Shrine Bowl Interview: Vanderbilt’s Anfernee Orji Breaks Down Transition From Safety to Linebacker

Something that stood out about the East-West Shrine Bowl was that a lot of the inside linebackers were defensive backs before being moved to linebacker. Vanderbilt’s Anfernee Orji was one of these examples, which helped him become a Shrine-Bowl invite and NFL Draft hopeful.

At the Shrine Bowl, Orji broke down the transition to linebacker to me and how it helped him become a better football player.

“[I] Came into Vanderbilt my freshman year, played safety that first year, kind of just like naturally put on weight and got moved into the box,” Orji told Steelers Depot. “But it was a good transition. It helped me understand more about defense, like knowing about the secondary, what they do behind me because I came from there. So it was a good switch.”

His understanding of the game helped him become a team captain and put up impressive stats of 269 career tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, three sacks, one interception, five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, and three forced fumbles. As his stats show, Orji is a great tackler, to which he credits his play recognition and the fact that he is a high effort player. 

“Just reading the plays and trusting the fit. Taking the coaching, trusting my teammates [to] be where they’re supposed to be. So then [that] kind of just frees me up to make plays and just giving good effort. My big thing is effort. I feel like I’ve been told and what I’ve learned is defensive players value is measured by how close he is to the ball at the end of every play. So I just try to make sure I’m next to the ball or I’m on the ball at end of every play.”

This was very apparent in Orji’s senior season where he was a member of the Second Team All-SEC, and led Vanderbilt in tackles with 106. He averaged nine tackles per game which also led the SEC. However, Orji didn’t become a NFL Draft prospect overnight. It took time, and Orji said he grew a lot every single year learning more and more about the game of football.

“Like first year I came in, I thought I knew football, [I] didn’t know anything about football my freshman year. And then sophomore year came, moved to linebacker, just kind of trying to learn to the position. And then junior year, which is my second year of linebacker, just kind of more honing into the position of linebacker and then also learning more about schemes and stuff. Just my football cues increasing as well as the way I’ve moved. Just try to hone down everything, try to be an efficient mover and not have wasteful movements.”

Orji grew a lot as a player and it shows by his stats. In his junior and senior seasons he combined for 199 tackles, which makes up 74% of his total tackles in his college career. His ability to “see ball, find ball” was also apparent at times during the week of practice, where he would usually be near the ball at the end of plays.

But, one thing Orji did not really talk about being a strength of his was his coverage skills. In fact, he said it was a part of his game that he has to improve on. However, while in Las Vegas he looked pretty good in coverage.

In one of the first couple of practices, Orji sat in zone and read the quarterback’s eyes and then jumped the route for a pick-six. Orji moves really well for a linebacker, yet is still built like a prototypical linebacker which makes him more unique than the other defensive backs turned linebacker that were present at the Shrine Bowl. Orji stands at 6’1″ 230 pounds which is right around the average size of an NFL inside linebacker.

With the Pittsburgh Steelers needing to address their inside linebacker position at some point this offseason, Orji could be a name to watch for. A high effort player who is a good tackler will always be sought after. If Orji can continue to improve in his pass coverage and in diagnosing plays, he could have a very long playing career in front of him.

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