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Harold Landry led the nation in sacks in 2016, but the pass rusher has taken his game to a new level, hoping to leave future NFL quarterbacks without a prayer

By Judy Battista | Published Sept. 20, 2017

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- When Harold Landry was 11 or 12, his youth league baseball team was trailing in the championship game, 5-2. As Landry got older, he developed into a fine pitcher, so talented that some colleges tried to woo him by suggesting he could play both baseball and football. But on that day in a small North Carolina town not far from Fort Bragg, battling an opponent that had already beaten his team twice that season, Landry was primarily a slugger, befitting a boy who would eventually grow to be 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds.

As Landry's father remembers it, his son blasted a three-run home run to tie the game. When he came up again, with the game still tied and two teammates already on base, the opponent pitched to him again. Landry's shot landed over the fence again and prompted his dad to tell him something prophetic.

"I told him if he didn't do anything else in sports, that was enough for me," said Landry's dad, Harold Jr.

It was not enough for his son. Within five years, the younger Landry had forsaken baseball to concentrate on football. It was the first serious step to where Landry is now: just a few credits from his degree in communications as a senior defensive end at Boston College, as college football's defending sacks leader (16.5 in 2016) and fumble forcer (7), a pre-season All-American pick, and a possible first-round draft selection who is already drawing comparisons to some of the NFL's elite pass rushers.

In between, there were workouts with soldiers, wavering on his college choice, a fortuitous pairing with a legendary defensive coach, a fiancée and baby, and an agonizing decision to forestall his entry into the NFL.

"The men are so big!" said Doreen Landry, who is already concerned about her son's future opponents and is happy with his decision to stay in school. "He'll have his degree and be able to get a good job."

Likely a very, very good job, the kind of job that Landry himself didn't realize might be within reach until he was in the middle of the 2016 season for the Eagles, topping a 4.5 sack sophomore year with the 16.5 sack attention-grabber that prompted those first whispers about a draft day star turn.

As a child, Landry was the type who did his homework and never caused a problem, beyond the ferocious fights he had with his older sister, Jencie. When he was still a toddler, his parents worried he would never start talking, but once he did, he did not stop. He is the noisy one, his mom Doreen says, ebullient in his conversation, the kind who had multiple plans for how he would propose to his girlfriend when one after another fell apart (rain washed out a plan to have a billboard painted, a hurricane wiped out the beautiful view he had hoped to use as a backdrop during a hike, fears that nobody would notice if he proposed in a restaurant nixed that idea).

Growing up in Spring Lake, N.C. (population: about 13,000), which abuts Fort Bragg, Landry was so committed to sports even as a kid that he was never late to a practice or a game. It was an early indicator of his personality -- once Landry decided he was going to do something, he was going to do it, even, his mom said, if it meant bugging the heck out of his parents to take him somewhere to get it done.

Landry admits he played football early on in high school because that's what everyone around did. His father loved the game, so he loved it, too. But by the 11th grade, football became his focus. He played tight end and defensive end, and had already figured out that while offense was fun, he was more of a natural defensive player and it was what could take him further.

"In high school my motivation was I just never wanted to let my mom and dad down," Landry said. "I wanted to impress them. I just went to work every day. I felt like I was supposed to do that, like it was my job to do that."

In a spare room of the family's home there was a weight set, and Landry spent the summer before his senior year of high school in there practically all the time. He wrote everything down -- the number of sit-ups, the number of lifts, the number of suicide sprints and jumps he did in the backyard. His dad baked him a lot of chicken that summer, and Landry washed it down with milk. He had a friend who could get him onto the base at Fort Bragg, so he would sneak into the weight room to use their equipment and do workouts with soldiers.

"My senior year is when I really took flight," he said. "I was so dominant."

It helped that at his practices he was lining up against Lamont Gaillard, now the center for the Georgia Bulldogs. Boston College saw Landry as a "twitchy" player, but nothing remarkable, maybe someone who was being under-recruited. Still, the Eagles were the first team to offer a scholarship -- Landry had hoped it would be Clemson -- and when he returned to the hotel with his parents during their first visit to the leafy campus just six miles west of Boston, he told them he was going to commit.

His parents wanted him to wait to see what else came along (his mom was hoping for North Carolina State because it was so close to home) but Landry stuck with Boston College even after he wavered when Clemson, Ohio State and Miami finally came calling, the later offers so plentiful that Doreen Landry says their mail delivery person hated them. Landry, though, felt embraced by the family atmosphere at the Jesuit school and the fact he would be playing immediately. His mom has come to like the fact that being away from home meant fewer distractions from old friends.

"I was just so excited to have my first offer," Landry said. "I came up here on my visit, they showed me so much love, it wasn't even like talking about football all the time. It was about life. It was a different feeling up here than I had at any other school."

Also part of his thinking: Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.

"When I was getting recruited, they weren't like they were when Matt Ryan was here, they were building up again," Landry said. "When you think about Boston College, seeing Luke Kuechly came here and left here in three years and accomplished what he did, I was like, 'If he did it, I think I can do it, too.' "

Landry played in every game as a freshman and his coming-out moment appeared to arrive against Florida State early in his sophomore year, when he had a career-high 11 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. That was the game that made his mom realize he was really good. But many more like it didn't follow and he finished his sophomore season with 4.5 sacks.

And then Paul Pasqualoni decided not to coach J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney any longer, and moved back near his family in Connecticut. Pasqualoni is the gruff, meticulous legend whose greatest success came as Syracuse's head coach. But he also wended his way through NFL stops that saw him tutor quarterback crushers like Jason Taylor, Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware and Watt. He resigned after one season as the Houston Texans' defensive line coach following the 2015 season and joined Steve Addazio's staff at Boston College.

Landry stayed on campus after the 2015-16 academic year ended and that is when he met his two most important partners -- his future fiancée, Danielle Rios-Roberts (they had their first child, a son named Greyson, last June on Landry's 21st birthday); and Pasqualoni.

This gridiron odd couple went to work, breaking down Landry's game in exhaustive detail.

"He is such a technician and fundamentalist -- he wants everything to be precise," Landry said. "That's definitely made me a better player. He focuses on small details of everything I do -- I never knew how significant the focus on small details was. He has definitely taken my footwork and hand placement to a whole other level."

Pasqualoni calls this building a player's toolbox, the skills and techniques and fundamentals that every player needs. He does not think any player, even a professional, ever finishes building his toolbox. When Pasqualoni first met Landry, he got an excited student, but one who relied on the most fundamental skill of a pass rusher, using speed to get off the ball and go around the offensive line. The goal was to create more moves.

"He's embraced trying to create a best pitch or a move, a counter off that best pitch and maybe the most important thing, is finishing the rush," Pasqualoni said. "It's a hard thing to work on, because in practice no one ever wants to get the quarterback hurt. That's something during individual practices you've got to spend a lot time on. It can become very monotonous work if you don't have the passion for it. He's got some passion for it."

While their relationship blossomed, Rios-Roberts watched Landry's preparation and the immediate results when his junior season started.

"He knew he wanted to have a breakout season," Rios-Roberts said. "He's really hard on himself, he puts a lot of pressure on himself to do well. But we were definitely shocked at how extreme everything was getting."

The whispers about the draft took off around the middle of the 2016 season, after Landry had a sack and forced fumble in an October game against eventual national champion Clemson. The Eagles' defensive line as a whole was superb last season -- it had seven sacks in the Quick Lane Bowl to earn a group MVP award. Landry's personal football timeline would have still worked -- he had stayed three years, after all. But then he got a third-round draft grade from the NFL and the hand-wringing began.

Addazio and Pasqualoni wanted him to stay in school, of course, arguing that another season with Pasqualoni would further hone Landry's technique and make him a more enticing player for NFL scouts. Most of his family wanted him to enter the draft. On top of everything, Landry was thinking about the scant few credits left until he would have his degree -- he dreams of a career in television after football ends -- and the fact that he had a new fiancée (he finally proposed around New Year's Day, while they were on their way to dinner) and a child on the way. Rios-Roberts wanted him to enter the draft at first, figuring that life with a new baby would be much smoother if Landry was already in the NFL and the three could settle into a home together.

But she was also determined not to weigh in too much. Easing the decision was the support of his and Rios-Roberts' parents, who live in Connecticut and with whom she and Greyson were living while Landry was in school this past fall. He finally told Addazio he was staying on the January day Clemson beat Alabama in the national championship game.

"It definitely weighed on me a lot," Landry said. "I wanted to support my family right then and there. You get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go in the first round, too. I knew my parents and her parents were extremely successful and I knew I'd have financial support behind me. I had thought about it long enough and I realized I should go ahead and make it happen so I could get my mind flipped to getting back to training and focused on next season."

This past summer, Landry put in what he says in hindsight was the hardest stretch of work in his life. He rose at 6 a.m. each day, worked out, ate, did pass-rush work with one of his friends holding the bags against him, and returned in the afternoon to do football drills. He believes he has gotten stronger and faster. During a late-summer practice in Alumni Stadium less than two weeks before the season began against Northern Illinois, Landry routinely got off the ball quickly and closed in on the quarterback. Watching him, his greatest calling card is obvious: he can effortlessly bend as he turns the corner, flexibility that is reminiscent of Von Miller, a former national sacks leader who chose to stay at Texas A&M for his senior season.

"I think he's the most natural draft-eligible pass rusher in the country," said NFL Network draft evaluator and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah. "He is really smooth and can bend around the edge so easily."

Early last season, Addazio and Pasqualoni were leery about talking too much about Landry. They -- and he -- knew he wouldn't surprise opponents coming off the season he had in 2016, that the double teams would certainly come and his numbers were likely to be down. As it turned out, they were right. He went from 16.5 sacks as a junior to just five last season -- three coming against Virginia Tech in early October -- as opponents game-planned for him each week.

"He definitely does feel the pressure," Rios-Roberts said last fall in the midst of Landry's early season struggles. "First game (a 23-20 victory over Northern Illinois in which he did not record a sack), he was so disappointed in himself, he thought he did so badly. He always feels, 'I have to fix this and this'; he doesn't focus on the positives. He's always looking at trying to get better. Sometimes he just needs time to go over the film immediately after the game."

Pasqualoni, meanwhile, continued to work on the toolbox. He declined to specifically compare Landry to any of his former pupils. There are many players who have the outstanding speed and explosiveness Landry has. What Pasqualoni attempted to craft was Landry's ability to unleash his moves without pausing to think about them.

"Every one of those guys that really becomes an elite guy has total confidence in a clear visual picture of what, from the pass-rush standpoint, their move is," said Pasqualoni, who recently joined Matt Patricia's new staff in Detroit as defensive coordinator. "They have a unique ability to not only see the set they are working against, but in their peripheral vision, they can see the quarterback and where he is standing. Where those other guys are different is Harold has a lot of potential, a lot of top end, but he has to continue to develop confidence and vision of what he's doing full out."

Landry aspires to be like Miller because Miller is athletic enough to play linebacker and strong enough to be on the defensive line. Miller is, in Landry's estimation, the "perfect package."

"I want teams to think of me that I'm able to do various things," he said. "I want them to see a guy that is dominant snap in and snap out, that makes an impact on almost every single play and steps up in big moments."

That would be enough for anyone.

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