Observations and analysis from the ninth week of the college football season, including thoughts about some of the nation’s top defensive prospects.
ECU standout isn’t the pass-rushing specialist he’s cracked up to be
I got a good look last Tuesday night at East Carolina defensive end C.J. Wilson and came away less than impressed. Although Wilson does a nice job maintaining a low pad level, extending his arms into contact and creating a good push as a bull-rusher, he doesn’t display the kind of initial burst to reach the corner and threaten the edge. On top of that, he’s too much of a straight-line athlete who fails to cleanly changing directions and sidestep blocks underneath. He does possess above-average run/pass-recognition skills and can be stout at the point of attack, but if you’re looking for someone who can consistently rush the passer and create pressure off the edge, Wilson is not your guy.
Early season sacks look like a mirage
I wrote about Connecticut defensive end Lindsey Witten early in the season after he recorded seven sacks in his first two games. However, he has just 3½ over his last six games and was absolutely dominated this past week by Rutgers LT Anthony Davis. Now, Davis is as talented and NFL-ready as any offensive lineman Witten is going to face this year, but he simply failed to match up physically all game long. Witten was consistently overpowered at the point of attack in the run game and was unable to reach the corner and/or disengage as a pass rusher off the edge. Witten’s inability to shed blocks with his hands and cleanly change directions on his pass rush really showed up in his one, as Witten did not fare well against the best competition he’ll face all year.
Warming on up
So far this season, the only Indiana defensive lineman I’ve discussed (and for good reason) is Hoosiers DE Jammie Kirlew. However, Kirlew’s counterpart, DE Greg Middleton, has really impressed me in recent weeks with his ability to slip blocks cleanly off the edge and instantly accelerate toward the football. Middleton is a gifted athlete who has the ability to play with power on the edge and can get after the quarterback in a variety of ways. He displays impressive closing speed once he gains a step and has the body control and balance to cleanly change directions at full speed, slip blocks and get after the quarterback. He does have a tendency to take his share of plays off, particularly in the run game, and gets sealed away from the ball far too easily at times. However, if Middleton ever finds a defensive line coach who can motivate him to play down after down, there’s no reason he can’t start and play at a high level in the NFL.
One bright spot on a cloudy day for Purdue
He doesn’t have the kind of size (6-4, 263) that’s going to really “wow” you, and he lacks ideal initial speed off the edge, but Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan has been playing as well as any defensive lineman in the Big 10 and is quietly developing into quite an NFL prospect. Kerrigan is a smart, instinctive kid who does a great job using his hands and suddenness to slip blocks as a pass rusher and work his way toward the quarterback. He isn’t the most explosive or flexible of pass rushers, but he has a motor that runs non-stop and rarely stays blocked for long. He has already recorded nine sacks and 14½ tackles for loss and has given every offensive lineman he’s lined up against fits in both the run and pass game. He isn’t ever going to be that big-time speed rusher off the edge at the next level, but because of his savvy, motor and ability to disengage/slip blocks, he’ll find a way to contribute and create pressure for an NFL defense.
And boom goes the dynamite
Oregon safety T.J. Ward isn’t the biggest or rangiest college defensive back, but he’s an aggressive, instinctive athlete who has a nose for the football and knows how to create plays in the secondary. Ward’s a physical hitter at 5-10, 201 pounds and does a great job sniffing out the ball in the run game and consistently breaks down well on contact. He also does a great job reading his keys in the pass game and closing on the football quickly. And although he lacks elite straight-line speed for the position, he does a nice job keeping his feet under him, remaining balanced and redirecting cleanly out of his breaks. While watching Ward vs. USC and comparing his game to Trojans All-America safety prospect Taylor Mays, it’s clear he doesn’t compare from a purely athletic/physical standpoint. But if you watch how much more quickly Ward reads the action in front of him and attacks the ball compared, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it’s Ward who ends up being the more productive overall safety in the NFL.
Just keep an eye on him
Keep a close eye on Nebraska DT Jared Crick as we get closer to draft time. Crick has been absolutely brilliant in recent weeks, destroying one-on-one matchups inside and using his combination of quickness and length to beat blocks and find the ball. He finished Saturday’s game vs. Baylor with 13 total tackles, five sacks, seven tackles for loss, one fumble recovery and one pass breakup and is making it impossible for opposing offenses to block both him and All-America DT Ndamukong Suh inside. Crick is a redshirt sophomore who will be eligible to enter the NFL draft after the season. With the growing need for potential five technique defensive ends at the next level and his continued dominating play, the 6-6, 285 pound lineman could end up being one of the nation’s top 3-4 defensive line prospects if he declares early.
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