Michigan State vs Wisconsin
A tale as old as time: the Big Ten is the provider for this week’s best matchup in the trenches. Michigan State EDGE Kenny Willekes will be aiming to make his case as a first-round pick against Wisconsin OT Cole Van Lanen.
Let’s start with the man who will be on the back foot: Van Lanen. Van Lanen is next up on an illustrious, ever-growing list of Wisconsin offensive linemen. Before taking over the full-time spot in 2019, Van Lanen shared snaps during the 2018 season while the Badgers tried to fill the vacancy left by Michael Dieter. Van Lanen saw a majority of the snaps, but was occasionally taken off the field on clear passing downs. Though he has since cleaned up his pass protection enough to not need a substitute, Van Lanen still isn’t the most polished or capable pass protector as far as being an NFL player goes.
Here is Van Lanen getting worked inside by a USF pass-rusher on third down. In part because he does not read the pass-rusher’s path quickly enough, Van Lanen’s hands and feet end up disconnected from each other. His hands are outstretched and making contact with the defender at the same time he is finishing a kick step to the outside. As a result of the disconnect, Van Lanen cannot get any power behind his punch and is left open to being knocked off balance because he does not have his base under him. The USF pass-rusher is able to drive through Van Lanen’s inside shoulder to open up a path straight to the quarterback. Van Lanen probably gets away with some light holding and the quarterback does well to escape the pressure anyway, but this could have easily been a sack.
In pass pro, Van Lanen is much better equipped to handle big men and bull rushers. If Van Lanen manages to get his base under him, his hefty (FRAME) is quite the challenge to move. He can absorb a bull rusher’s contact, sink hips, and anchor down without giving up an uncomfortable amount of ground. That same level of play does not carry over to handling flexible or fast pass-rushers, unfortunately. Van Lanen does fine to work around the arc versus non-elite benders, but he is not the caliber of left tackle one should trust to be thrown out on a pass-pro island.
Willekes’ skill set lies somewhere in between what Van Lanen can handle and what he cannot. A three-year starter on Michigan State’s front, Willekes is a weak-side end who fares better the more an offensive lineman exposes himself through poor technique. Of course, all pass-rushers are some degree of “better” against uncoordinated line play, but Willekes’ particular blend of hand-usage and dad strength is perfect for preying on the slightest of missteps from pass protectors.
Here is a simple example of Willekes using quality hand placement and strong drive to get to the quarterback. The offensive tackle across from Willekes is playing with his hands well out of his frame. When the time comes to engage with Willekes, the tackle has to burn an extra split-second getting his hands up and can only latch onto Willekes with a poor outside grasp after Willekes has gotten inside his frame. Willekes takes the advantageous position and drives it all the way into the quarterback, making a last-second adjustment to jump inside to secure the tackle.
This clip is similar in that Willekes uses the same approach to win, but the avenue with which he arrives there is different. The offensive tackle is late and slow getting out of his stance, which presents Willekes with a decision once the two players get even. Willekes can either path slightly more to the outside and aim to bend around the corner, or he can run a tighter angle by using his power to run through the tackle’s outside shoulder. As seen in the clip, Willekes chooses the latter approach in part because, again, the tackle is slow to get his hands up into Willekes’ frame. Willekes’ one-handed strike into the tackle’s chest gives him the leverage to path almost directly to the quarterback. Though Willekes ends up slightly behind the quarterback, he is easily within arm’s reach to knock the ball out for a strip sack.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Willekes get the best of Van Lanen in this fashion. Van Lanen can be a bit clumsy; Willekes preys on offensive tackles being clumsy. The good news for Van Lanen, however, is that Willekes probably can’t win by bending well around the edge. Willekes just doesn’t have that kind of twitch or flexibility to be a traditional threat around the arc.
This time around, Willekes is in a wider alignment. The offensive tackle does a good job responding to the wide alignment by getting out to the edge in a timely manner without sacrificing his angle. Unlike the previous two examples, the offensive tackle in this clip is proactive in engaging Willekes and gets a solid grab of the pass-rusher’s chest. Willekes’ only option at that point was to try to get low and bend through the contact, but he locks up and loses his balance the moment he tries to dip down.
Willekes has the pass-rush moves to beat Van Lanen, but not the requisite amount of bend. The pass-rush matchup will come down to how often Willekes’ is forced to run the arc instead of play through or inside of Van Lanen. Either way, expect Willekes to get the best of Van Lanen on at least a few occasions and potentially break his three-week dry spell of not recording a sack.
Where Van Lanen can gain an advantage — and you would never guess this of a Wisconsin OL — is on the ground. Van Lanen is a people mover. When he gets his mitts on a defender with even a smidgen of forward momentum, there is a strong possibility that defender may get embarrassed and be the butt of a barrage of jokes when his team reviews film the next day.
In most cases, pass-rushing would overrule anything that happens in the run game, but within the context of Wisconsin’s offense, Van Lanen’s dominance on the ground may outweigh the handful of pass-rush snaps he is sure to lose. That is not to say Willekes cannot have an impact as a pass-rusher, but unless he has a career-day, it’s plausible Van Lanen does enough work in the run game to “win” the matchup. For the sake of choosing a side, however, it’s tough not to side with the player who is better on passing downs.
Louisville vs Wake Forest
Unlike the first matchup on this list, not many people would expect a fierce trench battle between Louisville and Wake Forest. Louisville had notoriously bad offensive lines while Lamar Jackson was on the team, while Wake Forest isn’t known for producing a boat load of NFL talent. Wake Forest has had one defensive lineman drafted in the past decade.
EDGE Carlos Basham Jr. is going to change that. At 6-foot-5 and 275-pounds, Basham is a bit of a tweener in terms of standard sizes by position, but he is a traditional defensive end by nature. Basham has a long frame that carries his 275-pounds much leaner than one would imagine and he moves smoother than his size may suggest.
That being said, it can be difficult for someone of Basham’s size to bend the way elite pass-rushers do. A few guys like JJ Watt and Cameron Jordan can make it work, but it’s certainly not the standard. Basham falls closer to the mean that to the high end of Watt and Jordan. He is not a stiff pass-rusher, per se, and he still flexes around the edge better than someone of his size should, but it likely will not be the staple of his game. Basham’s value will have to come from effective pass-rush moves and finding ways to beat offensive tackles through their inside shoulder.
As the two clips above highlight, Basham is quite good at the latter. In part because Basham is such a lean and explosive player for someone his size, he can be tricky to get a hand on as is. Basham takes it a step further by getting “skinny” through the blocks. In both clips, Basham turns his shoulders just before the offensive tackle tries to initiate contact. The two clips are slightly different in that he powers through contact in the first clip and pairs a swipe move into his sequence in the second clip, but the general principle of getting “skinny” to create a smaller target remains. Couple Basham’s blend of body type and athleticism with a keen understanding of how to play “skinny” through contact, and you just might have yourself an effective defensive end.
To keep Basham down, Louisville are going to need an offensive tackle who can match in size, length, and athleticism. It’s a good thing they have one.
OT Mekhi Becton appears to be an underappreciated prospect — for now. Becton is not some hidden gem waiting to be discovered so he can make a meteoric rise up draft boards, but it is perplexing that someone of Becton’s potential doesn’t have a brighter spotlight on him. If Becton were to declare after this season, he would have three years of starting experience and turn 21-year-old just two weeks before the draft. The 6-foot-7, 369-pound tackle also sports tree vines for arms and moves more like he weighs a flat 300-pounds. With respect to physical tools and moldability, it doesn’t really get any better than Becton.
When he puts it all together on a given snap, the result is so pretty. For someone of Becton’s size to flow across the arc and keep someone squared in front of him is a work of art. When Becton finishes off a rep by completely dismantling a pass-rusher’s attempt to make a move, one can’t help but to wonder how special Becton could be with the right coaching.
Here is a perfect example of how good Becton looks when it all comes together. On this rep, Becton fans out to the edge at a comfortable pace and keeps himself in position to respond to the pass-rusher. Becton keeps his elbows tight and his hands at the ready so as to make sure he always has the advantage in the war over who will get into who’s frame first. The moment the Notre Dame pass-rusher lifts a hand to reach into Becton, the hulking left tackle swats the hand down and uses the whiffing pass-rusher’s moment to drive him to the ground. Becton’s length, athleticism, and technique were all on display on that rep.
And yet, pass pro probably isn’t Becton’s area of expertise. Becton is … mean in the run game, to say the least.
Of course, not every single rep looks like this, but it’s not tough to find at least a handful of these clips from any game in Becton’s film catalog. The dude plays with a mean streak and throws his 369-pounds around with such control that precious few defenders have a good answer for it. Maybe a bigger defensive end like Basham can hold his own, but even Basham is at about an 80-pound disadvantage.
After a solid showing versus Notre Dame in the opener and a dominant showing against Florida State a few weeks ago, Becton gets another opportunity on Saturday to prove himself against NFL-caliber talent. While Basham will not make things easy for Becton, the Louisville tackle should be able to have another positive showing and add to an already impressive resume.
Florida vs LSU
Premier SEC matchups are never lacking in top-tier battles between future pros. Both teams have NFL Draft prospects littered throughout the entire roster, but the most inspiring clash is between Florida CB C.J. Henderson and LSU’s trio of WRs. Only Justin Jefferson is eligible for 2020 among the three, but all of them are future top-100 picks and will provide Henderson with a challenge.
From a tools perspective, there is not much more a coach or scout could want out of Henderson. At 6-foot-1, 182-pounds, Henderson is a bit on the slender side, but that slenderness is part of why he plays as smooth as he does. He plays with light, quick feet at the line of scrimmage and at the top of route breaks that help him maintain a winning position early on in plays. From there, Henderson is able to rely on the flexibility in his hips and explosion out of his breaks to keep pace with wide receivers of all shapes and sizes.
This pass breakup versus Miami’s Jeff Thomas is a good example of how Henderson can snap toward the ball. Henderson rides Thomas throughout his vertical stem right up until Thomas snaps off the route and shoves Henderson to gain some separation. A lot of cornerbacks would simply be beat once Thomas snaps off the route, but Henderson instantly regains his balance to fire downhill and close on the ball. Though Thomas gets two hands on the ball, Henderson is draped all over him and fighting with his arms to free the ball before it’s ruled a catch. This is not a clean pass breakup in the way we often see from defensive backs, but it’s a hell of a recovery and effort to make a play.
Henderson primarily plays outside, so he may not see a whole lot of Jefferson, but he is not locked into one coverage style. Florida’s defense mixes in a fair amount of press/bail, off-man coverage and two- or four-deep coverages, all of which serves to showcase Henderson’s malleability as a coverage piece.
So, how about the trio of emerging stars that Henderson has to shut down?
Jefferson is the primary threat in LSU’s three-headed monster of a wide receiver corps. Through six weeks (five games, for LSU), Jefferson is top-ten in the country in both yards (547) and touchdowns (7). Standing at 6-foot-3, 192-pounds, the junior is a bit of an unusual fit at slot receiver, but in LSU’s new-look offense, it works. Jefferson is a natural at finding creases through the middle of the defense as well as gliding down the seams on vertical routes. He is not a sharp route runner the way many expect a slot receiver to be, but his ability to stress defenses vertically and horizontally is vital to opening up the Tigers passing game.
Chase is not far behind Jefferson. Though Chase has fewer raw yards and touchdowns, he has also played one fewer game than Jefferson, so his yards-per-game is actually slightly higher than Jefferson. The difference is not big enough to serve any purpose beyond splitting hairs, but it’s insane that LSU have two WRs who are near the top among all WRs in the country. Chase is a bit of a stringy player 6-foot-1, 200-pounds, but it allows him to be the team’s most versatile piece in terms of playing inside or outside. Chase can operate out of both positions, showcasing stunning body control in contested situations and a quick transition to yards-after-catch once the ball is in his hands.
Lastly, Marshall presents the biggest size mismatch at 6-foot-4, 200-pounds. Unlike the other two, Marshall is primarily an outside threat who LSU uses as it’s possession receiver. “Possession” is a loose term for LSU’s aggressive, spread out offense, but of the three top Tigers receiver, Marshall is the one least equipped to pull off long plays. That being said, Marshall is a menace in the red zone and has scored six times despite having just 20 total receptions.
Make no mistake, Henderson is a fantastic cornerback prospect, but LSU has too many threats of varying skill sets to not get the best of him a few times. LSU’s passing offense is one of the best in the country and it’s tough to bet on that slowing down until it actually happens for once.