© Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Harold Landry had already accomplished what many college players would consider a crowning achievement: leading the country in sacks. During the 2016 season, the Boston College junior set the national pace with 16.5 sacks.
His burst and bend were compared to NFL Defensive Player of the Year Von Miller ahead of the 2017 NFL Draft. But concerns regarding his lack of size and limited rush approach knocked his stock to a Day 2 projection.
If he returned to school, he could disprove the slights and show his 2016 season wasn’t a fluke. He could earn his communications degree, which he had strived for since attending Boston College just three days after graduating from high school early. Landry’s fiancée was also pregnant with their son, who was eventually born on Landry’s birthday, June 5, about one month after the draft.
With all these factors in mind, he made an educated decision to return to Boston College for his senior year.
“His decision wasn’t his decision anymore,” said Bill Sochovka, Landry’s high school head coach. “It was going to affect two other people in his life… He realized how important it was for him to finish and get that degree because we all know the NFL stands for ‘Not For Long.’”
Ironically, returning to school attached another Miller parallel to Landry: they are the only players to return to school after leading the country in sacks.
One year later, Landry is projected as a first-round pick. He played in only eight games last season, producing five sacks and eight tackles for a loss. But Landry’s athleticism wowed scouts at the NFL Combine in early March, bumping his stock. Landry ran a 4.64 40-yard dash time and logged 24 bench press reps.
The list of 250+ pound D-Linemen drafted in R1 with sub 6.9 3-cones at combine since 2000:
(Soon to be) Harold Landry
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) March 5, 2018
The 49ers are expected to address their ‘LEO’ void by adding a dynamic edge rusher. Landry fits the billing.
San Francisco produced only 30 sacks last season. The team struggled to get off the field on third downs, allowing opponents to convert 43 percent of the time. Elvis Dumervil, who led the team with 6.5 sacks, was not re-signed this offseason. General manager John Lynch added former Charger Jeremiah Attaochu, but he has logged only 10 sacks in four seasons.
While Landry’s stock has improved in one year’s span, the same criticisms regarding his lack of length have resurfaced. For some, Landry is considered more of ‘sprinter,’ than a truly dominant edge rusher at this stage.
Landry is used to the slights.
During his junior season at Pine Forest High School, located in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Landry led the state in sacks, but he received minimal college interest. Prior to March of his junior year, he had only three offers, including Boston College, Duke, and Appalachian State.
“That size was wishy-washy with some of the schools,” Sochovka said. “They just didn’t know what to do with him.”
College coaches were more interested in Landry’s teammate, center Lamont Gaillard, who now plays for Georgia. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Harold was initially deemed too small to excel against bigger and better competition at the college level.
“He took that disrespect and used it as an effort and reason to work harder,” Sochovka said.
Most mornings, Landry woke up, trained, and returned home before his parents had left for work. Landry grew up in Spring Lake, a 12,000-resident town that borders the Fort Bragg military base.
“He could hear the bombing and helicopters flying over his house,” Sochovka said.
Landry talked his way into training with the paratoopers at the base’s facilities that included about six or seven gyms. He gained 20 pounds of muscle, bulking up to 245 pounds, between his junior and senior seasons.
Word eventually got out that Boston College was heavily pursuing Landry. Many of those other schools — including Mississippi, Tennessee, Clemson, and Ohio State— that were initially deterred by Harold’s lack of size came calling.
Sochovka remembers driving back from a wedding in the spring of 2012, Harold’s junior year. Sochovka had to pull his car over because his phone kept ringing with calls from college coaches.
The offers piled up at once.
“The mail lady hated us,” said Doreen Landry, Harold’s mother. “I mean, every day, it was stacks of mail, stacks of mail.”
For Landry, the interest was reassuring, but he stuck with Boston College because its coaches invested in him early. They told Landry he would have the opportunity to contribute immediately. They planned to use him as either an outside linebacker or defensive end, depending on the scheme.
Landry was named an All-American during his senior season. He purposely graduated in three-and-a-half years to enroll in Boston College early.
During January of his senior year, he finished his final high school exam on a Friday. Doreen picked him from school, and the two drove together to Boston College. He was enrolled in college courses that following Monday.
“Harold was very goal-oriented,” Sochovka said. “He went from being a high school student and All-American— this glorification— to a college student in fewer than 48 hours.”
Just as the Boston College coaches promised Landry, he played in all 12 games his freshman year. His role steadily increased as his career progressed, starting in 11 of 12 games his sophomore year before bursting onto the national scene as a junior.
Landry led the country with 16.5 sacks, a Boston College record, and seven forced fumbles during the 2016 season. His 22 tackles for a loss were the fifth-most in the country.
Landry returned to school his senior year hoping to replicate that success.
After a slow start to the season, he produced a career-high three sacks against Virginia Tech. But he suffered a Grade 2 high ankle sprain later in the game. He played with the injury for the ensuing two contests before his season ended after eight total games.
It wasn’t the encore he wanted, but Landry left Boston College as one of its most decorated players, finishing with the second-most career sacks in school history.
Sochovka theorizes that Landry played his best games against the schools that either hadn’t offered him, extended an offer late into his recruitment, or didn’t have a concrete plan for him like Boston College did.
One of those schools was Florida State, which had offered him late. Landry produced a career-high 11 tackles against the Seminoles his sophomore year. One season later, he produced four tackles for loss, two sacks, and a forced fumble against them.
“The more people doubt him, and the more they question about him, the better he is going to be,” Sochovka said. “That’s how he thinks. It’s not a chip on his shoulder, but it’s motivation. That’s something that has always been consistent with him.”
After he impressed at the NFL Combine in early March, Landry’s confidence shone through.
“I think that nobody in this class has a first step like mind, the bend like mine, and the burst to the quarterback like me,” Landry told reporters. “I am not saying I am perfect. There are plenty of things I can improve on in my game. But in this draft, I do believe I am the best pass rusher.”
Landry’s explosiveness, bend off the edge, and coverage abilities mirror some of the best edge rusher/outside linebacker hybrids in today’s NFL, including Miller, Khalil Mack, and Vic Beasley. But it’s highly unlikely Landry will be taken ahead of NC State’s Bradley Chubb, the consensus No. 1 defensive end prospect in this class.
Most draft scouts believe Landry needs to diversify his rush approach at the next level, where he can’t simply use his speed to burn offensive tackles. But he projects well, and he already has the body of work to prove he can produce against top competition.
Landry will likely be selected in the first round of the draft Thursday evening. The same wasn’t guaranteed last year, despite his historic junior season.
His life also looks completely different.
He has a communications degree. He has a son. He will get married in July.
“I’m most proud that he has started a family, is being responsible, and (earned) his degree,” Doreen said.
Doreen said Landry has never been farther west than Phoenix, meaning a move to San Francisco would be entering foreign territory. But Landry has never been more prepared.