USC’s Eric Gentry and his evolution as a 6-foot-6 linebacker

LOS ANGELES — Growing up, Eric Gentry played both football and basketball. In his hometown of Philadelphia, it was not uncommon for kids to gravitate more toward the hardwood than the gridiron.

Then, a coach sat him down and explained how scholarships worked. If Gentry wanted his college paid for, it was much easier to earn one in football, which has 85 scholarships per institution, than basketball, which has just 13. Even with his unusual lanky height for a defensive player, football was his best bet.

Gentry listened, and soon after his junior season of high school, he received an offer from Oregon.

“Oregon really opened my eyes because not many people from the East Coast get a Pac-12 type of offer,” Gentry said. “So it was really important to me having the confidence in myself.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Soon after Oregon, Gentry received an offer from Arizona State, where he spent his freshman year of college. Then he entered the transfer portal, and soon after USC came calling.

When the coaching staff evaluated Gentry, and even when he committed to the Trojans, there were questions about how exactly he would be utilized in the defense.

With the Sun Devils, Gentry played outside linebacker to some acclaim, being named a consensus Freshman All-American.

At 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, the position made some sense, as did edge rusher, a position Gentry primarily played in high school. It wasn’t until after he opted out of his senior season of high school and was playing seven-on-seven to stay in shape that he began to settle in at linebacker.

Once he got to USC, though, he settled in at inside linebacker, a position typically meant for stouter players.

“Coach (Brian) Odom, it was kinda his forward-thinking to get him at the mike linebacker spot which allows him in kinda more of a space situation with the college hashes which to me at this point is the best place to put him in order for him to be playable for us,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said.

Positional questions have always surrounded Gentry due to his unique size. Perhaps he could have made sense as a receiver or tight end, but he never liked offense.

“I wanted to tackle,” Gentry said.

He’s done plenty of that at USC, leading the sixth-ranked Trojans (4-0 overall, 2-0 Pac-12) in takedowns with 32 this season. He also has half a sack, a pair of quarterback hurries, two pass breakups and an interception, recorded in last week’s game against Oregon State as he used his long arms to bring the ball in as he fell to his back.

But for head coach Lincoln Riley, the most encouraging part of Gentry’s season has been his consistency in making routine plays.

“When you look at the film last year, he was making the splash plays like early on in camp. You could see his ability and just how his length affects the game,” Riley said. “But now he plays with less mistakes and he’s still making some of the splash plays but he’s making more of the routine, solid, really good linebacker plays.”

This week, Gentry and the Trojans prepare to face his old team, the Sun Devils (1-3, 0-1). He says it’s just another football game for him, and the coaching staff hasn’t bothered him with questions about ASU’s defense, allowing him to focus on the task at hand.

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Obstacles still remain for him even as he makes his mark at inside linebacker.

If the goal is to make the NFL – which it is for Gentry – he needs to prove that his size will not be a detriment to him playing linebacker. Part of that is adding weight, something that has been a challenge for him.

“For him to be the player that he can be, the weight’s gotta come on. That’s just fact,” Grinch said. “But his physicality overcomes some of that. But wait ’til he gets good.”

The other part is not getting driven back by blocks. The old football adage is that the man with the lower pad level wins the battle, and Gentry will have to overcome the leverage issues when he is getting attacked in run-blocking situations.

But while Gentry has had to learn to be comfortable with his frame, he’s never wanted to change his body.

“If I was four foot, I wouldn’t look at my height as a disadvantage,” Gentry said. “That’s just how I am. I’m not really worried about any intangible type. I got the heart.”