After hearing Roger Goodell announce the selection of DeAndre Hopkins last night, I decided to dig into his bowl game tape against LSU, which I had not previously watched (I had seen the game itself several times for other players, but I had never focused exclusively on the Clemson offense) . I loved Hopkins before, but after watching the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, I was stunned that the man they call "Nuk" (pronounced "Nuke") did not get taken higher than 27. He was simply dominant, and against a fabled SEC defense no less! The first thing I noticed was his run blocking. Hopkins did not just open lanes for backs to squirt through. He outright mauled people. It’s refreshing to see a receiver not only willingly block, but seem to relish it.
Hopkins at the bottom of the screen.
Hopkins at the top of the screen.
Hopkins recognizes the defense is in zone and knows that one of two things is about to happen. Either [A] the corner lined up on his side will take the flat, leaving a giant hole between him and the safety or [B] the corner drops ten yards to cover the curl/out routes and gives the tight end loads of space to work with underneath. If option A happens, then Hopkins, being a former DB himself, understands coverage well enough to know that the safety has to drive on anything even remotely close to the sideline and trust the dropping linebackers to handle the middle. If option B happens, then Hopkins knows that if he is going to drag the corner far enough away from the tight end to clear him for a reception, he has to sell himself cutting back outside. In either case, both the safety and the corner must buy into Hopkins running a 15 yard angle route (which is essentially a slant one direction breaking into a slant in the opposite direction) to give Boyd a chance to hit either of his receivers on that side of the field.
Meanwhile, Tajh Boyd, knowing that Hopkins has to be cleared of the dropping linebackers to have any shot at completing something over of the middle, has to also sell that angle route by looking off the linebacker right into that hole. He does so perfectly, getting the inside linebacker to take a single false step in the wrong direction and giving Hopkins a window right in the thick of the LSU unit (I would also like to point out Kevin Minter's utter uselessness on this play when he runs with his back to the quarterback for some reason unbeknownst to me). Hopkins, in one of his craftiest moves of the night, dips his shoulder outside and sells the angle route with a beautiful head fake to get the safety to bite towards the sideline. Once the safety is set up, he cuts back underneath and makes a textbook "hands catch" over the middle. This is a perfect example of a quarterback and a receiver both understanding the game (and each other) well enough to complete a pass that most duos honestly have no business even attempting, let alone perfectly executing. This right here is an NFL-caliber catch that you don’t see every day at the college level.
Here’s where we get to the positively nasty stuff. There was a stretch during the game where the Clemson play-callers just sent Hopkins deep play after play, hoping to give Boyd an opportunity to launch one down field. Hopkins would jab outside and then release inside to set up a skinny post or jab inside and try to get back out to the boundary for a fly route. It was a fairly predictable pattern that slowly but surely lulled LSU’s number one corner (and fellow 2013 draft prospect) Tharold Simon into a read-flip-run sort of coma that DBs often fall victim to. At some point Hopkins would take advantage of this set-up, and his opportunity came on 2nd and 9 at Clemson’s own 41 yard line.
Hopkins is facing Simon in tight man-to-man coverage and, as he had been doing, throws a subtle jab step inside. Off the jab step, which Simon smartly does not bite on, Hopkins fakes an inside release and fools Simon into flipping his hips prematurely before cutting back underneath him towards the sideline. The most important part of any back shoulder pass is spacing. The quarterback must have at minimum a three or four yard wide buffer zone for the receiver to disengage, turn, and box out the DB with position for a boundary catch. Any less and the pass either gets overthrown out of bounds or becomes an interception because the quarterback does not have enough space to keep the ball’s trajectory out of reach of an undercutting defender. Hopkins had to ride Simon just enough to get him to flip five yards inside the boundary and then bolt to his spot at the sideline before Simon could recover and undercut the throw.
Simon flips back towards the outside surprisingly fast but never even looks for the ball or attempts to contest the pass in the air. Hopkins, with very little room to work with and a corner hanging all over him (to his credit), just goes up and gets the ball. Sure, the route did not create as much separation as planned, and Boyd probably should have pushed that throw further outside so as not to open himself up to an interception, but at the end of the day it did not really matter because DeAndre Hopkins is good enough to out-jump, out-muscle, and out-position any corner he faces. You want a faster Anquan Boldin? You’ve got a faster Anquan Boldin.
As I wrap this up, I implore you to watch Boyd and Hopkins go to work in the last drive of the game (1:08:13 in this video). LSU’s defense was exhausted, demoralized, and piling up bodies on the sidelines as it tried to withstand an offense that ran 100 plays in just four quarters. One hundred plays. Hopkins had every right to be just as tired as his opponents, but he just kept coming, and coming, and coming. Make a big catch, take a big shot, win the big game.
That is DeAndre Hopkins.
That is what 26 teams inexplicably passed up yesterday night.
That is your newest Houston Texan.