The Duke Blue Devils are bowling for a second consecutive season after a 17 year drought. After dropping the ACC title game to Florida State, they now meet up with the high-flying offense of Texas A&M and Johnny Football. The amateur scouts can take catnaps while Duke holds possession, but should have the rewind button ready when the Aggies offense takes the field in the Georgia Dome.
All eyes will be on A&M gunslinger Johnny Manziel, for good reason. The former Heisman winner hasn’t officially declared for the draft, but it seems a formality. This showdown with Duke won’t be the game everyone looks back on for Manziel, but is an opportunity for an encore to a stellar college football career.
Manziel has made significant steps forward in 2013 that should be on full display in this game. Improvisational skills are obviously a hallmark. Manziel has made developments from inside the pocket, looking off safeties and getting the ball out of his hands quicker at times. Johnny Football will have fans, scouts, and coaches enamored by his playmaking ability. There’s still a lot to be concerned about.
The style of Manziel’s play gets him into trouble often. He tends to hold onto the ball too long, whether waiting for receivers to come open for him or bypassing shorter routes for bigger plays. Look for Duke to send five rushers in zone blitzes to test Manziel’s resolve in the pocket and bait him into interceptions. The deep ball is where other quarterbacks have bested Duke’s secondary, so keep an eye on how A&M attacks over the top and what Manziel’s accuracy is like down the field.
The natural instincts of Johnny Manziel are off the charts as a pure football player, but football instincts and quarterback instincts are two different things. If you can describe Manziel’s outing against Duke with these three words, he will have taken a big step forward: decisive, responsible, and anticipatory.
Manziel’s go-to guy Mike Evans (#13) is an eligible sophomore who looks likely to bolt from College Station if his quarterback goes.
Evans will see a variety of coverage looks from the Blue Devils on the outside. That won’t change the effectiveness of the 6’5” 225 lb. receiver or Manziel’s reliance on him. Evans’ ability to outmuscle defenders for position, climb the ladder, and pluck the ball at its highest point is what has made him an unstoppable force all season. The softness of his hands are also a big plus.
Questions about Evans’ athleticism and quickness will continue to arise in the lead up to the draft. His long speed isn’t the issue, as he’s shown ability to win over the top if he can just get a step in his release. He is a bit of a stiff route runner who doesn’t change directions quickly.
There’s a clear way in which Mike Evans wins as a receiver. He wins on size, strength, and ball skills at the catch point and does so in absolutely dominant fashion. Is that enough to make Evans a top 15 pick? We’re still trying to figure that out.
Texas A&M’s skill positions get all the love and all the attention, but their big uglies might be even more talented. The pair of bookend tackles is headlined by sure-fire top five pick Jake Matthews (#75).
Matthews transitioned to the left side following Luke Joeckel’s departure and did so without a hiccup. His technique and footwork on a down to down basis are impeccable. Matthews is always landing his hands on first contact as a pass blocker to lock up rushers. His light feet are always moving, quick to reset on contact or mirror working laterally.
The precision Matthews blocks with is a big asset as a run blocker as well. He moves down the field with precise angles to wall off defenders with smooth athleticism in space. At the line of scrimmage he latches with his hands and sustains blocks through consistent leg drive.
Jake Matthews is even more technically developed than last year’s #2 overall pick Luke Joeckel and pairs that with sufficient athleticism. If you don’t specifically look for Matthews in this game, you may not even notice he’s out there.
On the right side is talented first year starter Cedric Ogbuehi (#70), a prospect with a more difficult decision to make than his teammates Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans might have.
The most noticeable aspect of Ogbuehi as a prospect is a build that he’s still filling out paired with explosive athleticism. He snaps his hips well off the line of scrimmage and gets depth in a hurry. His light feet work laterally against finesse moves to combat athletic and versatile rushers.
There are areas of Ogbuehi’s game that are still concerns though. He can be a bit passive in his pass set, letting rushers into his chest and putting himself behind the eight ball on initial contact. He had real issues with Dee Ford in the Auburn game, having trouble with the rusher’s punch on the outside.
Returning for another year could allow Cedric Ogbuehi to grow technically and get experience at the left tackle spot, where he translates best to the NFL. As far as he and Matthews go against Duke, domination throughout the game should be expected.
On the Duke side of the coin, Ross Cockrell (#6) is late round type cornerback prospect with a big matchup ahead of him. If he plays over top of Mike Evans throughout, it will be the ultimate test to what Cockrell does best.
Despite a lack of significant size, Cockrell does a fantastic job pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage and rerouting inside of five yards. He uses his hands to limit separation throughout routes but plays on the edge of a pass interference call too often. The instinctive and aggressive cornerback will be out to bait Manziel into an interception as well, especially in underneath zone coverage.
Athletic and size limitations are concerns with Cockrell though. He has trouble limiting separation out of receivers’ breaks, unable to get out of his backpedal in off coverage. Cockrell’s lack of tackling ability may also be attacked by A&M with screens and quick hitting passes on the outside. Having to haul down Mike Evans in space will be a difficult test for Cockrell.
Others to watch: Texas A&M WR Derel Walker, Texas A&M RB Ben Malena, Duke DE Kenny Anunike