James Crabtree-Hannigan, correspondent
ATLANTA — As Los Angeles Rams linebacker Micah Kiser came downfield toward the Houston Texans backfield during the third week of the 2018 NFL preseason, he was met by Texans offensive lineman Roderick Johnson.
Johnson pushed Kiser back about 10 yards, thwarted the rookie’s grasping attempts to bring down running back Lavon Coleman and eventually sent Kiser to the ground as the play ended.
A few minutes later, Kiser again charged toward the line of scrimmage as Coleman took a handoff. This time, Kiser deftly sidestepped a pulling lineman and immediately engulfed Coleman with a textbook tackle, dropping him for a 2-yard loss.
Once the regular season began, Kiser hardly played defensive snaps, but the Woodlawn, Maryland, native’s coaches say his strong football IQ gives him the potential to shine as an NFL linebacker down the road. To capitalize on that promise, he must minimize plays like the unfortunate encounter with Johnson and turn in more like the eye-catching tackle for loss.
“He has that God-given trait,” Rams linebackers coach Joe Barry said Wednesday. “You’re talking about a guy that’s highly instinctual and highly aware. … Those are traits that guys just have.”
Long before Kiser and the Rams earned a trip to Super Bowl LIII against the New England Patriots in Atlanta Feb. 3, his advanced grasp of the mental side of the game was on display at Gilman School in Baltimore, where he started for three years at middle linebacker.
During Kiser’s senior season in 2012, Gilman played Don Bosco Prep (New Jersey), which had a nation-leading 46-game win streak. With Don Bosco leading 6-0 in the first quarter and threatening to score again, Kiser dropped back into coverage and spotted an Ironman receiver running an out route.
It was a play Gilman had practiced during the week leading up to the highly anticipated game, and Kiser executed perfectly. Both Kiser and Henry Russell, Gilman’s linebackers coach at the time, vividly remember what happened next.
Kiser closed on the receiver and got there in plenty of time to pick off the pass. Seventy-one yards and a broken tackle later, Kiser returned it for a touchdown that sparked Gilman’s 13-6 win.
“He’s extremely smart. He understood what offenses were trying to do and what we would do as a defense to take that away,” Russell said. “Mentally, he’s probably the strongest kid I’ve coached at the linebacker position. … That’s a big reason of why he’s in the NFL.”
Kiser attributes some of his football savvy to his time at Gilman, where coaches had him learn the entire defense so he could help better prepare his teammates on the field. That gave him a broader understanding of the importance and usefulness of game film, and the pick-six against Don Bosco and tackle for loss against the Texans are examples of something he learned from his high school defensive coordinator, Stan White.
“Defense is reactionary. You’re always reacting to what the offense does. Coach White always said if you can get a couple of extra steps, that will help you,” Kiser said at media night Monday. “And that’s all about studying the game and knowing what they’re going to do to you before it happens.”
Kiser’s intelligence extended to the classroom. While playing at Virginia, he made multiple Academic All-America teams and won the Campbell Trophy — often referred to as the “Academic Heisman” — his senior year.
Still, during the draft process last spring, Barry had to do his due diligence. And when he called Cavaliers head coach Bronco Mendenhall, he was blown away by the endorsement.
“I’ve never heard a head coach talk about a player the way [Mendenhall] talked about Micah,” Barry said. “And being around the kid for seven months, all those things that were said about him were absolutely true.”
Los Angeles took Kiser in the fifth round, and the 6-foot, 244-pound linebacker has been doing all he can to impress them since. He led the team with 26 total tackles during the preseason, while no other Ram had more than 13.
“The best way to describe him is just a productive football player,” head coach Sean McVay told reporters after the preseason. “Joe Barry and [assistant linebackers coach] Chris Shula have done an excellent job with him. He is just getting better and better.”
However, there are still strides Kiser needs to take, Barry said.
“The NFL game compared to the college game is night-and-day different, just from a speed perspective,” Barry said. “He’s smart. He knows everything. But to be able to match [running] backs and cover backs, and match tight ends and cover tight ends. For him to go to the next level, he has to be able to do that.”
Fortunately, Barry considers those goals reachable — and teachable. Russell called Kiser “a coach’s dream” due to his approach to the game, and Barry gushes about the rookie for the same reason. His cerebral approach raises his ceiling as an NFL prospect and gives the Rams plenty of reason to work on raising the other areas of his game to match the level of his intelligence.
“I can teach a linebacker how to use his hands better. Teach him how to use his feet better. You can go in the weight room and get stronger,” Barry said. “But you can’t teach instincts. You can’t teach awareness. … He just has God-given natural instincts and awareness when it comes to playing the game of football.
“If he can do all those things as far as adapting to the speed of the game, then you’ve got a damn good NFL linebacker. And he’s right there.”