Cover 3: The one player who will dictate the winner of Texas vs. Oklahoma
The most important player in Texas-Oklahoma, plus why Matt Canada's offense has yet to click
This week's Cover 3 breaks down the most important player in a fascinating Red River Rivalry game, more examination of LSU's sputtering offense and the call for Cam Akers time in Tallahassee.
1. The name to know in the 2017 Red River Rivalry
The Red River Rivalry this weekend features plenty of compelling storylines: Texas surging after a double overtime win, Oklahoma disappointed after being upset as a 30-point favorite, the freshman under center at Texas in Sam Ehlinger, the freshman in the backfield at Oklahoma in Trey Sermon. But it's not the storylines that will dictate the winner. It's the matchups. And there's one matchup to watch above the others: Texas wide receiver Collin Johnson vs. OU's secondary.
After Oklahoma beat Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, it looked like defensive coordinator Mike Stoops had a new unit on his hands, one that held JT Barrett and Ohio State to 183 yards passing and no touchdown passes with one interception. But Barrett's struggles throwing the ball downfield have been well documented, and in retrospect, that performance may have been more a product of the Ohio State offense than it was the Oklahoma defense. We've since learned more about the Sooners' secondary.
When teams have had athletes on the perimeter to attack Oklahoma and a quarterback to get them the ball, they've found success. It started three weeks ago when Oklahoma nearly lost to a winless Baylor team. In that game, Denzel Mims feasted on the Oklahoma secondary. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder had 11 catches for 192 yards and three touchdowns. A lot of that production was just throwing the ball up to the better athlete and asking him to make a play. Most of it came against cornerback Jordan Thomas.
Following a bye week, Oklahoma faced another Big 12 bottom feeder in Iowa State; this time, it lost. The loss came at the hands of another big-bodied receiver in 6-foot-5, 225-pound Allen Lazard, who went up over Thomas for a jump ball touchdown to give the Cyclones the win. He had also manhandled Parnell Motley on a bubble screen earlier in the day to spring a long touchdown reception.
Thomas and his buddies are not going to get much of a break this week with Texas lining up in front of them. All he's got to deal with is Collin Johnson, the biggest and most physical receiver he's faced yet. The 6-foot-6, 220-pounder put up 191 yards against a talented USC team. He was a 125-yard bright spot in the season-opening loss to Maryland, and Texas needed every one of his 92 yards and seven receptions in last week's double-overtime win against Kansas State.
Johnson has a chance to feast on his matchup with Thomas and Oklahoma. If Texas is going to beat OU on Saturday, he will need his biggest game yet.
2. It's Cam Akers time in Tallahassee
The national title dream is dead. So too is a playoff run. But there's still a lot of excitement left to milk out of Florida State's 2017 season, and it starts with the guy wearing No. 3 at running back. True freshman Cam Akers has seen his workload steadily increase since he flashed nothing but raw athleticism in FSU's week 1 loss to Alabama. From 10 carries in that opening week to 12 against NC State to 13 against Wake Forest to 20 against Miami, Akers has been brought along slowly by Jimbo Fisher. But after his 121 yards and 6-yard-per-carry average in his most recent outing, it's time to take the training wheels off.
Akers was ranked as the No. 1 running back in the country by 247Sports out of Clinton High School despite spending his career in the shotgun playing quarterback. He threw for 3,100 yards as a senior. He also happened to rush for 2,100. He's a physical specimen that has run over and around plenty of defenders but rarely from the running back position. That fact contributes to Fisher's inclination to work Akers in slowly, not to mention the ball security issues he showed in the spring and the importance of having a sound pass blocker in the backfield with another true freshman at quarterback.
But now we've seen what Akers can do with a full workload, and we can't unsee it. There's no turning back. When he was able to find a groove and see the blocks in front of him, Akers looked like a man. Take some of the pressure off of James Blackman and put it on the other freshman.
We've seen this before. In 2014, Dalvin Cook was playing behind a big-bodied upperclassman named Karlos Williams with a similar skillset to Jacques Patrick, who is now in front of Akers. Cook didn't get 20 carries until Week 6 against Syracuse. He got more than 20 carries only two more times and in those three games Cook rushed for 122, 144 and 177 yards. So compared to Cook, Akers is getting an early start. But Cook had Jameis Winston to piggyback. Akers does not. Let FSU's offense hitch a ride on him instead.
3. This isn't Odell Beckham's LSU
The LSU offense needed fixing, so Ed Orgeron hired Matt Canada. For years, we've watched LSU insert other-worldly talent into a stale, plodding offensive system that muted some freakish athletes. With the arrival of Canada, we expected to see the same talent utilized in a fresh, creative way that put those studs in space, one-on-one matchups and leverage advantages.
Well, the system has arrived ... but where is the production? LSU is ranked 78th nationally in yards per game with 397.7. Due to the shifts and motions preceding every play and the huddle-based approach, the number is tied with Georgia all the way up at No. 38 in yards per play with 6.23. But that's down from last year's ranking of 13 and 2015's ranking of 17.
Unfortunately for Canada, he didn't inherit the same offensive talent that had so often been squandered. This LSU team is a scaled down version of itself. Consider what Cam Cameron had to work with just two years ago. The wide receivers featured were Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre (two current practice squad NFL players), Trey Quinn (ranked third in the country at SMU for receptions per game), John Diarse (second leading receiver at TCU) and Tyron Johnson (talented member of Oklahoma State's loaded receiver room). Add Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice to the backfield, and that's a scary unit.
Canada inherited something very different. DJ Chark and Russell Gage are LSU's leading receivers now. They're a solid duo and Chark is averaging 22 yards per catch on the year, but they're not keeping defensive coordinators up at night. Behind them are an array of talented but unproven pass-catchers. In the backfield is an injured Guice, who has yet to look like himself, and a solid Darrell Williams, who is reliable but not explosive. The offensive line, due to attrition and injuries, may be forced to start three true freshmen this week when LSU plays Auburn.
With Guice banged up, the big plays aren't coming. LSU is 61st in the nation in plays of 20 yards or more. Canada's offense at Pitt last year was ranked 11th in the same category. It's a system that is supposed to spring big plays, and yet, they have been hard to come by. This personnel just isn't as dynamic as LSU's featured in years past.
But will it look more dynamic this year and in years to come? LSU does have young talent at the receiver position. Sophomore Drake Davis has 10.5-second speed in the 100 meters and stands at 6-foot-4. Two of his three catches this fall have gone for touchdowns, and he's averaging 44 yards per reception. Sophomores Stephen Sullivan and Dee Anderson are both matchup problems on the perimeter at 6-foot-5 (or taller). LSU should benefit in the long run from this baptism by fire of its freshman offensive linemen. The program always seems to drum up a freakish running back or two.
Recruiting and developing have traditionally gone hand-in-hand at LSU, and the recruiting has yet to dip. It's time to develop some of the young talent in Baton Rouge. The offense needs it.
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