Like most things in American culture, the best come in threes; who is Jack Tripper without Janet Wood and Chrissy Snow and why do you think South Park always kills Kenny? It’s not just because they’re bastards, but it could be due to the fact that people tend to enjoy the number three, which is why America loves trilogies. Alabama and Clemson has become an interconference rivalry, that is currently a “trilogy” in the college football version of Ali vs. Frazier. A championship for each team and a one sided Sugar Bowl has been the conclusion of these matchups, but an underlying development has emerged from these three “bouts”. The maturation of a young true freshman named Minkah Fitzpatrick, who I expect to be a star in the NFL. Recent NFL Draft talk has the Jersey product (St. Peter’s Prep – Represent) falling out of the top 10 picks and this will have one team that is currently in the teens landing an absolute leader, who is both intelligent and versatile. Let’s see how the former 5 star safety fared in round 1 of Alabama vs Clemson – a game that is deemed by none but me,as The Quest for the Grail in Glendale.
Hunter Renfrow is one of the more unbelievable stories in modern college football. A former high school quarterback, who walked on to Clemson’s football team, and consistently showed up in the biggest games. It’s not a good look for Fitzpatrick when a freshman walk on beats you twice for touchdowns in the National Championship Game. In play one, Renfrow is off the line of scrimmage and Fitzpatrick has a seven yard cushion, with slight inside leverage, which doesn’t deter the outside route due to the 5 star recruit’s fluid hips. Minkah does a good job avoiding the pick on the wheel route while staying in phase with Renfrow, but the throw from Watson was pristine.
On the second play, though, Fitzpatrick fell victim to the double move. Minkah was restricting the middle of the field, which led to him bitting heavily on Renfrow’s stem to the outside and Watson used excellent anticipation to throw Renfrow open over the middle of the field while Fitzpatrick was trying to recover. Renfrow won this round, but Alabama won the battle and defeated Clemson 45-40. The two foes weren’t aware of an impending rematch, which would take place about a year later. A rematch that is known as Watson Flames in Raymond James. Deshaun Watson wasn’t the only one in the fire, as Hunter Renfrow once again stole the show.
These are all but one of the catches Renfrow had in that Championship game. Clemson primarily used Renfrow out of the slot on short ADoT (Average Depth of Target) routes. Screens, quick hitches, and inside slants mostly, but the one deep pattern he did run was the corner of the smash concept, which was the only real play Minkah Fitzpatrick could have made, although the route and throw made it virtually impossible. Clemson nickel and dimed their way up and down Alabama’s vaunted defense and Minkah was forced to play on the backend at safety, rather than nickel slot, due to the fact that Eddie Jackson was out with a broken leg. Renfrow primarily lined up to the strength of the offense in trips/trio sets or to the field in deuces, so Fitzpatrick was generally to his side of the field when he wasn’t playing centerfield in Cover 1.
However, Clemson’s quick game restricted Minkah from making realistic plays on the football. The Tigers utilized man and zone beaters to keep Alabama’s defense guessing and to provide Watson with the different options post snap, depending on the defense the Crimson Tide would show. Clemson worked the body and stuck with the jab the entire game, wearing down their opponent with 99 offensive plays. Alabama may not have pulled a Roberto Duran, but they felt the sting of Watson and Renfrow. The knockout came with 6 seconds left on the clock, with a little Man beater that would crown the Tigers as champs. The designed play had Artavis Scott engage Marlon Humphrey at the line of scrimmage, which forces Tony Brown to go overtop of the engagement, which led to a wide open Hunter Renfrow near the pylon on the underneath route to the flats. Some would call it an illegal pick, but it didn’t matter Clemson won on a play known as the Triumphant Contentious Play in Tampa Bay.
It may not have been Buster Douglas defeating Mike Tyson, but the general underdog took home the belt. It was a demoralizing defeat for Alabama, but the Crimson Tide’s fortunes would sway as Watson moved on to the NFL. The Trilogy’s finale would be set and the Minkah Effect would be in full force during Sweet Revenge in Mercedes Benz. Let us take a quick look at the first play of the game for Clemson’s offense.
After the two previous contests, Nick Saban knew the importance of eliminating Hunter Renfrow from the game – so who better than Minkah Fitzpatrick to handle this job? Minkah followed Renfrow all over the offensive formation. Lining up with 8 yard cushions, in press coverage, and following him on motions, while providing very little space for Renfrow to get free. Alabama had Clemson on the ropes the entire game. The loss of Watson was evident, but the coverage by Minkah Fitzpatrick was air tight, and Clemson couldn’t work the body. Alabama parried attempt after attempt and bullied their way to a unanimous decision. Here are some short ADoT routes ran by Renfrow, with Fitzpatrick covering him as a nickel/slot.
This next video show Fitzpatrick lining up as a nickel/LB or as someone who sugars the quarterback and bails to coverage post snap. You can see how Minkah is stuck right to Renfrow on all three of the clips.
While trusting his eyes and being decisive, Minkah just about beats Renfrow to the punch on some of his routes, which allows him to stay in the receiver’s hip pocket. Nick Saban stresses the importance of mental processing in his defensive backs and Minkah has a ton of football intelligence, which is another reason why he is so versatile.
Alabama runs a lot of pattern match looks and usually likes to execute these from single high safety formations so they can drop a safety into the box to beef up their run defense or reroute a heavyweight (more physical receiver). Pattern matching gives the defense an advantage, as it is a hybrid defense that has elements of both zone and man. This keeps spread teams at bay because it hinders the decision making process of quarterbacks. “Is it man? Is it zone? I’m sacked.”
In a Cover 3 scheme, the corner responsible for a deep third will read the covered receiver and if the receiver breaks inside, then the corner will bail and get to his deep third responsibility. If the receiver goes deep, then the corner mirrors the receiver and sticks in his hip pocket, essentially turning the coverage into man. A big reason why every school doesn’t run this effectively is personel. A team needs incredibly smart, athletic, and physical defenders that can play the run and are versatile – players like Minkah Fitzpatrick. Minkah is a decisive decision maker who has executed these assignments as a deep safety, a safety dropped into the intermediate parts of the field, a nickel linebacker, and as a slot. He stuck to Renfrow throughout the entire Sugar Bowl and you can see how tight he was on deeper routes in this next video.
Hunter Renfrow did not record a catch in this game until the fourth quarter and wouldn’t you know it, Fitzpatrick was on the other side of the field. Saban identified Clemson’s strength and eliminated him in every level of the field, while showcasing the versatility of a prospect that is perfect for today’s NFL. The NFL is in passing subpackages (nickel/dime) around 70% of the time. Fitzpatrick is smart and athletic enough to be this intregical chess piece for defensive coordinators. Just because I haven’t talked enough about Minkah in this article, let me allow someone much smarter than I to reveal his athletic testing. Inside the Pylon’s Kent Lee Platte does fantastic work analyzing the athletic testing scores of NFL prospects. Here is Kent’s Relative Athletic Score (RAS) for Minkah Fitzpatrick:
RAS is a 0 to 10 rating compared to the player’s position group, dating back to 1987, that reflects overall athletic ability using up to ten Combine or pro day metrics. As you can see, Minkah scored incredibly high in his relative athletic testing. The talk about Minkah falling to the teens of the draft should have teams like Miami, Washington, or Baltimore (Ozzie wouldn’t be able to help himself) salivating, but I’m not sold that he’ll get that far. Minkah will never throw in the towel and he won’t pull any punches, but he will provide you with the kind of football player teams desire. The trilogy for Minkah Fitzpatrick is over with Clemson as he moves on to the NFL, but we saw how he matured and how he was used through the three bouts. Since the best things come in threes, let me lay out a good ole phrase to NFL teams about Minkah Fitzpatrick: Don’t Overthink it! If he does fall, some team will be getting incredible value. But until the draft, defensive coordinators will all dream of the defensive game plans they can create if they have the pleasure of adding a star like Minkah Fitzpatrick.