Last week I broke down the performance of West Virginia’s quarterback Geno Smith on the road against the Texas Longhorns. He lead the Mountaineers to a big win on the road as he cemented himself as the top quarterback prospect in the nation. This week I break down one of the top two safety prospects, T.J. McDonald out of USC.
McDonald has been getting some comparisons to another former Trojan, Taylor Mays. To me that is just lazy. The two are nothing alike. Mays was nothing more than a big hitter and a straight line runner. He couldn’t back pedal very well in coverage and didn’t have great instincts. I like to think of McDonald as the second coming of Troy Polamalu, another former Trojan safety.
What these two players have in common is the versatility they bring to the position and what they do to confuse the quarterback before the snap. McDonald is always moving before the snap. Sometimes he shows blitz and backs off, sometimes he comes off a delay blitz. Sometimes he starts out as a deep safety and moves right up to the line of scrimmage and vice versa. It’s pointless for opposing quarterbacks to try and locate these players before the snap because they don’t usually play where they initially line up.
The game plan for McDonald against Washington was pretty conservative. He spent most of the game as a deep safety, lining up about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. USC didn’t want to give up the big play, so they maintained a conservative approach on defense and let their line handle the pass rush. I counted just one passing down that McDonald blitzed on.
Only two plays really jumped out at you from McDonald, but that isn’t a bad thing. He isn’t the type of player that makes five highlight reel plays a game and then disappear. He is a consistent, 60 play type of guy. He has a variety of duties on the field, but he mans up and takes care of his assignment on every player and never over pursues and hurts his team.
The first big play he had came late in the third quarter on a third and five from the Trojans 26 yard line. McDoanld lined up like an outside linebacker and blitzed from the outside. The play call was a running back draw and he read it beautifully and brought the runner down behind the line of scrimmage and forced a long field goal. The kick was missed and USC held on to a 24-14 lead at that point
His second big play came deep on Trojans territory, as the Washington Huskies were just a few yards away from making this a field goal game. He was in man coverage and was following the running back, Bishop Sankey, who motioned from one side to other before the snap. The play was an option out of the shotgun and he took away Sankey on the play. Huskies’ quarterback Keith Price was forced to cut the play inside and was met by several Trojan linemen. Price fumbled the ball and the defense recovered.
Both plays took 10 points off the board, or at least six, for the Huskies and were the difference in the game. Both plays were just a matter of maintaining his assignment and reading the play.
McDonald isn’t an elite coverage safety, but he doesn’t have to be. You want him playing closer to the line of scrimmage when he needs to be, and covering the deep part of the field during obvious passing downs. Because he is so good at reading plays and reacting quickly, you want to play in a lot of different snaps and continue to show the quarterback different looks.
From what I have seen so far from T.J. McDonald, I would say he is the best safety prospect in terms of what he can do now and what type of player he could develop into over the next three or four seasons in the NFL. I don’t think Eagles’ fans would mind seeing another ultra-versatile safety in their secondary.