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Scouting new Michigan commit, 2021 three-star CB Ja’Den McBurrows

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What skills will Michigan’s newest commit bring to the football field?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Michigan at Indiana

Michigan added another piece to its 2021 class on the defensive side of the ball with three-star cornerback Ja’Den McBurrows committing on Friday. The Florida native started his high school career at American Heritage, but transferred to juggernaut St. Thomas Aquinas his junior year. He helped the team earn a 15-0 record, winning a state championship.

Along the way, McBurrows tallied 37 tackles, six interceptions, 15 pass break-ups and a forced fumble. This led him to be named First-Team All State in 7A, the second highest division in Florida.

McBurrows stands 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, so he is on the smaller end for a cornerback. However, Michigan has thrived with cornerbacks of this stature as of late, developing Jourdan Lewis into an All-American and Lavert Hill into an All-Big Ten level player.

I could not find full game film for St. Thomas Aquinas online, but I did get highlight tapes of their nationally televised games against De La Salle (CA) and St. Louis (HI) at the beginning and end of the season, respectively. De La Salle runs a triple option offense so there weren’t a lot of useful clips on that tape, but St. Louis’ high-flying offense provided plenty.

The first aspect of McBurrows’ game that is noticeable is his anticipation and ability to read plays. He always keeps his eyes on the quarterback so he knows where the ball is going. This helps especially when new receivers are entering his zone.

Two plays in the game against St. Louis exemplify his football IQ and reaction skills well. On the first play, St. Louis runs a smash concept on McBurrows’ side of the field. Wearing No. 27, McBurrows is playing on the outside to the near side of the field. He drops back into zone as the outside receiver gains depth, but then immediately heads to the slot receiver as he breaks into a corner route. The timing is impeccable and I don’t know how McBurrows sees him with his helmet facing straight ahead.

Jonathon Simmons

Spooky.

Later on in the quarter, St. Louis runs the same concept on McBurrows, and this time he’s even more ready. McBurrows drops out of frame soon after the ball is snapped, but when the camera pans back with the throw, McBurrows is standing in the path of the ball waiting to pick it off.

Jonathon Simmons

It’s clear to see McBurrows downloaded the play by St. Louis and used his anticipation and preternatural peripheral vision to put himself in the exact spot where the ball would be.

Now, I do think his habit of staring into the backfield can come back to bite McBurrows, especially when the quarterbacks get more advanced at the next level. A smart quarterback will be able to look McBurrows off a receiver with his eyes.

McBurrows can also be distracted by looking at the quarterback and get deked by a wide receiver at the line, like the play below.

Jonathon Simmons

While McBurrows is looking at the quarterback for the snap, he is late to react to the receiver’s feign outside and gives up separation. Luckily, McBurrows has a shallow zone, so it’s not a big deal here.

Separation with receivers doesn’t happen too often, as McBurrows has the ability to open his hips up quickly and run. He also has good closing speed. McBurrows runs track in the spring and has been clocked at 11.01 in the 100-yard dash, which is a good time but not quite in that elite range. Still, his fluid movements and instincts keep him sticky to receivers.

In this next play, McBurrows, who is lined up at the top of the screen, showcases his ability to turn and run. However, he allows a catch because of something out of his control: his height.

You may be familiar with St. Louis because of Roman Wilson, the incoming true freshman receiver for Michigan. McBurrows did not line up against Wilson, though, instead facing off against the 6-foot-3.5 Matt Sykes, a three-star who signed with UCLA.

Jonathon Simmons

McBurrows sticks with Sykes down the field on a simple go route, but de Laura recognizes the height advantage and throws the ball up where only his receiver can get it. Here’s a replay angle that shows the catch more clearly.

Jonathon Simmons

There’s not a lot McBurrows can do except maybe time his jump better. But that does show there will be a ceiling on his play and especially his draft status in the NFL.

Another concern I have about McBurrows is the scheme he plays in. Usually, Mike Zordich and Don Brown target guys who love to play man and press at the line of scrimmage, since Michigan’s system demands it from their cornerbacks often. However, McBurrows plays zone almost exclusively at St. Thomas Aquinas from the clips I saw. Even when lined up directly across receivers at the line of scrimmage, he will use bail coverage to drop into his zone.

This will take an adjustment period, and raises questions about his ability to adapt. Playing man takes strength and requires different technique. Instead of being able to keep his eyes in the backfield to see where the ball is going, McBurrows will be facing downfield often and will have to react to a receiver’s eyes and hands.

I’m not suggesting McBurrows can’t adjust his play, but I do think it will take some time to develop. If he picks it up quickly, McBurrows could be a candidate to play early, with Ambry Thomas departing after next season. He’ll battle the likes of Darion Green-Warren, DJ Turner and Gemon Green for the open spot across from Vincent Gray. More likely, McBurrows will redshirt and start seeing some snaps if Michigan keeps its strategy of rotating three cornerbacks, competing for a starting job later on.