The cornerback position has been a fun group to watch this season and there are plenty on display versus talented receivers this weekend. Sidney Jones (Washington) and Jourdan Lewis (Michigan) are two lockdown specialists and Cordrea Tankersley has quietly been the best player on a NFL-rich Clemson roster.
By: Christian Page
The cornerback class is loaded up top, but the same cannot be said about the offensive tackle class. With rankings that will be fluid throughout the rest of the season, a few tackles are making some noise jumping into high second round values and even possible back end first round selections. I added a new section this week to provide for insight on some names that may not be receiving the appropriate amount of exposure. Here are some players to watch and matchups to highlight this weekend with a focus on draft-eligible players.
No. 2 Michigan at Michigan State // Noon EST // ESPN
Michigan boasts one of the best defensive units in football and though Jabrill Peppers (#5) has been gaining a plethora amount of national attention, cornerback Jourdan Lewis (#26) has had an incredible season. Lewis has only played in four games this season but in that time he has only surrendered seven yards in coverage. Overall, Lewis may be the best man-on-man cover corner in this class with Sidney Jones a close second – or Lewis a close second. Though RJ Shelton (#12) plays a versatile role in the Sparty offense, his matchup versus Lewis is notable here. Shelton has been one of the few bright spots for this Spartan offense averaging 13.2 yards per touch with four total touchdowns. With impressive body control, concentration and dynamic style of play, Shelton is rising to become a hot name come draft season trying to throw down a trump card when his team is being evaluated during that time.
Michigan has prided itself on the success of its offensive line this season and rightly so. With that in mind, highly regarded defensive tackle prospect Malik McDowell (#4) brings his length and power in contest to this smash mouth Michigan football. Even with Michigan State’s team falling off the radar this year, McDowell still continues to be a hot name and a consistent name projected within the first 15 picks of the 2017 draft. McDowell hasn’t been as successful in the passing game this season compared to a year ago – a heavy helping of double teams and still plenty of holding calls not accounted for – but continues to be a threat at stopping the run in the interior firing off the snap and quickly shooting his hands into the chest of the blocker not letting his opponent get any advantage. I have noticed that McDowell seems to have some lackadaisical moments later on in the game, which is not a good when evaluating a defensive lineman prospect or any prospect for that matter. Keep tabs on that element and I may have some feedback in next week’s edition.
No. 4 Washington at No. 17 Utah // 3:30 p.m. EST // Fox Sports 1
With possibly its last chance to really be tested, Washington travels to Utah to face some surging prospects in the NFL Draft spectrum. Utah’s most notable prospect is safety Marcus Williams (#20) though he is still yet to be placed on the depth chart for the second consecutive week with an undisclosed injury. Williams plays a lot of single high safety, so he doesn’t make many plays near the line of scrimmage in the run game but is effective in the passing game (not saying he is a poor run defender). Williams is the typical centerfielder at safety reading the backfield and showing off his instincts and anticipation skills when the ball is released into the air. Williams’ status is still uncertain in this game but if he plays, keep an eye out for his ability to tackle in space. Washington doesn’t take the word spread lightly and Williams has been one of the more efficient tacklers in football this season and will be tested with the speed and quickness of John Ross (#1).
Sticking with defensive backs, no other cornerback in football has been more lockdown in coverage than Sidney Jones (#26). Jones has been targeted only nine times this season for the Huskies and has only allowed four catches for 20 yards and no touchdowns. Jones is a bully in press coverage not letting a receiver get a clear release off the line of scrimmage. Though not targeting much this season, Jones can jump routes as good as, if not better than, NFL cornerbacks with incredible anticipation and instincts. His smooth transition when changing direction and flipping his hips keeps his distance close in coverage preventing even a just a look to his side. I am not sure there is any receiver on Utah’s roster that can contend with Jones, but senior Tim Patrick (#12) should be healthy enough to give it a shot Saturday evening. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Patrick will test Jones’ small frame all day but that has yet to faze him in previous matchups.
I was just recently suggested to look at Utah junior left tackle Garrett Bolles (#72) and after just one game I came away extremely impressed in my initial reaction. Bolles is a grinder in the run game showing nice movement skills in Utah’s zone blocking scheme.
Bolles has controlled movements and, though he is raw in his overall pass protection, he shows some of the best hand placement and strength I have seen out of all the tackles in this class. Keeping his hands inside and locking down the defender is impressive and even with his footwork being sloppy at times, he still causes for a long route to the quarterback from the pass rusher. In an offensive tackle class that continues to get weaker, Bolles has taken advantage and can take another step this weekend. Extremely premature, but a late first round selection is not out of the question here if he continues to display and consistency.
The main matchup to pay attention to in this game is the Washington defensive front and the running game of Utah headlined by senior running back Joe Williams (#28). Vita Vea (#50) and Elijah Qualls (#11) are an incredible run-stuffing duo that continually manages to penetrate the interior with tremendous push at the point of attack. Williams does a lot of work outside the tackles and is much of a threat to bounce of tacklers so look for the Huskies’ front seven to take away this element of Utah’s offense and make quarterback Troy Williams (#3) beat them from the pocket.
No. 7 Nebraska at No. 11 Wisconsin // 7 p.m. EST // ESPN
A game that will fly under the radar this weekend even with the top 15 rankings, Nebraska and Wisconsin are both playing solid football in a strong Big Ten this season. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong is playing more efficient from the pocket and Wisconsin’s front seven has been a monster for opposing offenses.
While resting in the weeds on the scout team last season, Ryan Ramczyk (#65) has been a pleasant surprise this season for the Badgers being a huge success in both the run and passing game. Ramczyk was on a hot streak through the first five games not allowing any sacks during that span. The Wisconsin line as a whole crumbled in the latter half of the Ohio State game not being able to keep pressure off the backfield in pass protection but Ramczyk even seemed to hold his pressure prevention status intact after the loss. Ramczyk received multiple accolades for his performance this season being on almost every midseason all-America team. Ramczyk shows off his athleticism with an excellent kick slide to catch traffic while also maintaining balance with nimble feet. His movement skills are also impressive being able to casually move to the next level.
Nebraska’s offensive line was not good last week versus Purdue as defenders are starting to make a living in its backfield. Wisconsin will have to deal with the terror of TJ Watt’s (#42) quickness and acceleration off the right side as he is somehow able to almost perfectly time each snap when rushing the passer. Watt was quiet in the Ohio State loss a couple of weeks ago but pay attention to his ability to peel off the edge versus a descending Nebraska front.
Wisconsin isn’t much of a threat to abuse the opponent’s secondary so stopping the run will be essential to Nebraska’s success on defense. Safety Kieron Williams (#26) has shown his range this season in pass coverage but in this matchup I will be watching closely to see how well he plays the run and what physical traits he carries. Williams has been a productive tackle this season and I look forward to scouting his matchup to step up into the box, possibly, and defending the physical Corey Clement (#6) for Wisconsin who makes a living off extra yardage through contact. In this matchup I will also be looking for Clement to get in a habit of getting to the second level of the defense as he is just averaging 4.35 yards per carry. He has also fumbled in the previous two games and that is a theme that needs to be put to bed immediately.
No. 3 Clemson at No. 12 Florida State // 8 p.m. EST // ABC
NFL scouts will be by the hundreds in Tallahassee for this always-anticipated divisional matchup. Clemson still carries its unblemished record but has not looked like the national title threatening squad many expected to be in the preseason. The Tigers have had plenty of hiccups on offense with confusion and missed opportunities and with all-star running back Wayne Gallman (#9) possibly missing this game or not being as much of an impact suffering a concussion two weeks ago, consistency may be an issue once again.
Florida State wide receiver Travis Rudolph (#15) had his best game versus Wake Forest two weeks ago hauling in 13 receptions for 238 yards. That was Rudolph’s first game with over two receptions since Sept. 10 versus Charleston Southern. Drops and route running have been issues surrounding his draft status but also consistency, as he needs a big game Saturday night to prove his worth. Rudolph will most likely see Cordrea Tankersley (#25) lined up opposite of him which will make his task more difficult. Tankersley constantly takes away the middle of the field keeping inside leverage and making the quarterback throw outside near the sideline. Rudolph likes to attack the middle of the field but Tankersley will make it tough for the receiver to make an impact in that area.
Names to start keeping tabs on…
Venturing away from the normal “Pure Scouting Matchup” section here, I came up with a list of some under the radar players that have gained buzz lately and need more recognition.
#65 Tariq Cole, Rutgers, LT – Cole has been the only bright spot for the Rutgers offense as he has been a dominant pass protector and run blocker. The junior rarely surrenders pressure in the backfield and plays with balance and foot quickness to seal the edge. Rutgers does not play this weekend.
#66 Dion Dawkins, Temple, LT – A powerful and explosive left tackle, Dawkins has surged up many draft boards playing with consistency. Dawkins prides himself on his elite run blocking at the left tackle position and is always moving forward. In the games I have watched this season, I have yet to see Dawkins lose a one-on-one power battle on the outside. He doesn’t have the quickest feet but has a decent kick that can help supplement with the lack of quickness.
#5 Ejuan Price, Pittsburgh, DE – An undersized pass rusher, Price has been unstoppable this season leading the nation in sacks with nine. Similar to former undersized Pitt prospect Aaron Donald, Price uses his lack of height and length to an advantage by slipping under opposing tackle and attacking with top-notch strength. He also maintains the ability to convert power into speed.
#23 Ahkello Witherspoon, Colorado, CB – Colorado has been a pleasant surprise this season with a stout defense and a productive offense. The secondary is a confident bunch that prides itself on future NFL draft picks with one being Witherspoon. The long strider impresses with ball awareness and body control with a receiver like mentality. Witherspoon (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) is a clutch and confident defender that stands out in a group of talented defensive backs.