Scout’s eye: Alabama’s dominant freshmen defenders, matchup to watch in LSU vs. Texas

If you pull up Alabama freshman Christian Harris‘ high school highlight tape, you can find plenty of reasons why he would make a great linebacker. What you would not find is footage of him actually playing linebacker. The high school cornerback started at inside linebacker for the No. 2 team in the nation in Week 1, and all he did was finish was second on the team with six tackles while helping Alabama hold Duke to three points and 204 yards of offense. This is from a guy who has only been playing linebacker for a couple of months.

The layers to this performance speak both to Harris’ ability and Alabama’s incredible knack for getting underclassmen ready to play. Alongside Harris was fellow true freshman Shane Lee starting at middle linebacker; Lee also had six tackles. In front of them was true freshman DJ Dale starting at nose tackle; Dale was named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week.

The wily David Cutcliffe tried to prey on Alabama’s youth in the middle by giving Bama some looks it likely never expected to see, specifically a flexbone straight out of Paul Johnson’s retired playbook. The motions, misdirection and eye candy were surely intended to attack the discipline of two true freshman linebackers, one of which spent his entire high school career as a cover-2 cornerback. The two didn’t budge.

Late in the second quarter, Duke lined up with trips to the field and ran a counter into the boundary with an offensive lineman hunting up Harris in the hole. Harris took on the block, clogged up the running lane and forced a limited gain. The next play, a rare third-and-short for Duke, it was the return of the double wing formation where Harris and Dale combined for a tackle for loss to force a punt.

These are the kinds of plays Alabama mined out of a player that some doubted was physical enough to play linebacker while in high school. It was the kind of sequence that didn’t necessarily make the postgame highlights, but it spoke to the preparation and competency of Alabama’s young core.

Later in the second quarter, it was Lee that was proving doubters wrong. He’s a thumping middle linebacker billed as a between the tackles plugger at 6-foot, 243 pounds that isn’t as comfortable in space. Lee chased down a flat route for a minimal gain and then followed it up with a tackle in space on Duke’s quarterback Quentin Harris. He also had a key stop on fourth-and-1 in the game.

The tests will get much tougher as the opposing talent ramps up. Duke didn’t have the athletes to make Alabama pay for missteps or minutia, but we’ve seen the Crimson Tide youth grow up quickly in the past. Alabama’s true freshmen exceeded expectations in Week 1, and the best is yet to come.

Best matchup of Week 2

LSU wide receivers vs. Texas defensive backs: “The strength of our offense, in my opinion right now, is our receivers. We have depth at wide receiver, which we haven’t had in the last couple of years.”

That’s what LSU’s Steve Ensminger said back in January 2018 upon being promoted to offensive coordinator. LSU went on to finish 84th in the country in offensive yards per play and a definitively average 67th in passing yards per game. This season, Ensminger brings back the most trustworthy LSU passer in years, his top six leading pass-catchers from 2018, a new hot shot passing game coordinator in Joe Brady and a top five recruiting class that added some new toys to the roster.

If you aren’t an NFL talent, you aren’t getting on the field out of the No. 6 Tigers’ wide receiver room. There were 14 different players who caught passes last Saturday against Georgia Southern. Get ready for the long-awaited reveal of LSU’s dynamic passing attack — we’re serious this time.

Justin Jefferson is the leading returning receiver from last year’s team with 875 yards and projects as an early-round NFL Draft pick. Terrace Marshall, coming off an injury in his true freshman season, only caught 12 passes; as a high schooler, the former five-star was the highest-ranked prospect in the room. He had three touchdowns on four catches last weekend. Ja’Marr Chase is a 24-foot long jumper that is built like a linebacker. True freshman Trey Palmer is only a few months removed from winning the Louisiana state title in the 100 meters with a time of 10.42 seconds.

But here’s where it gets fun. No. 9 Texas is just as talented on the back end of its defense. Including the nickel position, the Longhorns have a former five-star at four of the five defensive back spots. There are so many options, particularly at safety that defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has constructed a “cowboy” package that puts eight defensive backs on the field at once.  

The interchangeability of the athletes in the secondary for Texas allows for creative blitz packages and unpredictability. It’s going to challenge LSU quarterback Joe Burrow’s ability to diagnose coverages, but it’s also going to provide some matchup opportunities for LSU’s talented receivers. Every one of those talented Texas defenders better be on his A-game with an LSU receiver group so capable of explosive plays.

Jalen Green is the lock-down cover guy in that Texas secondary, but the rotation of safeties may be where the game’s decisive plays come from. Whether it’s ball hawk Caden Sterns, speedster Brandon Jones or hybrid players like BJ Foster and DeMarvion Overshown, the game may be decided on this: Can those guys create a turnover or a crucial sack? Or can LSU’s receiver isolate them for big plays in the pass game?

Who flashed in Week 1?

1. Oklahoma State’s offensive starters: OK, we’re cheating a bit here, and I’ll forgive you if you didn’t watch Oklahoma State play at Oregon State on Friday night. But if you were awake and watching something else, I promise it wasn’t more entertaining than Oklahoma State’s offense. You should already know about Tylan Wallace. He’s an explosive, powerful wide receiver that was second in the nation last season with 1,491 yards receiving. This year he has more help. Running back Chuba Hubbard broke out at the tail end of last season, and his 221 yards rushing against the Beavers won’t be the last time he tops the 200-yard mark this year. He is one of the fastest running backs in the country, and by the end of the year, he’ll be considered one of the best. Quarterback Spencer Sanders has similar upside. When coach Mike Gundy has an elite quarterback, his teams are usually really good. Sanders looks like an elite signal caller, and he has dual-threat ability as well, rushing for over 100 yards on Friday night. It’s just Oregon State, so I’ll try to caution myself on the hype but there’s reason to suspect that this trio is one of the best in the country and right there alongside the biggest names in the sport.

2. Tight end Josiah Deguara, Cincinnati: Last Thursday night, UCLA was already having trouble with Deguara before he made one of the most consequential plays of the weekend. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound fifth-year senior was a presence as a blocker on the edge as Cincinnati dominated the line of scrimmage. He was also a threat in the pass game, finishing with a game high four catches for 53 yards and a touchdown. But his hustle play at the end of the first half may have saved the game for Cincinnati. After outplaying UCLA through the first half, the Bearcats were knocking on the door of the end zone, trying to extend a 10-7 lead before UCLA defender Jay Shaw intercepted a would-be 99-yard pick-six. Instead, Deguara came from the opposite side of the field and ran down Shaw, saving a touchdown. UCLA would fail to capitalize before the half and Cincinnati went on to win 24-14.

3. Quarterback Max Duggan, TCU: I get the hesitation for Gary Patterson to hand the keys of the TCU car to a true freshman. He just experienced a brutal year of turnovers and injury at the quarterback position in 2018, and he landed a turnover-averse graduate transfer out of Kansas State in Alex Delton. And yes, Delton just being smart with the football puts TCU in a better spot than last year — theoretically. I just have a hard time believing that Patterson will be able to resist turning to Duggan. The ball just looks different coming out of Duggan’s hand. He completed 16-of-23 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown, and he activates the downfield passing game in a way Delton cannot. While Delton added 84 yards on the ground, Duggan is plenty capable of doing damage with his legs as well. He rushed for 1,200 yards as a senior last season and ran a 4.58 verified 40. Patterson may have stocked his quarterback cupboard this offseason, but the youngest guy in the room may well be the best.   

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