Colorado vs Utah
Utah’s secondary is loaded with NFL players. CB Jaylon Johnson, S Terrell Burgess, and S Julian Blackmon are all well on their way to being draft this April. None of the three are surefire locks to be first-round picks, but all three are future pros with the chance to crack the top 50-75. Even for as many DBs as Utah has produced in the past decade, they’ve never had as many talented players at once as this group.
Of the three, Johnson has the best chance to develop into a stud. A modest 5-foot-11, 194-pounder, Johnson is a stud athlete who possesses all the movement skills necessary to thrive at the position. In man coverage, Johnson can swing his hips open freely and lock into the receiver’s hip pocket to “run the route” for them. Johnson has the raw speed to run with WRs step for step once he gets into phase with them.
Editor’s Note: Don’t miss out on our HUGE Black Friday deals! Not only will you lock in 2019 prices for our 2020 MLB products, but you can also get NFL, NBA and NHL Season Passes and DFS Toolkits for FREE! Click here to learn more!
Johnson is also among the tougher, more physical cornerbacks in the class. Despite not having the biggest frame, Johnson is plenty willing to step up to the line and play press. Johnson’s adequate press ability on top of his speed makes it easy for him to dictate the pace of a route and then match it with his speed. By all accounts, Johnson is an impressive and well-rounded pre-catch point player.
Playing near the ball, however, isn’t Johnson’s strong suit. Johnson often does well to deter targets outright, but when Johnson does get targeted, he is not a particularly graceful technician. Johnson defaults to grabbing excessively to find and play off of a reference point, and he doesn’t have the most natural ball skills. There is still plenty of value in a cornerback who can deter targets and simply keep pace with wide receivers no matter the route, but Johnson has to be able to finish plays or he’ll end up down the Dee Milliner path.
Utah’s other two DBs are a pair of safeties who they like to use quite differently.
Julian Blackmon, a former starting cornerback in 2017 and 2018, is a free safety whose range is his greatest asset. Utah is a heavy Cover 3 team, which often asks Blackmon to roam the deep middle third of the field. Blackmon’s speed and awareness in the back end make him one of the rangier safeties in college football and one of just a handful of prospects who can project comfortably to a true, full-time deep safety role. According to Dane Brugler of The Athletic, some scouts project Blackmon may be due for a move back to cornerback, but safeties with his kind of range, even with as raw a player as he is, are tough to find.
Blackmon’s counterpart in the backend is strong safety Terrell Burgess. Unlike his safety partner, Burgess was not a starter for Utah until this year. The inexperience hasn’t stopped the senior from showing out, though. While Burgess doesn’t have the range that Blackmon does, Burgess can walk up into the slot and play man coverage over certain types of WRs and TEs. He isn’t a stud man coverage defender like some All-Pro safeties are, but he can fill a Tracy Walker-type role in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, Colorado has one man who gives them hope of cracking Utah’s secondary — one player who can fill a multitude of roles to beat Utah, or any defense, in any number of ways. That man is Laviska Shenault Jr., who may be the most versatile receiver in the country.
Shenault got off to a slow start production-wise this season, but he and the offense have found their footing over the past month. Just last week, Shenault torched a solid Washington secondary with seven catches for 100 yards and a touchdown en route to an upset win.
Shenault is at his best with the ball in his hands. Along the lines of Golden Tate, Sammy Watkins, and Torrey Smith, Shenault turns into a running back as soon as the ball hits his hands. He runs with a low, springy style and shows natural vision on the open field to weave through defenses. Shenault’s ability as a runner is such that Colorado regularly uses him as a jet sweep player, and sometimes as a wildcat QB or true RB. Shenault’s ability to catch the ball and immediately hit a second gear is as effective on slants from an outside alignment as it is on shallow crossers from a slot position.
With all that said of Shenault’s explosive and versatile nature, Utah’s defensive back unit is too filled out to give up a massive day to the Buffs WR. Shenault won’t be silenced entirely, but it would take a miracle for him to be able to take over a game versus a secondary like this.
Advantage: Utah secondary
Michigan vs Ohio State
Ohio State’s DBs made an appearance last week, but versus a different kind of player. Penn State’s K.J. Hamler, their main opponent last week, was more of a true slot receiver who matched up against Shaun Wade for a good portion of the day. Michigan WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, however, plays from the slot and out wide at about equal rates, so both Wade and Jeffrey Okudah should get chances to match up against the Wolverines’ best pass catcher.
Whereas Wade got most of the time in the spotlight last week, it’s Okudah’s turn. Okudah primarily plays on the outside for the Buckeyes. He sports a fair 6-foot-1, 200-pound build that lands him right at the cross section of big enough to play physical, yet compact and flexible enough to keep up with any kind of wide receiver.
Okudah matches his flexible frame with impressive athletic ability. DraftScout.com, who have generally been the best at gauging 40-yard dash times ahead of the NFL Combine, project Okudah to run a 4.43, potentially as fast as a 4.32. Besides the long speed to match and catch up to WRs down the field, Okudah has the fiery feet and smooth hips to constantly reset his positioning relative to the receiver and route to stay ahead of where he needs to be.
As the cherry on top, Okudah has a natural ability to find the ball in the air and contort his body to get a hand on it. Plenty of cornerbacks know to get their head around and stick a hand up, but not as many cornerbacks know exactly how to move to locate the ball at a point where the wide receiver has the worst chance of making a counter player on it. Okudah doesn’t often give his opponents chances in potential catch-point situations.
Since Okudah is playing outside leverage and knows he has a teammate flying over from the inside, he has no viable way to work to the inside of the receiver here and try to win the catch point that way. Instead, Okudah’s best option is to wrap around the back of the receiver and beat him vertically. Okudah loops around the receiver and times his jump just before the receiver’s, allowing him to always keep his hand in the spot the receiver wants to bring his hands up to find the ball. Not only is this a heads-up adjustment by Okudah in terms of how he needs to play this, but it shows off some impressive length in that he is able to outstretch his arm back across his body toward the left while flying through the air to the right. It’s a minor aspect of the play, but that kind of body control isn’t easy. Okudah has a rare ability to work around the ball in the air.
Peoples-Jones won’t necessarily be the type of receiver to threaten Okudah vertically like that, though. Peoples-Jones, being as he is a tweener between the slot and outside alignment, is more of a chain-mover than he is an explosive play generator. Rather than sheer speed or lightning quickness, Peoples-Jones wins more through physicality through his routes and his ability to adjust to the ball.
Slants, curls, 10-yard outs, fades, and crossers make up the majority of Peoples-Jones’ route tree. Though he does have some decent ability to snap off his routes at the top, he more regularly wins by not giving up his frame at the line of scrimmage and being able to use his 6-foot-2, 208-pound frame to shield defenders off the ball.
Fighting over the ball in the air is where these two will likely duke it out, assuming Okudah allows himself to be targeted in this matchup at all. While Peoples-Jones does do a fine job of shielding from defenders and stretching out to make acrobatic catches, only a few players in the country can match Okudah’s ball skills. As far as cornerbacks go, it may just be LSU’s Derek Stingley who can compare to Okudah’s ability to locate and get a hand on the ball in the air from any position.
Okudah is the clear favorite in this matchup. Peoples-Jones is fighting to earn himself a top-100 draft slot, while Okudah may go as high as the top-5 assuming the NFL Combine and interview process goes well for him.
Wake Forest vs Syracuse
This ACC matchup tells the story of one prospect who has made himself money this season versus another who has lost himself money. Wake Forest OT Justin Herron has crept up draft boards into the mid-round range and locked himself a spot in this year’s Shrine Bowl. Depending on injuries or other late dropouts, Herron is likely a top candidate to be called up to the Senior Bowl, of which there are typically a handful of each year. Syracuse EDGE Alton Robinson, however, went from a productive fringe first-rounder to an underachiever with little to show for his senior season besides his athletic potential.
Robinson, unlike Herron, has made an appearance on the Showdown before. Coming into the year, Robinson was one of the premier athletes at the position and was coming off a 10.0 sack season in 2018. Between Robinson’s production the previous season and an explosive, bendy athletic profile at 6-foot-4, 260-pounds, Robinson checked very box for an eventual first-round pass-rusher.
That “eventual” feeling has turned into “longshot.” Robinson has played the entire season, but has just 3.5 sacks to show for it so far. Of course, production is not the end all, be all for pass-rushers (or any player), but for Robinson to have his production more than cut in half is concerning, especially in his senior season. Robinson’s game has always been predicated on getting to and through the outside shoulder of opposing tackles. At least this season, he hasn’t shown the kind of bend and finish necessary to warrant as high of a draft pick as many assumed he would. Robinson will absolutely need to blow up the NFL Combine to get his draft stock back to where it was in August.
It’s going to be Herron’s job to make sure Robinson’s potential final push for draft status doesn’t happen at his expense. Herron is a light tackle at 6-foot-5 and 290-pounds. For better or worse, Herron plays exactly as he looks. He is not the strongest blocker at the point of attack or when he needs to anchor firmly in pass protection, but he can maneuver the second level with ease and isn’t one to give up space on the edge that easily.
In all honesty, it’s probably better that Herron is a quick athlete who can add weight/strength in the NFL, as opposed to a strong player who would need to cut weight and add fluidity. His frame and skill set should be more conducive to being molded by NFL coaching and strength/conditioning programs. If Herron can pack on a few pounds and confirm his athleticism at the NFL Combine, he should be able to sell himself quite well as a developmental player, especially to teams with established starting tackles in no rush to get him on the field.
Given Robinson’s struggles this year and Herron’s skill set being primed to handle someone like Robinson, this should be a fine matchup for the Wake Forest tackle. Robinson will likely flash his explosiveness on a couple snaps here and there, but don’t expect Wake Forest’s quarterback to be bombarded all game.