By Matt Waldman
When my friend Ryan Riddle, Cal's all-time sack leader, says outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy has great instincts, that’s a player I want to watch.
"Some things in football cannot be coached. When it comes to play making instincts, you either have it or you don’t," says Riddle about Van Noy’s play-making abilities that he describes as "off the charts."
"I like to compare him to a linebacker version of Tyrann Mathieu in terms of his ability to be incredibly disruptive by knowing exactly how and when to take chances."
According to Riddle, Van Noy, who Football Outsiders projects as a first or early second-day pick, is earning mid-round grades. He explains that a player with good instincts can be often be characterized as product of a good system –- even lucky. Worse yet, a coach can sometimes mishandle a player with good instincts because the process isn't by the book.
I watched enough of Van Noy to say that he was often lucky, but it wasn’t blind luck. Van Noy’s good fortune comes from smart decisions, creativity, effort, and patience.
SackSeer, Football Outsider’s oracle of edge rusher data, rates Van Noy among the best outside linebackers with a potential second-round grade.
What jumps off the page about Van Noy is his speed and agility. The outside linebacker from BYU is a disruptive force, but he will have to learn that, unlike in his college career, he often can’t have it both ways.
Finding Disruptive Angles
A good angle can often lead to a tackle without contact. The opening defensive play for BYU in its matchup with Texas is a perfect example. Van Noy won’t earn credit for a tackle on this pass play, but his angle to the quarterback is the reason for this outcome.
The outside linebacker times his blitz well enough that he forces the quarterback to rush the throw to the flat. I like Van Noy’s late adjustment outside the running back that influences the quarterback to throw off his back foot and deliver a target low and short. The receiver has to dive for the ball well inside the first-down marker for the catch, setting up a third down.
Later in the first quarter, Van Noy disrupts another play without making a tackle. This third-down pass play features an inside linebacker blitz to Van Noy’s outside shoulder. Watch how Van Noy adjusts his path to the pocket as he sees his teammate fly up the left hash.
Van Noy’s outside rush is designed to occupy the right tackle so the inside linebacker can work the edge. The Cougars’ outside linebacker does a fine job of pushing the edge enough for the inside linebacker to fly past.
What I like is the intent of Van Noy’s move to the inside as his teammate passes. This move prevents the right guard from sliding outside to protect the edge. Van Noy is also strong enough to get a push between the two linemen and force the quarterback outside.
Although the quarterback gets the edge past the inside linebacker, Van Noy does his job and the Longhorns fail to earn the first down, forcing a punt. This is not only an athletic play against a double team, but it’s also good teamwork.
One of my favorite plays that displays Van Noy’s understanding of team defense is at the goal line early in the second quarter of this Texas game. Again, Van Noy doesn’t make the tackle, but it’s his work that forces the runner to stay inside and lose two yards on a first-and-goal at the 1.
You may have to watch this play a few times to see what happens (cue at 2:54-mark of the video), but it’s worth the effort. Van Noy begins the play with penetration inside, but he makes a quick spin off his opponent, shooting into the backfield to force the running back to bend his approach back to the line of scrimmage.
Some people would say Van Noy didn’t plan to go outside until mid-way through the play, so why laud a player for an unselfish approach to team football if he was planning to shoot the inside gap and it failed? It’s a good argument.
There are two possible counterarguments. One of them is the possibility that Van Noy never intended to stay inside; he wanted to bait the block inside so he could spin outside and cordon off the edge.
While possible, especially when you watch some of Van Noy’s pass rushing decisions –- some good, some bad –- it’s also as likely that the outside linebacker saw the play developing outside and adjusted. Either way, it’s a fine display of athleticism and angles to alter the course of his play in BYU’s favor.
The play above is a good example of a defender who anticipates the development of the play and foils it. The pass play below is another. Van Noy notes the right tackle’s jump to the edge and does good job of setting up the inside move to the quarterback.
Not only do I love the initial angle Van Noy takes to set up his inside move, but the outside linebacker explodes to the quarterback, disrupts the pass, and puts the passer on his back.
Moves Setting Up Moves
Regardless of its original intent, Van Noy’s work at the goal line versus Texas is a good example of a player using one move to set up another. Here’s another player later in the game where Van Noy pressures the quarterback using one move as the bait for another.
Van Noy works the right edge towards the running back and at the 5:01 mark he extends his arms with his hands in position to punch, only to sidestep the back and swim his arms over top. You can only see it at the briefest instant, but Van Noy’s hand position is like a great headfake a receiver gives at the top of his stem to set up a break on a vertical route. The runner is left out of position, and Van Noy forces the quarterback to rush his throw and take a hit.
Here is a similar play. Van Noy’s feet and hips indicate an outside rush, but the outside linebacker does a strong enough job distracting the right tackle with his hands, shoulders, and head, that Van Noy looks like he’s intending to bull rush.
This play also needs a few viewings to see the beauty of what Van Noy does. It’s like watching a great white shark breach the surface to catch a seal. It’s amazing in real time, but far more beautiful and sinister in super slow motion.
Van Noy gets the tackle to drop his head and extend his arms with this initial approach. The outside linebacker’s head and shoulders are leaning downward and the hands shoot towards the tackles pads, but it’s the outside arm that is occupying the tackle’s chest and the outside arm swims over top.
In football terms, this strip-sack-fumble recovery for a touchdown is as bountiful as the shark scoring a meal.
This spin move below is set up so well with what appears at first to be a bend around the edge, the left tackle attempts to trip Van Noy in an act of desperation.
Watch the replay at the 5:28 mark, and note how well Van Noy bends at the hips and extends that inside arm to the tackle’s outside shoulder while driving up field. The agility it takes to perform this first part of the maneuver is difficult alone. The fact it’s a setup for a spin move is even more impressive.
I don’t care that Van Noy doesn’t get to the quarterback on this play. He forced the tackle to cheat and made the line double-team him. If Van Noy can do this in the NFL, he’ll earn his share of sacks and offensive penalties.
Straddling the Border of Intent and 'Guess So'
There is a drawback to Van Noy’s style, and it’s the outside linebacker's approach to layer moves that put him in the middle of the road. Mr. Miyagi warns his pupil Daniel of its dangers in Karate Kid:
Miyagi: Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later
[makes squish gesture]
Miyagi: get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do "yes" or karate do "no." You karate do "guess so,"
[makes squish gesture]
Van Noy’s performance has a lot moves that might be "yes" and "no" in the college game, but I worry too many of them will veer into "guess so" territory in the NFL.
This series of run plays is a good example. Van Noy often goes so deep in one direction to set up his move in another that he can get caught in middle ground with no chance to make a play.
It’s a great move in theory, but Van Noy trips at the line of scrimmage and cannot make the backside tackle. Here’s a similar move that almost works later in the game, if not for Van Noy missing the wrap.
Here’s a play against Virginia where Van Noy should have tackled the quarterback for a loss. From this angle, it appears as if Van Noy misses the wrap.
But watch the end zone angle at the 1:35-mark and you see Van Noy trying to play this read-option both ways. The first angle is to the back, and when he spots the ball, he cuts and leaps for the quarterback’s leg.
The fact that Van Noy has enough athleticism to come within inches of making this play is impressive. However, its failure is symptomatic of the potential downside to his playing style.
Then again, here’s a play where Van Noy gets that extra few inches during his redirect to force a loss.
When I think of an edge rusher, I think seek and destroy, not patience. However, the more I study defensive players, the more I see the value of patience -– especially at linebacker and safety.
As it is with running backs and wide receivers, taking the right angle at the right time is one of the keys to making a big play. Van Noy has this patience to his game.
The goal line play and the inside move to attract a double team versus Texas are examples of the linebacker reading the play at the line of scrimmage and making good decisions that help his team. Here are a few more where a defender has to possess vision and patience.
This is a stunt with Van Noy beginning the play outside the left end and looping inside the left guard. However, as Van Noy takes a shove to his outside shoulder, he also reads the quarterback beginning a move to the right flat. Seeing his teammate also working the middle, Van Noy slow his pursuit and veers to the right flat, accelerates around the right edge, and closes on the quarterback’s legs for a sack.
There were no wasted steps on this play. Van Noy saw enough to react with more patience than to bull inside when his teammate was about to do the same thing. The outside linebacker anticipated what the inside push would do, and worked to meet the quarterback and the logical endpoint.
Here’s a similar play against San Jose State. Van Noy begins at the right edge, takes an inside move, and sees the lane is blocked. However, he feels the backside opening and bursts across the field to earn a great angle to sack the quarterback.
Granted, David Fales is far from the fastest pocket quarterback he’ll encounter at the NFL, but these decisive pursuit angles will net him even faster game when he’s on the hunt.
I often see Van Noy make these plays against running backs and wide receivers on screen passes, delaying his pursuit angle just long to let the play flow to him. This small bit of patience often earns Van Noy angles to limit the runs for minimal gains.
Van Noy’s vision manifests in more than just tackles and sacks. In the face of a double team, Van Noy has the presence of mind to keep his eyes on the backfield and knock down the pass attempt.
Here’s the opening play of this game, where Van Noy breaches the surface to catch his prey.
Van Noy reads the quarterback before the play begins, knowing that Utah State likes to make quick throws. The outside linebacker anticipates this will be a pass and looks at his first key with the mindset that it’s pass first.
If he were reading it as run, he would have cheated inside. However, it’s clear he’s taking the perspective that the beginning of the play will have to feature something that will immediately prove his guess on pass is wrong. When he doesn’t see it, he jumps outside and makes the play on the throw.
Van Noy’s game isn’t all pass rush and penetrator. His disruption extends to pass coverage. Here are three good examples of his ability to drop with good depth and strong angles to eliminate quick-hitting plays.
Van Noy reads the field well as a run-stopper, pass-rusher, and pass-defender. He may not be the biggest, strongest, or fastest, but he has the physical skill to become one of the more disruptive edge players in this class.
Where Van Noy will need the most improvement is wrapping his targets. He lets far too many ball carriers off the hook with wraps that are too low or where his grip fails him.
As he learns where he cannot play "guess so" football in the NFL, his angles will get stronger and tackles surer. If I were running a 34 defense there would be no "guess so" with my decision to draft Van Noy.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Pre-order the RSP now for it's publication on April 1. If you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.