I had the opportunity to sit down with Youngstown State EDGE rusher Derek Rivers. In today’s pass-happy NFL, teams are constantly looking for edge rushers who can affect the passing game. Look no further than Rivers, who accounted for an astounding 37.5 sacks in four seasons.
In this exclusive interview, we thoroughly discussed the art of pass rushing, how Rivers uses his time in the film room to gain the upper hand, and what tactics he uses to get his opponents off-balance. We also discussed what turned out to be an excellent combine for Rivers, his experiences at the Senior Bowl, how many teams he’s met with and more.
I left my conversation with Rivers convinced that he was born to pass rush, and that a team would be wise to invest a first round pick into this extremely impressive young man. I’ve also included some video analysis from Rivers’ time at Youngstown State. Enjoy.
Thanks for joining me today Derek.
Rivers: No problem, thanks for having me.
Your production really took a spike in 2014. What changed from 2013? How did you alter your preparation?
Rivers: In 2013 I was just a third down player. I was comfortable with that role at the time. Halfway through the season, I was playing well and I was getting a little bit more comfortable with everybody around me, getting more comfortable in our system, knowing it more and more.
The main thing was that I didn’t want to be a third down player anymore. I wanted to be an every down player. My dad played football at Virginia Tech and he always told me that the guys who you see make it, they put in extra work. That was the one thing that I wanted to do. I started by doing extra in the weight room. I was smaller and I knew that I had to get bigger if I was going to be successful. Once I started gaining that weight and getting stronger, it gave me more confidence on the field. That’s what changed for me.
My coaches encouraged me to go out there and play ball, don’t worry about making mistakes. The best thing for me was to just go out there and play without a worry in the world. I stopped worrying about messing up.
The change was evident. As I studied the combine numbers for the defensive line group, your 40 yard dash time of 4.61 and three-cone time of 6.94 really stood out. Do you think you caught anyone off guard with those numbers?
Rivers: Maybe. God be the glory, that’s a blessing. He allowed me to go out there and do that. I think a lot of people thought I was gonna’ run a 4.75 or something like that. It was cool to go out there and run that time.
Speaking of the combine, where do you think you impressed scouts the most? In the interview room, with a particular drill or maybe during the on-field position work?
Rivers: It was most definitely in the interview room. I was just being myself. Also, being able to drop in coverage during the on-field work and show them that I could do a little bit of both. I think that probably surprised some people.
I was just about to ask you that. You played both on the defensive line and as an OLB, which position do you see yourself playing at the next level?
Rivers: I’m comfortable playing both. I feel like I can cover. I love to pass rush, that’s what God blessed me to do. He gave me a gift to play this game, and he allowed me to be a pretty decent pass rusher. That’s my favorite thing to do, rush the quarterback. I can cover as well though, I actually started out at safety and cornerback in the ninth grade before I was converted to linebacker. I went from standing on two feet to playing with my hand in the dirt, to now possibly standing back up again. I have no problem doing that.
Rivers has certainly been blessed with the natural ability to excel as a pass rusher. Although he proved to be positional versatile at the combine, he does his best work with his hand in the dirt.
I didn’t know you started out in the secondary. You mentioned that pass rushing is your favorite thing to do, talk to us about your pass rush arsenal. Do you have a move in particular that’s your favorite?
Rivers: I love speed. As for my favorite move, I love getting off the rock, selling about two or three steps, jab in-and-out. I jab in to get the tackle to freeze their feet as I sell that inside move, then I might come back out with a double swipe and finish with a rip.
Getting off the ball in a hurry here, Rivers does a nice job extending his arms and shedding his man to get to the QB.
Spoken like a true pass rusher. Are mind games apart of pass rushing? How can you get the upper hand pre-snap?
Rivers: Most definitely. It always starts in the film room. That’s how I first understand the type of guy that I’m going up against. Does he bail, does he set vertically, does he set at an angle, or maybe he jump-steps a lot. You get to see how strong he is with his hands, does he punch high or low? It’s definitely a mind game. If you get somebody who bails a lot, I might start hitting him with speed-to-bull a couple of times in a row, then he’ll start settling his feet and he’ll start preparing for power because he’s sick of getting bull-rushed.
Although speed is certainly Rivers’ best asset, a powerful bull-rush is also apart of his pass rush arsenal.
Once he starts sitting down, now your arsenal opens up a little more. Now you can beat him with speed. When you beat him with speed once or twice, they start over-stepping again and you come up underneath with a counter. After that, now you have him guessing on every snap. That’s when you start reading him and everything starts opening up. The main thing is to keep playing hard, keep going. You’re not gonna’ win every rush. You can’t get down on the ones you lose. You just gotta’ keep at it because you’re gonna have plenty of opportunities to rush. If they beat you one time, get ready to go back at him. That’s the main thing. Nobody goes undefeated.
Just when you’re tired of getting beat by Rivers speed, he can flash the ability to gain the inside leverage necessary to get to the QB from a different angle.
I love your attention to detail. You talk about doing some homework on your opponent, how much time do you spend in the film room?
Rivers: I spend about five to seven extra hours on top of what’s required of me. It’s very important to my game. I play the left side and Avery Moss plays on the right side. Having the knowledge that the film can provide you is huge. You go in there more confident because you know what to expect. After those first couple of snaps, you start to understand, this is exactly what I expected. You know what’s gonna’ happen before the play starts and you now understand what type of guy you’re going up against.
That extra time spent in the film room is huge. A couple of other prospects I’ve spoken to told me some of their strange combine encounters, usually involving a peculiar question in the interview room. Did you have anything that caught you off guard?
Rivers: Not at all man. Honestly my buddy told me about something pretty weird that I won’t get into, but that was about it. Other than that, I didn’t have any type of strange encounter myself which I know is weird because a lot of guys came up to me like “man, that was the weirdest interview I’ve ever been apart of.” I told them that I was glad I didn’t have to go through anything like that [laughs].
You’re off the hook. You played in the Senior Bowl a couple of months ago. Talk about the importance of that game. What was that week like for you?
Rivers: That was a blessing. Anytime I get to go out there and put on some pads and play the game God blessed us with to worship him and glorify his name, that’s why we do it. The Senior Bowl was an awesome experience. Being able to go out there and play against FBS talent was huge for me because we [Youngstown State] only get to play against an FBS opponent just once a year. Here, I got to practice with these guys, meet these guys, and then play in a game with them as well. That was an awesome experience.
Is that why you went? To show people that you can play against better competition?
Rivers: Even if I went to Tennessee, I would have gone regardless because it’s the Senior Bowl. Throughout this whole process, you only get that opportunity once. As for the FCS, those all-star games are important for FCS guys because that’s the biggest question surrounding us, level of competition. Scouts and teams have questions about the level of competition.
Up until this point, how many teams would you say that you’ve met with so far?
Rivers: Almost all of them. For real, pretty much all of them. Throughout all of the events that I’ve been through, I would definitely say that I’ve met with all 32 teams.
Teams are always interested in adding a pass rusher who flashes the kind of bend necessary to turn the corner.
That’s a lot of interest. Whether at the Senior Bowl or in your time spent at Youngstown State, who would say was the best offensive linemen you’ve ever faced?
Rivers: I would definitely say Billy Turner. I don’t know if he’s still with the Dolphins or not, but he played at North Dakota State during my freshmen year [editor’s note: Turner currently plays for the Broncos]. That was his senior year. I would say that he was probably one of the more athletic guys I’ve ever played against.
I think I’ve taken up enough of your time Derek. Thanks again. In closing, what kind of a guy team is getting when they draft Derek Rivers?
Rivers: A follower of Christ. Number one, before anything, before football, the type of guy they’re getting is a guy who follows the grace of God. The kind of guy they’re getting, my work ethic speaks more than I can tell you. The main thing is that I’m a son of Christ.
I’m going to bring a strong work ethic with me. They’re getting somebody who wants to win. I have no problems off the field and I never will. My goal is to be the starter on day one and to eventually become one of the main leaders on my team; somebody that has some longevity in this league.