Khalen Saunders Does Rare Things

Photo: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

I've never attempted one, but I imagine doing a backflip is hard. I see tumblers and gymnasts perform the act and marvel at their ability to do so. You will occasionally see a wide receiver do one after scoring a touchdown, but I've never seen a 320-pound defensive tackle do a backflip. Meet Western Illinois Defensive Tackle Khalen Saunders who defies logic with his ability to execute the move. You have to see it to believe it.

Saunders' backflipping skills generated plenty of buzz about the FCS defensive tackle entering Senior Bowl Week. He performed well against top competition in Mobile, and I noted Saunders as a standout when reviewing my notes from the event.

Western Illinois DT Khalen Saunders is massive and can do back flips, but more importantly he has some exciting football ability. His blend of power and quickness for a 320-pound man is rare and I like his potential to challenge the depth of the pocket on passing downs while being a stout defender against the run. A little-known prospect from the FCS, Saunders made a name for himself this week.

I recently took the deep-dive into Saunders game film to conduct my formal film assessment, and the same moments of explosive quickness and power regularly showed up.

The first game I popped on was his 2018 matchup with FCS Powerhouse North Dakota State. I went into the film session with very little understanding of how Saunders was used, so when I saw him lineup in a two-point stance on a passing down rushing from edge, I chuckled to myself a bit. The joke was on me as Saunders opens up the inside rush angle with an outside fake to force the offensive tackle open his hips wide and blows through the b-gap, flattens and finishes at the quarterback. 320 pounds, folks.

Saunders' high points on film are otherworldly. There are times that he is just physically superior to his competition and they are mere obstacles in the way of him inevitably making plays. Take this rep for the example. I don't have any nuanced football terms to offer for this technique. Saunders just tosses a grown man that should be in peak physical condition to play offensive line, who wants the complete opposite of this result, out of the way and makes a tackle for loss. Good night, sweet prince.

When I watched this next play for the first time, my jaw was on the floor and I kept it there as I rewinded the clip dozens of times. Saunders' momentum is carrying him the complete opposite direction and he somehow springs himself the other way and swallows the running back. This like something you'd see a superhero do in a Marvel Movie.

Saunders does rare things on the football field for a man of his size. As noted in the summary of my film assessment, there are times where his blend of size, power, quickness and flexibility is way more than offensive lineman can handle. With that said, his ability to dominate with physical traits was fully relied upon and Saunders needs major technical refinement to see the field in the NFL.

Registering a sack in the Senior Bowl Game, a week with NFL coaching already made an impact on Saunders given the nuance illustrated on the rep. I love how he sets up the rush on this play with the jab steps that open the door to attack the a-gap followed by the perfectly located cross swipe on the guard's elbow in concert with the swim move to clear the contact. Not even the attempted trip was going to prevent Saunders from getting home.

Pay attention to the end of the clip where Saunders celebrates the sack with a cradling motion and blows a kiss to the sky. Saunders missed the birth of his daughter to be compete at the Senior Bowl. While the decision was questioned by many, this was a rare opportunity for Saunders to showcase his ability against the best senior football player in all of college football. Coming from an FCS school, proving he belongs was critical for his draft stock. There aren't reps against Power Five offensive lineman that evaluators can reference in studying his game tape and while he opted to miss the birth, he arguably did the best thing he could for his newborn daughter by acing the Senior Bowl test and increasing his valuation.

Saunders should be able to see the field early in his NFL career, specializing in defending a single gap and allowing his physical traits to takeover. As he develops more technique and learns to most effectively deploy his strength and athleticism, there is an exciting ceiling he can achieve. His unteachable stuff is rare.

Written By:

Joe Marino

Chief Administrative Officer

CAO & Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Draft Dudes podcast. Member of the FWAA.

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