The Georgia Bulldogs defense has proven itself to be one of the best defenses in the nation. The emergence of cornerback Tyson Campbell has been critical to that success, but other talents like Eric Stokes, Monty Rice, and Jordan Davis pull their weight as well. However, no top defense is ever complete without a big-time coverage safety on the back end. For Georgia, that is senior safety Richard LeCounte.
He was always thought of as a solid player, but this year, he has proven himself to be not just solid but a difference-maker as well. With a boost in his draft stock due to a high-level of play, where has LeCounte improved?
Richard LeCounte changes the game at all levels of the field
Safeties are a highly undervalued position in the NFL if you ask me. Specifically, these center field cover safeties that can do so many things for a defense schematically. Richard LeCounte fits into this mold, which makes him so appealing to someone like me. For me, it is that flexibility where you can really embrace someone like LeCounte, even if your team has two capable safeties. A growing sub-package league gives LeCounte a lot of value.
The obvious place where LeCounte makes his presence felt is on the back end of the defense. As the center field safety, LeCounte’s vocal presence and leadership are among the core reasons why the Georgia defense is as tight as possible. This is not a Saban complicated defense, but the Bulldogs mix and match coverages more than most other college teams, and to have great communication skills bodes well for LeCounte to make a difference on the back end at the next level, too.
If you want a player who can tell you the route combination and play before the snap, Richard LeCounte is your guy. The Georgia safety’s processing skills are nothing short of elite. I can argue that they are the best among this year’s safety class period, and not only does that allow LeCounte to thrive in the center field role, but it enhances his ball-hawking skills to jump routes. Very few players have the innate skill to be in the right place at the right time, and LeCounte is one of those players. He sees things differently from everyone else and has mastered the ability to drive, align, and backpedal, all of which are essential for deep safety to be playmakers.
LeCounte’s improvement in man coverage raises his value
At the second level, Richard LeCounte is a sufficient man coverage defender in the slot. Again, this largely goes back to instincts and the eyes of LeCounte. The eyes for a defensive back in man coverage are the head of the chain reaction. If your eyes stay disciplined and patient on the receiver’s hips, your hips and body will follow. Top echelon man coverage safeties have this top-notch eye discipline that LeCounte displays. This is where he has taken the biggest leap by far.
However, what often gets overlooked when we talk about good man coverage defenders in the slot for safeties is what it can do for a defense schematically. First, the basics are that this league is a passing league. More teams are running out of 10 personnel and empty sets than ever before. Even more so, tight ends are mismatch weapons. Having a player that can deal with talented tight ends is always a nice feat to have defensively.
Second, this is useful for disguising slot blitzes and running exotic coverages. For example, on blitzes or trap coverages, safeties like LeCounte act as the ‘cap’ defender over the top. When you can trust your safety in coverage, it allows your cornerbacks to go hunting for big plays.
Lastly, LeCounte’s elite instincts are useful in run support, too. Last week against Tennessee, LeCounte made an impressive play to sniff out a reverse design when no one else on the Bulldogs defense did, and as a result, had a tackle for loss from that play. LeCounte is a sure tackler and not a big hitter by any means, but he can hang with guys in the box and even shed some blocks at the second level.
Physical issues plague his game
Despite the improvements above, Richard LeCounte has some natural issues in his game that he’ll need to work on. He is a valuable safety that can act as a sub-package chess piece for teams as a middle of the field robber, box safety, and slot defender. However, I have some reservations about him being in the single-high role he mainly plays at Georgia.
That might come as a surprise given the praise I have for his ball skills and instincts earlier from that role, but the issues I have with him revolve around his physical skill set. When LeCounte is drafted, no one is going to be blown away by his combine numbers. The range is maximized thanks to LeCounte’s fantastic mental aptitude towards football, but you can only make up for so much with that. He does not possess great speed or explosiveness to really make rangy plays that better athletes at the position can pull off.
What’s even more troubling is LeCounte’s hip tightness. Flipping his hips requires quite a bit of effort, and his transitions are slow and labored. Sometimes, defensive backs take things like yoga to loosen up their hips, and it actually helps. This could be a training thing that he has to change to play single-high at the next level adequately.
In addition to all of that, LeCounte is not physically imposing. At 5’11”, he has average height, but when we talk about guarding 6’5″ tight ends, every inch matters. The lack of length that he has is also an issue in the red zone, specifically. For Georgia, LeCounte has made up for this shortcoming by adding more muscle to his frame to play more physically at the safety position. He actively fights tight ends at the catch point, and at the very least, is pesky because he can bully them around a bit. Worries could arise when LeCounte faces a top-end tight end in the NFL.
Still, even with the noted physical concerns, there is no doubt that Richard LeCounte’s technical ability and mental qualities are great. It makes up for his physical limitations to make him an immediate plug-and-play guy at the next level. This is a guy who can make big plays in the secondary. However, whichever team takes a chance on him will have to accept that his ceiling is limited to a degree because of physical limitations.