How Do You Quantify Malik Hooker's Range? It Starts With the Red Lines on Ohio State's Practice Field

By Eric Seger on December 28, 2016 at 4:52 pm
Putting Malik Hooker's range as Ohio State's safety starts with a comparison to one of the NFL's all-time great and a pair of red lines.

At the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, there is a pair of red lines painted on each of Ohio State's practice fields.

Located 5 yards from each sideline, Greg Schiano opens drill work every day with his position group at this location, looking to perfect something the co-defensive coordinator and former NFL head coach says only two individuals during his coaching career ever did.

One of them is future NFL Hall of Famer Ed Reed. The other currently plays for Ohio State.

“We talk about a middle of the field safety, can you cover from red line to red line?” Schiano said on Wednesday. “And those are exceptional guys. Malik is one of those guys that can do that.”

Schiano has compared Hooker to Reed on more than one occasion, even doing so at the team's Fiesta Bowl Media Day a few weeks ago in Columbus. Schiano coached Reed at Miami (FL) during the 1999 and 2000 season while he served as defensive coordinator of the Hurricanes.

Reed finished his college career with 21 interceptions, four of which he returned for touchdowns. It got to a point where if a pass headed deep down the field, it came as a shock to Schiano if Reed didn't pick it off.

He feels the same way about Hooker.

“Some guys have this thing, I call it spatial relations, where they just can see the quarterback, they can feel the receiver, they don't look at the receiver, they just know where he is, know where he's going to end up, and they connect the dots. You can coach for a long time but that's something that's a gift. And he has that.”– Greg Schiano on Malik Hooker

“To be able to consistently do it? Every once in a while a guy guesses right and can get there. But to consistently do it? Very few,” Schiano said. “Over the years, I think back and Ed and Malik jump out. Not a lot others.”

Hooker's rise to stardom this season is as improbable as it is outrageous, considering the fact he only played two years of high school football and Urban Meyer found him on a basketball court in New Castle, Pennsylvania. In Hooker's first year as a starter, all he did was lead the country in pick-sixes (three) and join Pat Elflein as the 28th and 29th unanimous All-Americans in program history.

“I say it's a been a pretty good year,” Hooker said sheepishly on Wednesday, a wry smile peeking through his easygoing demeanor and dreadlocks buried under an Ohio State hat.

Hooker's six interceptions in 12 games easily led the Buckeyes, and forced his teammates and coaches use terms like "ball hawk," "bad dude" and "secondary boss" in an attempt to describe his impact on the passing game.

“He's a ballhawk. He and I fighting in the Michigan State game on the 2-point conversion, I felt somebody on him and I actually thought it was a Michigan State player,” linebacker Chris Worley said. “I'm fighting and then I look over and I see Malik and I'm like, 'This dude just finds a way to get to the ball. You gotta get it before he gets it.'”

Hooker doesn't know what his wingspan is, nor does he really care about his 40-yard dash time. His vertical jump? Hooker says that is either 36 or 37 inches, depending on the day.

“But from what I've been told, my arms are real long to be my size,” Hooker said. “I'm a bigger defensive back.”

A vague descriptor embodies Hooker's demeanor. Stardom is part of his daily life now, partly due to an ability to shift directions on a dime and reach full speed in a nanosecond. This forces Schiano to lump him into the same stratosphere as Reed.

That closing ability is special and served him well as he made spectacular interceptions against Bowling Green in the season opener (twice) and then Tulsa the following week. It also lends him the ability to easily cover the 43 1/2-yard span from red line to red line on the practice field, a coaching tactic Schiano took from the great Bill Walsh.

“When you talk about defense, it's a lot like basketball—what's your coverage radius? Can you run, No. 1, and then when it's time to make a play on the ball, what's your radius? If you have long arms can you cover a large area around your body?” Schiano said. “He's a guy that when he's in zone coverage, he has tremendous range.”

Hooker obviously has the attention of Clemson's Deshaun Watson—who called Hooker "elite" and a first round talent Wednesday—the quarterback Ohio State must stop in Saturday's Fiesta Bowl. Watson's favorite target is Mike Williams, a top reciever prospect in this year's draft class. He isn't alone, however, as Schiano calls the entire receiving corps "as good as we've seen" in 2016. The Tigers must account for Hooker too—the only problem is there are only 12 game tapes on Hooker. Each presents something eye-popping.

“Preparing for this game, you want to make sure that you check all the boxes, that you cross reference everything and I went back and watched some of the games last year and I'm looking for 24, I'm looking for 24 and I don't see him,” Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliot said. “I'm like, 'My God, where is he at? Was he hurt or something?' Then you find out this is his first year playing.

“Just an unbelievable talent, you can see that he's got speed that, I don't want to clock it because I don't want to see how fast it is. But he's got instincts too and he makes plays on the ball.”

Playing defense with a talent like Hooker is a luxury too. If you make a mistake or can't quite get to the quarterback before he chucks it downfield, there is a chance he will get there to take care of it. It is hard to quantify his range.


“The first game, you seen him flip his hips, run 40 yards and make a one-handed interception,” Worley said. “Helping out Joe Burger, he's in a man-to-man situation. Joe Burger knowing that he had top cover help, deep and high. Joe was running and Malik just came on a 40-, 50-yard sprint and snatched the ball, returned it for another 50 yards. Not a lot of people can do that at that position that young into his career too.”

Sounds like what Reed used to do for the Baltimore Ravens, doesn't it?

When Schiano arrived at Ohio State a year ago, met Hooker and watched him work out, he told the budding star he could be as good as Reed one day. Hooker didn't believe him. Schiano stressed how Reed dominated games not only due to his special talent but more because of his preparation.

Hooker flipped a switched and started owning film study, the red lines and everything fell into place. Now he is projected as a first-round NFL Draft pick should he decide to leave early.

“Some guys have this thing, I call it spatial relations, where they just can see the quarterback, they can feel the receiver, they don't look at the receiver, they just know where he is, know where he's going to end up, and they connect the dots,” Schiano said. “You can coach for a long time but that's something that's a gift. And he has that.”

Such a gift is rare. And now front and center on Ohio State's defense in 2016, Hooker got a chance to act on it like he does a high arcing pass thrown by the quarterback, all with Schiano's help.

“That's just being God-gifted. I didn't do nothing to earn this or be able to make the plays I made out there and I know that. It's just something like humble confidence,” Hooker said. “I just have the mentality that the opportunity is right there in front of me, make the most of it. Because if you don't, somebody else is going to take it.”

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