Yawin Smallwood could be the next in a growing trend of talented linebackers from Connecticut and showed a great deal of promise as a sophomore. Smallwood really made himself into a nice run defender and someone who was able to make plays in the backfield as well as tracking them down laterally. The big question facing Smallwood was his ability in coverage, which is an area he made strides but still has questions there. He opted to declare, which was a little surprising, but he does have an intriguing amount of upside as he goes to the next level.
Smallwood is an impressive run defender but is still not a finished product as a player. He shows a ton of ability in stopping the run and has improved in coverage but is still going to have to get better to be a viable three down option. Smallwood warrants an early third day pick and still has upside to become at least a nice run stopper with the potential to develop into a good three down player.
Vitals & Build
Smallwood measured 6’2” 246lbs with 31 ¾” arms at the scouting combine. He has shown impressive strength and should be able to continue getting strength without sacrificing athleticism. Smallwood has good acceleration and goes downhill quickly and shows decent speed, but his agility in short areas and long speed are not great for the position, especially when he plays too high. He demonstrates a high motor and will keep playing for second and third chances. Smallwood is going to continue getting stronger but improving his fluidity and his ability to change directions quickly would benefit him more than anything going forward.
Smallwood is an impact tackler who is extremely consistent when it comes to wrapping up ball carriers, driving through them, and giving up little if any ground. He takes good angles, he does not resort to just throwing his shoulder or body at opponents, and keeps his legs under him and uses them to drive through contact. Smallwood rarely misses tackles if he can get his hands on the opponent and is able to consistently deliver strength when he tackles. He has the ability to jolt ball carriers and potentially cause a fumble on contact. The issue that needs addressed is that Smallwood will make tackles high and is not in ideal position but he piles up the tackles and makes virtually every play the Huskies need him to make.
Smallwood has terrific instincts, diagnoses and reacts to plays at a high level. He has shown an impressive ability to flow to the ball, find paths through trash, and work in tight spaces. Smallwood keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage which enables him to always have the ability to attack forward, rarely has him out of position to make tackles, and allows him to absorb contact from a point of strength.
Smallwood also does a good job of taking on blocks. Because he stays square to the line, he is able to fire off a good punch and can use it to jolt the ball carrier as well as opposing blockers. He is able to maintain a base that rarely puts him at a point of weakness, so while he will occasionally be washed out by an offensive lineman, it is not common. If Smallwood is able to continue adding strength, that combined with additional experience should allow him to get even better in this area, but he is light years ahead of most players as a sophomore. Smallwood is a technician as a run defender.
The defensive scheme Connecticut runs appears to have Smallwood focus on the A and B gaps. This is part of why he is able to play square to the line of scrimmage and dominate the run up the middle the way he does. Smallwood can and does make plays outside and his instincts make him able to get outside and make plays, but he is at his best inside.
The other underrated part of Smallwood’s game is the fact he is almost never on the ground. The few times offensive linemen are able to get the best of him, he stays up and keeps fighting. He does not lunge to tackle and shows good balance, which make him that much more frustrating from the offensive point of view.
Smallwood has improved in short area coverages both in man and zone. He is not nearly as lost in that part of his game and can stay with opponents into short routes and flex out in zones.
The one thing Smallwood does well is reading the backfield while in zone, able to read the eyes of the passer and move around. He has been in position to make plays far more than last year, but is still rough around the edges there and still missing out on opportunities to make plays.
Smallwood will do a nice job when it comes to tackling the pass and reducing the amount of yardage after the catch. He gets himself into trouble in coverage when he plays high, has trouble making quick movements and flipping his hips. When he plays low, he can show pretty good fluidity and it needs to be more commonplace.
In this area, Smallwood is far better than he was last year, but he still has room to improve and will still be trying to prove he can be a viable linebacker on passing downs.
Pass Rush & Blitz ability
Because of his ability to attack downhill as well as take on and shed blocks, Smallwood can be a good blitz option in the middle of a defense. He has enough acceleration to get in and make a play quickly, catching the opponent by surprise. He will give it his all and stay with the play, but he will have trouble catching athletic quarterbacks who see him coming. If the quarterback is slower or does not see him coming, he can make a play and lay a good hit on the quarterback. Smallwood is a good but not great option when it comes to rushing the quarterback.
The best fit for Smallwood is as an inside linebacker in the 3-4. He has the ability to be a thumping inside linebacker that can dominate the run up the middle with a focused workload.
Smallwood could certainly play in the middle of a 4-3 defense as well. He would be better served if that scheme wants to focus him in the middle from guard to guard, but he could play a larger area if needed.
While he is a better fit in the middle, his length and ability to take on blocks also make him a player who can slide over and play the strong side linebacker. If the team who ends up with Smallwood has a great middle linebacker and wants to find a way to get Smallwood on the field, having him play the strong side could accomplish that for a run stopping unit.
At this point, Smallwood is a good 2-down linebacker and is going to need to prove he can contribute on passing downs. He might start out as depth, but he seems like he will be able to find his way on the field early and often.
Smallwood could have a similar type of game as Manti Te’o of the San Diego Chargers. Te’o was always an outstanding run defender who got a little too much credit for what he could do in coverage. Meanwhile, Smallwood is an outstanding run defender who gets the proper amount of credit for his developing pass coverage skills. Both have to prove they can become a viable three down player.
Smallwood has shown he can be a terrific run defender and really understands how to get to the ball and make tackles. He seems capable of continuing to make plays at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield with how quickly he is able to process and read. His coverage ability is still a question, but the marked improvement this year is encouraging. Smallwood warrants an early third day pick that could be a two-down run stopper or potentially become a good, full service player.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com