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Muench's Trenches: Top prospect battles

11/22/2013


Even though Mississippi State played Alabama as tough as any team, other than Texas A&M, this season, the Bulldogs scored just once, and their top 2014 draft prospect didn't have a great day.

Left offensive guard Gabe Jackson flexed his muscle at times, but Alabama defensive end/defensive tackle Jeoffrey Pagan got the better of him during the course of the game and showed better than expected strength on plenty of snaps. While he gave ground a couple of times, the considerably lighter Pagan played with good pad level and held his ground for the most part. Pagan also gets the clear edge when it comes to hand fighting. He regularly shot his hands inside and extended his arms, plus he tracked the ball well and flashed the ability to shed Jackson in time to make the play.

Jackson didn't see much of inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest. Jackson did an adequate job of cutting them off at the second level, though he didn't overwhelm them like a player of his size is capable. He recognized and reacted late on a B-gap blitz from Mosley. It wasn't his only slip in pass protection. He struggled to redirect at times, and true freshman A'Shawn Robinson surprisingly beat him with power for a sack.

One game does not define a player, and Jackson's larger body of work is better than the tape he put out against the Tide. However, he isn't playing like the top offensive guard in the country, and he no longer holds the top spot on our board. Baylor's Cyril Richardson has supplanted him and moved into our top 32. Richardson has a chance to strengthen that position against Oklahoma State, thanks to his matchup with defensive tackle Calvin Barnett this weekend.

Here's a look at all three trench matchups that jump out at me heading into Week 13, and each features a player in our top 32.

Remember, defenders frequently move around. Even though these players won't butt heads on every snap, it will be productive to watch when they do.

Baylor LOG Cyril Richardson vs. Oklahoma State DT Calvin Barnett

Richardson's problems countering when defenders cross his face could get exposed in this game. Barnett, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 300 pounds, has above average lateral quickness and balance for his size. He's a good fit for a scheme that keeps offensive linemen off balance by mixing in stunts and slants. In addition, Richardson's initial footwork has to be sound, and it's important that he gets a good initial fit, because Barnett has a quick first step and active hands.

But Barnett will struggle when he doesn't win with quickness, regardless of the play call. Yes, he has a relatively low center of gravity and he's admittedly shown the ability to hold his ground one-on-one when teams run at him. He's not a massive space-eater, though, and he faces an above-average drive blocker with excellent lower-body strength in Richardson.

In addition, Richardson could get beat across the face, but he still gets the edge in pass pro. He gets set quickly and he's tough to shake once he's locked on. Meanwhile, Barnett isn't a great counterpuncher once he's reached and doesn't have the lower-body strength to drive Richardson, who doesn't give much ground to bull-rushers.

Arizona State LOT Evan Finkenberg vs. UCLA OLB Anthony Barr

A four-year starter, Finkenberg is an efficient run-blocker who can quickly get into position and seal defenders long enough to create seams for his ball carriers. He's also a competitive pass-blocker who stays in front of defenders once locked on, and more often than not finds a way to hold his ground, even though he's on the lighter side (listed at 293 pounds). That said, he's going to have his hands full trying to slow down Barr, the No. 2 prospect on our board.

As athletic as he is, Finkenberg doesn't have great length for an offensive tackle, so he has to overset to take away the edge from speed rushers and he can get beat by quick inside moves because of it. In fact, he's arguably a better fit at guard, where he started his career and could play in the NFL.

Barr is one of the most explosive pass-rushers in the country, and his burst isn't the only reason he's a constant threat to turn the edge against offensive tackles with shorter arms. He makes it even tougher for offensive linemen to get their hands on him by staying low and knocking hands down as he works upfield. There's also a lot to like about his ability to drive tackles back with his first step and then work back inside.

When Arizona State runs behind him, Finkenberg won't get the better of Barr, either. Listed at 6-4, 248 pounds, Barr has the upper-body strength and the length to stack Finkenberg, who tends to play high. Barr also can use his quick hands and feet to slip Finkenberg. Finally, keep an eye on Barr's effort and range in pursuit. He's capable of closing down cutback lanes and chasing down backs.

Virginia LOT Morgan Moses vs. Miami DEs Shayon Green and Anthony Chickillo

Green is a resilient player who overcame multiple knee injuries to develop into a productive stand-up defensive end after starting his collegiate career at inside linebacker. He locates the ball quickly and tackles well as a run-defender, but he struggles to anchor despite measuring 6-3, 264 pounds. Moses, meanwhile, has the first-step quickness to get into position and the core strength to drive him off the ball. Moses also gets the edge in pass pro.

Green can line up in a wide alignment that forces offensive tackles to cover more ground to take away the edge, but here again, this makes them more vulnerable to getting beat inside. Moses isn't most offensive tackles, though, and his ability to pick up edge-rushers from a wide alignment stood out in the Georgia Tech game earlier this season. He doesn't have to overcommit to the outside because of his above-average arm length and he has the foot speed to counter when defensive ends shoot inside.

Chickillo is a 6-4, 277-pound junior who has the length, upper-body strength and toughness to set the edge, and he should make Moses work when Virginia runs at him. However, Chickillo's pad level is inconsistent, and there's room for improvement in terms of his ability to get off blocks. Moses is capable of moving him off the ball when he plays high and sealing him when he stays low. Chickillo is a high-energy pass-rusher who relies on power and effort more than quickness and speed to get to the quarterback. Moses has enough size and gets enough bend in his set to hold his ground.