How Eric Gentry transformed into USC’s pass-swatting defensive field general
Before his uncommon length became his greatest strength, Eric Gentry struggled to feel comfortable in his own body.
Between eighth and ninth grades, the future USC inside linebacker sprouted more than four inches. He grew another three soon after that, soaring to 6 feet 6 by his junior year at Neuman-Goretti High in Philadelphia. The rest of his body would take much longer to follow suit. As a stringy sophomore, Gentry weighed around 160 pounds, the unexpected growth spurt leaving his towering frame spindly and awkward.
That frame would one day make him one of the most unique defenders in college football, as with Gentry emerging this season as the rangy, pass-swatting, ball-stopping field general at the center of USC’s defense. Through four games, Gentry not only leads the Trojans in tackles (32), but the influence his seven-foot-plus wingspan has made as a deterrent in the middle of the defense is immeasurable.
USC coach Lincoln Riley called Brett Neilon leading a surge behind Caleb Williams for a key fourth-down conversion one of his favorite plays ever.
Last week, in USC’s narrow win over Oregon State, Gentry not only intercepted a pass, but forced the game-clinching pick by tipping another from his place in the middle of the field. The poignant performance looked familiar to Al Crosby, who coached Gentry at Neumann-Goretti and also on the seven-on-seven passing circuit.
“This young man could potentially change the game,” Crosby said. “He’s just that physically different.”
That wasn’t always the sentiment surrounding the gangly linebacker. Even as Gentry made a difference rushing off the edge, covering slot receivers and doing generally anything else asked of him at Neumann-Goretti, his skinny frame gave some college coaches pause. Never mind that, as a junior, he had 15 sacks, seven of which resulted in fumbles.
“The [coaches] that got excited about him talked about his length,” Crosby said. “The ones that weren’t overly excited about him talked about his weight.”
“He was like a volleyball player on the field, spiking stuff. He was extremely, extremely dominant. His confidence started to rise.”
— Al Crosby, on Eric Gentry’s development in high school
Gentry wasn’t entirely confident in either at the time. It wasn’t until his senior year, he says, that he felt comfortable enough to use his length to its full extent. Then, the pandemic stole his final high school season.
It was during the summer passing tournament that Crosby first deployed Gentry as a middle linebacker for his PA Playmakers. With time, Gentry grew more comfortable working in space. He studied tape of Isaiah Simmons, the hybrid linebacker who at the time was a star at Clemson. He worked relentlessly on his man coverage skills. He tried to emulate Cowboys sack artist Micah Parsons, who, at one point, also played for the Playmakers.
Before long, he created his own position, Crosby said.
“He was batting passes down,” the coach said. “He was like a volleyball player on the field, spiking stuff. He was extremely, extremely dominant. His confidence started to rise.”
It crystallized even more at Arizona State, where Gentry was named a Freshman All-American after a stellar debut season at inside linebacker. The departure of assistant coach Antonio Pierce, who recruited him, left Gentry feeling less comfortable during a tumultuous season in Tempe.
After he struggled in USC’s narrow win over Oregon State, quarterback Caleb Williams will be looking to get his season back on track against Arizona State.
So he entered the NCAA transfer portal, again leaving coaches across the country to wonder where his unusual frame might fit.
At USC, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch had the same questions before Gentry arrived in the spring.
“By and large,” Grinch says, “he’s answered those.”
It was inside linebackers coach Brian Odom who first suggested moving Gentry to the middle linebacker spot, where he could use his length to cover more space in USC’s scheme.
It was an unconventional choice, at least on paper. At the NFL level, there are no inside linebackers taller than 6-5 who have played a snap this season. Nor are there any inside linebackers as light as Gentry, whose official weight is listed at 200 pounds.
Regarding the latter number, Grinch doesn’t mince any words: “For him to be the player that he can be, the weight has got to come on,” Grinch said. “That’s just fact.”
Here are three takeaways from USC’s narrow 17-14 win over Oregon State on Saturday in Corvallis, Ore.
Yet USC coaches have been impressed by his physicality, in spite of what he might sacrifice because of his height.
“He’s a very physical player and his ability to bend and really kind of explode out of his hips shows up physically where you get the length, but you don’t feel like you’re losing on the leverage and physicality side,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “So he’s done a nice job kind of counteracting that. Now, you’d imagine throughout his career he’ll continue to put on a few pounds obviously as he goes on and that will be a goal throughout this season and as we continue on. But physically he’s really held up.”
Gentry is still growing as a linebacker, but all it takes is one look at the tape from his standout performance against Oregon State to see he’s starting to understand what his uncommon frame can do.
He’s no longer interested in hearing about what it can’t.
“I’m not really worried about any intangibles,” Gentry said. “I’ve got the heart.”
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