Clemson throttled Alabama in the national title game on Monday, but there was an awesome battle within the war between the two college football powerhouses.
Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams, the consensus top offensive lineman in the 2019 NFL Draft, repeatedly encountered Clemson edge-rusher Clelin Ferrell, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, who’s also expected to land in Round 1 … and neither player disappointed.
It was an epic back and forth, and Williams and Ferrell showcased a staggering amount of pure athleticism and polished skill needed at their respective positions.
Through the first three quarters of the game — when the score was mostly still somewhat reasonable — I counted 29 legit, one-on-one battles between Ferrell and Williams but have broken them into subcategories.
Of those 29 snaps, 10 were deemed “insignificant,” meaning they were plays in which the ball came out quickly on a screen, swing pass, etc. or when a run immediately went to the total opposite side of the play.
I labeled 11 snaps between the two future first-rounders as “draws,” reps in which there was no clear winner. Each player appeared to get an edge at some point during the play but neither dominated.
That leaves eight combined “wins” between the prospects, and they’re analyzed below (along with one of the draws).
On this play, Ferrell deployed his long arms early, and while this pass-rush may have been more about maintaining a strong edge than flying around the corner, the Clemson star utilized this long-arm technique often this season and typically was able to push tackles back into the quarterback. Not on this play. Notice how Williams slid his feet quickly throughout the snap.
(Note: If you click anywhere on a GIF in this article, it’ll pause. Another click plays it again. Feel free to click as often as you want to help you see the nuance with which Williams and Ferrell played.)
Against a bull rush, that’s precisely what every team wants to see from their outside blockers. Williams even finished Ferrell off with a shove as he tried to make a move to the inside as Tua Tagovailoa released the ball.
Later in that same drive, Ferrell had a pass-rushing rep that went viral in the draft community, and it showcased the thinking that goes into his game.
In the first instant, it looked like the same move as the first GIF — a quick deployment of both his arms. But Ferrell quickly disengaged his left arm, lowered his center of gravity to get underneath Williams’ pad level and bull rush him into the quarterback.
For a second too it looks like he tried to rip past Williams but realized he had the leverage advantage and simply had to use his strength to generate the pressure.
That rep is so impressive from Ferrell because it’s the only time all year I saw Williams that overwhelmed by a pass-rusher. To see it live was shocking, and it was just as shocking watching it again. As a smaller-ish tackle with great feet and a heavy anchor, Williams stopped a plethora of bull rushes in their tracks all season.
This play could’ve been placed in the “insignificant” pile because it was a run away from the two prospects, but as an obvious win for Ferrell, that didn’t seem right, and it came on the next play after his serious bull-rush victory.
Here, the Clemson end flashed an efficient swipe move that got him into the backfield. Williams wasn’t ready to slide his feet to the inside.
Before the national title game, on Williams,, “inside counters did give him some problems during the regular season,” and while not technically a counter off an initial rush, based on what happened the snap before this, Ferrell probably figured Williams was geared up to stop a power move, so an inside move would be effective.
Inside swims/swipes were the Achilles’ heel for Williams all year, but I can count on one hand how many times I saw him allow a pressure after an edge-rusher won to the inside.
If you’re keeping score at home, at this point … it was Ferrell 2, Williams 1, but the Alabama left tackle settled down a bit after this and got into somewhat of a groove.
On this play, Ferrell exploded upfield and tried to use a rip move — think of a bent arm moving in an fast, upward motion or visualize a Tiger Woods fist pump. For a split-second, it looked like Ferrell would win the rep and get to Tagovailoa … but Williams’ athleticism and strength to absorb Ferrell’s initial jolt allowed him to wall off the long, dynamic defender and push him past the quarterback.
No rip (or any type of counter here) from Ferrell on this play in the third quarter. After winning with a bull rush earlier in the game, Ferrell decided to go with it again.
Williams was prepared.
Nevermind that Tagovailoa held the ball for a long and essentially drifted into pressure. That rep was a win for the Alabama left tackle.
Someone else may categorize this next play as a draw, but anchoring is a vital aspect of playing offensive line, and even if initially sent back, a high-quality anchor is often the difference between a clear-cut pressure and pass from a clean pocket.
Ferrell showed more of his pass-rushing polish, as he started by faking what looked like a basketball-like crossover move before firing into Williams’ chest with both hands, sending him back a few yards … exactly what you want as a defender.
But Williams was able to reestablish a balanced base while he only had his left arm on Ferrell. At that point, his right arm came back into the picture, and he “sat” into his anchor. Based on the power we saw Ferrell generate early in the game, this was a stellar recovery.
Here Ferrell utilized his burst to get upfield in a hurry and used a slap-rip move — slap away the lineman’s arms and rip to neutralize his hands — to no avail.
Williams was able to stay with Ferrell around the corner while holding him off with his left arm before his right arm was able to catch up to help.
So, after Williams won a few battles consecutively, Ferrell decided to go with what worked for him most recently … an inside move. At the outset of his rush, Ferrell looked to be selling out with speed to the outside because of his burst off the ball. After a step or two, he went to that same basketball-esque stutter move from earlier to lull Williams before flashing an awesome swim.
Williams didn’t have an answer for it, as Ferrell’s arm actually hit his helmet, registering the Crimson Tide blocker totally off-balance. Had it not been for help from the left guard, Ferrell would’ve had a largely unimpeded run at Tagovailoa.
Ferrell’s so difficult to block because of his speed and power to the outside … and his ability to counter to the inside with smooth athleticism and nice hand work like he showed on that play.
I thought it was fitting to end with a draw between Ferrell and Williams in this heavyweight, first-round prospect clash.
Late in the third quarter, Ferrell went to his outside speed rush. Because of Williams’ balance, patience, and athleticism, that’s the type of rush he halted time and time again at Alabama this season.
Ferrell dipped in hopes of getting underneath and around Williams en route to Tagovailoa. Although Williams was up to the task of keeping Ferrell off his quarterback, it wouldn’t be crazy to label this as a pressure allowed for the left tackle.
Altogether, I had Williams winning five reps and Ferrell winning three… and you might see that final showcased play as a Ferrell pressure or a successful Williams block.
Ferrell and Williams demonstrated all evening that they not only have the physical and athletic skills to be tremendous pros, but they both are calculated with their movements and have refined skill sets that allow them to adjust or recover in the middle of a play.
Both should be picked in the top half of the first round in the 2019 NFL Draft.