What to watch for during Week 2 of the college football season
So we have enjoyed an appetizer of college football, but the season begins in earnest this weekend as some of the bigger conferences get in on the action, including the preseason number one team in the nation. Here is a look at some of the things to watch for during Week 2 of the college football season.
The 2020 college football season begins in earnest on Saturday, September 12 as seven teams in the preseason Top 25 are in action, including preseason number one Clemson. The Tigers, coming off a loss to LSU in last season’s National Championship Game, return a number of starters in both sides of the ball and are expected to make yet another run at a national title.
Clemson returns 12 starters this season but the most notable is of course quarterback Trevor Lawrence. In two years at Clemson Lawrence has led the Tigers to a 25-1 record as their starting quarterback, and is considered by many to be the top quarterback for the 2021 NFL Draft. Last season he threw for 3,665 yards and 36 touchdowns. But Lawrence is not the only weapon the Tigers return on offense. Running back Travis Etienne decided to forgo the 2020 NFL Draft and return to school, and he is also in contention for the top player at his position in the upcoming draft. Clemson also sees two starting wide recievers from last season return in Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers, as well as tight end J.C. Chark.
On defense, Brent Venables continues to change things up schematically, as last season Clemson often utilized a 3-1-7 personnel package on that side of the ball. Of course, having the versatile Isaiah Simmons in your huddle makes such a decision easy. The Tigers should be stout up front, returning four players to their defensive line including defensive ends Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas, and defensive tackles Tyler Davis and Nyles Pinckney. Middle linebacker James Skalaski finished second on the team in tackles last year and is back for his final college season. The secondary will be filled with new names, but cornerback Derion Kendrick is back. Kendrick moved to CB last season from wide receiver, and earned All-ACC honors.
Wake Forest expected to be in a much different position at this point when the 2019 season ended. However, due to transfers and opt-outs some of their best players from a season ago are not going to be taking the field for the Demon Deacons in this game. Quarterback Jamie Newman, who threw 35 touchdown passes for Wake Forest over 15 starts, is now in Athens having transferred as a graduate to Georgia. Defensive end Carlos Basham Jr., who was a first-team All-ACC selection and second in the conference in sacks, decided to opt-out of the season due to COVID-19 and focus on the draft, where he could be a first-round pick. Then there is wide receiver Sage Surratt, who decided to opt-out as well.
They do return some talent up front on defense, even with the loss of Basham. Returning starters on the inside include Tyler Williams and Sulaiman Kamara, as well as Basham’s former running mate, EDGE JaCorey Johns. Linebackers Ja’Cquez Williams and Ryan Smenda Jr. are back as well. Offensively, the Demon Deacons turn to Sam Hartman at quarterback, who started nine games for the team as a freshman but saw his season cut short due to a broken leg.
Matchup to watch: Lawrence versus #DraftTwitter. The life cycle of a draft prospect at the quarterback position is a fascinating case study. Lawrence might be QB1 on many boards right now, but one mistake and…
Draft prospects to watch: You could make the case that anyone wearing a Clemson jersey is worth studying for the draft, either in 2021 or beyond. Lawrence and Etienne are the headliners, but offensive tackle Jackson Carman (it is unfortunate we miss out on him against Basham), Ross and Rodgers all have early-round potential.
Scheme notes: While Lawrence gathers the bulk of headlines, defensive coaches have spent most of the offseason studying what defensive coordinator Brent Venables was running last year with the Tigers. Given the hybrid defenders at his disposal, Venables implemented a complex 3-1-7 defensive scheme that confused quarterbacks and coaches alike.
Take this near-interception of Justin Fields. The Clemson defense shows the quarterback a two-high safety look pre-snap, but rotates into an inverted Cover 3 look with both safeties dropping into hook zones, while the cornerbacks and the middle linebacker run the deep alleys:
In his time in Norman head coach Lincoln Riley has delivered a 36-6 record and three-straight trips to the College Football Playoff. Two of his quarterbacks secured Heisman Trophy wins (and first-overall selections) in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, while last season Jalen Hurts finished second, and was drafted in the second round.
However, in each year the Oklahoma Sooners lost in the semifinals, and the school still has not won a National Title since 2000.
Could that change in 2020? It starts with a new face at quarterback, as either Pencer Rattler or Tanner Mordecai will be the triggerman for Riley’s offense. Ratter is a former five-star recruit and the top quarterback prospect in the country, while Mordecai redshirted in 2018 and was the primary backup last year. When LSU blew out the Sooners in the playoffs last year, it was Rattler who came in after Hurts gave way.
Beyond the quarterback position, Oklahoma is loaded with returning starters on both sides of the ball. All five offensive lineman from last season return, including center Creed Humphrey who might be the top interior offensive lineman in next year’s draft. There might be a question at left tackle, where senior Erick Swenson, last year’s starter, is looking to hold off redshirt fresham Stacey Wilkins. Wilkins played well in five games last year as a freshman but retained his redshirt status. Running back Trey Sermon is gone, having transferred to Ohio State, but Kennedy Brooks ran for over 1,000 yards a season ago. CeeDee Lamb is also gone, but Charleston Rambo can be a factor as a receiver.
Defensively, it starts in the secondary. The Sooners return four starters from a year ago, including safeties Pat Fields and Delarrin Turner-Yell, cornerback Tre Brown and slot corner Brendan Radley-Hiles. Tre Norwood, a junior, is expected to be the other corner opposite Brown. While Oklahoma lost talented linebacker Kenneth Murray to the Los Angeles Chargers in the first round of this past draft, they do return outside ‘backer Nik Bonitto and middle linebacker DaShaun White, who was the team’s fourth-leading tackler a year ago.
While the Missouri Valley Football Conference announced a switch to the spring, Missouri State decided to keep two games on their fall calendar: A late September game against Central Arkansas, and this meeting with the Sooners. The fact that the cancellation of this game would mean a loss of a $600,000 guaranteed payment from Oklahoma to Missouri State probably factored into the decision…
The biggest name for the Bears? New head coach Bobby Petrino. The longtime coach’s career has been marked by scandals and misconduct and included stops in both the NFL and a few different college teams, but he returns to college football to coach a team that finished 1-10 last year and averaged just 15.5 points per game, ranking 120th out of 124 FCS teams. The Bears have big improvements to make on both sides of the football, although defensive end Kevin Ellis is a solid player up front. Wide receiver Damoriea Vick is also talented, and he was second on the team in receptions last year with 39.
Matchup to watch: Two different matchups standout. Ellis versus the winner of the left tackle battle (either Swenson or Wilkins) as well as Vick versus Tre Brown.
Draft prospects to watch: It starts with Humphrey, who might be the best interior offensive line prospect in the upcoming draft. Brooks will get some buzz at the running back spot, and the entire Sooners’ secondary is worth taking some notes on.
Scheme notes: Given that Riley’s offense has produced two of the past three first-overall selections, you might want to take some time to study his offensive schemes. The Sooners’ offense finds so many different ways to stress a defense. Take this quarterback run from Hurts against TCU last season. Riley pairs a potential fly sweep with an inside zone look, and those are just eye candy for the quarterback speed option that incorporates the motion receiver as the option player:
Making this play all the more fascinating is the action from the running back. On many option designs, coaches implement an “arc block” with a player, often a tight end, working to get in front of the quarterback to protect him should he keep the football. Here, when the running back does not get the handoff, he angles to the edge to lead the way for Hurts, who has the option to either keep it again or get it to the receiver on the swing. The running back blocks the force player, and the potential threat of the motion receiver occupies the safety who is running the alley. Brilliant design.
As part of the shuffling schools and conferences have done in the wake of COVID-19, Notre Dame is going to play an ACC schedule in the year ahead. That begins with a matchup against Duke University on their opening week of the season.
Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend can be measured in two wholly different ways. He has a 33-6 record over the past three seasons, best among Notre Dame coaches since the days of Lou Holtz. But where Holtz delivered national championships, Kelly has yet to make a run of his own. Perhaps this year the Fighting Irish finally break through.
Ian Book returns for another season as the Notre Dame starting quarterback. The senior passer threw for 3,304 yards and 34 touchdowns last year, against just six interceptions. Kelly demands a lot from his quarterbacks, but speaks highly of Book: “What’s great leadership? It’s when you battle through adversity. After the Michigan (loss), for him to lead our team to six consecutive wins shows some resilience and leadership.”
Book will enjoy the protection of five returning starters up front, as the entire offensive line returns for 2020. Left tackle Liam Eichenberg, left guard Aaron Banks, center Jarrett Patterson, right guard Tommy Kraemer and right tackle Robert Hainsey have a chance to return the Joe Moore Award to South Bend for the first time since 2017, which would make Notre Dame the first team to win the award twice.
On defense, the Fighting Irish need to replace pass rushers Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones, who combined for 14 sacks a season ago. Ade Ogundeji, a senior, will be looked at to step up in that role. Linebackers Jeremia Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White return and form a talented tandem at the second level.
For the Duke University Blue Devils, they’ll turn to Chase Brice, a transfer from Clemson, to run their offense. During his time with the Tigers Brice completed 60 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns, and helped Clemson rally against Syracuse back in 2018 to preserve their unblemished record.
While David Cutcliffe is known for developing quarterbacks, the running game might be the focus this year down in Durham. Running back Deon Jackson is the lead back, and he tallied 641 yards and six touchdowns on 172 carries, but Mataeo Durant will also be called on to carry the rock, as he was last year to the tune of 461 yards on 97 carries. The run game will also be bolstered by four returning starters up front including center Jack Wohlabaugh, the senior in the middle. When Brice goes to the sky, he’ll likely look for sophmore Jalon Calhoun, who caught 46 passes a year ago.
On defense, the Blue Devils run a lot of three-safety packages, and return four of the five starters in the secondary from a season ago. Cornerbacks Josh Blackwell and Leonard Johnson return, as do safeties Marquis Waters and Michael Carter II. Only Dylan Singleton and his 89 tackles are gone from a year ago. There is potential for some position movement as Mark Gilbert, who was a first-team All-ACC selection back in 2017, returns after missing the past two seasons due to a hip injury suffered in 2018.
Up front, Duke will be replacing a lot of players, but defensive end Victor Dimukeje and his 8.5 sacks from 2019 are back for the upcoming campaign.
Matchup to watch: Dimukeje against Eichenberg is probably the premier matchup in this contest.
Draft prospects to watch: We have seen some unsung quarterbacks rocket up draft boards recently, such as Mitchell Trubisky and Joe Burrow. Book is a darkhorse candidate for a similar rise should he perform at a high level in 2020. Eichenberg, Kraemer and Hainsey are also worth watching on offense, as is Owusu-Koramoah, White and cornerback Shaun Crawford on the defense. For Duke, Dimukeje and the entire secondary is worth watching.
Scheme notes: Kelly’s offense incorporates Book’s athleticism in a number of ways. There are potential designed runs, the offense utilizes a number of zone read plays and even rolls the quarterback outside of the pocket on passing plays. But in addition to the design elements, the quarterback can make a defense pay when pressure forces him to pull the football down. On this play late against USC in a close contest, Book turns a near-sack into a big play for the Notre Dame offense:
Don’t look now but the North Carolina Tar Heels might be the team to watch in the ACC, particularly in the Coastal Division. Last year Mack Brown’s return to campus was a big success, as North Carolina finished with a 9-4 record – 6-2 in the conference – and their first bowl game since 2016. Ten starters return on offense and seven on defense, including nearly their entire back seven.
On offense, Sam Howell is the poster boy. The true freshman set a school record with 38 touchdown passes a season ago, and was second in the conference to Trevor Lawrence in both passing yards (3,641) and quarterback rating (160.3). He’ll enjoy having the trio of Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome and Beau Corrales back to throw to, as well as four returning offensive linemen to the starting lineup. Michael Carter and Javonte Williams are two talented backs who combined for 1,936 rushing yards a season ago.
On the defensive side of the football, the player who might be one of the most intriguing in all of college football is Chazz Surratt. When you look at his bio on the UNC football home page you’ll see him taking a shotgun snap. That is not a mistake. Back in 2017 he made seven starts at quarterback and led the team with 1,342 passing yards. But after appearing in just one game as a sophomore in 2018, he moved to linebacker for the 2019 campaign, and he flourished. He was a first-team All-ACC selection and was runner-up for conference defensive player of the year. He was tops on the team and second in the ACC with 115 tackles. Surratt was named to the Nagurski, Butkus and Bednarik Watch Lists for the year ahead.
He is not the only linebacker returning, as Tomon Fox and Jeremiah Gemmel also return to the starting lineup from the prior season. In the secondary, four of the five starters return including Storm Duck at cornerback, who is worth mentioning for his name alone.
For Syracuse, the Orange had high expectations heading into 2019 after a 10-3 finish back in 2018. But those expectations failed to materialize and the Orange limped to a 5-7 finish. If they can improve offensively they could return to the promise offered a few years ago.
That improvement starts with quarterback Tommy DeVito. The junior passer was sacked early and often in 2019, and the offense needs to do a much better job of protecting him. When he has time, DeVito can be effective, but this odd statistic speaks to what he faced in 2019. Last year he became one of just two quarterbacks in the past decade to complete 63% of his passes, generate 20 or more scoring plays, turn the ball over eight times or less, and get sacked at least 35 times. (Stay tuned for the name of the other QB to set this odd mark).
The Orange are deep at running back, as Abdul Adams returns for another year at RB and will be spelled by freshma Jawhar Jordan. Seniors Aaron Hackett and Chris Elmore are reliable options at tight end. Taj Harris is the player to watch at wide receiver, as he was Syracuse’s second-leading WR a year ago.
On defense, there will be lots of new faces, including at defensive coordinator. The team hired Tony White as the new defensive coordinator, and he will be installing a 3-3-5 system that he was part of running at Arizona State. Four starters return including cornerbacks Trill Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu.
Matchup to watch: For me, the matchup I want to watch most is how Howell handles the 3-3-5 defense he will see from White.
Draft prospects to watch: It is unlikely that DeVito looks to make the jump to the NFL afte this season, but he is worth studying for perhaps the 2022 NFL Draft. Syracuse safety Andre Cisco is also a playmaker in the back end, and he is currently the FBS active leader in interceptions. For North Carolina, Surratt is a darkhorse first-rounder, and Howell might be…someday.
Scheme notes: Something that the Tar Heels do well offensively is pair aggressive vertical concepts with play-action or RPO designs up front. On this touchdown Howell shows the Mercer defense a potential running play, meshing with his running back, but pulls to work a downfield scissors concept. He throws the deep post over the middle against man coverage for the score:
The Iowa State Cyclones could make a huge leap forward in 2020, continuing the growth shown under head coach Matt Campbell. During his four years in Ames, the Cyclones have finished league play with a winning record three times, a feat almost unheard of since Iowa State joined the Big 12 back in 1996.
While their defense has been a big part of the resurgence, the Cyclones’ offense might be the reason to watch in 2020. Quarterback Brock Purdy is another intriguing option at the position when it comes to thinking about the draft, and in 2019 Purdy led the Big 12 with 306.3 passing yards per game. He finished the year completing 312 of 475 passes for 3,982 yards and 27 touchdowns, and he could finish with even better numbers in 2020.
Two more weapons on offense inlude tight end Charlie Kolar, who snagged 51 passes for 697 yards and seven touchdowns last year (a team-high), and running back Breece Hall who gained 897 yards on 186 carries as a true freshman last year.
Defensively, the reason people watch – and study – Iowa State is because of defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s 3-3-5 defense. The Cyclones return a number of players to their back half, including linebackers O’Rien Vance and Mike Rose, cornerbacks Anthony Johnson and Datrone Young, and safeties Greg Eisworth and Lawrence White. JaQuan Bailey is back as well to terrorize passers off the edge, and his 18.5 career sacks are currently third among active players, and a school record.
The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns had a huge season in 2019, finishing the regular season with a 10-2 record and earning a berth in the Sun Belt Championship Game after winning the Sun Belt West. After their loss to Appalachian State – the second time they fell to their Sun Belt rivals in 2019 – they ended the year in the Lending Tree Bowl where they lost to Miami (Ohio).
Senior Levi Lewis is back after his first full season as the starter, and last year he was quite efficient, throwing for 26 touchdowns and 3,050 yards with just four interceptions. He’ll have Elijah Mitchell back along with Trey Ragas in the backfield, and the two running backs have a combined 5,203 rushing yards and 61 touchdowns over their careers.
On the defensive side of the football nose tackle Zi’Yon Hill is a stout player in the interior, coming off a second-team All-Sun Belt selection a year ago. The Ragin’ Cajuns return both safeties in Percy Butler and Bralen Trahan. Andre Jones is also a talented pass rusher off the edge.
Matchup to watch: Similar to Howell versus the Syracuse 3-3-5, I am fascinated to watch Lewis and the Ragin’ Cajuns offense against Heacock’s 3-3-5 schemes.
Draft prospects to watch: Both quarterbacks are worth watching, as Purdy could enter the 2021 draft with a solid season and Lewis also has an NFL future. Bailey is a good pass rusher provided he stays healthy, and Kolar could be an intriguing option at tight end for NFL squads.
Scheme notes: Before Venables there was Heacock, whose 3-3-5 defense has become the standard in the Big 12 for finding a way to stop the run while still working to contain the passing game. This defensive scheme uses three safeties on every down, with one of them serving as a hybrid safety/linebacker who gets involved in the run fit on every down. With the outside linebackers flexed outside, the defense can stay gap sound against the run but has numbers on the outside to help against the pass. Here is what that defense looks like before the snap:
At first blush, this looks like the defense is outmanned up front against the run. But if each defender fits his gap properly, the defense can still stop a running play:
The three down linemen and the linebacker each take a gap, and then the outside linebackers plus the third safety fill in the rest.
The philosophy behind this defense was articulated perfectly by coach Cody Alexander in this piece:
The box literally has nine players involved in the fit. By using a safety from depth (JS), the defense is ensuring it has an extra fitter in the box and most likely unblocked. What the Cyclones have done is squeeze everything into one gap in the middle of the formation. If anything bounces, it is cleaned up by a trapping CB to the boundary or the Sam LB patrolling the edge of the box to the field. Against the run, the trapping CB from the field can even make his way into the fit depending on how the offense uses the two WRs.
When this game kicks off, take some time to study what Iowa State is doing on defense. Because as linked above, you’re seeing this more and more on Sundays as well…