Sat, Sep 29, 2018
By Jim Nagy
The Michigan QB situation got all the preseason headlines and the defense gets all the praise, but Higdon set the tone in the early part of last week’s game against Nebraska, as he did three weeks ago when he ran for 140 yards in the first quarter against Western Michigan.
After sitting out in Week three against SMU with an injury, Higdon busted loose on a pair of 40-plus yard runs in the opening quarter against the Cornhuskers and he finished with 136 yards on just 12 carries.
Higdon lacks ideal size (5-10, 202 lbs) for the next level, but he by no means runs small. He is a compact and hard-charging back that runs behind his pads and forces defenders to wrap up. While he has good feet to pick and avoid in the hole, he is not afraid to square-up on people either. The scouts we have spoken with question his patience as an inside runner, but they like him because he slides off contact and is better after initial contact than most undersized backs.
The one thing that has stood out on tape over the past two years is his good burst. As he did on his 44-yard TD run last Saturday, Higdon has the juice to get to the corner and another gear to break away once he gets in the clear.
There are couple of ways to gauge speed at the RB position. First, you look for whether or not they force defenders to take bad angles. Higdon does that. Second, you can use the old scouting trick of slowing down the tape and seeing if a runner can cover five yards in two strides. While there might not be any science behind it, the vast majority of the time, if a player can two-stride five yards he will run 4.50 or faster in the 40-yard dash. Despite his shorter stature, Higdon can lengthen his stride and he frequently pulls away from DB in the Big Ten. While he might not be a burner, Higdon has plenty of speed for the next level.
Because most teams will project him as a COP (change-of-pace) or sub-downs role player rather than an every-down back, Higdon must continue to work on his skill-set in the passing game. Over his career, he has only 10 receptions (and just one so far this season) so he is greatly unproven as a receiver.
On the limited targets we have seen, Higdon looks like more of a body catcher and that will be viewed negatively by scouts. Shorter backs are already at a disadvantage because they are smaller targets so they must be able to adjust, extend, and pluck balls outside their frame in order to provide a sufficient catch radius. Even though he isn’t asked to do it consistently, Higdon is surprisingly effective in pass pro, primarily because he is smart and tough. If Higdon ends up in the Senior Bowl, watching him in 1-on-1 drills versus LBs (pass pro) and in 7-on-7 (receiving) will undoubtedly be a point of emphasis for scouts.
Higdon was voted captain this year at Michigan so he should be the type of high intangibles player that could truly benefit from the interview process during and all-star week. The Senior Bowl will be seeing him play live this week against Northwestern and again on Oct. 13 versus Wisconsin.
After last Saturday’s 45-23 dismantling of Texas A&M, Nick Saban implored the media to pick out some negative things that his players could focus on rather than get content in the aftermath of another blowout win. Even though the Crimson Tide defense piled up seven sacks against the Aggies, the one area where this unit does not stack up with past teams is the pass rush, particularly off the edge.
Over the past few years, Alabama has had disruptive players like Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, and even Rashaan Evans bringing heat on the outside. This year, new Defensive Coordinator Tosh Lupoi is being forced to manufacture pressure more than his predecessors Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt ever had to and his creativity paid big dividends last week for senior DL Isaiah Buggs, who finished with 7 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 3 sacks, and 2 QBH.
When I watched tape on Buggs over the summer, I was actually more impressed with his ability on run-downs than what he brought to the table as a pass rusher, which is why his first multi-sack game of his career against the Aggies on Saturday is noteworthy. Consider that he had twice as many sacks in last week’s game than he did all of last season (1.5 sacks) in 15 games (13 starts).
The one knock most scouts will have is that Buggs, who was the No. 1 overall junior college player in the nation two years ago out of Mississippi Gulf Coast CC, is shorter-armed. Last spring, his arm length measured 30 5/8 inches and his wingspan was only 75 1/8. For comparative purposes, the standard that most teams are looking for at DT are 33-inch arms and closer to 78 or 79 inches on the wingspan. These are important numbers for scouts because having length is so critical at the next level, especially in the trenches. NFL offensive linemen that have the reach advantage and are far more skilled with their hands than most college OL are usually difficult matchups for DL that lack length.
On Saturday, the Alabama staff smartly schemed him to be on the move and he mainly got his pressures off twists and sheer effort. In order to make plays working off others, defensive linemen have to have good reactive instincts and Buggs’ good awareness was obvious throughout the game because he seemingly always sensed and located mobile A&M quarterback Kellen Mond. The other thing that stood out was his motor. At the Alabama pro-day last March, I timed Buggs at 4.86 and 4.94 in the 40-yard dash, so he has enough range to loop outside from an inside alignment and still get involved in the play, but it was his relentlessness to finish plays that led to a couple of cleanup sacks.
Buggs is light-footed and he does a good job keeping his feet so bringing him off stunts, where he can use his athleticism, is how he will be most effective the rest of the season. That said, coming to the Senior Bowl in January will give Buggs an opportunity to prove to NFL teams that he has the initial quickness and power to win 1-on-1 over guards as an interior pass rusher.
The next time we will see Buggs live is on Nov. 24 against Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
|Jim Nagy is the Executive Director of the Senior Bowl. He spent 18 years in the National Football League. In his time in the NFL, Nagy worked as an area scout in the West, Midwest, and Southeast regions, as well as in a national scouting capacity for four years with the Kansas City Chiefs. He was a part of six Super Bowl teams and four Lombardi Trophy winning clubs (Green Bay Packers XXXI, New England Patriots XXXVIII and XXXIX and Seattle Seahawks XLVIII).|