LSU vs Alabama
The LSU-Alabama matchup could be taken in any direction. Quarterback matchups, trench battles, and Alabama’s secondary versus LSU’s wide receivers could have all worked. In fact, in most seasons the ideal matchup to highlight would be Alabama’s secondary versus LSU’s wide receivers, given each schools history of producing at those positions. But it’s 2019, and oh how the turntables.
In addition to freshman phenom CB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU’s secondary features senior CB Kristian Fulton and junior S Grant Delpit. All three are more likely than not to be first-round picks in their respective draft classes.
Fulton has made a couple of appearances in the Showdown before. At 6-foot, 200-pounds, Fulton rocks a fair, lean build that enables him to be both physical and agile. Fulton’s defining characteristics are that he is a proactive press cornerback and has an uncanny knack for finding the ball in the air, no matter where it is or how he has to twist his body to get to it. Bringing in those passes for interceptions is another story, but there is still something to say for a cornerback who always gets a hand in to disrupt.
During Monday’s media session, Fulton sounded amped up to be able to get toe-to-toe with some of the best receivers in the country, many of which he knows will also have success in the pros.
“I don't think we're switching nothing up. We're going to be man all across the board with us so not really much help there … (Man coverage) shows you what you're really made of. They got NFL guys, we got NFL guys, too, so it's a fun one. You look forward to these games.”
The comment about playing man across the board, while unsurprising to anyone who has seen LSU play, is the perfect segue into exploring Delpit’s skill set. Delpit is the ideal modern day safety. Not only can Delpit patrol the back end in single-high assignments, but he can walk up to play in the nickel, thriving both in man coverage and in run defense. Delpit shows phenomenal closing speed and rare playmaking instincts. There are so many plays on Delpit’s film reel that he makes seem normal, when almost any other safety in the country would not be able to make the same play.
For example, this third-down stop against Florida a month ago summarizes Delpit’s skill set. Delpit is lined up in the slot to the left side of the offense’s formation and prepared to go man-to-man with the player across from him. As the Gators snap the ball and wide receivers get into their routes, Delpit shows no issues remaining tight to his man. A few seconds into the play, Gators QB Kyle Trask realizes nobody is open and decides to take matters into his own hands with a scramble. Trask has the right idea and nearly makes it work, but Delpit shows off the awareness to pick up on Trask’s maneuvers and separate himself from the wide receiver trying to block, then instantly closes the gap on Trask to take him down before the sticks.
Versatility and awareness are the hallmarks of Delpit’s game. In a league that features an endless variety of skill players lining up in the slot and has finally embraced RPOs (run-pass options), the value in a safety who can play the nickel and tackle as well as they cover is higher than ever. Delpit fits the mold without a shadow of a doubt.
For as good as Fulton and Delpit are, Alabama’s wide receivers are no slouches either. Jerry Jeudy is a top-15 pick, Devonta Smith is a top-100 pick, and Henry Ruggs is a candidate to run the fastest 40-yard dash in Indy this spring.
Jeudy, as evidenced by his draft projections, is going to be the biggest handful for LSU’s secondary. Both before and after the catch, Jeudy is one of the slipperiest athletes in the country. The speed at which he can fire his feet, change direction, and reaccelerate afterwards can not be found anywhere else. Not only does Jeudy’s suddenness make him a threat with the ball in his hands, but he is a menace on vertical stems because he knows how to set defensive backs up for one wrong step and break away from them.
The first play in this clip does not show Jeudy beating a single defender, but having the raw speed to abuse zone coverage. Jeudy flies out of his break and clears the slot defender with ease before bending toward the hashes underneath the deep safety. Jeudy gets to his landmark and out of his route break so quickly that a defender would have needed to gamble by triggering early to make a play on the ball. The second clip, however, does show Jeudy matched up solo with a defender. Jeudy shuffles out of his stance trying to sell the cornerback inside. The moment the cornerback lifts his shoulders, Jeudy slides to the outside because the defender will have a tough time getting a hand on Jeudy since he just threw all his weight back. In generating a free release for himself, Jeudy is able to win the outside shoulder and beat the cornerback in a foot race for a touchdown.
Alabama’s entire offense has been built on vertical shots this season, so the Tigers have to be ready for it. Playing a lot of man coverage is sort of daring Tua Tagovailoa to throw the one-on-one situations he believes are favorable, whereas zone coverages would lend more to asking Tagovailoa to scan the field and look for weak spots. The good news for LSU is that if any secondary has the talent to handle Alabama’s explosive receiver trio, it’s them (or Ohio State, but we’ll get to that when the playoff comes around).
Sprinkle on the fact that Tagovailoa is fresh off an injury and it’s pretty reasonable to hand the edge to LSU in this matchup. Do not expect Tagovailoa to throw three interceptions or anything like that, but it’s going to be his toughest test to date and he isn’t going to look as dominant as he has to this point in the year.
Baylor vs TCU
It’s been a while since TCU has sent a cornerback to the league, especially when only counting NFL draft picks. Safety Derrick Kindred (2016) was the last TCU defensive back of any kind that was drafted, while Jason Verrett (2014) was the last cornerback deemed worthy of a pick. The Horned Frogs have pumped out a few UDFAs since then, but senior Jeff Gladney is here to correct TCU’s drought of not getting cornerbacks drafted.
Gladney is 6-foot and 183-pounds of lightning. Everything Gladney does feels as quick as the flash of a Polaroid. Whether it’s micro movements like firing his feet in his backpedal or macro movements such as closing on the ball from a distance, Gladney never looks like anything but the quickest guy on the field. Gladney is sped up to 1.25x speed while everyone else is at normal playback speed.
As for the micro, take a look at Gladney’s rapid footwork in this clip (top of screen). Gladney fires his feet up and down with blazing speed while maintaining a clean, balanced base under him. Gladney is able to easily turn toward the sideline to match the wide receiver’s break because he is always resetting himself to a newer, better position to do so. The quick footwork is not done for the sake of being quick, it’s actually functional for him. Not many cornerbacks have that kind of explosion or control.
The macro is just as ridiculous. Against almost every Big 12 team, being able to respond to the quick game on time and shut down screens before they can get going is crucial. Far too many players in the conference have the breakaway speed to punish a cornerback being late to the party. With Gladney, though, that’s not an issue. Gladney has the awareness and closing speed to put a lid on any wide receiver screen thrown to his side of the field — and he is willing to deliver a hit that will make receivers think twice about even wanting that play called for them again.
What completes Gladney’s game is that he is not just an agile mover. As his willingness to hit may suggest, Gladney can press and get physical with wide receivers through their routes. Against larger receivers, in particular, this is almost necessary without absolutely perfect footwork on each and every play. Gladney understands when and how to use his body to leverage off of his opponent.
This is textbook stuff from Gladney (top of screen). Playing a few yards off the line, Gladney does not need to immediately initiate contact with the wide receiver. Gladney remains patient with a solid base under him and waits for the receiver to try to snap his route off before jamming him in the chest to slow him down. Rather than play over the top of the receiver at that point, Gladney takes the more aggressive approach in trying to work from a trail position to potentially reach over the receiver’s inside shoulder and bat down a pass. In some situations, Gladney would not be able to do this, but Gladney knows that he has a deep safety helping him. Gladney can afford to take the risk here instead of playing it safe and working off the receiver’s outside shoulder.
Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims may present a particularly troubling matchup for Gladney, though. Mims is 6-foot-3, 215-pounds and as coordinated as a Cirque Cu Soleil performer. While his long speed is also a useful tool, Mims wins many of his matchups through ball-tracking and coordination up against the boundary. Mims has a rare ability to find the ball at the highest spot and contort his body to pluck it out of the air. Gladney has the skill set to keep up with Mims’ pace, but beating him at the catch point may not go as well.
It genuinely does not make sense that Mims can reach out like this in both instances while maintaining the awareness and control to keep himself in bounds. It’s not like Mims is doing so in a weak spot in zone coverage, either. Mims is getting jammed up against the sideline by a defender and still finds ways to bring each pass in.
The drawback with Mims is that he’s a rather linear player. Mims can run verticals, posts, and comebacks on the sideline, but not a whole lot else. He does not have a full route tree and is instead limited to a small handful of vertical routes. In fairness, that may be more a product of Baylor’s offense than Mims’ inability, but it’s a fair criticism until proven otherwise.
Regardless of how the matchup goes, the final score won’t look good for Gladney. Baylor are a considerably better team than TCU right now and should be able to beat the Horned Frogs. That being said, in the 15-ish times Gladney and Mims directly face off against each other, Gladney’s all-around speed and physicality should outshine Mims’ ability to catch passes on the sideline.
Georgia vs Missouri
Discussions about Georgia’s offensive line almost always come back to left tackle Andrew Thomas. By all accounts, Thomas is an elite prospect and should find himself in the green room on draft day barring a major offseason collapse. The entire offensive line is excellent, though, and some of the other guys deserve their time in the spotlight. Guard Solomon Kindley, in particular, should have a close eye kept on him this week as he faces Missouri defensive tackle Jordan Elliott.
Kindley is an absolute unit at 6-foot-4, 335-pounds. As one might expect of someone his size, Kindley plays with grown-man strength and is every bit as important to Georgia’s bully-ball running game as Thomas is. In any given Georgia game, it’s more likely you’ll see Kindley put someone in the ground than see him lose his run blocking assignment in any capacity.
Here is Kindley and Thomas on a double-team. While Thomas’ effort on the back end certainly helps clear the three-technique out of the gap, it’s Kindley’s initial punch that rocks the three-tech back and forces him off balance. Once you lose the balance war against Kindley alone, much less with the help of Thomas, there’s a 99% chance that play is over for you. A defender’s best bet in the film room after a play like that is to hope someone else screwed up even worse and takes the heat off.
Kindley’s prowess shows up in the pass game, too. Pass protection should not be passive and Kindley lives that phrase to the fullest extent. Against Florida in this clip, Kindley jams right into the pass-rusher and drives him into the ground before he can try to make any sort of countermove. Is it textbook to just clean someone off their feet like that in pass pro? Eh, probably not, because it can cause traffic. But I’m sure every single OL coach in the league would rather have a guy who can do this than can’t.
On the other side of the ball, Elliott poses a fun matchup against Kindley. This is not the case of one player’s strengths pinpointing another’s weaknesses or a battle of contrasting skill sets. It’s the opposite. Like Kindley, Elliott is a brute force pocket-pusher who can manhandle just about anyone lined up across from him. This is a heavyweight bout in the trenches if I’ve ever seen one.
No, Elliott does not get to the quarterback in this clip, but his power is on full display before he gets chipped by the running back. Lined up over the right guard, Elliott initially aims for the guard’s inside shoulder. The guard has to bite and turn inside because Elliott gets off the ball so quickly. Rather than try to just motor through the guard at this point, Elliott grabs hold of the guard’s frame and tosses him back inside where his momentum is already taking him, then steps toward the guard’s outside shoulder. Had the running back not been there to chip, Elliott would have sprung free around the guard’s outside shoulder and had a path to the quarterback.
The Kindley-Elliott battle is similar to Gladney-Mims in that Kindley’s team should comfortably come out on top, while Elliott is probably the better prospect. Elliott’s raw power is complemented by ample agility and quickness, whereas Kindley’s strength is not complemented as well by the rest of his skill set.
Within the context of the one-on-one, expect Elliott to get the best of Kindley on a number of occasions, particularly in the pass game.