Texas vs LSU
College Gameday’s game of the week is always primed with premier prospects to be pitted against each other. This week is no different as LSU CB Kristian Fulton sets out to shut out Texas WR Collin Johnson in their matchup on Saturday.
By most any NFL draft board around, Fulton is considered the superior prospect. Fulton, unlike his upcoming opponent, has a case as the best player at his position in this class and could lock up that title with a strong senior season. He has the high-end agility, body control, and ball skills that most elite NFL cornerbacks possess and plays in a defense that regularly play press/bail coverage. If Fulton can turn a wide receiver to the sideline and lock to their inside hip, the rep is over and the receiver has no chance.
Take this pass breakup against DaMarkus Lodge last season, for example. Lodge may not have been a special receiver, but he was above-average by college standards and had a stint on the Buccaneers 2019 90-man preseason roster. In this rep, Fulton backpedaled with light, quick feet and did not commit to engaging Lodge until he declared his route. Fulton flipped his hips and locked into Lodge’s frame as soon as the wide receiver declared vertical. Once Fulton earned the inside track, all he had to do was keep up in the foot race and fight at the catch point. The Tiger cornerback made a leaping effort to disrupt Lodge’s catch attempt and force an incompletion.
Fulton made a similar play with a more acrobatic finish versus Auburn. He earns the same inside positioning as in the previous clip, again stretching his outside arm into the wide receiver’s frame to maintain a point of reference for where he is relative to the receiver. Fulton never gets particularly physical with the receiver until the last second when he leaps forward with his off hand to bat the ball away.
It’s that kind of special ball location that ties Fulton’s game together. The technique and movement skills are important and provide the baseline for his skill set, but his ability to get a hand on the ball at every opportunity is spectacular. It’s tough just to locate the ball in the air down the field, much less understand where one is relative to the ball and have the athleticism to get to it.
Fulton may have his hands full with Johnson, though. Johnson is a massive 6-foot-6, 220 pound tree of a man. He takes long strides up and across the field, allowing him to cover significant ground in just a few steps. Not surprising for someone with his frame, Johnson is also a menace against press coverage. He is simply too strong, too lanky, and too aggressive to be dealt with by most cornerbacks lined up directly across from him.
This poor Louisiana Tech cornerback took the full force of Johnson’s anti-press measures. Had QB Sam Ehlinger not overthrown the second pass, Johnson would have earned two completions almost exclusively through his bullying against the press cornerback.
Johnson’s anti-press strength versus Fulton’s press comfort and prowess is the crux of this matchup. Fulton is a press/bail savant, but Johnson is bigger and stronger than most every receiver he has ever faced, so this is a unique battle for the LSU corner. Where the matchup likely swings in Fulton’s favor, however, is comparing how each player moves in space.
Fulton is a smooth, effortless player in space. He can sink his hips, change direction, and accelerate out of a break to match a wide receiver’s route. Johnson, on the other hand, doesn’t have the suddenness to win in space. In part because his legs are abnormally long, his strides are naturally too wide for him to make quick, concentrated movements.
Ehlinger looks Johnson’s way on this play, but Johnson takes an eternity to stop, redirect, and explode toward the boundary. It’s possible Ehlinger was spooked by the creeping underneath defender, but had Johnson gotten in and out of his break in a timely manner, he would have cleared that defender a split-second earlier and potentially given Ehlinger the window he was looking for.
That slow pace will not fly in the LSU game. Fulton should be able to hold his own versus Johnson in press, which will end the matchup by itself. Johnson just doesn’t have the tools to consistently beat Fulton anywhere beyond the line of scrimmage, and even that arena isn’t favored one way or the other. Unless Fulton shows a rare collapse in press technique and ability, he should get the best of Texas’ top wide receiver.
Stanford vs USC
The draft-eligible USC wide receiver duo is already back in the spotlight, but they are up against a considerably tougher opponent this time around. After a combined 17-178-0 stat line against Fresno State, Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr. are now tasked with the near-impossible task of getting open against Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo.
Alongside Fulton, Adebo may be the best cornerback in the 2020 draft. Adebo’s skill set is completely different from CB1-A, though. Whereas Fulton is a press/man coverage cornerback, Adebo thrives as a zone player who can key on the quarterback and manipulate space. He plays as though he is one step ahead of both the quarterback and the wide receiver, and has the closing speed to finish. Adebo’s 23 passes defended in 2018 lead the PAC-12 and trailed only Virginia’s Bryce Hall (24) across all FBS defenders.
For Vaughns, in particular, Adebo means trouble. Vaughns’ play style is predicated on working the short-to-intermediate area and creating enough space for himself so as to not be disrupted at the catch point. Oddly enough, despite his poor hands in standard situations, Vaughns can also work the sideline with some fantastic catches. We know that Adebo is a menace in the short-to-intermediate area, however, and almost certainly won’t give a good-not-great receiver like Vaughns any room to breathe.
Adebo finishes plays at the catch point, too. He won’t just run with receivers and hope to be enough of a nuisance that the receiver loses focus. Instead, he full-on attacks the ball, whether it’s still in the air or in the wide receiver’s cradle, to ensure that every pass thrown his way is either incomplete or intercepted. Adebo’s skill set is suffocating.
Vaughns may have a chance at winning deep like he showcased he could in the Fresno State game, but against a skilled player in Adebo, it won’t be easy.
Eyes, trigger, and closing speed will all come in handy versus USC’s new Air Raid offense. The Trojans hired OC Graham Harrell this offseason and he has brought some of that Mike Leach magic to southern California. In USC’s opening game, they relentlessly attacked Fresno State horizontally in an effort to open up the deep ball, which they found success with a couple of times. Adebo won’t give them those yards in the underneath area, though.
Stanford’s other defensive backs may falter against USC’s loaded receiver group, but it would be an upset if Adebo were to be anything less than spectacular. Both versus the individuals and the scheme, Adebo is a nightmare for USC.
Nebraska vs Colorado
Colorado WR Leviska Shenault Jr. vs Nebraska CB Lamar Jackson
Perhaps the least balanced matchup of the week, Nebraska cornerback Lamar Jackson is in for a long, tiring day against do-it-all Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr.
Shenault isn’t just an outside receiver and he isn’t just an inside receiver. He’s neither a one-trick deep threat nor a pure yards-after-catch player. Even Shenault’s position is ambiguous, as he is equal parts wide receiver and offensive weapon. Whatever the offense needs Shenault to be on a given play, he is.
The positional flexibility Shenault presents is not just a headache for defensive coordinators, but for the cornerbacks who have to deal with him. Cornerbacks who line up against Shenault must be able to play the deep ball, come up to make tackles in the short area, and be able to follow Shenault when he flies across the line of scrimmage in motion.
Colorado like to get Shenault tight to the formation and threaten down the field. The idea is that because the formation is condensed, cornerbacks must play off coverage, which gives the wide receiver a free release and space to work with outside. When done well as a regular part of the offense, it can be devastating. Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams popularized the same idea in the NFL.
In this example, Shenault is the leftmost receiver and is tight to the formation. The Buffs are in hurry-up mode as they get into the condensed formation, which throws the cornerback playing over Shenault for a loop. Trying to find his bearings, the cornerback peeks into the backfield at the snap anticipating run from the tight formation. Shenault stems his route inside at first to help sell run action, but sharply cuts outside as soon as the cornerback bites inside. The play was won the split-second Shenault earned outside positioning on the cornerback.
Shenault is a tricky player to contain in the underneath area, too. Not only does he show the proper stemming and hesitation to work himself free, but once the ball is in his hands, his low pad level and creativity to find extra yards are that of a running back. Against Jackson, Shenault just might look like an All-American running back.
Jackson is a fine cover corner if he can get in phase. On intermediate and deep routes that allow Jackson to turn and run, he does a decent job of matching the receiver’s pace and sticking in position to play the ball. He isn’t one to play the underneath area particularly well, though, be that as zone pass defender or a tackler. It’s not so much that Jackson has a faulty trigger toward the ball, it’s that he doesn’t have the juice to make the plays he is visualizing.
In both of these plays, Jackson is the cornerback on the right sideline. The first clip shows Jackson trigger fairly quickly to the wide receiver tunnel screen, but he labors trying to fire downhill. Had the wide receiver caught the ball and kept his stride, he strolls past Jackson with ease.
The second play, conversely, features Jackson making the tackle, but not in a reliable fashion. Jackson lowers his head into the dirt and bites for the receiver’s ankles, barely clipping them just enough to make the tackle. Weak tackle attempts like that can go unpunished versus a program like South Alabama, but a future NFL receiver like Shenault will shake him out of his shoes and leave Jackson whiffing at air.
Colorado’s unique deployment of Shenault means he won’t always be matched up with Jackson. Jackson is not the quality of cornerback to follow the top receiver around the field, especially with as many alignments Shenauly can play out of. When the two do get matched up, expect Colorado QB Steven Montez to be eyeing Shenault as often as possible, regardless of whether the star receiver is on a five-yard in cut or a deep post route.
Texas A&M vs Clemson
Quietly, Clemson is becoming a factory for cornerback talent. The Tigers have produced three top-100 picks at cornerback since 2016 (Alexander, Tankersley, Mullen), in addition to Mark Fields signing with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent this year before being traded to the Minnesota Vikings. However, the school has not produced a first-round pick at the position since Tye Hill was drafted in 2006. A.J. Terrell looks to break ground in that regard and could help himself do so with a strong performance against Texas A&M wide receiver Quartney Davis.
If Terrell’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he set the tone for last year’s National Championship. Terrell picked off Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa just three plays into the Tide’s first drive and ran it all the way back for a Clemson score.
Part of Terrell’s draw is his flexibility in alignment. He is not bound to the field or boundary like some cornerbacks, nor is he strictly an outside or slot cornerback. Terrell has the size to get physical with receivers on the outside and the smooth hips to operate from a nickel position.
As such, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has no reservations about allowing Terrell to follow the opponent’s best receiver all around the field. Against Duke last season, for example, Terrell shadowed wide receiver TJ Rahming for most of the contest, regardless of where Rahming lined up. Rahming was far and away Duke’s best receiver, and Venables put it on Terrell to take him away from quarterback Daniel Jones. Rahming caught nine passes for a putrid 38 yards that day, marking his lowest yards per reception of any game in 2018.
Venables may use a similar game plan against Texas A&M. Davis, like Rahming, is best as a slot receiver, but he can threaten from a number of alignments. Versus Texas State last week, Davis aligned as an iso receiver on the outside, from the slot, and tight to the formation in bunch sets. If Terrell is up for the task, he is going to be moving around plenty throughout the game.
Almost out of nowhere, Texas A&M are the 12th-ranked team in the nation, in large part because of their offense. Head coach Jimbo Fisher has turned the program around quickly, particularly by developing quarterback Kellen Mond from a bottom-dweller among SEC passers to one of the best in the conference. With as strong as Mond and the passing offense is, and Davis leading the receiving corps, Terrell is in for one of the stronger matchups he will see all year, but he’s got the chops to get the job done.