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Alabama’s national title game victory was primed as a matchup of two Heisman Trophy finalist quarterbacks going head to head, with the underdog, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, being seen as the Buckeyes’ best hope to pull off the upset.
Fields could not do enough for a shorthanded OSU team. In the end, it was the Heisman winner, DeVonta Smith, who made his indelible mark on the game. And all he needed was one half to do so.
That’s star power in a game loaded with future NFL talent. There will be debates about Smith’s unusual dimensions, perhaps his lack of track speed once it comes down to 40-yard dash time and also his cozy surroundings in Bama’s uber-talented, extremely well-schemed offense.
For now, it feels wrong to do anything but marvel at the 6-foot-1, 175-pound wideout’s incredible knack for getting open and making plays. Smith’s 22-yard catch on Alabama’s second play from scrimmage set the tone for an evening in which he caught 12 passes (on 15 targets) for 215 yards and three touchdowns.
Playing basically one half of football. Smith took 44 snaps in the game, suffering a dropped pass on the play that would knock him out for good. Two plays into the second half, Smith couldn’t haul in a pass from Mac Jones and grabbed his finger. Smith ended up suffering a dislocated finger, one that was heavily wrapped and casted by the time he came back onto the field. His teammates had turned a 35-17 lead into a 52-24 laugher by that point, but it was clear who the best player on the field was … when he was out there.
Fields couldn’t reach that level. By some measures, he played a respectable game. Ten days following his hip injury in his narrative-changing victory over Clemson, Fields completed only 17 of 33 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown.
He played turnover-free ball, ran six times for 67 yards (including a 33-yard jaunt that appeared to shock the Tide) and was sacked only once. Fields had to work for most of the night without star running back Trey Sermon, whose outing ended after one carry and one snap.
Fields had a bad overthrow to Garrett Wilson (who whipped cornerback Patrick Surtain II off the ball) midway through the second quarter, and the Buckeyes’ late-game lack of urgency down four scores raised questions. Overall, though, this performance shouldn’t harm Fields’ draft standing.
It was a spectacular night for his counterpart, Alabama’s Mac Jones, who lost a fumble on a sack but completed 36 of 45 passes for 464 yards and five scores, adding in two well-timed scrambles and making a few plays out of structure. Still, the same questions about Jones’ athleticism will always limit his appeal as a prospect.
If you came away from that game not blown away at Smith’s performance, we might fairly question your talent-evaluation eye. There’s no question he should be in the discussion for a top-10 pick. That was the sentiment coming into the game, and it now feels rubber-stamped.
Could the spindly Smith’s career end up like that of Peter Warrick or Tavon Austin? Of course. But assuming Smith can’t carve out a career such as Marvin Harrison or Isaac Bruce feels foolhardy.
Smith’s finger will heal. And when it does, he should be considered the favorite for WR1 honors in the 2021 NFL draft, right alongside LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Smith’s teammate, Jaylen Waddle.
Now, speaking of Waddle, let’s take a look at the other winners and losers from Monday night’s game ...
Alabama offensive line
Lots of names to shout out. First, with starting center Landon Dickerson out (more on him below), Chris Owens stepped in the past two games and played really well.
His Twitter bio says it all: “Whatever position you need on the Offensive Line, I play it.” The 6-foot-3, 310-pound Owens has now played all five line positions in his Bama career and gave himself a chance to land on an NFL roster by serving as an invaluable super-sub the past few seasons.
The left side of tackle Alex Leatherwood and guard Deonte Brown also shined Monday night, opening nice short-yardage holes in the run game and keeping Jones’ pocket mostly clean. Both have top-50 potential if they come out in this class. Brown appears to be strictly a guard, but we could see Leatherwood being pegged inside or out.
Evan Neal is a monster at right tackle and should be an early favorite to be a first-rounder in 2022. Emil Ekiyor Jr. might join him there. Nick Saban and OL coach Kyle Flood keep cranking out the talent up front.
Ohio State WR Chris Olave
His value was fully realized in his Big Ten title game absence against Northwestern vs. how Ohio State fared when he returned in the semifinal win over Clemson in which he caught six passes for 132 yards and two scores.
Despite a solid statistical game Monday night (eight catches, 69 yards), Olave showed that he’s a pro-ready technician with very good body control, stem separation and terrific footwork. He was so close to hauling in Fields’ high pass for a touchdown on third-and-goal late in the game, tapping his back foot down brilliantly, but he was deemed not to have total control.
Whatever. That’s the kind of play a lot of starting NFL receivers can’t even attempt. Olave reads like a terrific sidekick, the way Calvin Ridley is to Julio Jones. It’s doubtful Olave cracks the top five like Ridley did, but a late first-round landing spot wouldn’t be stunning. He’ll be one of my top 50 overall prospects for 2021 if Olave declares.
Alabama DT Christian Barmore
All season long as I watched various prospects for the 2021 draft class, a chorus ran through my head: “Will there be a first-round defensive tackle?”
Barmore was one of only a handful of players who could make that answer a yes, although there were some games in the middle of this season where he seemed to disappear. That certainly hasn’t been an issue of late.
Perhaps no potential 2021 prospect has helped his cause in the past month or so more than Barmore. Since about the LSU game, he was arguably the Crimson Tide’s best front-seven defender. Monday night was no exception, as Barmore was named Defensive Player of the Game.
Barmore finished with five tackles (two for losses) and a sack. His dominant series to start the second quarter was an eye-opener: Barmore shed a blocker and made a terrific tackle for a 3-yard loss on Master Teague on first down, pressured Fields on a second-down incompletion and even got a finger on the third-down completion to Garrett Wilson.
Then on fourth-and-1 from the Ohio State 45 with the Buckeyes trying to make it a two-score game, Barmore once again took down Teague behind the line for a game-sealing turnover on downs. Bama would score on the next possession, and it was curtains.
Even with his late roughing call against Fields, Barmore was dominant throughout. Will the redshirt sophomore declare after his standout performance? If he does, Barmore has a chance to be one of the first 32 names called.
Ohio State OT Thayer Munford
Munford isn’t the sexiest prospect in this class, but he seems to get the job done more often than not. He uses his mass well, and Munford seemed to be one of the more effective blockers for the Buckeyes against a good Bama front.
There’s a good chance that Munford will be a middle-round pick. He might not test that well athletically and could be deemed a poor fit for certain systems. But put your money down on him becoming a very respectable pro if he lands with the right type of power-blocking scheme.
Alabama RB Najee Harris
Harris is shaping up as our RB1. There’s a lot to like about Clemson’s Travis Etienne, the North Carolina duo and a few other backs in a solid group of talent at the position this year. None of them combine the power, quickness, burst, toughness and passing-game value that Harris does.
Overall, it was a workmanlike effort from Harris (22 rushes, 79 yards, two TDs; seven catches, 79 yards, TD) against an OSU front that wasn’t going to let him get loose on the ground. Even so, he turned a few potential negative runs into gains and repeatedly powered through contact.
Two standout moments: The first was his 6-yard run on second-and-9 from the Ohio State 18. Harris easily could have been chopped down for a loss or no-gain but rammed through the Buckeyes’ eight-man box to grind out 6 really tough yards. Two plays later, he converted on a huge fourth-down plunge to set up Bama taking a 14-7 lead.
Then came his receiving touchdown. We regret to admit that heading into Harris’ 2019 season, we simply didn’t think he caught the ball well enough to be a modern NFL back. Well, he’s shown us how dumb that take was now.
Jones was under pressure, flipping a high-arcing lob of a screen pass Harris’ way. The ball was feathered to him, and the throw was behind Harris, but he easily corralled a pass that another back might drop and no one is that shocked about it. After the catch near the sideline, where he easily could have ducked out of bounds, Harris cut back inside and carved between three defenders to barrel in for the score.
Just so good. Every NFL team could use a back like Harris. His warrior-like mentality combined with his extremely likable demeanor has fascinated scouts. Seeing him end up going late in Round 1 shouldn’t shock anyone.
Ohio State LB Baron Browning
This is the kind of game scouts have been waiting for from Browning. There’s a lot of love for him from a traits perspective, as he possesses nearly everything physically teams want to see in a linebacker. He even received some low first-round grades over the summer despite not being a full-time contributor entering this season.
His highlight came on a great disguised, late blitz early in the second quarter when he strip-sacked Mac Jones, which the Buckeyes turned into a game-tying touchdown. It’s plays such as those that keep scouts fascinated with Browning’s tremendous upside, even if he hasn’t yet fully realized his potential.
Alabama OL Landon Dickerson
Dickerson suffered a torn ACL in the SEC title game two weeks ago against Florida. So imagine the collective shock at seeing Dickerson in his No. 69 jersey pregame, snapping the ball to backup QB Bryce Young in full pads.
He wouldn’t really play, would he?
Well, yes, Sort of. Dickerson went out for the coin toss, stood for long stretches of the game, engaged on the sideline with his teammates. Then Dickerson entered the blowout late, taking the final ceremonial victory snap and then — in his most incredible feat of the evening — lifting up head coach Nick Saban to celebrate the national title.
Whether or not that’s, um, good for Dickerson’s knee, we’ll leave that determination up to the physical therapists and sports medicine docs of the world. But you know the scouts are going to eat that up like flapjacks.
It’s cliché at this point, but it doesn’t make it untrue: Scouts spend way more time talking about players’ character, intelligence, toughness and love for the game than we realize. Figuring out who the player is, that’s what keeps many talent evaluators grinding; it’s a huge part of what they do in their investigative work.
And with Dickerson, whether you think it matters or not, seeing him participate the way he did Monday night gives NFL teams a clear view of a player who appears to badly want to be around the game, around his teammates and part of the process.
Dickerson is a terrific center. But I guarantee you that the team that drafts him will mention what he did Monday as being something that struck them significantly.
Ohio State TE Jeremy Ruckert
A one-catch evening, but what a one-handed stab it was for Ruckert on Fields’ slightly errant seam pass for 36 yards to set up OSU’s first touchdown. Ruckert was later slammed into by Bama’s Jordan Battle, drawing a targeting call. In between and throughout the game, Ruckert was doing work as a run blocker, helping open up some of Teague’s and Fields’ best gains on the ground.
For a player with a mere 28 catches through three seasons, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Ruckert is drawing a lot of draft buzz. He has a year of eligibility remaining but has been gaining steam of late and could end up being one of the first half-dozen tight ends drafted.
Ohio State DB Shaun Wade
On the positive side, Wade appeared to be in the right mindset for the game, ready to hit anyone who came in his zip code. He also took a shot early in the game and shook it off, displaying the toughness that has endeared scouts. Wade also earns credit for two passes defended in the game, which shouldn’t be overlooked.
Where evaluators struggle with Wade is his pro position. This season appears to have shown that Wade has a long way to go as an outside corner — and he might never be a good fit there.
Wade’s best tape came when he manned the slot in 2019. He also had a few snaps Monday night inside, plus a few more where he lined up as a box safety. Those were the plays when Wade looked more comfortable and effective.
Outside, when Wade was matched with Smith, John Metchie III and even a hobbled Waddle on a few plays, he couldn’t handle those receivers’ quickness off the line or out of their breaks, and lacked the recovery speed to do much to stop them.
Fellow Buckeyes cornerback Sevyn Banks had the more nightmarish night of the two, allowing three of the Tide’s five TDs through the air. But Banks has eligibility remaining and, if Monday was any indication, some unfinished business.
Wade, however, looks bound for the NFL. Where he’ll be projected to play in the league remains a big question.
Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle
Now, having read what I wrote about Dickerson, it’s going to appear that I am talking out of both sides of my mouth when it comes to Waddle. I promise you I am not.
My first thought upon hearing that Waddle would dress and play Monday night was excitement. Selfishly, I wanted to see him play.
It soon became obvious — as in after Waddle’s first catch of the game — that he wasn’t healthy.
I texted two scouts after the game to get their thoughts.
One wrote back: “Made no sense. Painful to watch. You have to protect him from himself.”
Another received our text — and decided he had to instead call us back.
“Like, I’m watching it, and the kid is playing on one leg and hobbling to the sideline after his first catch,” the veteran scout said. “You see that and just want to say, ‘No más, dude.’
“I just thought it was reckless. You tip your hat at him wanting to play. I get it from his perspective, and he’s clearly a competitor. Fantastic player. Maybe he’s the Heisman winner, not Smith, if they’re both healthy this season. Who knows?
“But sometimes you have to save a kid from doing more damage to himself and really causing some problems. I just didn’t like it, honestly.”
Waddle caught three passes for 36 yards and did more than frankly anyone could have expected. In the end, he played 26 snaps — a fairly hefty load, even considering Smith missed nearly half the game.
We know it’s unfair putting Waddle in the “Losers” category, as the fault might lie more with the Alabama coaches, including Saban, who green-lit his playing time and didn’t adjust after Waddle’s hobbling. And we don’t know if playing Monday will have caused setbacks or have any effect on his draft stock.
But there was just something unsavory about the whole thing.
Ohio State OG Wyatt Davis
Davis had a disappointing night in more than one way. First, he seemed to struggle handling pressure, especially when matched up with Barmore inside. Then, in a worse blow, Davis suffered a knee injury in the second quarter that brought his night to a premature end.
The Buckeyes’ right guard didn’t appear able to put pressure on his right leg before being helped off the field, and he was using crutches in street clothes by game’s end.
Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day indicated that Davis had been dealing with an injury in the same knee coming into the game, but it’s unclear how serious the ailment is now. Could Davis consider coming back following a so-so regular season (at least compared to the high expectations placed on him) and the title-game injury? We shall see.
Alabama CB Josh Jobe
Tough night for Jobe, who couldn’t get off a block to make the tackle on Teague’s first rushing TD and struggled some reps in coverage. The big one was when he committed pass interference against Jameson Williams after Jobe seemed to lose track of him in the end zone. That set up an OSU touchdown.
Jobe seemed to settle down a bit after that but still gave up some catches and later missed a tackle. He’s a rocked-up, highly physical man corner with mixed reviews in the scouting community. Some love his tenacity; others feel he must play more in control. There was nothing brutal from his performance Monday, but that’s six penalties he has been whistled for in the past three games.
Will Jobe declare early? It’s a tough call, but he makes a good amount of plays on the ball and didn’t allow a 20-yard catch all season. Jobe would have a shot at landing on Day 2 of the draft if he came out.
Ohio State DT Haskell Garrett
Just a quiet game from a Buckeyes defender who has had a terrific season. Both of his tackles came in the first nine minutes of the game and he went dark after that against Bama’s strong front. He missed not having Tommy Togiai and Tyreke Smith, two starters who were forced to sit out the game.
Garrett is another player with a tricky call on declaring. There’s a chance he does, however, after a breakout season following a gunshot wound he suffered in late August.
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