Ben Roberts (DT, 6’4” 290, East HS, UT)
With a strong core on the DL and few opening spots, Coach Rip Rowan is in a comfortable recruiting position for his first recruiting cycle as the Huskies’ DL coach. The starting duo of Taki and Tuli look to be solid anchors in the middle for the next year or two, and 2019 recruits Tuitele and Bandes are anxiously waiting in the wings to live up to their hype, so there isn’t a pressing need to land instant impact-type of talent. However, as we all know, stocking the line is an annual necessity, and elite DL talent is what separates the contenders from the also-rans. Rowan knows this, and that’s why he’s hit the recruiting trail hard early, going after a potential defensive anchor in Ben Roberts.
Returning to a familiar recruiting territory in East HS (UT), alma mater of current Huskies Taki Taimani and Voi Tunuufi, Rowan likely had early inklings that Roberts could be a stud. Standing at an imposing yet lean 6-4 290 lbs while playing DE for East, Roberts flashes a blend of strength and quickness that sets an almost untouchable ceiling for him. In fact, Roberts is almost impossibly athletic for his size as he can dunk at over 280 lbs and competes on the 7v7 circuit as an LB and TE.
He is a smooth mover for his size, and he looked comfortable playing the edge, but his projection is inside at DT. He isn’t a twitchy enough athlete to stick on the edge, but he’s got the wiggle and flexibility to play 5-tech in our sub-package fronts and more than enough burst and power to play either as a penetrator or 2-gapper on the interior. He could conceivably bulk up into the 310+ range if asked to, but adding size for size’s sake might not be worthwhile for such a solidly built DL.
Seeing his physical talent is one thing, but what’s more impressive and a bigger indicator for future success is his technique and instincts. It looks like his preferred move on the edge has been either the bull rush or a long-arm while rounding the edge, but I also see the beginnings of a stack-n-shuck counter move that will go a lot further for him on the interior. Once he focuses on DT-specific hand fighting techniques he should be a quick study since he has a grasp of play-to-play rush sequencing and counter moves. Overall, it seems like the game has slowed down for him and that he is playing under control at all times. He played the backside contain on the edge well, made plays on option keepers, and has the wherewithal to get his hands in the air when he wasn’t in position to pressure the QB. That last trait in particular is something that I’ve noticed over the years is a good indicator for higher level football IQ and playmaking as it is a byproduct of eye discipline and situational awareness. Laiatu Latu, ZTF, and Cooper McDonald, all of whom either earned early playing time or exceeded their recruiting ratings, consistently made plays on the ball in the air. On several occasions on his hudl, Roberts was mid-rush when he was able to get his hand up and tip a ball, and even snagged the INT on one play.
While this has been a good indicator for EDGE players, his future home is almost certainly on the interior of the defensive front. However, I see this sort of eye discipline and situational awareness an increasingly important trait for all positions in the era of spread offenses and RPOs. The growing popularity of midline options (reading an unblocked DT), and the incorporation of H-backs/fullbacks (and the subsequent addition of traps & wham concepts) into modern spread run games, means that DTs are increasingly put in conflict positions where they have to read and react more than they are typically asked to. Which is also why I was so impressed when he consistently identified the option or an incoming blocker after initially coming off the snap unblocked.
Stylistically, I think the best comp for Roberts would be 2019 DT Fa’atui Tuitele. Tuitele, like Roberts, came out of HS around 300 lbs but primarily played as a DE out on the edge. Their athleticism gave them a 2-way go of bulking up to be a more traditional 2-gap DT in our scheme, or staying lean as a hybridized 3-tech/base 3-4 DE. Tuitele has stayed lean, and has seen time playing anywhere from 4i to 0-tech. Given what we’ve seen last Fall and this Spring, I think we will continue to see more variety in our defensive fronts with DL being asked to float between the interior and the edge. Having guys like Tuitele and Roberts who have the background and athletic profile to play inside-out may end up being more important to this schematic shift than the true 2-gap NTs that we’ve been familiar with these last few years.
On the recruiting front, It looks like we’re in a good position to land Roberts based on his strong relationship with Tunuufi, but I don’t expect much movement on his commitment until this fall. As I noted above, we aren’t in a rush to load up on bodies, so we’ll likely want him to take an official visit before committing rather than make a rash decision before assessing all his options.