Muench's Trenches: Clowney's tough task

South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney will have his hands full this week against Tennessee. AP Photo/Stephen Morton

One of the matchups I focused on last weekend was Missouri DE Kony Ealy working against Georgia LOT Kenarious Gates, and I came away disappointed by Ealy’s performance. On the positive side, he flashed good speed-to-power and the ability to bend coming off the edge. He also showed good hands when he kicked inside to rush the passer.

On the downside, he didn’t counter well when he didn’t beat Gates with his first move, and he’s still not playing with enough of an edge. Watching two tight ends drive him downfield while he provided little resistance stood out; he failed to finish too often, missing two to three tackles because he left his feet too early. Furthermore Michael Sam, who lines up at the opposite end, is outperforming Ealy. While he doesn’t have the same kind of size potential as Ealy, he’s showing good balance and active hands in addition to a better motor.

One other player worth mentioning is South Florida DE Aaron Lynch who turned in a strong performance against an overmatched Connecticut offensive line. Lynch’s 44-yard fumble return for a touchdown proved to be the difference in the Bulls’ 13-10 win. He was in the right spot at the right time, but don’t mistake that for luck. Lynch split the right tackle and running back to get into the backfield. In fact, he was disruptive throughout despite drawing plenty of attention from the Huskies, who committed three blockers to him at times.

Here’s a look at three trench matchups that jump out at me heading into Week 8. There’s more on the line for these prospects this week. Remember defenders frequently move around. These players won’t butt heads on every snap, but it will be productive to watch when they do.

Tennessee LOT Antonio Richardson vs. South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney

Both prospects project as first-round picks in this classic matchup of power and size versus speed and agility. At 6-foot-6, 327 pounds, Richardson has a substantial size advantage over the 6-6, 274-pound Clowney. That added girth gives him the edge when Tennessee runs behind him and he can get into sound position. It should also help in pass protection. While he can set high and give ground initially, Richardson generally recovers quickly against power rushes, and his size makes it tough to push him back to the quarterback before he’s able to dig in.

Richardson isn’t nearly as explosive or agile as Clowney, which means he can’t afford to take any false steps. If he doesn’t cover enough ground with his first step in particular, he risks having Clowney beat him off the snap and level the ball carrier in the backfield, regardless of the play call. He can’t get caught overcommitting and lunging, as anyone who saw these two get after it last year knows.

Richardson got the better of Clowney for most of that game, with one glaring exception: He bit on a head fake to the inside and couldn’t recover in time to prevent Clowney from beating him around the edge and recording a strip sack with less than two minutes left. Tennessee trailed by three and was in field goal range at the time. That’s the nature of playing offensive line. Linemen receive little individual credit when they play well and can be labeled a goat when they lose on one snap at a critical time.

Stanford LOT Andrus Peat vs. UCLA ROLB Anthony Barr

Although Peat isn’t draft eligible, the true sophomore is one of the most talented young offensive tackle prospects in the country. As talented as he is, he’ll have his hands full trying to match up with Barr, who has gotten to quarterbacks at least once in each of his last three games. Peat has the length and quickness to take away the edge when his footwork is sound in pass protection. He also shows above-average lateral mobility and balance, so he’s physically capable of staying in front of Barr.

On the flip side, his inexperience shows at times: The sound level in Salt Lake City may have affected him as well as the rest of the offensive line in the Cardinal’s upset loss to Utah last week. He was flagged for a false start and later got beat around the edge for a strip sack on a play that he was late getting set on. He has to be aggressive and get off the ball as it’s snapped this week. If he doesn’t, Barr has the burst to blow past him. This is a home game for Stanford, so the hope is he’ll hear the snap count better.

Inconsistent footwork is another sign that Peat is still developing, and it’s important that he not overset initially. UCLA likes to shoot Barr inside, and he’s capable of beating Peat clean if Peat gets caught overcommitting to the outside in an effort to take away the edge.

Florida State LOT Cameron Erving vs. Clemson DE Vic Beasley

At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds Beasley is undersized for a 4-3 defensive end and projects better as a 3-4 outside linebacker at the NFL level. Yet he’s better at defending the run than you might think based on his frame, and not just because he has the initial quickness to shoot gaps. His pad level and initial burst make it tough for offensive tackles to generate initial surge. Once he establishes position, Beasley is an effective hand fighter who has enough strength to press much bigger blockers and get off blocks in times to make plays. Erving will have to stay low and consistently be the first to shoot his hands inside to win as a run-blocker.

In terms of pass protection, I’ve noted that Erving has the length and foot speed to develop into an effective blindside pass-blocker if he improves his footwork. The problem is the former defensive tackle still has a long way to go and he has yet to face a pass-rusher as talented as Beasley, who has nine sacks in six games. Beasley’s first step, ability to bend and closing speed are all above average, so Erving has to be aggressive taking away the edge. He can’t be too aggressive, though, because Beasley has the foot and hand speed to work back inside if he sees Erving oversetting.