clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Quacking the Roster: LB Transfers Jestin Jacobs and Connor Soelle

Film review of Jacobs’ 2021 season at Iowa and Soelle’s 2022 season at Arizona State as starting linebackers

Colorado State v Iowa
Linebacker Jestin Jacobs #5 of the Iowa Hawkeyes brings down tight end Trey McBride #85 of the Colorado State Rams at Kinnick Stadium on September 25, 2021 in Iowa City, Iowa.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Jestin Jacobs, Iowa

Jacobs was recruited to Iowa as part of the 2019 class, a low 4-star (.9069) in the 24/7 composite and at the time a huge coup over Ohio State which was after him hard for his 6’4” length and 4.6s 40yd time. The only reason he wasn’t rated higher were concerns about being underweight, but he quickly put those away by bulking up to 240 lbs without losing any athleticism. He redshirted his first year, then played sparingly during the covid holiday season in 2020. He played extensively throughout 2021, the season I acquired and charted all of his film, but after an FCS opener in 2022 was injured and missed the rest of last year. He has two years of eligibility remaining and could apply for a medical redshirt for the 2022 season to get a third.

For at least the last 25 years and probably longer, Iowa has employed a very conventional 4-3 under QQH defense. However, over the last five seasons or so as Big Ten offenses have started to incorporate modern football concepts like shotgun snaps and the forward pass, Iowa has developed a nickel defense in which they swap out the SAM for what they call the CASH linebacker, which is their hybrid LB/DB. During 2021, the Hawkeyes switched between their 4-3 and 4-2-5 configurations throughout each game, with what looked like the offense’s TE/FB count being the deciding factor.

When Iowa was in their 4-3, Jacobs played the starting SAM, lined up outside the box over the slot WR or Y in coverage (usually man), or if they were in tight or went into motion late he’d come in for run support. When Iowa switched to the 4-2-5 or during garbage time, Jacobs played a couple different roles: either the backup CASH playing deep to the passing strength, or the backup WILL flipping to the other side of the offense and often in the box with the MIKE. Those various roles meant Jacobs played about 50% of all meaningful defensive snaps for the Hawkeyes, but they make succinctly describing his job at Iowa a bit difficult.

Compounding this, on their official website or when talking to the media, Iowa’s staff describes any backer who’s not the MIKE (that is, the WILL, SAM, and CASH, all of which Jacobs has played) as an “outside linebacker.” This is pretty jarring to fans accustomed to other schemes in which OLB is used to describe an entirely different position who plays up on the line with pass-rushing and edge-setting responsibilities. Conversely, on Oregon’s official website Jacobs is listed as an ILB. I think all of these things have contributed to a lot of questions about what role Jacobs will play in Eugene.

From watching his time at Iowa, I think the role in Oregon’s defense that Jacobs’ existing tape and body type most closely match is the STAR safety position that Jamal Hill and Bennett Williams played last year. He has the length, footspeed, and predominantly coverage experience to play as a big defensive back over tight ends and inside receivers, with occasional box responsibilities. I have practically zero useable film from 2021 on Jacobs performing the essential job of an inside backer in Oregon’s 2022 defense, which was taking on offensive linemen and running backs in inside run-stopping.

I’ll be watching Spring practices closely to see how this goes, but given that the Ducks’ needs and Jacobs’ experience seem to line up better at STAR, I think I would be surprised if Oregon goes through with converting Jacobs to a middle linebacker. If that is in fact where Oregon plays Jacobs by the Fall of 2023, I’ll take it as an intriguing signal that the staff believes the defensive line is ready to stop opponents’ rushing on its own with little additional run support from the inside backers, and wants to devote maximum resources to pass defense. That would be in keeping with the overall Mint front defensive philosophy, but still something that would really catch my attention.

Most of Jacobs’ film had him lining up outside the box in pass coverage. It’s clear that Iowa coached its defenders to be physical and aggressive in man coverage, and Jacobs used his length and speed well to play tight and deter passes to both big tight ends and quick slot receivers, with only about 6% of throws targeting his man during meaningful passing plays. I have fewer examples of zone coverage to work with but the tape didn’t show any real problems with occupying passing lanes and QBs were understandably leery of trying to throw over a guy his size. Here’s a representative sample:

(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)

  1. :00 – Jacobs (jersey #5) is over the TE on the left side of the offensive formation, actually inside the DE after a late motion. Good mirroring as the TE first starts to block, then looks like he might be going outside to the flat, then runs a 10-yard in-route, hands always in contact.
  2. :17 – Nice PBU here, the TE gets a little bit of separation but Jacobs has the speed to close it and the length to get his hand inside and knock the ball free.
  3. :34 – This isn’t quite the infamous Spider 2 Y Banana but it’s reminiscent. Jacobs plays this coverage perfectly, frictioning the TE then handing him off to the safety, with eyes in the backfield and collapsing on the the fullback to whom this play is designed to go and forcing the throwaway.
  4. :44 – I know this man coverage of a slot receiver with inside leverage that the QB doesn’t even consider is a little dull, but it’s far and away the most frequent play for Jacobs on my tally sheet so it needed to be included.

I don’t have a single negative mark on my tally sheet for Jacobs when it came to tackling, which is remarkable. I really liked his work in the open field:

  1. :00 – Great acceleration after the No. 2 receiver breaks outside to make a solo tackle for minimal gain.
  2. :09 – This is zone, Jacobs has to drop to occupy that WR’s passing lane behind him, so the throw is to the TE underneath him. Great job coming down hard on a big pass-catcher and bringing him down fast.
  3. :20 – After frictioning and releasing the slot, Jacobs comes up on the fullback with outside leverage. He knows he’s got help to the inside so the important thing is that he doesn’t let the ballcarrier bounce out and instead physically forces that bruiser into his friends to bring him down.
  4. :30 – This clip shows how those long levers Jacobs has for arms are an asset in making open-field tackles on shifty receivers.

I really don’t have much tape at all on Jacobs taking on offensive linemen, which is what I’d like to see to evaluate how he’d do as an ILB in a 3-down front against the run and certain screen passes. But he did have to take on a lot of perimeter blocking from tight ends and receivers, and he graded out very well in getting off of those. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Jacobs widens into coverage with inside leverage as the TE splits out, and then it becomes an outside run play and he needs to get off that block with outside leverage to keep the back from getting to the sideline. He gets that done and the back has to cut back inside to the teeth of the defense. That’s a bunch of different roles to have to process through quickly in a short time.
  2. :12 – Jacobs is at the bottom of the screen here, just inside the CB. The WR is blocking him in as if it’s a run but he’s fighting it off and staying locked on the QB, then fights through the TE’s block, and finally gets close enough to throw his hands up and force a weird throw. Good balance despite getting it from both sides.
  3. :20 – That poor slot WR trying to block Jacobs.
  4. :29 - Jacobs doesn’t get the same glory here but again the difficulty is going from playing coverage with inside leverage to shedding the block with outside leverage to force the play back inside where the rest of the defense can finish it off. Jacobs’ size lets him do that easily.

The film that I have of Jacobs in run support is either from garbage time, in rare and peculiar situations like extreme unbalanced formations in which Iowa puts the SAM in the box, or when the Y is in tight (and even then his posture suggests he’s ready to drop in coverage and run support is Iowa’s secondary concern for his position). The tape that I do have of Jacobs playing the run looks good for what it is, it’s just not on-point for what I think an ILB would be doing in Oregon’s defense (at least the 2022 version) and instead looks more like Bennett Williams in Oregon’s quasi-Bear front against Cal last year. Here’s a representative sample of Jacobs against the run:

  1. :00 – This is the last snap of the game in a blowout win for the Hawkeyes (rara avis in terris …) and Jacobs is moonlighting as the WILL in the box. Nice acceleration to knife through on this outside run for the TFL.
  2. :08 – Iowa State is in 13- or 31-personnel depending on how you count H-backs, at any rate that’s why Jacobs moves in. Proper outside leverage on the TE, gets off that block when the back takes it outside, and uses those long arms to pop the ball out on the tackle.
  3. :39 – The offense is in 12-pers here plus the X is in pretty tight to the formation, and look at Jacobs lined up with square hips and shoulders. The TE does in fact run-block though, and Jacobs gets off of him to the outside, with his eyes up and tracking the play to help tackle future teammate Bucky Irving.
  4. :48 – Pretty routine by now in the bowl game – widens against the TE to maintain outside leverage, dismisses the block, helps with the tackle.

Connor Soelle, Arizona State

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Arizona Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Soelle was recruited to ASU in the 2019 class as a mid 3-star (.8593) in the 24/7 composite. He was listed as a DB his first two years then switched to a linebacker in 2021, and while he played pretty sparingly from scrimmage those three seasons he was used extensively on special teams in 2021. In 2022, Soelle became a starting linebacker on the defense, but there are some complications to the story.

For one thing, he wasn’t the only ASU linebacker named Soelle - his older brother Kyle, also a mid 3-star but about three inches taller and 15 lbs heavier, had enrolled at ASU two years earlier and had become a starter in 2020, playing nearly every snap in the box for the Sun Devils since then. The older brother wore jersey #34 while the younger wore #18 (unhelpfully, ASU doesn’t put first initials on the nameplates of players who share a surname).

After more than a decade of being a 3-down front, ASU switched to a 4-3 defense a few years ago when Antonio Pierce joined the staff then became DC. However, over the course of his tenure they’d been incorporating more and more nickel looks, and when he left for the Raiders at the end of the 2021 season, ASU switched to a 4-2-5 entirely unless the opposing offense had two or more TEs on the field in 2022.

Only then, facing 12-personnel or heavier, would ASU go back to a 4-3 and swap the nickel DB out for the younger Soelle’s position (a WILL in their nomenclature, I think, though I’m not sure since where he’d line up didn’t seem to be strictly dictated by passing strength, field/boundary, or TE/RB relationship … but I quickly lost interest in puzzling out the intricacies of a defensive staff that was fated to be fired).

This being the Pac-12, for the vast majority of 2022 ASU faced 10- or 11-pers and so I only saw Soelle take the field on the remaining 21% of meaningful defensive snaps. From what I saw I think he’s a starting-caliber player for this league, but unfortunately for our purposes the structure of ASU’s defense last year meant that the position at which he started just wasn’t on the field very often, and so the Sun Devils didn’t give me much useable film on him. He’s listed as an ILB on Oregon’s roster which seems as good a spot as any given the lack of exclusive tape at any particular place on the field.

I don’t think the book has been closed on Soelle’s development and I certainly haven’t been impressed with any of the coaching staff’s actions in Tempe during his time there, so I think some of the raw tools and talents I see from his tape like instincts, footspeed, and toughness can be built upon by what I think is a better staff in Eugene. But going into Spring practices, I think his film to date shows a solid backup option more than a guaranteed starter.

Because almost all of the time when teams in this league employed 12-personnel they intended on running the ball (due to personnel management and playcalling predictability issues throughout the Pac-12 that longtime readers will be familiar with), the majority of film I have on Soelle is defending the run. He grades out very well in terms of flowing properly to the play as a linebacker, and I think his instincts for run plays are top-notch, with a really high football IQ. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Soelle (jersey #18) starts out over the TE on the offense’s left, which is the backside of the play as designed. He’s moving to the playside with square shoulders, not turned to the line of scrimmage, and that lets him quickly reset and tackle the back when he tries to cut out the other way.
  2. :10 – The playside DT and backer are effectively blocked on this play. The MIKE is doing a good job taking on the RG to slow the back up, but Soelle needs to get all the way over from the backside to help catch this outside run the other way.
  3. :20 – Great breakdown here, the back can’t decide which way he wants to cut until it’s too late. Soelle has his outside shoulder closing off the sideline exit and his inside arm wrapping up the legs, and his feet always moving.
  4. :27 – Soelle’s brother missed this game with I think a minor injury, so he got some time in at the MIKE position. Here he correctly diagnoses the pulling linemen and undercuts the RT to make the tackle and end the drive.

The film shows more of a mixed bag for Soelle in terms of tackling and getting off blocks. His last official measurements from the Sun Devils’ website were 6’1”, 220 lbs (Oregon hasn’t released heights and weights yet), which is somewhat undersized for a linebacker, and while his speed is good I don’t think it’s elite. Again, I think he has a high football IQ and I like the angles he chooses for getting to the ball and how he plays with leverage, but I would like to see him play with some more technical refinement as well as add maybe 10 more pounds of muscle mass by the Fall. Here are some examples of Soelle’s tackles from last year:

  1. :00 – Soelle is taking on the H-back who’s lead-blocking this run. I like the way that he’s diagnosed the play and has gotten outside leverage on the block, with a free arm for the ballcarrier. He effectively slows the play down enough so that it only gains four yards, and if he had played it wrong the back could have gotten past the DB and to the endzone. I don’t like how Soelle is trying to block so high, and that the back basically flattens him.
  2. :09 – Now this is a good hit - lowers the inside shoulder, wraps the outside arm around, and gets lower than the back to drive him backwards with his legs and stop all progress.
  3. :17 – I’ve got a few of these on my tally sheet, unfortunately – correct angle, proper diagnosis, goes for the legs, and the ballcarrier just steps through the tackle.
  4. :27 – I’m reasonably confident that the coverage error here is the CB’s and not Soelle’s. The point of including this clip is that he has to reverse himself and pick the correct angle to catch the TE to save a touchdown, which is really tough to do, and he nails it.

Block destruction is a combination of technical skill and physical ability. I think Soelle has promise in both areas but could also improve in both areas. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Man, I liked that hit on the LG.
  2. :09 – I don’t think particularly highly of this offensive line but this LT isn’t having a lot of trouble driving the smaller Soelle back a few yards.
  3. :17 – UW is blocking this badly, with jersey grabs against both Soelle and the playside DE that ought to be drawing holding penalties. But ASU’s coaching staff hasn’t taught them to get their outside arms free and show the restriction from disengagement.
  4. :32 – Nice work shoving this TE all the way into the center of the formation.

Other than a single trick play in the Utah game that resulted in a touchdown, I don’t have much in the way of negative marks on my tally sheet for pass coverage plays that Soelle was in on. Mostly this involved covering tight ends, since he was brought in against 12- or 13-personnel looks, and he played them pretty tight. Some examples:

  1. :00 – This was one of the many clips I had tagged for potential inclusion in the “Rising is weirdly locked on to Kincaid despite being well covered” compilation of my Utah preview article last year.
  2. :07 – Just jamming the TE the whole way here.
  3. :15 – Here’s a Washington QB turned UCLA WR playing RB on a Texas route. Soelle takes the angle with proper leverage, doesn’t overcommit, and gets a nice PBU in the endzone.
  4. :36 – This rollout/flood concept from under center is Oregon State’s most successful passing play, and the TE Soelle is covering (after surviving quite a block he usually gets away with) is the primary target.