Saturday | 7:30pm ET | ESPN2
Last week, we focused on a big man battle between Boston College RG Chris Lindstrom and Temple DL Michael Dogbe and Saturday’s matchup of Auburn's Dontavius Russell and Mississippi State's Elgton Jenkins will be another heavyweight fight. We have already seen both Russell and Jenkins play live this season and we came away impressed with both potential Reese's Senior Bowlers.
Probably because he is a four-year starter, Russell is just one of those players that seems like he has been at Auburn forever. He is one of those durable and dependable lunch-pail guys that just shows up every week and does his job. While the Tigers’ defense — heck, the defensive line for that matter — has bigger names and flashier playmakers, the unsung hero is Russell. Marlon Davidson is maybe the most versatile, Nick Coe is inarguably the most athletic and Derek Brown is probably the most talented overall.
Russell is usually the most overlooked.
To fully appreciate what he does anchoring the middle, all you have to do it put on the tape. As is the case with most interior DT, Russell’s value to the Auburn defense cannot be measured in tackles. Pro Football Focus has credited Russell with only eight tackles and five assists through the first five games this season, but he is one of Auburn’s most important defensive players because he is the centerpiece up front and, unlike most big 0 or 1-techniques, he rarely leaves the field.
On film, Russell is a player that consistently holds his ground, rarely gets knocked back, and reliably controls his gap. There are plenty of DT around the country that can hunker down and eat up blocks, however, there are very few that have the ability to re-create the line-of-scrimmage the way Russell can when he comes off the ball and strikes people.
The biggest point of emphasis for the Auburn coaching staff when it comes to Russell’s development has been getting him to play more vertical. A month into the season, it has been evident that Russell is taking the coaching. The majority of girthy wide-bodied DT lack the initial quickness to dictate across the neutral zone, so they are essentially just space-eaters. Russell, however, has enough twitch in his 320-pound frame to get upfield and cause some havoc.
The task of stopping Russell from creating that push inside will fall squarely on the broad shoulders of Mississippi State senior Elgton Jenkins. For a multitude of reasons, too many to explore in this space, center has become more of a finesse position in both college and pro football. That said, if there is a center in the country that can handle a power player like Russell, it’s the Bulldogs’ versatile pivot man.
Like the big body he will be tasked of blocking on Saturday, Jenkins’ game is rooted in his good size and play strength. The majority of college centers fall in the 6-1 to 6-3 range with an arm length of somewhere between 31 and 33 inches, but Jenkins measured over 6-4 with 34-plus inch arms in the spring for scouts, and more importantly, he plays big at the point-of-attack. NFL teams are constantly hunting for offensive line prospects that “play square,” meaning they can play with their shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage and not get turned or allow any leakage, and Jenkins fits that hard-to-find mold.
Over the course of his college career, Jenkins has started games at every position except right guard and when you talk to his coaches they are all quick to point out how smart he is. Another part of this matchup will be Jenkins’ ability to identify fronts and communicate calls to deal with Auburn’s aggressive front seven, particularly in passing situations. Last year, Mississippi State allowed an SEC-low 13 sacks on the season, but thru the first five games this year they have already given up 11, including 6 last week against Florida. Although the majority of the pressure has been coming off the edges, Jenkins must still do his part by helping QB Nick Fitzgerald account for potential blitzers and set the protections.
One area of this matchup that will be particularly interesting to NFL scouts will be seeing how much push Russell can generate inside against Jenkins. In the two games we have studied on Jenkins (versus Kansas State and Kentucky), he consistently anchored a deep pocket for Fitzgerald and he generally did so without straining. When Jenkins gets his hands on defenders, it’s generally over.
If you are watching this game on television, pay particular attention to which player is beating the other to the punch because the winner in most “power versus power” matchups is determined by who establishes the upper-hand more consistently. Jenkins is hardly ever on his heels so if Russell can knock him back a few times, scouts will keep an open-mind about him potentially being more than a two-down run defender.
Boston College TE Tommy Sweeney vs. North Carolina State LB Germaine Pratt
Sweeney is an extremely tough, true in-line TE who has improved every season as a pass catcher. He will have a good matchup against Pratt, who has the athleticism and man coverage skills you would expect out of a converted safety.
Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur vs. Georgia CB Deandre Baker
Shurmur has a played a ton of football over his Vandy career and he will need all of his smarts and experience going up against the playmaking Baker, who excels at reading and jumping routes in off coverage.
Utah OLB Chase Hansen vs. Stanford RB Bryce Love
Hansen has gone from quarterback to safety to linebacker during his time at Utah and has the athleticism and playmaking ability to potentially contain Love.
Clemson DT Christian Wilkins vs. Wake Forest OG Phil Haynes
This is a matchup on contrasting styles between the athletic Wilkins and the powerful, heavy-handed Haynes. Wilkins will be a tremendous test of Haynes’ foot quickness.
Maryland OTs Derwin Gray and Damian Prince vs. Michigan DE/OLB Chase Winovich
Gray and Prince are both strong, big-framed offense linemen who still need to prove to scouts they have the feet and pass blocking chops to stick at tackle in the NFL. They better come ready to play against an all-out pass rusher like Winovich.
-- Jim Nagy, Reese's Senior Bowl Executive Director