Born in the Offseason

Harold Landry


hampions are born in the offseason.

Many recognize the phrase, but few understand it as literally as Harold Landry. Last summer, the star defensive end for Boston College football made a life-altering decision by sacrificing a summer at home in Fayetteville, N.C., in favor of non-stop training in Chestnut Hill.

Every morning, the regimented routine began at 6 a.m. with weightlifting, followed by cardio training, then more lifting, and finally, in the evenings, field work. In his spare time, he met his future fiancée, Danielle Rios-Roberts. Talk about making the most of your day.

To say it paid off would be an understatement. Landry’s hard work translated into a breakout junior campaign in which he led the country with 16.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles, as well as an ACC-best 22 tackles for loss.

But in a draft class stacked with elite defensive ends—including the No. 1 overall pick, Myles Garrett—some projected Landry to fall somewhere in the second or third round. So the 6-foot-3, 250-pound pass rusher set aside doubts about a senior slump or Lattimorian fate and opted to return with one goal in mind.

“The best of the best get drafted in the first round, and I want to make sure my name is in that category,” Landry said.

This summer, naturally, has been even more of a grind—much of it mental. Since the Eagles’ Quick Lane Bowl win in December, Landry has studied tape to dissect his footwork and prepare for possible double teams in the fall. After all, he expects extra attention as just the second FBS sack leader since 2005 to return for his senior year.

But the most important footage he saw this offseason was an ultrasound. On June 5, Landry received a special—albeit atypical—21st birthday present when Rios-Roberts had their first baby, Greyson.

Now comes the hardest stretch of Landry’s career, one where he’ll have to juggle new challenges like double teams and fatherhood, to name a few. There will be slip-ups and spit-ups along the way, of course. But if anyone can balance bone-crushing hits and gentle bedtime routines, it’s Landry.

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“Coach, I’m sick and tired of getting my ass kicked by these big boys.”

No, that’s not a quote from a UMass offensive lineman, that’s actually Landry himself circa 2012. As a rising junior on Pine Forest’s varsity football team, Landry had grown tired of taking a beating from massive teammates like Lamont Gaillard, a four-star offensive tackle who now starts for Georgia.

Landry didn’t just complain, though. His head coach, Bill Sochovka, watched him change his training habits almost overnight.

“That’s when he committed to the weight room,” Sochovka remembers. “During the summertime, we would work out in the morning as a team. Then he would come back around four o’clock and he would do another workout, mostly lifting. He was always there.”

Sure enough, he bulked up and earned second-team all-conference honors in his junior season. After football ended, a new season started. Landry doubled down on his workouts and began visiting Fort Bragg Army Base to train in his free time. By the time autumn rolled around, he was a bonafide beast. Landry wreaked havoc across the league, totaling 17 sacks and 96 tackles, including 15 for a loss, en route to Mid-South Defensive Player of the Year honors.

And yet, somehow, he was still overlooked. Assistant coaches from the top programs in the country came to Pine Forest to recruit Gaillard, not Landry. Despite attending camps, Landry was left out of the Under Armour game while Gaillard made the roster without any effort. For the Shrine Bowl, Landry tested off the charts with a 4.56 40-yard dash time and impressive weight room numbers, but the all-star game again eluded him. Gaillard, on the other hand, didn’t even participate in the tests because he was recovering from injury but was still selected. It felt as if Landry was being teased.

“For every accolade Lamont got that Harold didn’t get, that motivated him more,” Sochovka said.

It didn’t take long for colleges to catch wind of his 40-yard dash time, which was faster than all but two defensive ends who participated in the 2017 NFL Combine. Soon enough, powerhouses like Clemson and Florida State were calling with offers. Some of the nearby programs that had previously slept on him now came crawling back, too. After a stressful four-hour period of decommitment, Landry ultimately decided to reward BC for its genuine interest and honor his verbal commitment. And years later, he’d punish the nearby schools that offered too late.

“His motivation is still there,” Sochovka said. “When he comes back to North Carolina and he plays teams that were kind of wishy-washy on him, if you look at the stats, he’s motivated to have really good games against them.”

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Von Miller comparisons are not to be thrown around lightly.

The Texas A&M star ignited a pass-rushing revolution of sorts when he entered the league as the No. 2 pick in 2011 NFL Draft. A 4.49 40-yard dash time at Senior Day confirmed his quickness, but many wondered whether Miller would fit at outside linebacker or defensive end at the next level. One 20-year veteran scout called him a “one-move guy.” Would he create mismatches with his speed or be a size mismatch himself?

Four Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl MVP later, those questions have been answered for Miller. “That team should use [insert player] like Von Miller” has since become a common phrase. He proved that, in an increasingly pass-happy league, a market exists for the outside linebacker-defensive end hybrid.

But for Landry, doubts remain about his NFL potential despite his similarities to the Denver Broncos star. Both led the FBS in sacks as a junior. Both returned for their senior seasons after receiving second-round draft grades. Both are 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, and nimble as hell.

“The big thing is his step,” Sochovka says of Landry. “He’s in the backfield before some of the offensive linemen have even taken their first step. It’s almost not fair.”

A majority of Landry’s 21 career sacks have come using his simple, go-to move. After exploding off the line of scrimmage, he eyes the edge and bends his body to duck underneath his blocker. The key is footwork—because Landry starts out wide, he must throw his hips back toward the pocket if he wants to cap off his rush with a sack.

Landry’s roundabout route past the opposing tackle often takes place in the quarterback’s blind spot, meaning there is little warning before the blast. As a result, he forced fumbles on nearly half of his sacks last year. Only two players since 2005 have amassed more forced fumbles than Landry’s seven in 2016.

The problem with the Miller comparison doesn’t lie in Landry’s abilities as a pash rusher. It’s an issue of pass coverage. Scouts looking for him to match the Miller prototype will ask, can he drop back and disrupt short passes as much as he does the backfield?

If Landry’s last game of 2016 was any indication, the answer might just be yes. In the second quarter of the Eagles’ Quick Lane Bowl win against Maryland, he spotted a screen developing and dropped back into coverage, following the quarterback’s eyes every step of the way. Landry leaped to his right and snagged a one-handed interception, a display of athleticism that BC fans had yet to see.

But it was all too familiar to his high school coach. Sochovka actually designed a near-identical play for Landry at Pine Forest called Bandit, where the feared pass rusher would backpedal into coverage after the snap.

“His senior year, we were playing Greenville Rose,” Ochovka said. “They ran a screen, and he stepped up and he picked the screen off right there. It was very similar to what I saw in the bowl game.”

Landry’s hands might be the most underrated aspect of his game. His high school Hudl tape shows an elite wide receiver making one-handed diving catches left and right. Perhaps he has baseball to thank. Before he decided to focus on football during his junior year, Landry was a star pitcher on the baseball team, garnering looks from the University of Miami and others. But that was before he piled on pounds of muscle.

Now, it’s likely he’ll put off a transition to a Miller-esque hybrid until he reaches the pros. After all, he has one of the best defensive end coaches in the country at his fingertips for one more year.

Paul Pasqualoni, a longtime Syracuse head coach who later graduated to the NFL, joined the BC staff just before Landry’s huge junior season, and the timing is no accident. Among Pasqualoni’s pupils are J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen, and Jason Taylor. Landry is up next—as long as he maintains an obsessive attention to detail, Pasqualoni says.

“If you don’t take care of all these little things, that big thing is never going to take care of itself,” Pasqualoni told USA Today. “And if you only care about the big thing then you’re in trouble. My advice to Harold—and it’s the same every day—is to come here and take care of the little things.”

Together, they sifted through hours of tape, studying the technical intricacies of pass rushing by watching Pasqualoni’s former students in action. Landry also ran through 450 plays this spring, then judged the film with his coach and gave either a plus or minus grade based on his execution of the little things. He even got scolded by the legendary coach for using a short golf pencil instead of a normal writing utensil.

“When he first got here, you could definitely tell that we were two different people,” Landry said. “But as time went on, I learned his style of coaching and I think we just clicked, football-wise.”

Landry isn’t caught up with chasing records, but he is hellbent on improvement. This season, conveniently, he’ll need 17 sacks—a slight increase from his 2016 total—to become the program’s all-time sack leader.

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Not since the famed 2007 season, when Matt Ryan led the Eagles to an 8-0 start and No. 2 national ranking, has there been so much draft hype surrounding a college football player in Boston. Preseason All-ACC. AP Preseason All-American first team. Walter Camp Player of the Year Watch List. He’s officially the big man on campus now.

But back home, the senior defensive end is still very much a rookie dad.

Rios-Roberts recalls one night when she handed nighttime duties off to Landry, even leaving him equipped with diapers and a pre-filled bottle in the fridge. The next thing she remembers is waking up to screaming.

“Danielle! I need your help!”

She rushed out of bed to find Greyson peeing all over the walls and Landry struggling to block the stream with his hands. He had already changed two diapers in the same changing session, and the unstoppable catastro-pee was the final straw.

“When I say her name,” Landry laughs, “that’s when it’s serious.”

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The last time Landry saw his high school coach was in July of 2016, just a few months before the college football world would come to learn his name. Since leaving his hometown, Landry has made a habit of reconnecting with Sochovka over dinner. But this time, he didn’t bring his old Pine Forest teammates—Landry wanted to introduce his former coach to Rios-Roberts.

Sochovka’s wife grilled steaks and Landry ended up eating “about seven” T-bones before the night was over. They reminisced and laughed about his days at Pine Forest, when the lanky teen looked more like a pitcher than a lineman.

When it came time to leave, Landry mentioned they were driving back to Boston for a workout the next day. Why not spend the night in Fayetteville, Sochovka asked, and work out at Pine Forest instead of driving back so late? But Landry didn’t seem sold, so the couples said their goodbyes and went their separate ways.

The next morning, Sochovka was up at dawn to beat the heat and mow the football field. When he pulled into Pine Forest, he spotted another car in the otherwise empty lot. He had a hunch whom it belonged to.

Sure enough, there on the football field was Landry, running sprints with Rios-Roberts looking on, stopwatch in hand. Sochovka couldn’t help but smile, even if Landry’s work ethic was hardly surprising after all these years.

The pair didn’t take days off then, and they certainly don’t now. Raising Greyson is a 24-hour-a-day job. And physically raising him up isn’t going to get any easier. Greyson is already in the 95th percentile for weight and over the 98th percentile for height. In other words, Greyson’s measurables are elite. Rios-Roberts says that, at 3 months old, he wears 9-month clothing because he outgrew everything else.

Luckily for Landry, he knows a thing or two about offseason growth.

Featured Image by Ben Solomon / BC Athletics

Images by John Quackenbos / BC Athletics and Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

Riley Overend

Riley Overend is the Associate Sports Editor for the Heights. He hails from the Bay Area, and likes to think of himself as a Kanyesseur. You can follow him on Twitter at @RileyHeights.

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