Saturday, October 15
Alabama @ Tennessee (3:30 PM)
S Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams vs. QB Hendon Hooker
Full disclosure, I did not want to talk about this matchup. Hendon Hooker is a volatile subject right now, as he is leading a Volunteer resurgence but is still doubted by draftniks due to deficient intangibles. Alabama on the other hand showed some kinks in the armor that are mostly dependent on the health of Bryce Young. Luckily, it sounds like the start QB for the Tide will be back.
One of my favorite videos on the internet is a recording of Nick Saban from his time at Michigan State, speaking at a coaching clinic about two-high coverages. This iteration of Alabama’s two-high is the combination of Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams. The two safeties are practically identical in size but the differences in playstyle are noticeable.
Battle has been doing it a long time in the SEC, from the moment he set foot in Tuscaloosa. He is a reliable tackler with a sufficient processor who sticks out on tape as being all over the field. His experience affords him the instincts to effectively play a deep zone and teams will inevitably scout the helmet and position come April. Hellams is asked to do the dirty work underneath in odd coverages. He looks sturdier than Battle but suffers some of the same physical limitations as Battle. Hellams is definitely the better man coverage specialist, as he is often tasked with TEs, RBs, and slots, but is prone to give up a deep ball or two on even coverages.
Xavier Worthy highlighted some of these weaknesses during the Texas game. He seems like just the kind of player a team like the Ravens would want in the mid-late rounds. Neither safety has elite speed, though Battle changes direction better than Hellams in coverage. Hellams might be the better tackler, but Battle loads up for the hits that end up on Youtube compilations.
Hendon Hooker is a puzzling profile to observe in the evaluation process. Transferring from Virginia Tech, there was little track record of production and only a 4-star recruiting rating to fall back on. Since joining with Josh Heupel, however, Hooker has really shined in an open and productive, albeit gimmicky, system. He has a good, not great, arm that is able to effectively hit open receivers at all levels of the field. He provides enough of a running threat to keep defenses honest, taking his opportunities for rushing TDs.
College football analysts would like to push the narrative that Hooker could “work his way to Day 2 draft capital”, but there are some severe downsides to his game that may be mitigated in college but likely won’t translate at the next level. Heupel’s offense only asks the QB to make one maybe two reads on any given play. This means that the starter potential is already limited as it takes a long time for QBs to develop progressions when they don’t have experience with it. This doesn’t take into account the fact that Hooker is already slow on those one or two reads that he is asked to do.
Also, his arm strength is often way overstates as he is rarely throwing his receivers open but rather simply waiting for them to come open down the field before throwing it. For a stationary QB, this may cause problems but Hooker is able to get out of it due to his athleticism. His running ability is often overstated as well. He is not the same type of runner as a healthy RG3, Lamar Jackson, or Michael Vick. He’s probably closer to a Vince Young running style. This isn’t to say that he shouldn’t run. However, his running ability may have more to do with willingness and the frame to take a hit than exceptional physical gifts. As a prospect, expect him to be a Day 3 pick to a team that has an athletic starter in place such that the offense doesn’t need to change drastically in the event of injury.
Nick Saban coached defenses always cause opposing QBs trouble. The consistent and fundamentally sound nature of the Crimson Tide breaks down most offenses while creating time for their offense to run the score up.
Hooker, however, may have a shot with his skillset to surprise Alabama. The unpredictable nature of his play will give the safety tandem fits. Battle and Hellams will have to play with good eye discipline. We’ve already seen how the two are both prone to breakdowns in coverage, against Haynes King and Hudson Card no less. Hooker will take shots if a receiver comes open. But his running ability will be taken off the table relatively early with a hard hit from Hellams or one of the other premier box defenders from T-town. Other than a momentum-swinging shot or two, expect a rough day from Hooker.
USC @ Utah (8:00 PM)
WR Jordan Addison vs. CB Clark Phillips III
Lincoln Riley seems to be delivering on his promise to bring USC back to prominence thus far. At 6-0, USC’s last major challenge is this week against Utah until the late November Victory Bell game. Utah had started to grow comfortable at the top of the Pac-12 South, having won the division every year since 2018 excluding the COVID year. Though they’ve suffered a couple of disappointing losses, the Utes could be right back in the race with a win against USC.
One of the most high-profile NIL transfers this offseason was WR Jordan Addison to USC. After putting up gaudy numbers in Mark Whipple’s system at Pitt, and being a major factor in Kenny Pickett being drafted in the first round of the last NFL Draft, Addison has quickly adjusted to Lincoln Riley’s surprisingly run-leaning offense. Speed is the name of the game for Addison. While he may not reach the top speeds of Jaylen Waddle or a certain former Raiders WR, he is more than fast enough to be a big contributor on every level. His route-running can be choppy or awkward at times because he is going too fast to have crisp stems. But the acceleration out of a break shows once again why he is one of the better separators in this class.
This season, Riley has used Addison on prescribed touches short or behind the line, as well as on the deep ball. Both usages provide a fairly clear picture of how he can translate to the NFL. He is listed at 6’0″, but I have a sneaking suspicion he will measure shorter than that. This shows on tape as he struggles to get off the line against press other than simply run by his defender. Learning to vary his release package, gaining some play strength, and running routes at less than top speed so he can cut more easily will go a long way in improving his draft stock.
Utah has contributed a number of physical and smart defenders, especially defensive backs, to the league in recent years. Though Clark Phillips III may be small, he looks to continue that brand reputation for the Utes in this upcoming draft. Phillips is one of the craftier CBs I’ve watched this cycle. He has a good sense of route concepts and can cover multiple receivers by disrupting mesh points in coverage. This also effectively baits throws, leading to 15 PDs and two INTs in 2021.
The downside to Phillips is clear from the first play. At 5’10” (generously), one may think he’s a slot-only prospect. Yet, when he played primarily in the slot against UCLA in 2021, he had a rough outing. He definitely “has the dawg in him” (as the kids might say), demonstrated by his play on the outside against WRs the likes of Drake London. I wouldn’t characterize Phillips as “twitchy” but he doesn’t lack the athleticism to play the position. But he is solid and cautious, perhaps lending to a move to safety somewhere in his future where his athleticism can be an asset and his height be less of a detriment.
With Mario Williams being the shortest WR in the USC receiving room, Addison has gotten most of his snaps on the outside this year. This leads me to believe that Phillips and Addison will see plenty of each other over the course of this game. Addison can usually just run past other CBs, such as Kyu Blu Kelly of Stanford who showed that even Caleb Williams’ arm strength may be insufficient to truly take advantage of his speed. The problem is though Phillips may not run the fastest 40, he’s not far behind and his IQ will keep him competitive in routes. Phillips will need to play in press, where he excels, to keep the top on the defense. Expect Addison to get one big play from Phillips, whether it’s a deep ball or a momentous penalty, but I think he’ll have a low average yards per catch in this game.
Other notable matchups
Penn State iOL Juice Scruggs vs. Michigan iDL Mazi Smith
Nittany Lions’ versatile OL meets a Bull in a China Shop.
Auburn LB Owen Pappoe vs. Ole Miss RB Zach Evans
Expect some BIG collisions in this one.
Kansas S Kenny Logan Jr vs. Oklahoma TE Brayden Willis
Jayhawks’ hopes for the draft rest on Logan.
Maryland EDGE Durell Nchami vs. Indiana OT Luke Haggard
Two lightweights at their respective positions.
Clemson OT Walker Parks vs. FSU EDGE Jared Verse
Noles’ only chance at beating Clemson is to generate enough havoc to revert DJU to 2021.