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2023 NFL Draft Profile: Henry To’oto’o: Speed. Ball-Awareness. Smarts. Leadership.

Henry T is almost the perfect inside linebacker. Almost.

Auburn v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In 2018, when Henry T was being recruited, he was a player that many badly wanted the Tide to land, including me. For a while it seemed as though Alabama would reel him in. But when Jeremy Pruitt departed for Knoxville, so to did Henry’s NLI. And in 2019, he would sign with Tennessee.

The 6’2”, 227-pound four-star from California was an ESPN / Rivals Top 100 player and the No. 3 overall LB in the country. It’s easy to see why too: Henry could fill a need for versatility, for football smarts, for leadership, for productivity, and above all for his speed. He received two dozen offers, and almost all of them were from the fleet SEC and P12. I was genuinely crushed when he went to the hated Vawls.

At Tennessee, To’oto’o was a day one starter at Mike, and became an instant playmaker. Henry was second on the Volunteers in tackles that year, and was named Freshman All-SEC, and was a Freshman All-American honorable mention selection. His second season was just as productive, as he led UT in tackles and TFL, and would go on to earn second-team All-SEC accolades. Then he transferred to Alabama where he was penciled in as the starter at ILB before he even arrived. It turned out to be a safe bet. In both 2021 and 2022, Henry was again All-SEC (1st team in 2022), and again led his team in tackles for two straight years.

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s a Freshman All-SEC, two Second-Team All-SEC nods, and an All-SEC bid — four straight years he was honored among the conference’s best. And, in four years, he led his team in tackles in three of those, and was just four tackles shy of doing so as a Freshman.

But it was not just his knack for being around the ball and being a sure tackler that led to his stats, it was instinctiveness. Henry just knows where the play is going. He’s been called “a football genius” by his peers, and upon his arrival in Tuscaloosa, he instantly became the cerebral and emotional leader of the defense. To’oto’o reads plays quickly, communicates clearly to his teammates, and gets everyone reading from the same page. Fast. That had been missing from ‘Bama’s offense its previous few seasons.

That instinctiveness and IQ also set him apart in his versatility. Henry was all over the field over four years. In his career, he notched two interceptions, seven sacks, seven PBU, five PD, eight hits and 31 TFL.

As a player, there is so much to love about his game. Lateral speed, leadership, tackling ability, coverage, coordination, communication. He runs just a straight line 4.62 / 40, but his read and reaction speed, and a lightning-quick first step shooting the gap or moving laterally, make his play so much faster than what the Combine will ever show.

However, there are some warts in his game, and they do jump out at you. The main one is his physicality. Henry is a respectable 228 pounds, light for a MLB, but not shamefully so. But he plays smaller than that, and throughout his career Henry gave up a lot of extra yards after contact from his inability to bring down bigger backs. And, while Henry could often maneuver around a lead blocker, if someone got a hat on him, then he was not strong enough to defeat the block and make the play.

To’oto’o is usually a sure-tackler, but there were many occasions where a running back blew threw an attempted tackle and got well into the second level. In 2021, it was somewhat excusable, as he was playing through a shoulder injury. But it persisted again in 2022, and teams challenged the Tide right up the middle, figuring on taking their chances against To’oto’o.

Henry has adapted his game to make up for the lack of raw power via his quick reaction and an equally quick and decisive first step. But it is often a 50-50 proposition that he will bring down a bigger back, even when he’s meeting the ball carrier in the hole and has read the play perfectly. That quick reading isn’t always successful. Henry has been guilty of reading a bit too fast, and then he finds himself having to take unenviable tackling angles — almost always in run defense.

He’s not a lightweight. And Henry wins more than his share of battles between the tackles with superior leverage and an ability to get under the pads, but lack of strength is a deficit.

Whether that limitation is a product of his game or his size remain TBD. He entered college at just 210 pounds. He’s put on nearly 20 pounds of muscle, but he’s still the shifty running back at heart that he was in high school. And, there is a legitimate concern that any attempt to bulk up his frame further would ruin the parts of hos game that are truly excellent: sideline to sideline playmaking, fluid pass coverage, and a quick first step. Those skills — combined with his cerebral and fiery leadership — may very well be worth the trade off to a team that can live without a physical presence in the middle.

Henry is projected to go in the early stages of the mid-rounds, somewhere around the 3rd of 4th. Whether he can start in the NFL will depend entirely on what kind of tradeoffs a team can live with to gain a sideline-to-sideline field general and playmaker in other respects.


Where will Henry To’oto’o be drafted?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    First two rounds
    (11 votes)
  • 69%
    Middle rounds (3rd — 5th)
    (96 votes)
  • 17%
    Later rounds (6th — 7th)
    (25 votes)
  • 2%
    Undrafted free agent
    (3 votes)
  • 2%
    Honestly don’t know
    (4 votes)
139 votes total Vote Now