+Height and bulk
+Physical with the ball in the air
-Could use his hands better shedding blocks
-Mediocre short area quickness
-Mediocre in zone coverage
Before I talk about UCLA cornerback Aaron Hester, I need to get something off my chest; I have never scouted 2 players on the same team who play the same position who are as similar to each other as Hester and fellow UCLA corner Sheldon Price. When I’m done writing this, I’m essentially going to copy paste this article and change Hester for Price while making just a couple minor tweaks regarding the small differences between them. Hester and Price are nearly identical, in both playing style as well as stats and measurables. Both are 6’1, run a 4.56 40 yard dash (according to nfldraftscout, a great 40 yard dash reference), both had 1 interception, 7 pass breakups, and 0 interception yards in 2011, Hester had 57 tackles while Price had 47 tackles (Hester had more tackles since Price missed 2 games due to injury) in 2011, and they are numbers 21 and 22 respectively. Their playing styles are also nearly identical. It’s tough to tell them apart from each other when the camera angle doesn’t give me a good view of the jersey. Both of them are also two of the most underrated corners I have ever seen.
Hester has decent measurables. He has fantastic size for a corner at 6’1, 206lbs (bulkier than Price), and I absolutely love big corners. His 4.56 40 is mediocre, but he looks much faster on film. Hester and Price really held their own in man coverage against A.J. Jenkins in the Kraft Fight Hunger bowl. Between the two of them, I believe that Jenkins had 3 catches for 12 yards against the two of them in man coverage in that game (although Jenkins did make a 60 yard catch against a zone defense). No corners dominated Jenkins for a game last year like Hester and Price, but, with Hester, I couldn’t help but be astonished as to how easily he was able to stay with Jenkins stride for stride when he ran a deep route. Jenkins may run a 4.39, but Hester looked like he was faster than Jenkins on film. Hester is much faster than his 40 indicates, and, combined with his tremendous size, he has excellent physical tools.
Hester has mediocre stats. In 2011, he got an impressive 57 tackles, but he only had 1 interception. Often, excellent tackle numbers for a corner are a result of mistakes in coverage, but sometimes they are just a result of a player being good in run support. In Hester’s case, it’s mostly the latter. However, Hester has never been able to get many interceptions in his career, which is a legitimate reason for concern, but I’ll get into that later.
Hester is a pretty good athlete. The one big advantage that Hester has over Price is a bit more change of direction skills. Tall players tend to have tighter hips and less quickness than shorter players, but Hester is more of a fluid athlete than one might expect. His acceleration is mediocre, typical for a tall player, but he has more change of direction skills than he gets credit for. It helps him hold his own against quick receivers who are good route runners like Jenkins in man coverage. Above average fluidity and lateral agility is the one thing that Hester has that Price doesn’t.
Hester is spectacular in man coverage. I was absolutely awestruck by the performance of Price and Hester against A.J. Jenkins in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. They looked spectacular. I believe I counted 3 catches for 12 yards by Jenkins against the two of them in man coverage. Jenkins was targeted at least 10 times in that game. Not only did they do a great job of sticking with Jenkins, but, when he was targeted, he rarely had a chance of making the catch. Hester and Price’s most special aspect in man coverage is their amazing ability to read the eyes of wide receivers. Both Price and Hester were absolutely amazing at reading the eyes of any wide receiver on the field to get any idea of where they are going and where the ball is. Being able to read the eyes of wide receivers is very important. Some receivers use poor fundamentals when their eyes give away which direction their route will be going. Any wide receiver who isn’t absolutely perfect in making sure that their eyes don’t give away their route aren’t going to get any yards against Price or Hester. But, beyond just reading the eyes of wide receivers to know where their route is going, Hester does a spectacular job of reading the eyes of wide receivers against the deep ball. He looked amazing against the deep ball against both Stanford and Illinois last season, as a result of his ability to read the eyes of wide receivers. A coach can teach a receiver to make sure that their eyes don’t give away routes, but there is a different problem against the deep ball. The proper way to cover a wide receiver on the deep ball is to have your back facing the quarterback as you look into the eyes of the receiver. When the receiver’s eyes look up, as if a ball is in the air, you put your hands up to deflect the pass. Coaches can’t really teach receivers not to look at the ball when it is in the air, so the receivers eyes are always a dead giveaway as to when the ball is in the air. Hester reads the eyes of wide receivers against the deep ball better than any corner I have ever seen, which is why Levine Toilolo can’t get a jump ball against Hester. Thanks to the eyes of receivers, Hester knows when a pass is in the air even if his back is facing the ball, he can break up passes with his back to the ball with ease. It’s the main reason Hester doesn’t get many interceptions; half of his pass breakups hit him in the back of the head, and he plays the receiver more than the ball. It’s very effective. Hester’s fluidity also helps him in man coverage, and Hester also has tremendous strength, which makes him absolutely dominant in press coverage. His long arms and solid athleticism also help him breakup passes, especially on crossing routes.
Hester is average in zone coverage. I’ll say this: UCLA uses way too much zone coverage for it’s own good. They use more zone coverage than most college football teams, and it really doesn’t suit them. They have two amazing corners who can dominate in man, but they use a lot of zone, which typically results in them being beat over the middle on crossing routes since their linebackers (namely Patrick Larimore) can’t cover. Hester does a decent job of jamming wide receivers in zone coverage, but, when in zone, he has mediocre awareness of the run and he struggles too find other wide receivers. His mediocre acceleration doesn’t help either, but his long arms give him more range to deflect passes in zone coverage than one might expect.
Hester is an excellent run stopper, and there is no reason to believe he doesn’t have good character. I usually try to avoid commenting on a player’s character, but Hester seems to play with above average on field intensity, and he also has proven to be excellent on special teams, making a few good tackles in the return game. Hester has solid strength and excellent instincts against the run, but he could afford to do a better job of using his hands to shed off blocks, which should be easy for him given his long arms. He also is an excellent tackler.
Hester’s biggest flaw is a lack of ball skills. He rarely, if ever, gets many interceptions. But it’s okay. Hester’s interception total isn’t low because drop passes. It’s because he plays the receiver more than the ball (without drawing pass interference penalties). He is incredibly physical with the ball in the air, and he often has his back to the line of scrimmage against the deep ball. Half of Hester’s deflected passes are a result of him getting hit in the back by the football. He plays the man more than the ball, and, thanks to his incredible ability to read the eyes of opposing wide receivers, it works well for him. If he isn’t hit in the back of the head by a pass, he knocks the ball out of a receiver’s hands as soon as it gets near the receiver. It’s still effective. Hester and Price may get fewer interceptions than most corners, but receivers make fewer catches against them at the same time. Quarterbacks rarely throw interceptions when targeting Hester or Price, but they also have extremely low completion percentages when targeting them. It may not be as pretty on the stat sheet or the TV screen, but playing the receiver is no less effective than going for the pick.
Ultimately, I absolutely love Aaron Hester. Hester and Price are the most underrated corners I’ve seen since fellow UCLA Bruin Alterraun Verner, who was my biggest defensive sleeper of the 2010 draft class. They should be great in the NFL.
NFL Comparison: Al Harris
Grade: 88 (worthy of an early 2nd round pick)
Projection: 60 (will be a late 4th to early 5th round pick)