A simple question takes Ty Powell by surprise. He has never been asked this before.
What kind of linebacker is he? Powell has changed positions so much – he’s played six in six years – he’s not quite sure himself. Powell does know his “ability to adapt” is why he’s entering training camp with a chance to contribute in the Buffalo Bills’ defense.
“I’ve proven that through all my years in football and all my years in the league,” Powell said. “I can be put in any situation possible, whether that’s being on the field for three downs or I could pass rush if they need someone to pass rush. I could cover. I could tackle the ball. I could bring a lot to the defense.”
Right now, he’s an inside linebacker in new head coach Rex Ryan’s 3-4 defense with an outside shot to challenge projected starters Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham. Ryan made a point to single out Powell in May. A core special teams player, this might be the season he breaks through on defense.
It’s been a planes, trains and automobiles trek to middle linebacker, too.
As a freshman at DeAnza (Calif.) College, Powell played cornerback. His sophomore year, he moved to free safety. Powell transferred to Harding (Ark.) University to play the “Rover” position in the 4-2-5 defense. As a senior, he was a defensive end – with 8.5 sacks and four blocked kicks – doing enough to get drafted in the seventh round by the Seattle Seahawks in 2013.
In Seattle, he played the “Leo” position, as a stand-up defensive end. Powell was cut, signed with the New York Giants practice squad, signed by Buffalo on Oct. 8, 2013, and then learned middle linebacker (and a little outside) in a 4-3 scheme. Now he’s in the middle of a 3-4.
And before all of this, Powell was a high school quarterback.
The biggest challenge hasn’t been constantly changing his body; it’s constantly learning new terminology.
“I’ve been with so many coaches,” Powell said. “So you’ve got to be able to talk their language. And you have to re-code your brain to think, ‘OK, this is what this means,’ and you have to get what you used to know out.”
Powell notes he’s been playing the game since second grade. He can pick up X’s and O’s quickly. Wherever he is on the field, he’ll visually cut the field in half. So if an offense came out with three receivers and one running back, for example, he’d instantly think back to all the route concepts he studied on film from, say, the left side of the field.
“You can’t just go out there and think, ‘Oh, I’m going to make plays,’ ” Powell said. “The preparation to it is the big aspect itself.”
This Ryan defense is unlike anything he’s ever seen, too.
“We can do whatever we want,” Powell said. “And most of the time, what we’re doing is disguised. So most people don’t know what we’re in or what we’re doing. And if they do, we have people who are some of the best in the league – so they still have to stop them from doing what they do best.”
At Harding, defensive coordinator Paul Simmons said Powell was “unblockable.” Athletically, he’s never seen anything like him, too.
One day, Powell was on a trampoline with Simmons’ kids in the backyard when one asked if he could do a back flip. On the spot, in blue jeans, Powell did a back flip and immediately redirected into a front flip. His two blocked kicks against Southern Arkansas – one leading to a touchdown, another to two points on an extra point – single-handedly won Harding the game.
Simmons remembers the Indianapolis Colts’ longtime scout running Powell’s pro day shaking his head in amazement as Powell flipped his hips seamlessly in coverage. See Powell hold a baseball bat, Simmons adds, and you’d think he was a professional baseball player.
“He can do anything,” Simmons said. “He’s a student. He’s an incredible athlete. … If you told me he could hit a softball 375 feet, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ He’s an awesome athlete. And he’s a fantastic guy – ‘yes sir, no sir.’ He’s a special, special kid.”
It’ll be difficult to unseat Brown as the brains of the defense. He’s the one who made Kiko Alonso expendable after totaling 109 tackles last season. Then again, dozens of young linebackers across the NFL cut their teeth on special teams, lay out returners and force the head coach’s hand.
Powell believes the game is starting to slow down for him at “Mike” linebacker. The athleticism and speed of backs and tight ends at Harding is completely different than this. Learning how to cover, at his size, has not been like riding a bike. Still, running the scout team defense has helped. And Powell had a feeling he’d stick at middle linebacker for good after playing the Giants in the Hall of Fame Game last preseason.
Finally, a position felt “natural.” Above all, it fits his personality.
Known as a weight room junkie since college, Powell bench-presses 415 pounds and hang cleans 365. He loves the “mano a mano” demands of filling the “A” or “B” gap at inside linebacker – the fact that it’s one on one. So, yeah, maybe he does know what kind of linebacker he is.
“If anything comes to that gap, I’ve got to be there,” Powell said. “That’s what I love about football – the hitting aspect. There’s a reason you wear helmets. There’s a reason you wear pads. It’s man against man.”