Can Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey shut down USC WR JuJu Smith-Schuster?
This weekend’s marquee college football game in a loaded opening weekend slate is defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide taking on the USC Trojans at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. It features one of the top player matchups of the week, as USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey will try to get the better of each other.
Often we hear mentions of a wide receiver-cornerback matchup that doesn’t quite work out the way it is billed, because the receiver moves around the lineup and doesn’t end up facing off against the corner in question all that often, but with Humphrey playing 780 of his 942 defensive snaps last year at left cornerback and Smith-Schuster playing 565 of his 815 snaps at right wide receiver, we should see these two top players competing against each other throughout the night.
So, who has the edge in this matchup? Let’s take a look.
Why Smith-Schuster can win
One of the top returning receiver in the country, Smith-Schuster graded well as a freshman before an even more impressive sophomore season last year. Good with the ball in his hands, he forced 12 missed tackles on 89 receptions, helping him pick up 594 yards after contact and score five touchdowns.
Our yards per route run signature stat takes into account the number of routes run by a receiver in relation to the yards they picked up, giving a better indication of production than yards alone. In all of college football last year, among returning wide receivers. only Western Kentucky’s Taywan Taylor (4.07) and Western Michigan’s Corey Davis (3.47) had a higher yards per route run than Smith-Schuster’s 3.39. (Check out the top 10 below.)
He had success on a variety of different routes, but the hitch route was one of his most successful patterns last year, picking up 295 yards and averaging 9.8 yards per catch on 30 receptions. He also had a lot of success on go routes, with four touchdowns and 394 yards on nine receptions. He did drop four of the 13 catchable passes thrown his way on go routes, however, and drops are something he needs to work on this year. After dropping just two of the 56 catchable passes thrown his way as a freshman, he dropped nine of the 98 catchable passes thrown his way last year, and he won’t want to waste any opportunities when he’s going up against one of the best cornerbacks in the nation this Saturday.
Why Humphrey can win
When we talk about the best cornerbacks in college football, the names that typically come up are Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis, Iowa’s Desmond King and Florida’s Jalen Tabor, and for good reason. But Humphrey had one of the best seasons of any returning cornerback in the nation last year. Targeted 62 times in coverage last year, he gave up just 31 receptions for 539 yards, with just two touchdowns allowed. He also had three interceptions and seven pass break-ups over the course of the year.
Interestingly, when Humphrey got beat, he got beat bad. He allowed an average of 17.4 yards per reception allowed, and gave up a reception of 20 yards or more in nine of the 15 games he played in last year. Going up against one of the best wide receivers in college football, he’s going to have to tighten that up on Saturday night.
What the grades say: Humphrey has the slight edge
Smith-Schuster had a PFF receiving grade of 80.3 last year, while Humphrey had a PFF coverage grade of 85.4. That points to the Alabama defensive back having the edge, but this is going to be an incredibly close matchup, and it wouldn’t be in the least bit surprising to see both players come away with a couple of big plays. Based on what we saw last year, Smith-Schuster is likely to beat Humphrey deep at least once in this game, and it might come down to whether or not he is able to make the catch after struggling with drops downfield last year.