Oklahoma vs LSU
It’s incredibly rare that Oklahoma WR CeeDee Lamb enters a game without being the clear-cut best pass-catcher on the field. LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase is one of a small handful of receivers who can match Lamb’s pace as an explosive play threat, and Chase may end up an even better prospect than Lamb by the time he is eligible. Lamb won’t be directly facing off against Chase, though. Instead, the junior Sooner will have to square off against one of LSU’s many other first-round talents: CB Kristian Fulton.
Fulton has been a feature on the showdown a number of times this season. Of course, the talent-loaded SEC gives him plenty of opportunity to face excellent competition, but Fulton is a fantastic player in his own right who deserves as much of a spotlight as any cornerback in this class.
At 6-foot-, 200-pounds, Fulton sports a lean build that lends to speed and agility without sacrificing much by way of length and strength. In LSU’s defensive scheme that often asks him to play press-bail man coverage, being up to par in both strength and agility makes it easy for Fulton to win consistently at the line of scrimmage. After following receivers properly out of their stem, Fulton usually does an excellent job of latching into their hip pocket. Fulton is particularly impressive when he gets to work receivers toward the sideline or down the field.
In both ‘Bama clips, Fulton does well to sit on the wide receiver’s stem before committing to getting into their frame. Fulton keeps his feet running and fires with the receiver as soon as they declare where their stem is going, then jams his near hand into their chest to slow them just enough to keep pace with them. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa didn’t see it fit to target Fulton in either instance, but if he had, Fulton would have been right in position to make a play on the catch point because of how early he was able to win each snap.
In this instance versus Auburn, Fulton does get targeted. Again, Fulton does well to wait on the route stem then explode out of his position to stick with the receiver. Fulton does not as directly get a hand into the receiver’s chest here, but he does stick right to the receiver’s outside hip and matches him step-for-step in a foot race down the field. By the time the ball arrived in the area, Fulton had stacked himself just on top of the wide receiver and was plenty prepared to leap to make a play on the ball.
On the other side of the ball is Lamb, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder wide receiver who looks and plays bigger than he is. Not that 6-foot-2 is short or inadequate by any stretch, but Lamb has a DeAndre Hopkins-like quality to him where everything he does suggests he would be closer to 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5.
Lamb, like Hopkins, has unusually long arms and fantastic leaping ability, both of which make him a menace in contested situations and near the sideline. Versus Fulton, a well-versed and physical player down the sideline, Lamb’s ability to manipulate the catch point and find the ball at its highest point should come in handy.
Lamb is also a ridiculous talent after the catch. He may not be the outright fastest player in the class, but he’s in the upper tier of breakaway speed while having the short-area flexibility and raw strength to play like a running back when would-be tacklers get a hand on him. Lamb ticks every possible box in terms of run-after-catch ability.
The only thing that may complicate what could be a fierce matchup is where each player tends to align. Lamb plays primarily from the left side of the formation, whereas Fulton tends to play to the right side of the offense’s formation. Each see an average of 10-20% of their snaps on the opposite side or in the slot, but for the most part, they reside on opposite sides of the field. Unless a schematic change is made, it’s possible we see these two matched up only a handful of times.
That being said, there is at least the consolation that Lamb gets to face off against Derek Stingley Jr., LSU’s star freshman cornerback who plays opposite from Fulton. Stingley wasn’t just one of the best freshmen defenders in the country this season — he was one of the best defenders, period. He is an excellent athlete, even more so than Fulton, and has a knack for finding the ball that is unmatched by any college cornerback since maybe Tyrann Mathieu.
Clemson vs Ohio State
Another elite wide receiver vs cornerback matchup takes the main stage for this weekend’s playoff games. In an incredibly rare competitive semi-final playoff match, Clemson WR Tee Higgins will face off with Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah.
Of the two, Okudah is generally held up as the superior prospect. Okudah is a common favorite for the top spot in a loaded cornerback class that should feature a handful of first-round players. Better yet, Okudah may have a case as the best cornerback prospect to come out of college since Marshon Lattimore in 2017.
Part of Okudah’s brilliance is his ability to fit seamlessly into any scheme. While the brightest defensive minds will see Okudah’s skills and use him as a man cornerback as much as possible, he also has the tools and awareness to thrive in zone and match coverages.
Take this play, for example. The Buckeyes look to be in some form of Inverted Cover 2 on this play as both corners float into deep-halves, while the safeties and linebackers cover the underneath area. It’s a risky coverage because it almost always gives up the seams immediately, just as it does on this play. Okudah makes up for the scheme’s flaws, however, and closes on the vertical seam route before the ball can arrive to the receiver. Most cornerbacks don’t have the vision, trigger, and speed to make this play out of this kind of coverage, but Okudah keeps himself moving the whole way and nearly finds a way to make a miraculous interception.
Simply being able to close the gap and meet at the catch point won’t always be enough versus Okudah’s primary opponent, however. Higgins is good at a variety of things, but he has come this far as a prospect because of how well he dominates the catch point. He is a moving vacuum of space that consumes any pass thrown remotely near him.
Whether low, high, behind, out in front, or on the sideline, Higgins has an uncanny ability to fight toward the catch point and contort his body into a winning position at the football. Though he oddly has issues catching some more ordinary passes, Higgins’ dominance in tough situations can not be overstated.
Higgins is more dynamic than the standard contested-catch winner, though. He is not just a skyscraper looks for jump balls (remember Jaelen Strong?). Once Higgins gets the ball in his hands, be that after a heroic effort or on a routine pitch-and-catch, he can turn on the jets and fly past defenses. Draft Scout, who generally have the most accurate 40-yard dash predictions around, project Higgins running in the 4.36 - 4.57 range and set his average time at 4.47. For a receiver roughly 6-foot-3, 215-pounds, that is some dangerous speed. Cincinnati Bengals WR A.J. Green, for example, ran a 4.48 at basically the same size.
This matchup has the chance to be electric and perhaps the best matchup of the weekend. Okudah’s fluid, fast play style likely won’t let Higgins gain very much separation, but Higgins has the strong hands and in-air coordination to win anyway. A good portion of how this matchup goes likely hinges on how well Okudah can stand up to Higgins at the catch point. He should be able to do it better than most of Higgins’ past opponents, but there is no denying the Clemson receiver can Moss even the best of ‘em on occasion.
USC vs Iowa
The Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl doesn’t hold the same significance that the playoff or even the Orange Bowl does, but that doesn’t mean individual players can’t make a statement. USC and Iowa each feature a handful of NFL players on both sides of the ball, even despite all of USC’s recent struggles. Oddly enough, however, the offensive lineman highlighted in this matchup won’t be donning yellow and black.
USC T Austin Jackson is the feature offensive lineman for this matchup. While Iowa T Tristan Wirfs will get to face off against some decent talent, Jackson is a projected top-100 pick squaring off against a potential top-15 pick in Iowa EDGE A.J. Epenesa. There is no mistaking this could be a stock-swinging game for either player.
Walking off the team bus, Jackson just looks like an NFL left tackle. He measures in at about 6-foot-6 and 310-pounds, giving him plenty of length while remaining lean enough to maintain all the necessary quickness to survive as a bookend. Jackson’s weight is evenly distributed throughout his frame and he doesn’t seem to be particularly top-heavy or bottom-heavy, which bodes well for how well he should be able to keep his balance and anchor down.
The issue, at least right now, is Jackson looks like a much better player than he is. Jackson plays with careless hand placement and often does not show the fire to engage with defenders when he needs to. He is both slow to attack pass-rushers and uncoordinated in his attack when he finally decides to go for it. While he has all the physical tools to eventually clean up these issues, it’s no guarantee he ever will — and not being able to even start blocks off the right away is a major issue.
In both instances, Jackson holds his hands back and never really jams into the defender. Just about any offensive line coach or guru will say something along the lines of, “pass pro isn’t passive,” but Jackson is about as passive as a pass protector can get. He shows neither the will or the explosiveness to make meaningful, timely contact early on in passing downs.
Jackson’s hesitance and soft play despite all his tools is reminiscent of Cedric Ogbuehi coming out of Texas A&M. Ogbuehi, even for all his frame length and snappy footwork, just didn’t show the strength or demeanor to survive on the edge. The assumption was that Ogbuehi could hide or fix those issues in the NFL, but it’s hard to change an offensive lineman's demeanor and fight.
Against Epenesa, that is a bad, bad deficiency to have. Any competent pass-rusher should be able to take advantage from time to time, but Epenesa is a long, aggressive pass-rusher with plenty of athleticism for a player his size. Epenesa is all of 6-foot-6, 280-pounds, and plays with the speed and bend of someone two inches and 20 pounds smaller than he is.
This blend of burst, rip, and bend to almost instantly win around the edge is horrifying to see from a player Epenesa’s size. 280 pounds isn’t supposed to move that way. If Epenesa can do it against all of the Big Ten’s best tackles, it’s hard to imagine Jackson is going to be able to shut him down.
The only potential solace for Jackson is that team’s love throwing extra help toward Epenesa. Be it a tight end, H-back, or a running back, teams tend to send an extra blocker or chip his way on a majority of passing plays. It’s tough to imagine USC can get away with it very much in their Air Raid offense, but only time will tell. If Jackson doesn’t get very much help, expect Epenesa to end the year with a bang.