Hayes Pullard has been a consistent defensive force for the USC Trojans during the past four years.
But while his leadership and steady role on the defense was invaluable to USC through numerous coaching changes, his transition to the NFL will present a new type of adversity he probably has never faced before.
No longer will he be able to hold his own on the field purely due to a combination of strength and athleticism. He'll have to play more man coverage and probably almost exclusively special teams early in his NFL career.
The best aspect of Hayes Pullard's game is his ability to get off blocks to make tackles, which is hard to do and very important. He has some pretty great upper-body strength that he uses to ward off blockers, even offensive linemen that are much bigger than he is.
He's a little hard to find in this clip, but Pullard (10) starts on the right side of your screen, and is able to fight off an offensive lineman with one arm before coming in to make the tackle:
And here, he starts toward the left side, and uses his arms well to disengage before getting in on the tackle:
Hayes Pullard was surprisingly explosive over short distances. He is very good at being quick to the ball carrier after disengaging with his blocker:
Again, he shows surprising athleticism here when he maneuvers around the blocker. He seems to have a knack for body control and knowing how to position himself to avoid the brunt of the block:
And a great job blowing up the lead blocker here and still managing to make the tackle:
Hayes Pullard is "surprisingly" athletic because he clearly isn't a Luke Kuechly/Lavonte David sideline-to-sideline-range type of player. He's pretty good at playing the run because he's very strong and knows what he's doing, but he was never really put in many tough situations in coverage, probably because he doesn't have notable straight-line speed.
But even though he wasn't asked to do a whole lot in coverage from what I saw, he still looks comfortable in space here and uses perfect technique to break up the pass -- he stays on the back hip of his receiver, and gets his inside arm around to deflect the pass while keeping his outside arm on the receiver (defenders are allowed to touch the receiver so long as they don't impede the receiver's movement) just in case the receiver is able to haul in the pass:
I spoke to the importance of a player's balance in a piece I did on former Trojan Devon Kennard here, but basically, a defender who is always on the ground isn't helping anyone. Pullard shows perfect technique here as he uses his hands to protect his legs from the diving offensive lineman:
He doesn't make the tackle on this play, but the point is, he keeps himself alive and available within the play, and keeping one's feet is a skill that will only become more relevant at the NFL level.
I spoke about Pullard's athleticism earlier, and here is where a lack of consistency in space shows up:
Pullard is good at taking on blockers and making tackles in traffic, but his one-on-one game in space could use some work. He slows his feet for a split second here, only to have the running back quickly change direction and run right by him.
And here, he takes a bad angle and isn't quite fast enough to catch up to the runner:
The thing about Hayes Pullard is how much better he can get? Has he fully tapped his potential? In today's NFL, the most athletic linebackers are the most valuable, and that simply doesn't seem to be who Pullard is. At 235 pounds, he is already relatively light by NFL standards, so shedding weight to make himself faster wouldn't do much for his game.
Don't get me wrong, he can be an NFL player and may even play 5+ years in the league if things fall the right way. But he'll probably be a reserve for most of his career (not that that's a terrible job by any means). Who knows, he may even work his way into a starting role at middle linebacker, where he'll probably be a solid run-stuffing player. I just don't think he has the upside of a Patrick Willis, or even a Bobby Wagner.
While he may not be the most athletic player, there's no doubt he's a hard-working guy and will do his best wherever he's drafted.