. He also led the Pac-10 in tackles for loss (23) and forced fumbles (5). He was named first-team All Pac-10 (a conference that includes USC and their three-headed-monster LB corps!). He was also MVP of the Emerald Bowl after racking up 9 tackles (8 solo), four of them for losses (-33 yards). That also includes two sacks, one of which forced a fumble.
Follett has just enough size and more than enough speed to play 4-3 middle linebacker--but his downhill, attacking style is best suited for a blitzing 4-3 OLB, or basically any of the four 3-4 linebacker spots. He's at his best when he can tee off on runners and quarterbacks--get in a lane, come flying up it, and absolutely level fools. What do I mean by "level fools"? I mean this:
Enough said. Now, what did we see in that montage? We saw a defender get into the backfield--over, and over, and over again. We saw him pursue, catch, hit, and bring down quarterbacks and running backs alike. We saw suddenness, burst, good tackling technique, and good strength. Now, is this guy a complete linebacker? No. Can he line up over an NFL tight end and smother him with impeccable coverage? Probably not. Does he have the ideal size for an NFL run-stuffer? Definitely not. For those hoping for an immediate starting middle linebacker, you will have to look elsewhere. Thanks to the Lions' great trade for Julian Peterson, Follett won't push for starting time on the outside, either. But, does he have a place on the roster? Sure. Spake the Grandmaster:
“We drafted a good football player that was productive and, at that point, (he) was on the board too long. He’s extremely productive. I guess the best words you’d describe him are ‘good football player.’ (He’s) versatile, he’s played inside, he’s played outside, even lines up as a pass rusher with his hand in the dirt.”
And how does the young man himself see his role?
"His master plan for making the Lions' roster is to 'go out on kickoff and blow some guys up'-- let the pads do the talking, the same way he got himself noticed a few years ago as the new kid in the Cal program.
'You've just got to be on the field to make a play,' he says. 'I'm gonna find a way to get on the field whether I'm starting or I'm on special teams. I'm gonna keep flying around trying to make a name for myself.'"
I have no doubt he'll be able to do exactly that. In most of my research, the first thing that comes up is amazement that this kid was available in the seventh round. Apparently the neck stinger that limited him in 2007 scared enough LB-hungry teams to engender a big fall--still, that is the kind of risk you want to take with a seventh-round pick. If it pans out, you have an immediate special teams monster, a situational contributor by the end of the season, and a significant piece of the defense from there forward. You talk about finding value in the late rounds of the draft; you're talking about a Zack Follett.