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Ole Miss at the 2020 NFL Draft: Willie Hibbler is a project player at multiple positions with unmatched athleticism

Big upside for a team willing to be patient.

NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Willie Hibbler - Linebacker / Edge Rusher / Athlete

Bio:

Willie Hibbler was a rated a 4-star prospect and the No. 7-ranked tight end in the country by Scout out of high school. At North Panola High School, the Sardis, Miss. native played a little bit of everywhere from quarterback to safety, but saw time primarily as a tight end, receiver in the slot and at fullback.

When Hibbler got to Ole Miss in 2015 he did not see any action behind a talented tight end group and was redshirted. Spring practice rolled around he suffered a broken right hand that prevented him from practicing on offense. Instead of sitting out, he noticed a lack of depth at linebacker and decided to make a position change.

He was named second-string entering the fall and played in eight games as a redshirt freshman, with one start at Mike linebacker. His numbers improved over the next three seasons and he saw significant playing time in his senior year after MoMo Sanogo suffered an injury before the season began. In 43 career games played Hibbler recorded 113 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.

Measurables:

Height: 6-foot-3

Weight: 264 pounds

NFL Combine Results:

N/A

Positives:

As someone who made a fairly seamless transition from offense to defense, Hibbler’s athleticism is unprecedented and his frame is exactly what an NFL team would look for as a fast, high-energy pass rusher. He played primarily at the middle linebacker spot in a 3-4 defense in 2019, but could easily make a move on the next level.

Bruce Irvin, who has made a career as a dominant hybrid linebacker/end edge rusher on third downs, sits at the same height and weight, for example. Hibbler is also as light on his feet and performs well when his mobility is tested.

He also has shown impressive get up and go speed this offseason.

On the field, Hibbler translated that speed to a pass rush that was unstoppable if the defense didn’t put a man on him. He comes from off the screen in this play, getting around the tackle on a stunt and flys in with vengeance, wrapping up at the waist.

When he is not coming from the edge, Hibbler is still able to find his way into the pocket with a vicious first pop at the point of contact and a continuous drive of his strong legs. He is lined up as the short side linebacker over the B-gap on this play and is sent on a straight blitz. When the ball is snapped the take-off is textbook and he gets low enough on the guard to blow him off balance and stand him up. Once the lineman is in on a backpedal, Hibbler controls the play and slips past him with a simple dip and bend. He doesn’t make the sack, but he forces the quarterback to rush a throw and air it out.

The same ability to step up into a hole and make a play translates to the run game. For someone who has played the position for just four years, Hibbler has good vision and ball recognition as a play rolls out. In this instance, he is lined up over the middle and recognizes the run. Acknowledging the guard that blocks down and into the second level, he pauses to see where the back is headed and makes a move to get beyond the scheme. He steps up, breaks down and meets the ballcarrier head-on for the tackle.

His patience and pursuit is something that NFL franchises crave. He consistently waits on his toes, transitions his weight forward and gets to the ball. Watch him come downfield and lay the hammer on this play.

You can’t teach physicality.

Negatives:

The glaring issue here is a question of where he fits on an NFL roster. Hibbler doesn’t have significant experience at any one position, but has enough experience at middle linebacker. His size doesn’t translate well to the Mike linebacker spot on the next level, but he rarely lined up outside in college.

If he were to move outside, his pass coverage is something that needs significant work. Hibbler is not confident enough in one-on-one situations and often loses sight of the receivers around him when he drops back into zone coverage. Should he stay in the middle, like he does on this play, he will need to gain better awareness on when to crash down or stay back to wait on the tight end. Here, his first step is forward, and the tight end blows by.

On this play, he is lined up out-wide covering a receiver on the near sideline. The quarterback doesn’t look his way, but Hibbler gets caught with his legs crossed. If the receiver sticks with the slant route, he has two steps on him. Hibbler does an okay job of recovering, but if it was an NFL quarterback he could throw his receiver open at the 10-yard-line to pick up a first down.

Hibbler will have a lot of growing pains, particularly in pass protection, which is a direct result of only playing the position for four years.

Bottom Line:

A freakish athlete out of high school, Hibbler’s decision to play linebacker never quite panned out to the full extent. He was a quality role player and stepped up when called upon as a senior, but he doesn’t stand out in a singular position. He has grown into his role, but will need a lot of work to become a reliable every-down linebacker that is more than just competent in coverage.

Hibbler defines project player, but could work into a edge rusher role for a team that is willing to work with him. He will not be drafted this weekend, but it would be surprising if he does not end up signing as an undrafted free agent to an organization seeking depth.