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Muench's Trenches: Five great matchups

9/27/2013


A couple of weeks ago, I saw Maryland play Connecticut and got a look at an interesting prospect in Terrapin OLB Marcus Whitfield. He got to the quarterback three times that night. And while Whitfield has the ability to play at the next level, I’ve seen enough of the Huskies to know they have problems protecting the edge. Whitfield's not quite as dangerous coming off the edge as the production suggests.

The point is: Not all game tapes carry equal weight, and level of competition needs to be taken into account when evaluating players. For example, the first thing I did to update our report on Michigan OT Taylor Lewan in the preseason was throw on the South Carolina tape to see how he fared against DE Jadeveon Clowney. It’s important to see how Lewan fared against the best player he faced that year.

Here are five individual matchups in the trenches to keep an eye on this weekend. The offensive lineman has more to gain in certain matchups. It’s also important to keep in mind that defenders frequently move around the front, but even though these players won’t butt heads on every snap, it will be productive to watch when they do.

Miami ROT Seantrel Henderson vs. South Florida DE/OLB Aaron Lynch

This matchup makes it worth tuning in even though South Florida is still looking for its first win this year. At 6-foot-8 and 345 pounds, Henderson overwhelms most defensive ends when Miami runs behind him, and he weighs 100 pounds more than Lynch. So far this year, he’s done a better job of sustaining and driving defenders than he did on his 2012 tape. Lynch will test just how far Henderson has come in terms of sustaining blocks. Lynch's first-step quickness will make it tough for Henderson to get into position when he lines up at defensive end and his superior foot speed will make it tough for Henderson to reach him when he lines up at outside linebacker. More important, Lynch uses his long arms and upper body strength to keep bigger blockers off his frame.

Watching Henderson and Lynch face off on passing plays should be that much more entertaining. As quick as Lynch is, Henderson is an above-average pass-blocker who has the length and enough quickness to make it tough for Lynch to turn the edge. He also has the width and enough body control to stay in front of Lynch as long as his footwork is sound. If Henderson gets caught oversetting to the outside or crossing his feet, though, he’ll be in trouble.

The biggest concern for Henderson -- and this might come as a surprise considering his size -- is his ability to handle speed-to-power. Lynch is so explosive and strong for his size that he can walk bigger offensive tackles back to the quarterback. Henderson, meanwhile, tends to set high.

Finally, keep an eye on Lynch when he lines up at outside linebacker. He’s shed a lot of weight since transferring from Notre Dame, where he played inside at times and he’s dropping into coverage in the Bulls’ scheme. Early looks at him doing so have been encouraging. He appears more than agile and rangy enough to play 34 OLB at the next level.

Alabama LOT Cyrus Kouandjio vs. Ole Miss DE Robert Nkemdiche

Nkemdiche is the only player listed in this blog who isn’t draft eligible. In fact, he’s a true freshman and the next sack he records will be the first of his college career. Still, this is an intriguing matchup because the disruptive Nkemdiche was the top-ranked high school prospect according to the 2013 ESPN 300 and Kouandjio has been losing ground to Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews in the race to be the first offensive tackle drafted in 2014.

At 6-foot-4, 297 pounds, Nkemdiche has excellent size for a defensive end and he’s strong enough to hold his own when he lines up in the inside. He’s also aggressive, so he’ll by no means be a pushover when these two lock up in the run game. The edge still goes to Kouandjio, who graded out as an outstanding run-blocker in the preseason, and he has the core strength to move defenders off the ball when he wins the battle of leverage. Even if Nkemdiche keeps his pads down and gets under him, Kouandjio is capable of sealing him and battling him to a stalemate.

The most important facet of this matchup will be Kouandjio’s ability to stay in front of Nkemdiche in pass protection. Kouandjio is having a difficult time redirecting, and it’s raising questions about his ability to protect the quarterback’s blindside at the NFL level. Nkemdiche is as quick as he is strong, and he moves well laterally, so Kouandjio has to show good body control and sound footwork. Kouandjio is capable of handling Nkemdiche’s power moves and preventing him from turning the corner. However, it’s important that he stay aggressive and engaged because Nkemdiche has the length to get his hands up in passing lanes and tip passes.

Texas A&M LOT Jake Matthews vs. Arkansas DE Chris Smith

Smith has 5.5 sacks, and he has gotten to the quarterback in each game this year, but there is an excellent chance that streak comes to end -- and not just because of QB Johnny Manziel’s elusiveness.

Matthews is quick and long enough to take the edge away from Smith, who lacks elite first-step quickness and doesn’t show great torso flexibility turning the corner. He has the lateral mobility and balance to stay in front of Smith as well. Smith doesn’t show great speed-to-power either, so Matthews should be able to absorb his initial surge even though he sets too high at times.

His ability to hold up in pass pro isn’t the only reason Matthews is the top-ranked offensive lineman on our board. He’s an aggressive run-blocker who can knock defenders back on initial contact and finish the job once he gets them on their heels. There’s also a lot to like about the way he shoots his hands inside and locks on. However, one area he can work on is sinking his hips and keeping a wide base, because he slides off some blocks. Smith has enough upper-body strength and length to get off the block when Matthews doesn’t play with sound technique.

Oklahoma OC Gabe Ikard vs. Notre Dame NT Louis Nix III

These two saw plenty of one another last year, and Ikard is going to have his hands full based on the 2012 tape. At 6-foot-3 , 298 pounds he is roughly the same height but weighs close to 60 pounds less than Nix III.

As a run-blocker, Ikard tried to compensate by lunging and throwing all of his weight at Nix III. The problem is Nix III is not just a space-eater and he used his quick hands to quickly slip the off-balance Ikard on more than one occasion. In addition, Nix III did a nice job of stacking Ikard and working down the line of scrimmage against the Sooners’ zone runs.

The difference in power showed up even more in the passing game. With Ikard on his heels and trying to dig in, Nix III was able to push him around and made it tough for QB Landry Jones to step up in the pocket. Based on the tape, it’s easy to see why Nix III projects as a first round pick and Ikard projects as a Day 3 pick.

But give credit to Ikard. He plays hard and he won’t back down. In addition, he took advantage when Nix III played too high by getting into position and sealing him off so keep an eye on pad level.

Ohio State LOT Jack Mewhort vs. Wisconsin LB Brendan Kelly

Let’s be honest. Kelly is a long shot to make it. The sixth-year senior has sustained several serious injuries and continues to have problems staying healthy, as he missed last week’s game against Purdue with tightness in his hamstring. In addition to durability concerns, he doesn’t have the kind of elite natural ability to convince a team to take a chance on him even in the late rounds, so he’ll have to make an impression as a rookie free agent to make a team.

On a positive note, he has the length, enough athletic ability and tenacity to develop into an effective backup and adequate special teams player if he’s able to overcome the injuries. He is expected to play this week, and he has an opportunity to make an impression working against Mewhort who projects as a fringe Day 2 pick.

Mewhort is a tough and tenacious run-blocker who rarely loses once he’s locked onto a defender’s frame. It’s important that Kelly win the battle of hand placement and use his length to keep him at bay. Keeping his pads down is also critical because Mewhort is the stronger of the two. Diversity will be imperative when it comes to rushing the passer. Mewhort’s initial quickness is just average, and he can overset to the outside to compensate. While he isn’t an explosive edge-rusher, Kelly has enough burst to force Mewhort to respect the outside of move. If he can get Mewhort to overcommit to the outside, Kelly is an effective hand fighter with enough lateral quickness to work back inside.

THIS WEEKEND’S SCOUTING TRIP

I am headed to Boston College to see Florida State take on the Eagles. We’ve given no fewer than nine eligible Seminoles draftable grades. As a bonus, I get to see talented redshirt freshman QB Jameis Winston live.

Out of all the talent that will be on the field, the player I am most excited to see is DT Timmy Jernigan. Jernigan is a disruptive interior run-stuffer who can make plays in the backfield when he wins with quickness and holds his ground when he doesn’t penetrate. He can also force quarterbacks off the spot and record the occasional sack as a pass-rusher.