Alabama will have their hands full come September 3rd when they take the field against the USC Trojans. Like Alabama, USC lost several starters from last year’s squad, but they still field a ton of talent and should make some noise in the college football world this year.
There will be plenty of match-ups to monitor heading into the game but be sure to pay close attention to USC’s top player JuJu Smith-Schuster against Alabama’s top two cornerbacks.
Scouting Report: JuJu Smith-Schuster
2015 Statistics: 89 receptions, 1,454 yards, 10 touchdowns
Smith-Schuster has been one of the most impressive players in college football since he arrived in Los Angeles before the 2014 season. At 6’2 220, he is gifted with a thick, muscular build that allows him to play with physicality that most opposing cornerbacks can’t match.
During his time at USC, Smith-Schuster has shown that he is a complete player. He has the power to fight through press coverage, the necessary speed and downfield skill set to stretch defenses vertically and he blocks with a purpose.
Contact also doesn’t seem to be an issue for Smith-Schuster. He loves mixing it up with cornerbacks, and he isn’t afraid to go across the middle of the field and make plays in traffic. He has shown the ability to wall defenders off and he uses his naturally strong hands to pluck a wide array of passes out of the air.
While he could be more of a technician with his short to intermediate route running, Smith-Schuster has the necessary burst to create separation in a variety of ways. His skill set allows him to be a red-zone nightmare for opposing defenses, but he also has the ability to make plays after the catch. This combination of skills makes him a threat from anywhere on the field, and Alabama should respect him as such.
JuJu Smith-Schuster should be one of the first wide receivers taken in the 2017 NFL draft -- if he chooses to come out early.
Humphrey/Fitzpatrick vs. Smith-Schuster
As far as position-by-position match-ups go, Smith-Schuster versus Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick should prove to be one of the most entertaining to watch once things kickoff in Arlington.
Yes, Smith-Schuster has been very impressive, but let’s not discredit how pivotal both Humphrey and Fitzpatrick were to Alabama’s success on defense during their national championship run last season.
Fitzpatrick exploded onto the scene as a true freshman and finished with 45 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, ten pass deflections, two defensive touchdowns and one blocked punt for a touchdown. In comparison, Humphrey finished the 2015 season with 45 tackles, three and a half tackles for loss, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, eight pass deflections and one crucial onside-kick recovery in the national championship game against Clemson.
Their impact goes way beyond the statistics both players were able to put up. They helped add to a defense that struck fear into opposing offenses, and their physical styles of play were constantly on display when they were mixing things up against the run or jamming a receiver at the line of scrimmage.
Quick Look at Humphrey
Here is an example of Humphrey recognizing run and rolling down to offer help in run support while avoiding the pulling right tackle :
Like in the clip above, Humphrey was an effective tackler overall last season. He did, however, get lackadaisical with his technique from time to time. That can’t happen against USC. Smith-Schuster has shown a willingness to drop his shoulder and run through arm tackles, and he will do the same to Humphrey and Fitzpatrick if they don’t bring their A-game.
The other thing that Humphrey needs to avoid is giving up big plays downfield. It wasn’t a common problem for him, but it did show up on tape from time to time.
Here is an example of Humphrey allowing the receiver to adjust to an under thrown pass from Florida quarterback Treon Harris:
As good as Smith-Schuster is at the short to intermediate routes, his strongest asset is his ability to track the ball downfield and go up and get it. It would not be surprising to see USC test Humphrey or Fitzpatrick down the field early in order to put them on their heels and loosen up the defense as a whole.
Quick Look at Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick was the freshman phenom for the Tide defense last year and it was his ability to make game-changing plays that added a much needed element to both the defense and special teams. With that said, Fitzpatrick did occasionally struggle with wide receivers who are technicians with their route running.
Here is an example of Fitzpatrick getting beat deep against Clemson in the national championship:
This simply cannot happen against USC. Smith-Schuster is extremely hard to handle when running vertical concept routes because of his ability to set up defensive backs downfield. Both Fitzpatrick and Humphrey need to be aware of how USC’s offense might try to exploit them early.
The Outside Factor
One problem with a wide receiver/cornerback match-up is there are other factors on hand that sometimes play a major role in determining who comes out on top. The biggest factor in this head-to-head battle could turn out to be external: the quarterback.
USC recently named Max Browne as the starting quarterback heading into the 2016 season. The former five-star recruit has only played in six games in the four years since he joined the program, and that limited experience makes him a wild-card heading into this SEC/Pac-12 showdown.
In addition to that limited experience making Browne a wild-card, it also makes him a key target for a defense that could be even better than it was last year. With pass rushers such as Tim Williams, Jonathan Allen and Ryan Anderson all trying to put pressure on the inexperienced quarterback, look for Saban to dial up a few things to confuse Browne and allow the Tide defense to take advantage.
It’s tough on any quarterback to play Alabama nowadays, but try making your first career start against them.
As good of a player as JuJu Smith-Schuster has been up to this point in his career, I don’t see him making a significant impact against Alabama come September 3rd. Now, that isn’t a knock on him at all. His lack of impact plays will more than likely come as a result of poor quarterback play.
If Browne ends up being a suitable quarterback, the match-up becomes a lot more competitive. Smith-Schuster, Humphrey and Fitzpatrick all have a future in the NFL, and all three players will be considered top players at their respective positions when they choose to enter the draft.
Humphrey will continue to be exclusively used at left cornerback for the Tide while Fitzpatrick will be utilized in a variety of ways much like the Arizona Cardinals use Tyrann Mathieu.
USC will certainly try to move Smith-Schuster around to give him the right match-ups, but expect him to go up against either Humphrey or Fitzpatrick on almost every single snap come the first Saturday in September.