Scouting the Broncos: Duke Ihenacho

Duke Ihenacho has gotten plenty of pre-camp media attention, more than most college free agents that I can recall offhand. Rob RangPat Kirwan and Doug Farrar all named the ex-San Jose State Spartan among their top undrafted rookies. The safety, who will wear #38 #39 for the Broncos, played 47 games for SJSU and finished with 268 tackles (15 for loss), seven interceptions, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and three defensive scores.

Head coach John Fox and new DC Jack Del Rio both talk about aggression; they both prefer to dictate to the offense, rather than utilize a read-and-react style. I’m glad about that.  Del Rio was well known for that quality as a linebacker, and he’s also sincere to the point of a religious belief about it as a coach - Elvis Dumervil describes him as having a “fiery side.” That’s a well-crafted understatement from Doom, who knows a thing or two about focused aggression. I expect, from the draft and from the form of the team right now, to see a lot of very aggressive, attacking play from their front 7. Ihenacho seems like the kind of player who might find a niche with Del Rio fairly quickly.

One reason is that while Duke’s not a man cover burner, he’s a player with a lot of different uses. He’s not the kind of guy you leave out by himself on an island, but he is the type who likes to blow up defenses and defenders, to cause and jump on fumbles, grab interceptions, and even blitz the quarterback. He’s fearless when hitting and tackling, is solid in run support, and with the Broncos’ emphasis on getting to the QB as part of protecting the defensive backfield, Ihenacho has the size, power, and aggressive nature that could become a successful part of that.

For example: If the safety is going to be involved in a blitz, you have to have a player at that position who is strong enough to take on a power blocker, often the tackle. The guard and center, by design, are usually occupied with the standard or base DL personnel, although throwing a good overload blitz that includes the safety is a very aggressive move (and potentially dangerous, if it fails) that can unsettle an offense and stop a drive. That safety might have to beat the tackle on a trap block through the A gap, and he might also end up fighting past him one-on-one on the edge, depending on the play.

Either way, you’re going to need a safety with the power to handle an offensive lineman one on one. There aren’t a lot of safeties who have the skill and the physicality to handle that role. Duke may be one of them, and that could improve his desirability to the Broncos.

According to an old playbook of Bill Belichick’s (Jets, 1997), the safety’s key read on the blitz is often going to be at tackle, where they have to read the positioning and movement of the inside foot. If the tackle drives his inside leg past the center of their own frame, for example, it creates a crease in their stance. That crease is the gap or hole that the safety must be able to blast or bull-rush through. In martial arts, they call that technique an irimi, or ‘entering’ technique - in both systems, it requires a combination of low pad/hip level, excellent balance, and intensely focused power - you only want to hit that one crease and blast through it. Your target is often both relatively small and moving, and may only be open for a half second; you have to bring everything in your bull rush to that one single point, on time to make it work.

If, on the other hand, the tackle’s post leg gets raised too high (which you can see on isolation film, available to modern NFL players, as part of preparing for a specific game, to give you an idea of the level of film study that’s required), the safety has to attack that leg and to use his leverage to drive inside of it, unbalancing the tackle and permitting a clear path to the QB. Judo uses a very similar concept with the technique Ouchi Gari, if you’d like to see a moving application of how attacking that leg can work. Imagine a safety running over the falling man in the moving illustration, and you get a pretty clear idea of how that principle applies.

It takes both skill and power to manage these techniques - and, the basic theory behind the application of the safety in blitzing is one big reason why Buddy Ryan was able to run the 46 Defense with such remarkable effectiveness back in Chicago. He had safety Doug Plank originally (whose number was 46), and Plank was the self-described dirtiest player in football; but he was also one brilliant, powerful, and very fast safety. Ryan looked at him and saw blitzes - A gap, C gap, and overload - as well as using him as a linebacker. Ryan would blitz runs or passes and often had players in the backfield as the QB was still backpedaling or the running back reaching for the ball. The incredible talent on that team had more than a little to do with his success with the system, but its long term value is evidenced by its continued effective use by some NFL teams at times in today's game.

Plank was close to Ihenacho’s size: 6-0, 200 compared to Duke’s 6-1 and 213, and as tough as a barbed wire fence. Ihenacho carries much of his extra muscle in the torso and uses his extra size to deal out damage. He’s faster than most scouts had expected - he ran a 4.51-second 40 at his pro day. He’d had a poor showing at Combine and played against somewhat lesser competition in college (and we don’t know what his medical showed on the knee that kept him out of all but two games in 2010), but that may work out well for the Broncos, since it let him fall to CFA status.

Ihenacho might have the power and will to be an effective A-gap blitzer as well as a run-stuffing, QB-chasing problem for the offense, a special teams player, and potentially, a slot or middle field TE defender. He’s suited to that role through strength and aggression - and his level of aggression makes a lot of sense when you know his background.

Duke played linebacker, a position known for its very aggressive nature, as recently as 2008. For his play that season he was chosen as a first-team All-WAC pick at that position, which is quite an achievement for a sophomore. He and his brother, Carl, became the first known brother tandem in NCAA history to lead the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), or Division 1-A in separate, major statistical categories in the same week.  On October 18 of that year, Duke was tied for the lead in the nation with four interceptions in seven games, while Carl tied for the top spot in tackles for loss, with 14. Getting Ihenacho to play in a power blitz game is a natural progression for him, given his LB background, and he potentially could add a wrinkle to the increased pass pressure that John Fox has spoken of increasing, if that’s a direction they choose to move in. Carl, by the way, ended 2011 on the Oakland practice squad and is on their roster under a future contract. We like him anyway.

Duke’s talent was evident from the start. In 2007 he was the youngest player on that team but still played in 10 games and achieved six starts, the most of any San Jose State defensive freshman that year. He did miss all but two games in 2010 with a foot injury, but came back last year to tie for third on the team with 73 tackles. He also led the team with six pass breakups - so his coverage skills aren’t missing - they’re just not as remarkable as his ability to tackle and create (as well as recover) fumbles. Case in point - this play was nominated for the GEICO Play of the Year.  He also had four games with 10 or more tackles, including the Utah State game shown below.

Ihenacho also potentially brings a talent that is becoming essential in the NFL - he’s big and tough enough to stand up to most of the increasing number of quality tight ends in the NFL. Since the Broncos didn’t take BSU's George Iloka in the draft (both Ted and I wanted to see him as a TE stopper in the middle - his length and those long, snake-like arms should make him a very good candidate for that role), giving a 6-1, 213-lb ex-linebacker with some coverage skills and a physical style a chance to be pounding TEs in the middle might suit them well.

He showed 4.51 speed at his pro day, but his coverage isn’t that strong on the edges. He’s also got a gift for creating turnovers: fumbles, fumble recoveries and interceptions. It’s true that fumble recoveries are mostly luck, but players often make their own, and you have to be around the ball to pick it up. In the middle, he’s well suited to the role of attacking and stopping the TEs and slot receivers, as well as bringing out his skills in run support. He’s one kid that I look forward to watching in training camp and preseason - San Jose State’s schedule isn’t exactly like the SEC's, but in watching his game film he looks to have a maturity, ferocity, and level of skill to his game that’s hard to deny.

My own impression is that he’s a talented guy who has to keep his head up, be more aware on the field, and not get washed out of plays when he could make an impact. When he gets a hand on a runner, he needs to hang on better. A lot of that would be better with improved tackling fundamentals (Where have you heard that before?), but he’s not shy about contact, even though I’d like to see him wrap up better. On his YouTube highlights from the Utah State game (at 4:20 of the video) he had a nice fumble recovery that started with him defending the X receiver in off-man coverage. He crossed the entire field to pick up a fumble by the Z receiver - good speed, good effort. He was thinking. It was an 11-tackle day for him and his last one, diving into the QB’s knees and wrapping up well, was perhaps the best of the lot.

One of the many articles that called Ihenacho a sleeper in the 2012 Draft was this one. The comment came up again that he’s best in zone coverage and less so in man. However, the point was also made that Duke is known as a gym rat (one look at him shows you that) and a quick learner. In the frantic pace of the NFL where you have to absorb the upcoming offense in a few days, that quality could serve him well.

I liked the comment of Ihenacho’s coach, Mike MacIntyre:

He’s very physical and not afraid to hit you. He’s an intelligent young man and he’s very passionate - it’s important for him to be good.

Self-motivation is really the only kind for a professional. You can see a few things for yourself here:

He’s also #2 in the Idaho game,

and the Utah State game: 

It’s a good start to understand him and his game. You can see his errors and his strengths clearly.

A passion for the sport is often as important as natural skill as something that separates the good from the elite. Denver’s seen that in the past, and there’s no shortage of examples - Rod Smith always comes to mind first, somehow. Players who carry a passion for the game and a burning desire to be good still have to show that they can bring the level of skills that the NFL requires to their job, but it’s something that no championship team lacks. Players who lack those qualities are easy to find. I suspect that Duke will be a special teams standout quickly, and fight for downs as a safety as well. Considering that Quinton Carter appears to be a starting free safety in training, finding a safety who can play in the box, create havoc, and potentially stand up to some of the TEs that are beginning to repopulate the NFL is a high priority.

After all, Denver pinned their running back hopes to MWC scatback Ronnie Hillman, so the level of competition clearly isn’t a major concern to them. They’re looking for players who want to compete and have the skills to do so.

By the way, when I lay out these articles on Broncos candidates prior to training camp, I’m not suggesting that Denver ‘will’ do X, Y or Z or that these are the players who will (or should) play or start. I’m simply suggesting that the players coming into camp (many of whom won’t make it) are bringing specific skillsets that the team will be looking at, trying to see a potential fit for (in other words, why this guy?) and commenting on some options for their use while trying to sneak in a few aspects of theory that always don’t come up. The rest is up to the players and coaches.

There will be no shortage of great camp battles this year, and we’re looking forward to it.

Be well, my friends.


Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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