In the last decade or more, the state of Hawaii has produced its fair share of NFL talent.
Names such as Tua Tagovailoa, Marcus Mariota, and DeForest Buckner became household names in college before taking their talents to their respective teams in the NFL. Added to this list of players is Wisconsin linebacker Nick Herbig. Prior to coming to Wisconsin, Herbig was a star player at Saint Louis School in Honolulu, a school that produced both Mariota and Tagovailoa. As a high school senior, he was the Hawaii Open Division Defensive Player of the Year before committing to the Wisconsin Badgers.
In his freshman year, Herbig made seven starts at outside linebacker and finished the season with 26 total tackles, 6.0 TFLs, a sack, and a forced fumble. As a sophomore, Herbig played in 13 games with 13 starts and registered 61 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, and four passes defensed. He would finish the season 4th in the Big Ten in sacks and 7th in the Big Ten in tackles for loss. In his junior year, Herbig would gain national attention with his play on the field. He would earn consensus First-team All-Big Ten honors, and several All-American designations. He would register career highs in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (15.5).
There is nothing fancy about Herbig's overall game. His high motor and intensity have been keys to his success on the field. Yet, there are subtle details to his game that do not receive as much attention, which will be highlighted in this film study.
Quick and Violent Hands
One of the keys to Herbig's pass-rushing success is his hands. Herbig possesses an array of different hand techniques that have allowed him to deflect and create the distance needed to win around the arc.
In this sequence against Washington State, we have Herbig positioned in 7-technique on the left side but not in a traditional edge rusher stance. When the ball is snapped, Herbig explodes off the line and effectively uses his long strides and speed to gain the edge against the Cougars' left tackle. Before the left tackle is able to establish his base and engage, Herbig executes a beautiful chop and swipe move, taking him off balance. All of it happened so quickly that the tackle is left watching as Herbig beats him around the arc and gets the sack.
Flexibility as a pass rusher is a serious weapon against opposing linemen. The hardest pass rushers to block are the ones who possess the type of flexibility to bend and flatten their way into opposing backfields. It just so happens that Herbig is one of those players with natural lower body flexion and is able to use it effectively.
An example of this in action is seen in this clip against Iowa. In review, the Hawkeyes left tackle had no chance of even setting his feet to anchor, primarily because of Herbig's explosive first step. Once he makes contact with the Hawkeyes tackle, he dips his left shoulder and bends underneath. What is so impressive is how he is able to execute this without breaking stride. The rest is elementary: strip-sack fumble.
Setting The Edge
When watching Herbig on tape, it became clear that he has a strong command of the fundamentals needed to play the position effectively. An aspect that does not get enough appreciation is his ability to set the edge. Setting the edge does not always require superior size and strength; rather, employing the right pad level when engaging with an opposing lineman, then shedding at the right time to make a play.
In this sequence against Nebraska, Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez will execute this read option beautifully. Herbig, seen on the far right, will engage briefly with the Cornhuskers left tackle, setting the edge in the process. Note how he takes an angle on the left tackle, giving him a view of the play as it unfolds. Once he sees Martinez make his move, he quickly disengages and makes a beautiful open-field tackle for a substantial loss. This is the type of play coaches love to see from their defensive players.
From the players the Steelers selected in this year's NFL Draft, Herbig may possibly be their best value pick. What they received in the fourth round was a well-rounded, cerebral player who is explosive and disruptive. Even if they decide to move him as an off-ball linebacker, it should not change the fact that Herbig can flat-out play the game of football. In the end, that's all that matters.