Updated: Jun 19, 2020
Every so often, a player comes along who is so versatile, it is nearly impossible to relegate him to just one position on the field.
For much of his football career, Antoine Brooks Jr. has been difficult to classify; the reason for such would likely be the fact that he has always been an exceptional athlete, able to play in multiple positions. Prior to his freshman year at the University of Maryland, Brooks Jr. was both a standout quarterback and defensive back for DeVal High School in Lanham, Maryland. Despite missing much of his senior year due to suffering a broken ankle and arm in a game, Brooks Jr. was still good enough to earn numerous awards, including Prince George 4A County Offensive Player of the Year
Following his freshman year with the Maryland Terrapins, Brooks Jr. emerged as the Big Ten Conference's leader in tackles for loss with 9.5. In addition to playing nickelback, he also made contributions at linebacker. In all, he posted 77 total tackles with one sack and two interceptions. In his junior season, Brooks Jr. increased sack numbers to 2.5, while adding another 9.5 tackles for loss, along with three passes defended and an interception. For his efforts that season, he earned Second Team All-Big Ten selection. He would earn that honor again in this senior year, along with Third Team All-Big Ten honors from the media. That year, he blossomed as one of the nation's leaders in solo tackles, finishing with 69. Brooks Jr. would so add 8.5 tackles for loss and five passes defended.
The best way to define Brooks Jr. style of play, is calculated physicality. When viewing him, it does not take long to see that he is a different type of athlete. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have thrived on selecting athletic defensive players, Brooks Jr. is the type of player that fits that bill, in addition to being fundamentally sound with and excellent motor.
Playing At Nickel
During his time at Maryland, Brooks Jr. was assigned to play the role of nickelback, a role which he proved to be very effective in doing so. To be an effective, it does not necessarily require perfect ball skills, rather a command of fundamentals:
A good backpedal
The ability to track the ball after transitioning from backpedal
A good example of all the noted fundamentals is seen in this sequence against Towson. Here we see Brooks Jr. position as the left nickel back in off man coverage, right across from the outside slot receiver on his side. When the ball is snapped, Brooks Jr. patiently waits for the Townson receiver to release and run his route, before flipping his hips to shadow him along the stem. As the receiver reaches the top of his fade route, Brooks Jr. turns to track the ball while it is in the air. As the ball comes close, Brooks Jr. uses just enough physicality to gain leverage over the receiver and intercept the pass. Excellent example of fundamentals combined with physicality and ball skills.
Playing In The Box
In the last two seasons, there were few defensive backs in college football, who were as efficient and productive playing inside the box as Brooks Jr. Part of what made Brooks Jr. so good in these situations, was his ability to recognize formations, and anticipate plays before they unfolded. For his career, Brooks Jr. averaged at least seven tackles for loss per season, and led his team in this category during his junior and senior season.
Here against the University of Minnesota, Brooks Jr. is seen positioned at the right inside linebacker on the outside. Before the ball is even snapped, he gradually begins to make this way towards the edge, likely recognizing that this would to be an option sequence. When the ball is snapped, before the Gophers quarterback can even complete the handoff, Brooks Jr. had already penetrated into the backfield, where he locates and hit the Gophers running back. The impact was enough to force a fumble which he almost recovered.
Playing At Safety
In this redzone sequence, we see Brooks Jr. positioned in his natural position at safety against Indiana. When the ball is snapped, Brooks Jr. drops back into coverage and begins to scan his area. During the sequence, we both the Hoosiers wide receiver on the left and tight end on the right execute crossing routes; meanwhile the Hoosiers running back wheels in the flats. As the play unfolds, the Hoosiers quarterback sees his tight end open, and throws the ball in his direction. The Hoosiers tight end is unable to make the receptions, as the ball deflects out of his hands. Brooks Jr. has the presence of mind to track the ball while it is in the air, jump and make an acrobatic interception.
Many may question the reason why the Steelers picked Brooks Jr., despite having a two young and capable defensive backs in Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen, whose skillsets are similar to that of Brooks Jr. The answer is quite simple; positional versatility. When viewing his film, it is clear that Brooks Jr. is a positional fit just about anywhere on the field. For a team that has one of the best secondary units in the NFL, adding a player like Brooks Jr., gives them something all teams are looking for; a quality player with starter potential.