Dele Harding proved to be the straw that stirred the drink for the 2019 Illinois Football team.
After waiting patiently for his turn after three years, Dele earned the starting middle linebacker job and ran with it. Finishing second in the nation with 153 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and so on, Harding was named First-Team All-Big Ten by the media.
More than that, after a rocky 2-4 start to the season, Harding along with the rest of the defense started to click, coinciding with a 4-2 end to the season and a bowl berth. That pertains especially to Harding and the improvements made midseason. In coverage, Dele improved dramatically after an especially rough showing against Eastern Michigan at home.
The big responsibility for linebackers in Lovie's 4-3 defensive scheme is dropping into spots far enough back to protect the middle of the field from a passing game picking the defense apart. They play up, they play back, they are the most important aspect of the 4-3. Think Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
Not to compare the Hall of Famers to Dele Harding, but his play elevated the rest of the defense when they needed it the most. Wins against Wisconsin, Purdue and Rutgers were largely due to Harding's revelation in coverage gap fills:
As a draft eligible player, Harding has much to improve for a team to take a chance on him. He's not fast for his position, clocking in with a 4.85 40 yard dash (for comparison, Isaiah Simmons, the top-ranked linebacker prospect, ran a blazing 4.39 40). His measurables are solid, and as a run supporting inside linebacker, he's definitely got intriguing upside.
Can he cover in the NFL though? That's the question that needs to be answered before we even begin to discuss possibilities at the professional level. His fluidity and hip movement needs serious work. The 4-3 Tampa 2 just isn't in demand in the NFL anymore. Offenses tend to spread the defense thin, and that requires sideline to sideline speed for linebackers. Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, Lavonte David. Those are the hybrid types teams crave.
Harding can definitely carve out a niche for himself as a run-stuffing two-down backer who diagnoses plays and gets downfield well. He's intelligent, hard-working, a coach’s dream to mould. A special teams maven, a la Brendan Ayanbadejo, a player Lovie has experience with. His upside is limited, but I see a Kevin Pierre-Louis or a Malik Reed type. In the box, he can create havoc and play the run well.
In terms of draft position, I don't see Harding going earlier than the seventh round, possibly an undrafted free agent, which could be a blessing in disguise. Being able to negotiate where you earn a chance is not the worst situation to be in. I would personally love to be wrong, as Dele was one of my favorite players to watch this season.