The Michigan Wolverines have quite the reputation coming into this season, given the experience they're returning at the cornerback position. With two NFL players starting on the boundary, Michigan will be tough passing against this season. Yet a surprise name was able to leap them both this summer for the top spot among Big Ten cornerbacks who are eligible for the 2019 draft. How do these guys stack up? Here's an early look.
With a full season left to play, plenty can (and will) change for these Big Ten cornerbacks and their resumes for the next level. Some may not even enter the 2019 NFL Draft prospect pool, as several have more than one remaining year of eligibility. But as things stand entering the season, here are the five best draft eligible Big Ten cornerbacks.
1. Amani Oruwariye, Penn State
The thing I liked least about watching Oruwariye's film was figuring out how to pronounce his last name. Oruwariye was a blast to study, offering a lot of length and explosiveness in the secondary. Add in some impressive body control and Oruwariye has the potential to be a first round player when things are all said and done.
2018 will be a good test for Oruwariye as the returning leader of this defense, who is the next impressive athlete to pass through the Penn State program. The divide between Oruwariye and runner-up Lavert Hill isn't a big one, but Oruwariye's length and ability to drive into the line of scrimmage to defend the run serve as tiebreakers entering the season.
Needs to improve: Better angles in pursuit
2. Lavert Hill, Michigan
If you ignore Hill's measurements (5-foot-11 and 177 pounds), it's easy to fall in love with his game. Hill has super physical for such a small prospect and pairs that physicality with an ability to get vertical out of press technique and stay sticky on route stems down the field.
Hill's coverage down the field offers tight contests of the football but without the extra grabbiness that would expose him to flags, he has a great feel for sink in the receiver's hips and is quick to flip back and locate the football when targeted.
Hill isn't an ace on the edge defending the run, but he's a terrific press man prospect who will do well for himself with a duplicate performance of last season.
Needs to improve: Adding bulk
3. David Long, Michigan
Long is an impressive corner in his own right, playing in the shadow of Hill at Michigan. Long has a really effective stab to filter route releases into the secondary as desired and although Long doesn't have great length, he's pretty well coiled and carries his weight well when needing to flip his hips.
Long showcases strong football IQ when processing plays in the secondary as well, feeling route combinations developing and anticipating where he needs to be in order to overlap coverage as needed.
One thing Long will need to earmark is his physicality when playing from the hip, as he's a pretty physical corner that more picky referees could flag for defensive holding or illegal contact. Additionally, Long has been late to locate the football on some targets and reacting more quickly to flashing hands down the field could assist him in man to man coverage.
Needs to improve: Physicality in man coverage down the field
4. Kendall Sheffield, Ohio State
Sheffield ended his 2017 college season with a bang, tallying 4 pass break-ups against the USC Trojans. Sheffield is pretty lean, but that light weight translates to some really quick short area mobility. With the ability to drive from off the ball to challenge plays, Sheffield has effectiveness as an off defender in coverage who can also flip his hips and turn and run step for step with receivers down the field.
Where Sheffield gets into trouble is when he's tasked with playing physically. That includes fighting off blockers on the edge, contesting throws at the catch point or trying to pin routes into the boundary. Unless Sheffield was granted coverage against smaller receivers, he struggled greatly to finish at the catch point.
Sheffield has great mobility and athleticism but will need to add some strength to his game and clean up his footwork inside the 5-yard contact window.
Needs to improve: Functional strength
5. Montre Hartage, Northwestern
Hartage projects most favorably as a press/Cover 2 cornerback. When able to get into the face of receivers at the line, Hartage can really shine with stiff hands and ability to re-route route stems. Hartage transitions well from that press technique into playing in phase with receivers down the field, although if he's tested vertically Hartage can labor to stay stride for stride with more fluid receivers.
Hartage's strong hand play extends to the catch point, where he shows good awareness of the receiver's hands to punch at the football.
Going forward, Hartage will need to continue to focus on his patience at the line of scrimmage, as sometimes he's guilty of overextending or jumping out of his stance prematurely. As a run defender, more urgency is needed to drive in on the ball carrier and beat blocks to the spot to ensure team pursuit can rally to the football.
Needs to improve: More assertive stepping up to play the run