Get all of Doug Farrar’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander has been one of the nation’s better pass defenders over the last couple years, a performance that has earned him a first-round grade in the mind of most pundits. Still, it took a brilliant podium performance at the combine for Alexander’s reputation to get the attention of most NFL fans. Perhaps the most quotable moment in a series of them was when the 5' 10" Alexander was asked about covering bigger receivers, such as Notre Dame speed demon Will Fuller. Alexander gave no quarter at the podium, just as he never has on the field.
“I know he’s the deep, vertical guy,” Alexander said of Fuller, who had a grand total of one catch with Alexander covering him when Clemson and Notre Dame met in 2015. “He just ran 4.3. I’m proud of him. You know he’s a fast guy, I’m fast too. You know what I mean? I know he’s a vertical guy. If I take his vertical game away, I wouldn’t say he sucks, but he’s not that good. Then you force [Notre Dame coach Brian] Kelly to make him go in the screen game, which they did against us a lot just to get him touches. Feed him some kind of way. You want your playmakers getting the ball some kind of way. The game is short, and you can only do so much.
“A guy like me who can understand the game and can break it down to you guys in front of you like this, it shows you my preparation and who I am as a man. This means a lot to me. This ain’t just me coming out here and speaking to you guys. I’m 22, but I’m ready, and I’m ready to compete with anybody. There’s nobody more dedicated than me, who’s put more time and who’s more of a competitor than me. I don’t care, you can line up a safety. We can break down film, we can break down anything. I’m here prepared, and I’m telling you I’m the best corner in this draft class.”
Alexander’s brashness made me smile, but his understanding of the game through film study had me thinking that he’d be the ideal subject for the first in a series of All-22 pieces I’ll be doing with 2016 NFL draft prospects over the next few weeks. Safe to say, he didn’t disappoint.
To understand Alexander’s mentality, you have to understand where he came from. The son of Haitian immigrants who worked in the tomato fields of Florida to put food on the table, he became the No. 2 cornerback recruit in the nation out of Immokalee High School, and the highest-ranked Clemson signee since Da’Quan Bowers in the class of 2008. I wanted to talk more about his personal story, but I had a suspicion that he might talk a lot no matter what I threw at him, and I wanted to start with the tape. So, the full Mackensie Alexander story will have to wait—he talked for half an hour about five plays, and that’s what we have.
What will the team that drafts Alexander get? A highly competitive, ferociously intelligent player who never gives up. He’s on the short end of the scale for the modern pass defender, but the more tape you watch, the easier it is to see that he has a legitimate future as an above average NFL starter.
The SI Extra Newsletter Get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox
Doug Farrar:Okay, let’s get to the tape. We’ll start with Notre Dame. Will Fuller had one catch against you all game—on a comeback route with late in the first half—and he had two catches total for 37 yards. The other one was a quick screen in the fourth quarter. I’d like to first ask you about the strategy in that game. It seemed that you were tasked to follow Fuller pretty much wherever he went. Was that the strategy, and how often did you follow the other team’s primary receiver like that?
Mackensie Alexander: That game especially, we had a game plan going in that I was going to follow him and understand where he went. It wasn’t that hard because Will Fuller isn’t a slot guy. He’s mostly outside. They tried to move him around to difficult spots where he could try and catch the ball and get separation in stack and bunch situations, where you can’t really press him and he can get a free release. We came into the game understanding what it was going to be, and I was prepared. I understood what their offense was, who their quarterback was, and what they liked to do—based on the formation, what they were going to do, who was going to get the ball. So I pretty much followed him the whole game.
DF:That's a big part of your game, understanding tendencies based on formations.
MA: Yeah. I make it easier on myself, knowing tendencies, because I understand the game. You know on third-and-12, the ball’s got to go out quick. The offensive coordinator, he’s not going to want to throw the ball deep; he’s going to create routes to where the ball’s got to go somewhere [intermediate]. Understanding what’s going on—if I’m covering a big guy, but not fast, I have to know where he catches most of his balls. I’ll go back to his last game, and go back a whole year, to look at, Okay, who is he? What is he good at? You know what he likes, and his offensive coordinator is going to design plays for that ... as long as you understand who the offensive coordinator is, that isn't going to change.
Will Fuller’s an extremely fast guy. He can run. He blows by guys all the time, and you’ve got to know who he is as a player.
Play 1, vs. Notre Dame: Second-and-17 from the ND 26-yard line, 6:04 2Q
DF: You talked at the combine about taking Fuller’s speed away. Here’s the one catch Fuller had against you. Was the strategy here to close on him right away from looser coverage and limit the yards after catch? How do you learn to time those tackles so accurately, so you’re not giving up any additional yardage?
MA: They were in a bunch situation, and it’s second-and-17 ... they’re a deep-shot team. They like to throw deep, but with that bunch formation, they’re not going to go vertical. Out of that formation, the route I thought was coming was a deep 7, which is a corner route, or he could have gone with a curl somewhere. So, I knew one of those routes was coming. The other route was going to be the 7 post. My first read was to take the corner route, and if he drops down, I’m going to close on that. I know he’s fast, so I’m respecting the cushion and where the ball has to be thrown. I’m taking the 7-route away, and I’m making him sit short, and I came up and made the play.
You can’t defend every route. I have to compete and I know the ball’s coming out hot. It’s a one-on-one situation, and this is their guy, and they want to win. ... I might give up the slant and not give up anything deeper. So, he catches the slant, but I won situationally because now it’s third-and-six, and they might be off the field soon. That’s more important that trying to take away everything.
Play 2, vs. Notre Dame: First-and-10 from the ND 36-yard line, 1:48 2Q
DF:This is a few plays later. Fuller gets a quick pass to the left side from DeShone Kizer, and you shut it down with a well-timed deflection. A lot of people talk about how you didn’t have an interception in your Clemson career, but how common were these types of pass breakups, and how important is it to have that sense of timing? What goes into the ability to break up passes consistently?
MA: I work on the things that will help me win in situational football. I work on things like that so I’m able to gain more than I lose. Sometimes, you watch guys in practice, and their coaches are teaching them technique all week, but when it’s game time, they don’t use it. It’s all about knowing what you’re taught and how you’re going to win. When you listen to your coaches and you apply it in the game, it’s easy. Your body has to learn to react that way.
DF:So, they’re in trips left—is this a man read per receiver?
MA: Yeah. We’re in man coverage, and I’m playing off-technique. When they go in empty formation, a lot of their throws are quick throws. It’s a quick game, and quarterback draws. It’s a three-step drop by the quarterback, so I’m able to look at the quarterback. If they were in another formation, I’d keep my eyes on the receiver. I’m able to sit up there and just squat on these routes, the flat route came, and boom, I was ready for it. It’s all about knowing what’s going on.
DF:It looks like you’re helping to determine the coverage with hand signals pre-snap. What are you telling your guys here?
MA: Yeah. You kinda know where the ball’s going. It was late in the game, and I knew with their offensive coordinator, they wanted [Fuller] to get the ball. You have a feel for how the game’s going, and they knew we probably weren’t going to give them anything vertically. Fuller’s a guy who can take a quick catch and go 60, too, so I’m not disrespecting the guy. He’s very impressive. They had to get their playmaker some touches, so I thought the ball would come shorter.
DF:Looks like you’ve got a safety up top on your side—that makes it easier for you to be more aggressive when you’re closing?
MA: Yeah, definitely. I could have pressed it, but I thought, “Nah—I’m going to make him go short, so I’m going to squat on it and bait them into making that throw.”
DF:In that second clip, you’re giving Fuller the finger-wag, and you later got a warning from an official in the game. How much is getting into the receiver’s head a part of your game?
MA: I think I’m going to go out there and do my job, and if that means I’m in your head, that’s not my problem. My job is to go out there and win. That’s what my teammates and coaches expect me to do, and I expect myself to win. That ain’t nothing to do with Mackensie. Mackensie’s here to do his job, and that’s it. We started the game being physical—first play of the game, he came at me physically, and when I put my hands on him the first time ... he’s not a physical guy, so when he came at me physically, he wanted to show me. I could tell from his body language that he was saying, “I gotta take my game up a little bit—I can’t play him like that. He’s stronger than I am.”
It’s the little things in the game that I don’t think the people who don’t understand football can really see. There’s a lot that goes into it—a guy changes his game. But with Will Fuller, I knew that all of his releases were quick releases, and on film, he would shake guys off the line, but with me, I pressured him to go ... now. Show me your release. Show me where you’re going now. You want to do that with some guys: Fine, you’re going to shake me, I’ll mirror. You want to make him feel like he has to beat you. You’ve got to make him do stuff he’s not normally doing. He’s doing double releases, and he’s not used to doing double releases. ... If you make it comfortable for him to do what he’s used to doing, he'll win more times because he’s used to doing that.
DF:You said after this win that your defensive coordinator had some sleepless nights worrying about Fuller, and you wanted to make sure to put that to rest. How much of a responsibility do you feel to be that kind of shutdown cornerback, to define your defense by taking the best guy out of the equation?
MA: That’s what my season is based on. Go out there and put up stupid numbers, do better than I did last year, make as many plays as I can make, and help my team win, man. [Against Fuller], I wouldn’t say I felt disrespected, but I felt like ... I can read body language. I’m 23 years old. Other guys come into college, it’s just a game. To me, it’s more than a game. This is business, this is life, this is everything. So I just read body language, and it was a funny situation, because they were making some calls, and I was like, “Coach, I understand this is a bad guy, but I want him.” My teammates were like, “Man, you think you’re ready to handle him?” They gave me the eye, and I was like, “Of course!” If you believe it or not, I believe in me. You recruited me because of what I can do. But he was so good on film, just killing guys, and I had to go and do my job. I had something to prove, and I just had to go do what I do.
You have to have ego to play this game. If you’re a man with no ego out there, you’re probably not going to win. You have to have a chip out there on that corner to win. You’ve got to have something. You’re not just going to go out there and play like you’re going to win—it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to have a nasty attitude when you’re out there. You’ve got to understand and be able to think at the same time.
DF:A couple months back, I asked Richard Sherman about the mentality of an island corner. He said, “There’s only one of two ways you can go. Fold up and be scared, or let your nuts hang. Some people let their nuts hang, and some people fold up.”
MA: Yeah. You’ve got to go out and act a fool! You’ve got to go out and act a fool. Because I didn’t see anybody expecting me to win against Will Fuller. He was going to have a crazy game. And I’m like, O.K., crazy game. All right. Fine. For me, my mind is a little different. I go into a game thinking that everybody expects me to lose. That’s why they’re here. So I gotta go out there and ball.
Play 3, vs. NC State: First-and-10 from the NCSU 35-yard line, 7:18 2Q
DF:This shows another way you try to take away catches: by jumping routes out of bail coverage. You can play straight face-up man-to-man, but there seems to be a lot of this type of coverage in Clemson’s defense where you’re bailing off the receiver and closing down to jump a route. Again, this is timing, but what is the thought process behind playing off or bail coverage as much as you guys did?
MA: We’re in a fire zone [blitz] defense, and it’s a Cover-3 call. Everyone’s got their zones. In quarters, everybody’s got their halves, so we’re bringing pressure, and that means the ball has to come out quick. That’s bail in Cover-3, or if we’re in man, depending on down and distance, we’ll play bail. They were in trips. [Receivers] 2 and 3 ran a post/corner, and they switched it over, and I bailed out. I flipped my hips, knowing that I had to take the 7 route and knowing I had to make the best play I could.
DF: At what point is your job to take the outside slot receiver from the outside guy?
MA: Through the whole time—it’s a 2-to-1 read [a read from the second to the first receiver, also known as Palms]. Whatever comes to your zone, you’ve got to take it. You’re watching the whole time while you’re bailing, but your eyes are on 2 and 1 at the same time. Our key is number 2. Whatever number 2 does, that’s what you’ve got to play out of. My eyes go straight to 1, and if 2 goes away, my eyes still go straight to 1. It’s regular man coverage, and everything is a man principle, no matter how you look at it and whatever comes into your zone. You’ve got to lock it up. Unless you’re in a Cover-2, it’s always a man concept. It all turns into man, no matter what.
DF: It sounds like you guys do a lot of pattern reading, where zone concepts turn into man coverages by default by the end of a route.
MA: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. We were doing pattern reading in high school, and when I came to Clemson, we did the same thing here. It’s good, because how you beat Cover-3 is the call [NC State ran]. You go right over the corner’s head, so the corner has to make one hell of a play to be there, and knowing you’ve got that post over the top. If you do that against Cover-3, you’ll win every time with that. Because the corner will take the post, and the nickel corner will be way too shallow to go over the top. So, how you game plan against that is to allow the corner to stay in the zone, where everything that comes into his zone, he’s got to take up. But if you don’t know that and you play the regular rules? You’ll lose. The offensive coordinator will get you every time. That’s why you have to understand the route concepts and how you want to defend it, based on the coverage you’re in.
Play 4, vs. Florida State: Second-and-10 from the FSU 29, 0:38 1Q
DF:This is against Florida State, and I like this one because it illustrates something I asked you about at the combine: your ability to play in the slot. It’s one reason you remind me of Chris Harris. Here, you start in the slot and follow your guy to the boundary in what looks like man coverage, and you establish inside position all the way through. The ball was overthrown, but I don’t think Kermit Whitfield was going to get that ball anyway. I’ve talked with NFL cornerbacks about how the slot is a different animal. How is it different for you?
MA: My natural ability has allowed me to play the slot, because I have good feet and good hips and I’m able to transition really well, understand the field and what’s going on. Right before the snap on this play, I was showing blitz, and the safety was coming down in the box a little bit. I had inside position, and I cut air off [kept tight inside while trailing in coverage] between me and Kermit, because he’s fast, but he’s small. He just wants to run and get out of the way, so as long as I cut air off, I could stay with him the whole way down. Not running across, just sitting down and knowing the outside corner was where he was. They run a lot of deep routes. If you watch, they get one on me later in the game, because I went around instead of cutting it off. It’s just about knowing where the [outside] corner is at. If he’s hard-pressing or soft-pressing. We have rules on that play at a different level.
DF:I’m watching this play and listening to you talk about cutting air off, and it occurs to me all over again how important it is for pass defenders to understand angles. How important is field geometry to what you do?
MA: You’ve got to understand leverage and angles and moves and all that. Everything matters. To be that much better, or that good, or “Wow! How did he make that play?” it comes out of practice. Like, if something doesn’t work, I’m always switching it up. Let me defend it this way, I feel more comfortable doing it this way. Everybody has their own ways of defending things. A lot of people don’t agree with Richard Sherman and how he plays certain things, but he does a hell of a job! You can’t knock that. He just does it differently. He’s got his preference, and everybody’s got their own.
So, I’m able to squeeze off air and make Kermit run wide. That’s the biggest thing, to make him run away from me. As long as you stay on your angle and you’re not running toward him, at the end of the day, he has to come back for the football. He has to come to you. He can’t run away from the sideline too long, because the ball’s coming to my back shoulder.
Play 5 (and 6), vs. North Carolina: Third-and-11 from the Clemson 41, 13:10 3Q; Second-and-10 from the UNC 25, 7:10 3Q
DF:I know you’ve talked about this a lot, but with any 5' 10" cornerback, the concern is going to come up about your ability to defend bigger receivers. I’ve seen you be very physical with bigger guys and knock them out of catches, but this two-play series against Mack Hollins and Bug Howard of North Carolina had me wondering a little bit about things like high-pointing against guys who are 6' 3" or 6' 4". When teams ask you about this, what do you tell them about your ability to consistently cover bigger receivers outside as an island cornerback?
MA: I mean, people can go back and look at ... I’m not ashamed of my film, so I can talk about it. You go back and look at that North Carolina tape, they ran a lot of in-reading routes—the curls, the digs, the slants, stuff like that. If you watch the game, when Hollins caught the deep route on me, we’re in a hot coverage. It’s a Fire Zone 3—we’re sending pressure, and we’ve got three guys in coverage. We’re playing bail technique because we’re expecting them to throw the ball hot, but we want that ball going deep. We want to show pressure and bail out, and that’s what we’re taught on our defense. So, when you do that ... people say, “Oh, he’s 6' 4", 6' 5",” but to beat Cover-3, you’ve got to run comebacks. The weakness in a Cover-3 is a comeback, a curl or a dig. Especially if your back is turned. If you watch Richard Sherman, he runs a lot of bail technique. And it ain’t over the top. It’s [against] digs, curls, ad comeback routes. A lot more comebacks for Sherman. If you really understand coverages ... I understand the weaknesses of a call, so I can’t be too frustrated in a game. I can get mad and say, “Coach, you could have blitzed us and kept the coverage in man,” but I’m a team player. I’m frustrated that the ball got caught on my side, and I don’t want that to happen. I’m a competitor. But my job is to play Cover-3, and if I jump the comeback route, that’s my fault, because I’m not being disciplined.
There are rules in football, and these things happen. There are weaknesses to certain calls. ... He caught a curl in that game, and I was too fast, and I missed him. That’s on me. That’s what I can control. But it’s not, “Oh my gosh, he’s in trouble! He can’t handle him!” No. It’s a big difference, and that game plan was different. If you watch any other game, it’s not the same.
At the end of the day, people can say, “Oh, [the receiver is] 6' 5", or 6' 8" and [Alexander] can’t handle him. Where? Prove it. They can line up North Carolina wideouts all day. That ain’t nothin’. The really good cornerbacks understand that this is a call, and here are the weaknesses of the call. When a ball gets caught on Revis, Revis ain’t frustrated, because he knows he can’t shut it down every snap. I can’t be undisciplined and give him that route. I just can’t! You've got to play within the scheme and the system.