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What You Are Getting With Malik Hooker

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PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We do this every year. By “we” I mean them. By them, I mean the people that write about football & compare 20-year-old kids to Hall of Famers. We saw it last year with Myles Jack. “Reminds me of a faster Ray Lewis.” You’re not giving the kid a chance before he gets started. Now after a 239-snap rookie year where Jack couldn’t crack the starting lineup for the Jaguars, you’d think we would have learned something.

Not quite. Early on in the draft process, we are seeing Ohio State’s redshirt tremendously talented sophomore being compared to the likes of the greatest safety in history, Ed Reed. The most physically gifted safety in history, Sean Taylor. Why can’t we like a guy without setting him up to fail?

Tangent over. Let’s get back on track.

I want to keep things short & sweet in my attempt to crank out as many write ups on draft prospects as I can. In a safety, you’re looking for 4 main traits. Run support: if a player comes up aggressively versus the run. If a player is content being blocked. How a player tackles. The angles he takes. Coverage: In man is self-explanatory. Can he stay in phase with the receiver? In zone, is he getting a good jump? Is he finding work or is he caught in no man’s land? Ball skills: When he’s in a position to make a play, is he breaking up the pass, jarring the ball loose, or best of all, getting an interception? Lastly, instincts/recognition are a big part of the safety position. Is he getting manipulated by QBs? Does he recognize pass patterns? What kind of jump is he getting on throws as he’s breaking on routes? This ties into the prior 3 a little bit. So I’ll go over those 4 and let you know how Malik Hooker is in each of those. Keep in mind over the course of the next couple months that me showing a couple clips isn’t an anomaly, it’s what the player is at this point.

Ohio State is on TV every week and their games are easily accessible to find. So while most guys you only watch a few games, the polarizing ones, like Hooker, you just catch yourself watching more and more. It feels like I’ve seen all his games, for “grading” purposes I watched Penn State, Wisconsin, Northwestern, & Michigan.

Run Support

I think we overrate missed tackles. Not every missed tackle is equal. A guy comes flying up, slows down the running back or forces him to redirect, but misses the tackle & his teammate makes a tackle for loss. That’s not necessarily a bad play by the safety in my book. Now, taking bad angles and being the reason a back gets a big gain is unacceptable. This is where Hooker mostly falls. I’d say he’s a coin flip. On one hand, you love how he comes up confidently filling the alley, and putting himself in a position to make a play. On the other hand, when he gets into that position, he has a tendency to launch himself, not run his feet on contact, arm tackle, or find some way to not finish. Here’s a clip of some good and bad when it comes to run support for Hooker.

On the season, Hooker was credited with 19 missed tackles. Some say that’s due to his 1st year of experience. I don’t know if I can get behind that on the strength of it being consistent in every game. Can this issue be improved on? Absolutely. Hooker can become more confident in what he sees and with more reps it’s fair to assume he’ll figure out “his way” to tackle. That said, it’s hard to shake bad habits you form early on as a player. Leaving your feet specifically. Hooker will become better in the run game if he learns to fill running lanes more under control but I don’t think it’ll ever be one of his strengths.

Coverage

Zone Coverage

Ohio State predominately played Hooker in the single high “center-field” role and basically put the pressure on him to perform. There were other times where he would play the “robber” role where Hooker would be in charge of taking away anything over the middle of the field. In both of these roles, Malik flourished.

That’s 2 plays against Indiana. One where you see the type of ground he can cover going backward. The other you see his skills when it comes to baiting the QB & covering ground in the robber role.

I’m sure you saw the interception against Clemson where Hooker seemingly covered the entire field for an interception. That kind of range he has is unique but consistent.

You’d be hard pressed to find a safety that can get from one hash to the opposite numbers. On any level. What makes the ground Hooker cover more impressive is that it’s mostly him relying on his athleticism. He’s not getting good jumps and still getting to throws. The thought of him recognizing throws with more repetition and getting a jump of things is scary, to say the least.

When Hooker is playing Cover 2, or any coverage where it’s split safeties, think 2 high, there’s where his recognition, instincts are exposed. It’s odd to think the less ground he has to cover the less confident he gets. But I’ve seen him more than a few times be late to on routes to the sideline, or jump a route only to let another route behind him. This is largely due to him not seeing the entire field and getting his eyes caught in the backfield. Eye discipline is extremely important for a safety and something Hooker will have to improve on. There are also plenty of occurrences where Hooker gets caught in “no man’s land” in underneath coverage. By that I mean there’s a route or a quarterback scrambling in front of him, and a route behind him. Instead of choosing one, he chooses neither. Decisiveness in zone is another area where he’ll need to improve.

Man Coverage

Not a whole lot of reps in man coverage. Hooker easily possesses change of direction, recovery ability, and natural athleticism to guard tight ends and slot receivers. He does have a habit of getting grabby but for the most part, Malik looked comfortable in coverage and that’s what you’d expect from a high-end athlete.

Ball Skills

This last year Hooker got his hands on 11 passes. 7 were interceptions, 4 he broke up, and 3 he returned for touchdowns. Not much else needs to be said. The ball just finds him. You can’t fake that type of production with the roles he played for the Buckeyes defense. You saw the Indiana interception above. His interception against Nebraska he got a good jump and was the beneficiary of a tipped pass. He took that to the house. He had a spectacular 1 handed interception against Bowling Green.

His other interception that game may have been more impressive. He’s a ball magnet. You have to wonder if Ohio State wasn’t in blowouts in half of their games what type of production he would’ve put up. Turnovers matter. That’s something that makes coordinators salivate. A player that can generate turnovers. That’s what Hooker can do. When it comes to on-ball production and making plays on the ball Hooker has top 10 skills.

Instincts/Recognition

I believe it’s important to note that Hooker has impressive range in the run game as well. The ground he covers is just as impressive coming forward as when he’s flying up to make a tackle. For a 1st year starter, Malik has above average recognition which is likely why he gets the comparisons he does.

Hooker gets pinned as a “single high” only safety but it’s plays like that where you just tell him to read the QB & are wowed when he’s playing the robber role. I think the safety that patrols the intermediate part of the field and drops down in man coverage is immensely more valuable than your classic center fielder. Is tackling a concern? Absolutely. Turnovers and big plays trump all & it’s a lot easier to forgive those if you know there’s a chance a play in your favor is around the corner.

Hooker is an interesting study. Athletically, all the tools. He’s not raw, he just has bad habits and needs more reps. Is usage will be key at the next level but in most NFL schemes you can’t hide guys.

On the field, right now, no projections, Hooker plays like an early second rounder. That’s as a football player. As a prospect who is a high-end athlete, he’s a high 1st rounder because you can’t ignore his ceiling and the possible errors he can mask. Are you willing to forgive his mistakes for the big plays? That’s the ultimate question.