Michigan vs Iowa
Everyone with even the slightest knowledge of college football could have guessed a game between Michigan and Iowa would feature a couple of trench battles between future pros. The twist is Iowa has the pair of elite prospects instead of Michigan.
After Michigan sent a pair of EDGE rushers to be top-100 picks in last year’s draft, Iowa has their own top-tier EDGE prospect in AJ Epenesa. At 6-foot-6 and 280-pounds, Epenesa is built like a strong-side defensive end who can slide inside to a 4i or 3-tech position on clear passing downs. Epenesa typically plays in a standard 7-tech alignment for Iowa, though, so it’s possible his positional flexibility is still untapped.
Despite potential top-5 hype coming into the season, Epenesa has failed to produce. Draft analysts across the media spectrum are already dropping him down their boards for it. On the one hand, it’s fair to drop Epenesa a few spots in favor of other guys who are producing early on, especially with as many skill players are shooting up draft boards early this season. On the other hand, Epenesa is regularly being doubled or chipped by a tight end or running back on passing downs, especially third-and-long situations.
Iowa State and Middle Tennessee, for instance, seldom let Epenesa get 1-on-1 opportunities. Jadeveon Clowney faced a similar issue in his final season at South Carolina. Now, Epenesa has never been quite as special a prospect as Clowney, but it’s still reflective of his talents that offenses feel they have to over index to ensure he does not get to the quarterback.
When Epenesa does get iso situations, he shows off impressive technique and surprising lateral quickness for someone his size. He can swipe at tackle’s hands and side step them to give himself a short angle to the quarterback. Epenesa is not the bendiest pass rusher around the arc, but that is to be expected at 6-foot-6, 280-pounds.
Epenesa doesn’t finish the play here, in part because of his aforementioned lack of bend, but he does a good job to sidestep the offensive tackle and force the quarterback to bail. In coming out of his stance with an inside path, Epenesa baited the offensive tackle into a tight set. The bait exposed the tackle to Epenesa’s swipe and slide, earning him a clear shot at the quarterback.
Lining up opposite Epenesa will be Michigan LT Jon Runyan Jr., son of former Michigan and Philadelphia Eagles OT Jon Runyan. Runyan is not viewed by most as even a fourth-round pick like his father, but with a solid showing versus Epenesa, maybe he can change that.
Runyan comes in at a thick 6-foot-5 and 321-pounds. He does not have the reach that many elite offensive tackles do, but he consistently plays with low pad level and does well to use his strength in the run game. With that combination of skills, Runyan may be better suited for guard at the next level, making a similar transition as players such as Joel Bitonio (Browns) and Zack Martin (Cowboys).
Ted Thompson, the former GM of the Green Bay Packers, used to almost exclusively pick left tackles with multiple years of starting experience and then move them around the line of scrimmage, so it’s not like moving from left tackle to another position is uncommon.
Regardless of what ends up being Runyan’s position in the NFL, he is going to be playing left tackle on Saturday. The Epenesa matchup would prove particularly tough for Runyan, too. Though he plays with a low pad level and decent enough pace out of his stance, Runyan too often plays with his hands out wide and allows pass-rushers into his frame. Sometimes Runyan has the balance and strength to recover, but against a truck like Epenesa, he may not be so lucky.
Take this clip versus Wisconsin, for example. Runyan does well to get out of his stance and move to keep his feet in front of the pass-rusher. However, Runyan is not actively looking for a good time to strike the pass-rusher in the chest. Runyan instead waits for the pass-rusher to come to him, but in doing so, allows the pass-rusher to shoot his hands first. The shock to the chest blows Runyan back for a moment, though he is thankfully able to recover. Epenesa is a heck of a lot bigger and stronger than the Wisconsin end from this clip and will likely make Runyan regret making a mistake like this against him.
That being said, if the trend of sending pass-pro help to Epenesa’s side continues, Runyan may be able to escape the game without giving up a sack. Where the matchup should be more even is on the ground.
Runyan is a bouncer in the run game. His blend of low pads and thick build make him a tough matchup for defenders to outmuscle. Unlike in pass protection, Runyan also shows a mean streak in the run game. Runyan doesn’t just want to fulfill his assignment, he wants to clear defenders out of the way like a snowplow working down the curb.
It’s this kind of muscle that will serve Runyan well at guard, if he were to move there. On Saturday, Runyan’s run game prowess will also serve as an advantage considering Epenesa is not the scariest run defender. Epenesa wants to bully the offensive tackle and force them to a certain area to cut run plays off, but Runyan is not the type of offensive linemen to get moved around like that. Runyan will hold his ground and then some. Given Michigan’s issues at quarterback this year, the Wolverines will desperately need Runyan and the rest of the boys up front to win in the run game.
With respect to the pure one-versus-one matchup, the call has to go to Epenesa. He has proven himself to be one of the best pass-rushers in the country, even if it’s not showing up in the box score yet this season. Epenesa’s quick feet and calculated hand use at his size should prove to be too much for Runyan to handle on the edge. The two may not get many chances to face off in isolation, but when they do, expect Epenesa to put some heat on Michigan QB Shea Patterson.
Iowa OT Tristan Wirfs makes his second appearance in the Prospect Showdown, but he is up against an entirely different opponent this time around.
After facing Iowa State’s JaQuan Bailey in Week 3, Wirfs will go toe to toe with Michigan EDGE/LB Josh Uche on Saturday. Whereas Bailey is more of a head-on brawler without much flexibility, Uche is a quick and crafty hybrid player who can attack from multiple positions. Uche can play with his hand in the dirt, from a stand-up edge position, or off the ball like a traditional linebacker. Wirfs’ preparation for such a versatile player has to be tougher than preparing for a binary threat such as Bailey. As such, Wirfs handled Bailey quite easily.
In this example, Bailey (#3) tries to attack Wirfs head on before looping around to the outside. Wirfs does not concede any ground to Bailey’s initial attack because Wirfs made sure to punch first — and with one hell of a punch. If anything, Bailey is the one to lose ground here. Bailey then tries to fight around Wirfs’ outside shoulder, but the junior tackle is so light on his feet that he constantly stays one step ahead of the rush path.
Uche is not as lackluster in his approach as a pass-rusher. Bailey did not show much of a plan in the previous clip, whereas Uche has an arsenal of moves and strategies beyond running straight at the offensive tackle and figuring things out after the initial clash.
Uche, though listed at respectable 6-foot-2 and 250-pounds, knows he is not the strongest player. He is not going to bull rush anybody, nor is he going to hold his ground very well if someone like Wirfs gets a good hold of him. Like all quality players, Uche has an answer for that.
Here is a prime example of how Uche likes to attack. Rather than run straight into the offensive tackle, Uche approaches the offensive tackle at a moderate pace and looks for an opportunity to swipe his hands away. Uche swipes and swerves the instant the offensive tackle’s hands go up, leaving the poor pass protector no chance to keep up on the edge. The quarterback got the ball out quickly, so Uche didn’t register a sack, but this goes down as a win for him.
Of course, the difference between that clip and facing Wirfs on Saturday is that Wirfs is an elite technician and athlete. Wirfs is not going to allow his hands to be swiped so easily. That is not to say Uche can’t ever get it done, but if he does, it won’t look as easy as it did versus Rutgers and it won’t happen very often.
This is in part because Wirfs is simply the better player, therefore he will win most snaps. However, since Uche also plays from an off-ball position in some packages and is not always on the field because he plays a niche role, the sheer amount of opportunities for him to face off against Wirfs could be limited. It would be nice if defensive coordinator Don Brown carved out a more permanent role in the defense for him, but it is what it is.
As for the run game, it should be a one-sided affair. Uche isn’t a bad run defender, per se, but Wirfs is a special run blocker and will not have any trouble versus a defender who can not match strength with strength.
For Uche, this game should not be about getting the best of Wirfs for an entire game. That is not going to happen and nobody expects it of him. If he can get Wirfs on a few snaps, though, he should be able to earn himself some more attention as a hybrid EDGE player along the lines of Devon Kennard (Giants) or Lorenzo Alexander (Bills). Still, Wirfs is the clear favorite in this matchup and should put up another performance that will solidify his status as a future top-10 pick.
Oregon State vs UCLA
From a macro sense, Oregon State versus UCLA is not an exciting game unless you’re a college football fiend (which, if you’re here, you might be). However, with respect to the NFL draft, there is one matchup to keep an eye on that could spice up an otherwise middling contest.
Oregon State WR Isaiah Hodgins is quietly one of the most productive receivers in the country. Per CFB Stats, Hodgins ranks fourth in yards per game (127.3 YPG), sandwiching him between LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace. Hodgins also has six touchdowns, which is tied for third-best in the country alongside other top pass-catchers such as Wallace, Jerry Jeudy, and CeeDee Lamb. Maybe Hodgins is not actually on par with some of those other players as prospects, but he is producing like it.
Hodgins is typically at his best off of free releases, like in the clip above. Hodgins is playing out of the slot in this example and the opposing cornerback is playing 8-10 yards off of him. With the space allotted to him for free, Hodgins takes a few steps and cuts inside to show a slant route. Slant routes from the #1 and #2 receivers from 3x1 sets (the outermost receivers) with a vertical stem from #3 (inside receiver) is a common route combination, so asking Hodgins to sell the slant for a double-move here is perfect. Hodgins sells it well and dashes toward the left side of the end zone the moment the cornerback steps down to play the slant route.
The slot is not Hodgins’ permanent home, but the Beavers do like to play him there regularly to get him free releases. Hodgins does not handle press particularly well. Not only does Hodgins struggle to fight with cornerbacks to free himself, but he does not come off the line with any degree of suddenness. He often rolls off the ball and gives opposing cornerbacks a split-second of extra time to get physical before the route really gets going. As a result, it’s tough to imagine Hodgins as a one-size-fits-all outside wide receiver in the NFL. He is going to need a coordinator who can make use of him from the slot or earn him free releases outside.
Unfortunately for Hodgins, UCLA CB Darnay Holmes is the kind of cornerback who can present a problem. Holmes, unlike Hodgins, is an elite athlete. Per 247 Sports, Holmes was a five-star recruit three years ago and has been a starter since early in his freshman season. Holmes does his best in man coverage, including press assignments. He shows a near-unrivaled knack for finding the ball at the catch point and is more than willing to take a risk to get his hands on the ball. Of course, that leads him to some issues with getting cooked by double-moves, which Hodgins can execute, but the good often outweighs the bad.
This matchup is largely dependent on how often Hodgins can be schemed into free releases against Holmes. In situations where Holmes can press or bail, Hodgins is not going to have a good time. Conversely, whenever Hodgins is given a free release and a bit of space to get crafty, he should come out on top.
That being said, a player of Holmes’ man coverage skills is more valuable than a receiver who often struggles to create his own releases.
Auburn vs Florida
Auburn OTs vs Florida EDGEs
Florida versus Auburn features too many future pros along the trenches to cover at the same length as the other matchups, but all four players are worth mentioning.
Auburn OT Prince Tega Wanogho made an appearance in last week’s piece for his matchup against Mississippi State EDGE Chauncey Rivers. Tega Wanogho is an athletic, long tackle who has all the physical tools a coach wants to see from a bookend. He can keep pass-rushers at a healthy distance while sliding all around the arc to stay in front of them. The issue for Tega Wanogho, however, is his mechanics are still a question. Too often Tega Wanogho doesn’t have a plan with his hands. He will lunge at players at any sign that they may be starting a pass-rush move, which leaves Tega Wanogho exposed to pass-rushers with top-tier quickness or a healthy range of counter moves.
On the other side for Auburn is Jack Driscoll. A transfer from UMass, Driscoll mans the right side of the Auburn offensive line. In many respects, he is the complete opposite of his counterpart on the left side. Driscoll is a middling athlete who has neither the length or smooth movement skills to handle pass-rushers cleanly. Rather than taking a few clean steps out of his stance to match edge rushers, Driscoll resorts to a flurry of short hops. Versus pass-rushers who have the raw speed to outpace him or the power in their punch to disrupt him during one of his hops, Driscoll has a rough time. Expect the two Florida pass-rushers to provide the latter dilemma for Driscoll.
Speaking of the Gators’ quarterback getters, let’s start with EDGE Jabari Zuniga. At 6-foot-4 and 246-pounds, Zuniga sports a lean frame that packs a ton of power behind it. He flies off the ball and presents an immediate explosive threat that offensive tackles have to deal with. If Zuniga can work himself, he closes on the quarterback as quickly as anyone in the country. Zuniga only has 1.5 sacks on the year, but he’s also only played three games this year and will be making a return for the Auburn game after missing the previous two weeks with an ankle injury.
Opposite Zuniga is EDGE Jonathan Greenard, a transfer from Louisville who came to Florida in part because of his familiarity with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s scheme. Greenard is a bit thicker than Zuniga at 6-foot-3 and 263-pounds, but the extra weight hasn’t slowed him down from getting to the quarterback. Greenard plays with great strength and a mean streak at the point of attack, giving him an advantage over offensive tackles who don’t properly beat him on first contact. Greenard has recorded four sacks through five games this season, recording at least a half-sack in every game aside from the UT-Martin game where he hardly played.
Advantage: Florida EDGEs