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Matchup of the Week: Slowing down Alabama’s WRs

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Alabama has 4 NFL-caliber wideouts on its roster.

LSU v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines are coming into a daunting matchup with the Alabama Crimson Tide on New Year’s Day. They come in as underdogs against the Tide, and this game is going to boil down to the Wolverines slowing down Alabama’s dynamic wide receivers.

Michigan has struggled with great wideouts all season. Penn State’s K.J. Hamler had 6 receptions for 108 yards and 2 touchdowns. Ohio State had 313 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns against the Wolverines. But sadly, neither one of those groups of receivers are as good as what they will see out of the Crimson Tide in the Citrus Bowl.

The Crimson Tide have four legitimate NFL-caliber wide receivers. Their leading receiver is DeVonta Smith, who has exactly 1,200 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns on 67 receptions. He is projected to be a late-first/early-second round pick if he opts to go to the draft in 2020. He is the blazer; the guy that will run past anyone with ease. Apparently he ran a 4.25 40-yard dash in his Junior Pro Day, which would have been one of the fastest ever recorded in NFL Combine history.

While that may be staggering, he is not even considered to be the best receiver of the bunch. That would be Jerry Jeudy, the 2018 Biletnikoff Award-winner. Unfortunately for Wolverines fans and despite a top 10 NFL Draft projection, he announced on Twitter a few weeks ago he would play in the Citrus Bowl. He leads Alabama with 71 receptions and is only 41 yards away from his second straight 1,000-yard season.

If those two weren’t frightening enough, Alabama has another speed demon in Henry Ruggs, who also reportedly ran a 4.25 40 at his Junior Pro Day. He has about half as many receptions as Jeudy (38) but still has 719 yards and 7 touchdowns. Projections have him at a late-Day 1, early-Day 2 draft pick should he move on to the NFL in 2020.

So if we are tracking at this point, Michigan has three defensive backs who will attempt to slow down these guys: Lavert Hill, Ambry Thomas and Vincent Gray. All three have shown moments of being really good this season, but it is going to be a tall task to rely on these members of the secondary to slow them down.

But my real question is who is going to defend Alabama’s No. 4 guy — Jaylen Waddle. Waddle, a sophomore at Bama, was regarded as a “speed demon” coming out of high school, running a 4.37 40-yard dash his senior year. Although he is a bit small at just 5-foot-10, he shows extreme explosiveness with the ball in his hands and is one of the most evasive players in college football. He is the kick and punt returner for the Crimson Tide, and has a touchdown on both phases of special teams returning this season. To say he is a threat when he has the ball in his hands is an understatement.

In four wide sets, the Wolverines are going to be in trouble. They aren’t necessarily the deepest at the cornerback position, and they hardly ever have four corners on the field at the same time. It is likely a safety or linebacker is going to have to cover one of these wide receivers, which means Brad Hawkins, Khaleke Hudson, Josh Metellus and maybe even Dax Hill will be tasked with covering whoever is in the slot.

Alabama should take advantage of that mismatch every single time because there is no easy solution for the Michigan defense. The only player of that bunch quick enough to stay step-by-step with these receivers is Daxton Hill, which will be asking a lot for a true freshman. Everyone else has the experience, but lacks the speed to keep up with Bama’s wideouts.

If Don Brown maintains his aggressive man-to-man approach, the Wolverines will be playing at a disadvantage the entire game. We will see if any adjustments have been made on defense since the Ohio State game, as you better believe Nick Saban and Steve Sarkisian will attempt to run their offense to the same efficiency of the Buckeyes. If the Wolverines can’t find a way to slow down the Crimson Tide’s wideouts, the result may be similar.