Defensive players feature heavily in this week’s choices, starting in the PAC-12.
Hercules Mata’afa, EDGE, Washington State
It might have been the best individual performance, not just of the week but of the season. Already one of the most productive defensive players in the nation, Hawaiian native Hercules Mata’afa vaulted himself near to the top of the tackle for loss (TFL) list with 21.5 on the year, tied-second with NC State’s Bradley Chubb and half a TFL behind Northern Illinois’ Sutton Smith.
He did so with an outstandingly destructive performance against the Utah offensive line that was crucial in the Cougars’ 33-25 win over the Utes, as he piled up eight tackles (all solo stops), five TFLs, three sacks and a forced fumble.
Mata’afa might have the most explosive get-off in the country with the reactions, first step and burst off the snap, followed by fast hands, great rush moves and technique, and an absolutely relentless non-stop motor that left the Utes’ O-line reeling. He may not have ideal length and size at under 6’2”, 245lbs but moves around the formation to attack from different areas, including as a down lineman from the interior despite his smaller stature for that role.
For all his speed, his first play made in the opening quarter saw him drive into the body of the left tackle, forcing himself past his inside shoulder to take down the running back in the backfield. A couple plays later, initially lining up on the interior, he looped all the way outside and round both the left tackle and running back to meet the quarterback, strip-sack him then recover the fumble immediately himself.
He continued his strong opening quarter on the next drive with Utah backed up near their own goal line. Mata’afa changed it up by initially dropping back slightly before blitzing through late with incredible closing speed to drill quarterback Tyler Huntley for his second sack. The adjustments came quickly after that as the Utes began not just double but triple-team blocking Mata’afa, yet he still could not be contained.
He finished the first half strongly, bursting instantly through the gap left by the pulling right guard and on Huntley in a flash for sack number three. There was still time for another TFL before halftime, reading a reverse trick play and destroying it for a big loss of yardage. There was no let-up after the break with his pressure forcing an interception on the first Utah play of the second half.
Fatigue appeared to set in late in the game, no surprise given the effort level and number of snaps, but the motor never slowed once, and the harassment never lessened. Even when not making plays directly, the disruption, panic-level, the attention, it all opens up opportunities for teammates who thrive with his presence.
He is absolutely playing at the level of a first round draft selection. His size and length may not be prototype, but his ability to cause disruption is exciting. In looking for a pro comparison at his build, Noah Spence stood out as having some similarities in skills and measurables, but even then, Mata’afa is arguably showing more ability and potential.
Jeremy Reaves, S, South Alabama
Among all the upsets that occurred last weekend was one that unsurprisingly didn’t draw too much national attention, as Sunbelt leaders Arkansas State, undefeated in conference play at 4-0, lost to the 3-6 South Alabama Jaguars who kept their slim hopes of bowl eligibility alive in a scrappy turnover-filled 24-17 shock win that shook up the conference.
Their star safety and one of the best at his position in the country, not just the Sunbelt, Reaves sealed the game with a walk-off interception inside the final two minutes as the Red Wolves were driving for a touchdown that would take them into the lead late.
A former cornerback who has converted to safety, Reaves showed his ability to read the quarterback, anticipated his intentions and jumped the route for an easy pick to secure the win. That capped a superb overall game from the senior that saw him also contribute 11 tackles on the day.
Nine of those were solo stops, a result of some superb open-field tackling that was a feature of his contributions against ASU, as was his habit of doing so at key moments in drives. One occurred on third down in the red zone that forced Arkansas State to kick a field goal early in the second quarter. Later in the quarter on another third down, Reaves showed up again with a tackle in space to force a punt.
He perhaps ought to have been credited for a sack before halftime as well, having tripped up Wolves quarterback Justice Hansen, but the sack got credited to a teammate on the D-line who happened to fall on Hansen en route to the ground.
Reaves is slightly undersized at safety at 5’11”, and though listed at 205lbs looks like he’s playing a bit lighter than that with a fairly slim frame. He’s a ferocious hitter however, and a fantastic athlete who specializes in flying downhill. Decisive, he is quick to take off toward ball carriers with an aggressive mindset.
That can sometimes get him in trouble, and has a habit of taking the occasional poor angle or initially moving in the wrong direction and having to recover, but he trusts his instincts and makes more good plays than bad. He ought to be quite scheme diverse and flexible in the secondary, with the range to roam deep, quickness to cover the slot, and the tackling ability to line up in the box.
Reaves has the fifth most tackles by a defensive back in the nation this season with 84 in total while showing his ability to contribute at every level with six tackles for loss as well as three interceptions and eight pass breakups in coverage. He’s got some areas to improve and his size might hurt him with some teams, but he’s a name to watch in the middle to later rounds.
Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo
Midweek MACtion is always an enjoyable feature of the latter part of the season and hopefully has allowed people to become familiar with a few of the better playmakers in the conference with some NFL potential. Last weekend it was an under-the-radar Western Michigan tight end who appeared in this series; this time it’s one of the biggest breakout stars both in the MAC and nationally.
Johnson is still not too well known, but the junior is sixth in the country in receiving yards with 1,048, surpassing the four-digit barrier in the 38-28 win over Bowling Green. While he’s doing so against some less talented defenders than many of the other top receivers from Power Five conferences, the 6’1”, 207lb Johnson is certainly dominating those he does face.
Big plays have been a feature of his season in averaging 16.63 yards per catch to compile his yardage total, and that was on show in the first half of this game, particularly in the opening quarter. Johnson scored the second Bulls TD of the game, showing good burst off the line, buying a yard of space at the top of his route, before breaking a tackle from the covering defensive back after the catch to take it into the end zone for a 21-yard score.
That was quickly followed by his second of the game on the next drive in the first quarter. From the opposite side of the field this time, Johnson gained a couple steps advantage over the defensive back early off the line of scrimmage, caught the ball cleanly in stride down the field then eased the rest of the way to the end zone for a 69-yard catch and run touchdown.
Though limited in the second half by an elbow injury, he arguably should have had a third score after the break on a near-spectacular play in the corner of the end zone but could not secure the ball to the ground. Still, he continued to show his range by working the jump ball and the slant route as he put together eight receptions for 160 yards (20 yards per catch) and two scores.
A community college transfer, Johnson redshirted last season, making this year his first in the FBS, and he has excelled throughout in 2017. His usage stands out that sees him move around the formation and see targets to every level of the defense, including outside and over the middle of the field.
A nice athlete, Johnson accelerates well off the line and is a smooth, fluid runner with the sharpness in his changes of direction to gain separation in his route breaks and simply by outpacing the covering corner.
As demonstrated multiple times in this game, he has the strength to break tackles that combines well with his pace to make him a threat after the catch. He probably ought to stay for his senior year in 2018, but he’s showing traits that should translate well to the NFL.
Joshua Jackson, CB, Iowa
From an individual perspective, few players in the country have had a more impressive couple of weeks than Jackson. After a huge three-interception outing against Ohio State in the previous contest, he added two more picks against Wisconsin, this time taking both back for touchdowns, accounting for all 14 points that Iowa scored in the loss to the Badgers. A former receiver, it shows up in his excellent ball skills.
His first INT saw Jackson position himself well in front of intended target AJ Taylor on the route, then the burst of speed down the sideline for the six points. The second came in the third quarter, finding himself in the right place to grab a tipped ball before again demonstrating the athleticism he has to go with his ideal size at 6’1”, 192lbs.
That size saw him do a nice job covering dangerous receiving tight end Troy Fumagalli in the end zone, even if Wisconsin still ended up with the touchdown by attacking the opposite corner instead. A committed, physical contributor to run support, Jackson added a force fumble on the day midway through the second quarter, getting good contact on the ball to dislodge it from freshman star running back Jonathan Taylor.
He did have some struggles during the fourth quarter, finally being beaten on a nice throw from Hornibrook out of Jackson’s reach to freshman receiver Danny Davis III. He then was unable to make a play on another freshman in running back Bradrick Shaw who finished off the drive by beating Jackson outside.
In terms of traits, Jackson checks off most boxes for a highly drafted cornerback prospect, combining size and athleticism with playmaking ability and overall ball skills that has seen him total an outstanding 16 pass breakups and seven interceptions through ten games. He attacks the ball in the air with a good vertical, challenges receivers and trusts his reads.
Mark McLaurin, S, Mississippi State
In a fantastic compelling contest with a number of intriguing performances, one number kept catching the eye during Alabama’s narrow 31-24 win over Mississippi State, the #41 of Mark McLaurin. Granted, and to make clear, it was both in a positive and negative sense, with his performance proving very inconsistent with a number of poor plays also from the safety.
It was an aggressive gameplan deployed by Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with McLaurin a key part of that plan that saw him attack downfield and on the safety blitz with some success. The active performance resulted in 11 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a pass breakup for the junior defensive back.
With good size at 6’2”, 215lbs and appearing to have good range and quickness around the field, there’s interesting next-level measurables offered as well as likeable energy and overall effort level from him. He made a number of open-field tackles on several physical and athletic playmakers for the Tide, including the shifty Calvin Ridley (who had a huge day) and imposing runners Bo Scarbrough and Jalen Hurts.
In truth, in the instance of Hurts, the Alabama quarterback did more of the hitting than McLaurin did that saw the junior bowled over on the play, but hey, he still gets credited for the tackle at least.
In among the plays made by the Bulldogs safety were some very poor ones that resulted from getting overaggressive and just bad execution that led to taking himself out of the play past the action and some bad angles he could not recover from. While he made a lot of tackles in the game, he ought to have had more, missing a number of additional opportunities.
There’s a lot to clean up from a hit and miss performance, taking into account the gameplan that was implemented, but a lot to like as well that has him more prominently on the radar as someone to watch.
Small School Watch: Justin Lea, OL, Jacksonville State
In a tight, low-scoring battle, the Gamecocks secured both a 14-7 victory and the OVC title against UT Martin on Saturday, moving on to 9-1 on the season overall and with sights set on the FCS playoffs as one of the leading contenders for the national title.
Making his 49th straight start, left tackle Justin Lea is one of several intriguing NFL prospects on the Jacksonville State roster and senior class. There may not have been a great deal of scoring, but the offense moved the ball well in the run game with 197 team rush yards and both TDs on the ground.
Lea was a big part of that area of success, impressive throughout with his quickness getting up to the second level particularly, while also keeping his quarterback clean with his reliable, comfortable pass protection.
At just 6’4”, 290lbs, Lea doesn’t have ideal length for playing outside, nor the desired bulk for the interior, giving a little bit of uncertainty about his best fit that makes hearing his name on draft weekend less likely and potentially looking for an opportunity as an undrafted free agent.
Still, it’s difficult not to love Lea’s game, where he plays aggressive with just the right amount of nasty in his blocking, and can dominate at the FCS level. He offers a lot of speed in his game as a notable athlete for the position he plays. The overall movement allows him to track speed rushers easily round the edge, and seek out blocks in space in the run game.
Capable of offering cover at all five positions, he proved that in the 2017 opener versus Chattanooga, playing tackle, guard and center over the course of that single game due to injuries and the resulting reshuffles that were required. That versatility could prove useful for his NFL hopes.
It was a rough day for the Spartans that saw them taken apart by Big Ten rivals Ohio State, with most of the damage done in the first half. Few, if any, Michigan State players can be happy with how they performed in this one, but few struggled as much as senior defensive end Cooper.
Demetrius Cooper, EDGE, Michigan State
Offering good size and length at around 6’5”, 252lbs, Cooper has had his moments for MSU with five sacks in 2015 his career high as a pass rusher. He’s since had multiple off-field red flags that put into question his status with the team at one point, and is not having a productive final season in college, including just three TFLs and 1.5 sacks (though has generated pressures beyond those stats).
Where he had particular issues in the loss to the Buckeyes, was his play in the run game that included getting burned badly twice during the first quarter, including on Ohio State’s first offensive play of the game. Cooper went after running back JK Dobbins, which JT Barrett read and kept the ball, leaving Cooper spinning around in no-man's-land as the OSU QB ran for a 10-yard first down.
On Ohio State’s second touchdown score, Cooper again collapsed inside immediately, telegraphing to Barrett to keep the ball again, bounce outside and walk into the end zone through the space abandoned by Cooper.
In the pass rush, the senior didn’t offer much pressure at any stage, playing with fairly low energy and motor, lacking explosion and not offering much post-contact to work off blocks. All of which resulted in a completely empty stat line, devoid of even a single tackle or pressure.
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