2019 defensive tackle commit Hunter Spears is an exciting prospect. The 6-4, 280-pound 4-star athlete out of Sachse, Texas is a part of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish's continuous process of upgrading the defensive line recruiting.
In evaluating Spears, you have to look back to his sophomore film, due to his missing the 2017 season with an injury. Even with this issue, it is easy to see why the Irish are so high on him and why he has a 4-star rating going into the 2018 season. Spears is a complete defensive line prospect, with the potential to evolve into a dominant force on the Fighting Irish defense.
The first thing that jumps out about Spears's overall game is the incredible first-step quickness off the snap that allows him to attack his gap and explode into the backfield. In his sophomore film he lined up at defensive end, but exhibited tendencies that project to him playing a three-technique in college. Thus, in grading his film I was looking at how well his skill set that translates to this position.
The quickness off the ball is one of many traits Spears possesses that will allow him to be a dominant defensive tackle for the Fighting Irish. Often at the snap, he would be thru the gap before the offensive lineman had even gotten out of his stance. His anticipation off the snap is an instinctive talent, as is his ability to stay low while flying through the hole while maintaining his balance and tracking the ball.
Spears exhibits outstanding overall athletic ability, which is why he played on the edge in high school. His quickness allows him to attack the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle and take a narrowed route to the pocket.
However, Spears's pass rush is not his greatest strength: when he is playing the run, his ability to power through double teams and use his hands to shed blocks quickly allows him to make plays fast and close off running lanes before they have a chance to form. He shows just how athletic he is by staying under control, keeping his head up and proper knee bend to get upfield effortlessly and explode into his tackles.
The most important element to Spears's game is how perfectly he fits into Notre Dame's 4-2-5 defense. You couldn’t design a better 3-technique tackle for this system. To illustrate this point, on several plays Spears would not only take on his gap responsibility, but would also force the offensive lineman to turn almost 90 degrees to try and block him.
In the 4-2-5, Spears would be in charge of "B" gap, and head up or outside the shoulder of the guard. Using the same ability he has already shown, he would force the guard more inside, plugging the “A” gap. So, he would clog up two holes with one effort. This is huge in the scheme that Coach Clark Lea wants to keep instilling within the framework of the 4-2-5.
The only weakness in Hunter Spears is the unknown. As a sophomore, he already exhibited an extraordinary skill set, especially for such a young kid. Reports are that he has added 25-30 pounds to his frame since then. Without having a junior year to evaluate, you are left to ponder how this extra mass will translate to his game. Will it hinder his explosiveness and quickness? Will it actually amp up his strength game and allow him to control even more of his side of the line? His senior year will go a long way towards answering those questions.
Most of what he needs to work on is typical of kids his age playing football: more fundamental work such as working on his squeeze technique to beat kick-out and/or trap blocks. When engaged in man blocking Spears had no issue; only on the traps did he sometimes give a little too much room on the block.
To avoid getting trapped or kicked out, especially as his competition improves, Spears must learn to get his hands on the down blocking offensive linemen and squeeze down with him, closing the horizontal space. This will allow Spears to take on the trap block and it will close down any space. This is a minor problem, because I only saw evidence of it on a couple of snaps. It's also one that usually cures itself with more playing experience and being coached up.
Hunter Spears's commitment to Notre Dame is a positive in two important areas. First, the kid can flat out play. A player like Spears gives the Irish a player with a set of skills that a defensive front has to have to be formidable. Second, as mentioned earlier in this article, he is another piece to a growing puzzle to build a true championship-caliber defensive front.
Spears and Jacob Lacey give the Irish two hogs in the middle who can not only eat up running lanes, but also beat blocks to make plays in the backfield. Any truly great defense absolutely must possess a dominant defensive front. Hunter Spears is a key addition to the future of Notre Dame football, and its attempt to become a championship-caliber team.