Normally when someone gets excited and pumped up about a prospect or team, the discourse revolves around the quarterback, running backs and receivers, as well as their defensive counterparts at the linebacker and defensive back positions. With these positions commonly referred to as “skilled positions”, the corresponding implicit statement would be that offensive and defensive linemen aren’t as skilled or athletic as the players that work more in space.
Regarding the LSU, Texas A&M matchup, while there were “skill positions” a plenty, the talk of the day centered on the trench warfare between offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, and defensive ends Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, and Lavar Edwards.
Before breaking down the performance of the two sides, LSU’s defensive line rotation should be reviewed; Barkevious Mingo plays (almost) exclusively at the left defensive end position, across from the right tackle, while Sam Montgomery and Lavar Edwards rotate series at the right defensive end position head up over the left tackle. As such, Joeckel was tasked with a combination of Montgomery and Edwards, while Matthews squared off against Mingo.
Prior to the game, many (including myself) had broken down Sam Montgomery as a dominant, forceful player, capable of creating a consistent push against the run and collapse the pocket with explosive hands and hips at the point of attack. Anything but the case on Saturday, Montgomery proved to be more dormant than dominant versus Luke Joeckel.
Joeckel, who combines plus physical traits with polished fundamentals, refused to give an inch to the LSU end by immediately controlling the chest plate off the snap with outstanding hand placement. Sudden and quick to setup in his pass set, Joeckel moves fluidly cut off the speed rush, showed the range to extend and address corner blitz pressure, as well as the redirect ability to react to twist/stunt games from the defensive end and defensive tackle. In staying true to his kick slide technique throughout the pass drop and utilizing his plus length to ride out speed rushers, he continually provided a clear pocket for his quarterback and opened up throwing lanes.
For Joeckel, the only trouble came with oversetting in his pass set, which extended his base too wide for an effective anchor. Very aware of each rush move incorporated in each of the three LSU defensive ends, Joeckel made a concerted effort to prevent the speed rush, seemingly inviting the bull rush. And while he could stand to continue adding muscle and bulk to his lean cut, athletic frame, Joeckel’s best attribute may be his ability to lock out his arms, slide his feet and recover after an initial pushback from the defender.
All season long Montgomery has had his way with opposing blockers by converting speed to power; against a long, athletic and well built Joeckel, his usual strength and snap at the point was effectively neutralized. Losing the hand positioning battle off the line of scrimmage, Montgomery was unable to work his powerful hands with any consistency. Lacking the elite first step burst to force his blocker to “turn the gate” or open up his hips in giving way to the speed rush, Montgomery will have to improve his counter ability and incorporate more pass rush variety to beat longer, athletic tackles like Joeckel. The motor and effort were most certainly there for Montgomery, who fought and clawed all afternoon in his battle with Joeckel; lacking the technical savvy of his counterpart, however, Montgomery was unable to much more than create an initial push and compress space.
Surprisingly, backup defensive end Lavar Edwards was the only defender that defeated Joeckel’s pass set. Much more explosive than Montgomery, Edwards took a page from Sam Montgomery’s tape by converting speed to power, winning with leverage and leg drive. In each of his two pressures, Joeckel over set in his pass set to cut off the speed rush; reading this and reacting properly, Edwards did an outstanding job of exposing Joeckel’s wide base by running through the “V-of-the-neck” and leveraging with powerful arms.
Physically, Edwards may be more of a specimen than Montgomery, considering his superior size, length, arm strength, and quick first step. Punching, stacking and shedding off the line with impressive strength and snap, Edwards factored equally well versus the run. Very well rounded in his skill set, expect this senior prospect to continue climbing draft boards, as he has on ours at Optimum Scouting.
Shifting to the other side of the line of scrimmage, offensive tackle Jake Matthews exhibited every attribute you look for in a premiere left tackle prospect. Starting with his feet and moving up to his strike, Matthews mirrored exceptionally well on a virtual island with Barkevious Mingo. Matthews’ showed out in a big way with an ability to stay seated in his pass set, remain balanced through heavy punches, while swiftly keep his feet and hips in front of the defender.
Matthews is an inch or so shorter than his teammate Joeckel, but appears to have more of an aggressive attitude in the run game. His quick burst off the line in the run game, along with sudden hand punches, consistently knocked opponents off balance en route to successful drive block engagements. Initially very powerful and jolting with his hands, Matthews can work himself into trouble by overextending at the point of attack, sliding off of his target before the whistle is blown.
With that being said, this overextending tendency has yet to be seen with his pass sets, as patience, not aggression, can more accurately describe Matthews’ pass protecting approach. Reactionary and instinctive, Matthews does a great job of sitting down into his kick slide with knee bend, flexibility and coordination to extend further outside with the kick slide or power step to cut off an inside rush move.
In characterizing Barkevious Mingo’s play, the two words that continually crept into my note taking were “influenced” and “lost”. Texas A&M’s offense worked a variety of screens and draw plays, and Jake Matthews did a wonderful job of directing the overly aggressive Mingo up the field and out of the play. Not reading and reacting to the level scouts hoped he would, Mingo doesn’t appear to be progressing in terms of football IQ and feel for the position.
Having a two-way go, essentially, with room to the inside or outside for the dip and rip, inside swim move, or low bending speed rush, Mingo failed to showcase his elite capabilities as a pass rusher. Lacking a go-to move or improved decisiveness in his rush movements, Mingo was fairly easily contained by the athletic Matthews, who mirrored and stymied each move.
While Mingo has the talent, motor, heck, even elite level stamina to play nearly every single down, the inability to finish out rushes or consistently win with hand fighting was not good to see. At this point, Mingo would only be selected in the top 10 based off of upside, talent, body type, and athleticism, because his tape doesn’t warrant a top 10 grade.
Entering this game, I knew Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews to be future starting left tackles in the NFL. I honestly expected more of a fight from the talented trio of ends in Baton Rouge, but was disappointed on their lacking of polished hand usage. The technique used by the A&M tackles at the point of attack, neutralized the initial first steps of the respective rushers, won early positioning, and helped sustain blocks through the whistle.
Sam Montgomery didn’t look like the dominant force we’ve been accustomed to seeing early in the 2012 season, and moving forward, I’ll definitely be re-evaluating my position with him. Lavar Edwards is a big-time specimen to watch closely as the draft approaches, and I fully expect him to be a high riser come draft time in April. Barkevious Mingo on the other hand, failed to make an impact due to his very raw technique.
Luke Joeckel proved why he should be considered the premiere left tackle prospect in this draft class by putting on a pass setting clinic; the 3-year starter played exemplary with proper bend, leverage, range and balance through his kick slide, hand usage to control, and length and power to finish beyond the whistle. Teammate Jake Matthews was equally dominant on the other end, neutralizing the most explosive defensive end prospect in the country with excellent foot quicks, body control, and positioning.
It’s so very easy, even for scouts and coaches alike, to simply watch the quarterback, follow the football, and be consumed by the generality of the play. Without training your eyes to key in on a certain position, in this case the trenches, and learning that specific player’s individual responsibility, battle, and fit within the offensive or defensive scheme, you miss out on the complexities that truly make the game of football, the special game that it is.