How Eric Gentry transformed into USC’s pass-swatting terror

Before his unusual length became his greatest strength, Eric Gentry struggled to be comfortable in his own body.

Between eighth and ninth grade, the future USC inside linebacker grew more than four inches. Soon after, he grew another three, rising to 6ft 6 by his junior year at Neuman-Goretti High in Philadelphia. The rest of his body would take much longer to follow suit. As a sinewy sophomore, Gentry weighed about 160 pounds, and the unexpected growth spurt left his towering frame scrawny and awkward.

That framework would one day make him one of college football’s most unique defensemen, as Gentry emerged as the lithe, passing, ball-stopping field general at the center of USC defense that season. In four games, Gentry not only leads the Trojans in tackles (32), but the impact his seven-foot wingspan has as a deterrent in mid-defense is immeasurable.

Last week, in USC’s narrow win over Oregon State, Gentry not only intercepted a pass, but made the crucial pick by tapping another from his spot in the middle of the field. The poignant performance sounded familiar to Al Crosby, who coached Gentry at Neumann-Goretti and also on the seven-on-seven pass circuit.

“This young man could potentially change the game,” Crosby said. “He’s just so physically different.”

That wasn’t always the sentiment surrounding the lanky linebacker. Even when Gentry made a difference by charging from the rim, covering slot receivers and generally doing everything else that was asked of him at Neumann-Goretti, his skinny frame made some college coaches pause. Never mind that he had 15 sacks as a junior, seven of which resulted in fumbles.

“That [coaches] who got upset about him talked about his length,” Crosby said. “Those who weren’t overly enthusiastic about him talked about his weight.”

USC linebacker Eric Gentry celebrates a September 10 interception by the Trojans against Stanford.

USC linebacker Eric Gentry celebrates a September 10 interception by the Trojans against Stanford.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez / Associated Press)

“He was like a volleyball player on the field and spiked stuff. He was extremely, extremely dominant. His confidence started to increase.”

— Al Crosby, on Eric Gentry’s development in high school

Gentry wasn’t entirely convinced of either at the time. It wasn’t until his senior year, he says, that he felt comfortable enough to fully exploit his length. Then the pandemic stole his final high school season.

During the Summer Passing Tournament, Crosby first used Gentry as a middle linebacker for his PA Playmakers. Over time, Gentry became more comfortable working in space. He studied the tape of Isaiah Simmons, the hybrid linebacker who was a star at Clemson at the time. He worked tirelessly on his man coverage skills. He tried to emulate Cowboys sack artist Micah Parsons, who also played for the Playmakers at times.

Before long, he created his own position, Crosby said.

“He was slapping down passes,” said the coach. “He was like a volleyball player on the field and spiked stuff. He was extremely, extremely dominant. His confidence started to increase.”

It was even more apparent in Arizona State, where Gentry was named a Freshman All-American after a stellar debut season as an inside linebacker. The departure of assistant coach Antonio Pierce, who recruited him, left Gentry less comfortable during a turbulent season at Tempe.

So he entered the NCAA transfer portal and again left coaches across the country wondering where his unusual physique might fit.

At USC, defense coordinator Alex Grinch had the same questions before Gentry arrived in the spring.

“On the whole,” says Grinch, “he answered those.”

It was inside linebacker coach Brian Odom who first suggested moving Gentry to the middle linebacker spot, where he could use his length to cover more space in the USC roster.

It was an unconventional choice, at least on paper. At the NFL level, there are no inside linebackers taller than 6-5 who have played a snap this season. There are also no insider linebackers as light as Gentry, whose official weight is 200 pounds.

Grinch doesn’t mince words about the latter number: “For him to be the player he can be, the weight has to go up,” Grinch said. “That’s just a fact.”

Still, USC coaches were impressed with his physicality, despite what he might sacrifice given his size.

“He’s a very physical player and his ability to flex and really explode out of his hips shows physically where you get the length, but you don’t feel like you’re losing on the leverage and physicality side.” , USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “So he did a good job of counteracting that. Well, as you can imagine he will obviously continue to gain a few pounds as his career progresses and that will be a goal for this season and for further development. But physically he really held out.”

Gentry is still growing as a linebacker, but one look at the tape from his stellar performance against Oregon State is enough to see he’s beginning to understand what his unusual physique can do.

He’s no longer interested in hearing what he can’t.

“I’m not worried about intangibles,” Gentry said. “I have the heart.” How Eric Gentry transformed into USC’s pass-swatting terror

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