Muench's Trenches: Three big battles

Maryland OLB Marcus Whitfield makes his third consecutive appearance in this blog. To sum up quickly: A lower level of competition likely inflated Whitfield's sack production early in the year. He had a chance to make more of an impact with talent evaluators while working against Florida State LOT Cam Erving on Oct. 5, but don’t be fooled by his production in the Terps' 63-0 lopsided loss to the Seminoles. His two-tackle performance in that game was more impressive than his three-sack performance against Connecticut earlier in the year.

Erving took the edge away from Whitfield, who doesn’t show great burst or flexibility as a pass rusher. However, Whitfield had some success pressuring FSU QB Jameis Winston. Whitfield was the better hand fighter of the two, and his skill of generating speed-to-power gave Erving problems. Whitfield’s ability to set the edge and line up all over the front also stood out against Florida State. On the flip side, his eyes weren't great in coverage, so he was late locating the ball at times, and he appeared to wear down over the course of the game -- though it’s worth pointing out that he doesn't come off the field much.

Erving could take positives from his performance as well. As I mentioned last week, he is raw. He needs to make strides with hand placement and body control most notably, but there’s no questioning his upside. In addition to the quickness, the lateral speed he showed as a zone blocker stood out.

Here are three individual matchups in the trenches to keep an eye on for Week 7. Keep in mind that defenders frequently move around; even though these players won’t butt heads on every snap, it will be productive to watch when they do.

Georgia LOT Kenarious Gates versus Missouri DE Kony Ealy

At 6-foot-5, 327 pounds, Gates can engulf smaller defensive ends, and he’s approximately 50 pounds heavier than Ealy. In addition, both players tend to play too high, so Gates should have some success initially sealing off Ealy when Georgia runs behind him. On the other hand, Gates can struggle to sustain blocks, thanks in part to inconsistent hand placement. Ealy has the length and hand speed to exploit that weakness and shed Gates in time to make plays.

Gates has the length and width to protect the edge in pass pro. He even flashes the ability to knock edge rushers off balance with a strong punch, but again, his inconsistent pad level and his inability to sink his hips are issues. Gates' wind-up punch opens the door for quicker edge rushers to get under his outside shoulder and bend back inside. Ealy has the initial quickness and enough flexibility to take advantage. Gates’ tendency to play high, combined with an ankle injury that may still be bothering him, make me question his ability to redirect and counter when Ealy works back inside.

One area where Gates appears to have a clear lead is aggressiveness. He plays with more of an edge. I’d like to see Ealy play with more fire in his belly at times.

Florida ROG Jon Halapio vs. LSU DT Anthony Johnson

Scouts Inc.’s Kevin Weidl noted Johnson’s inconsistent pad level and effort in a draft blog post on Oct. 10. I’d agree with that assessment based on my own film evaluation, but Johnson has an excellent chance to right the ship working against Halapio, who is struggling to extend his arms and get his hands on defenders right now. In fairness, an injury appears to be playing a role, as he missed most of fall camp and the first two games with a torn pectoral muscle. Regardless of the reason, Johnson has the explosive upper body strength to exploit this weakness and quickly shed Halapio, regardless of the play call.

In terms of pass pro specifically, Johnson’s superior lateral quickness has the potential to give Halapio problems. Halapio is an average athlete for the position, and he’s masking his lack of a punch by lunging. Johnson has the balance and agility to quickly sidestep the block when he sees Halapio duck his head. He’ll also have a chance to show off above-average, straight-line speed for the position if and when he gets a clear path to QB Tyler Murphy.

Nebraska ROG Spencer Long vs. Purdue DT Bruce Gaston

The 6-foot-5, 315 pound Long has a thick lower body and plays with a wide base. He’s an effective, wall-off run blocker who can seal defenders once he locks on, and flashes the ability to cut the legs out from under defenders when he starts to slide off blocks. However, Long is more of a positional blocker than a road grader. He doesn't generate great push as a drive blocker. He plays high and he doesn't roll his hips on contact.

Meanwhile, Gaston plays with inconsistent pad level, but he is three inches shorter than Long and listed at 310 pounds. That lower center of gravity, coupled with his comparable size and superior quickness, will make it tough for Long to get under him and move him off the ball. Long has the lateral quickness and balance to get the job done as a zone blocker, as long as his footwork is sound. However, his footwork has been erratic, and he could end up paying for it if you take Gaston’s better straight-line bust into account.

As long as his first step is clean and he prevents Gaston from beating him off the snap, Long is capable of holding his own in pass pro. He does a nice job of sinking and absorbing power. Gaston doesn’t have the arsenal of pass-rush moves to counter if Long can handle his straight-line quickness and power. In addition, Long flashes a strong punch that can keep Gaston off his frame and off balance.

This Weekend's Scouting Trip

I'm heading to Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., to see South Florida take on UConn on Saturday afternoon. It’s been a difficult year for both programs, but there are two defensive linemen who make the trip worthwhile.

Bulls DE Aaron Lynch has rare, natural ability and the opportunity to break out in a big way against the Huskies’ offensive line. Listed at 6-foot-5, 313 pounds, Connecticut NT Shamar Stephen has impressed me with his motor and toughness the three times I've seen him play this year.