2021 NFL Draft: A tale of two South Carolina cornerbacks

Two South Carolina cornerbacks warrant NFL Draft consideration going into 2020. But is too much of a good thing actually bad?

The South Carolina Gamecocks have fought with relevancy since “The Ole Ball Coach” resigned in 2015 after watching the program fall off a cliff in a two-year span. Will Muschamp and the Gamecocks are one game over .500 since his arrival in an SEC East division that is the lesser of the two SEC evils. But this season two South Carolina cornerbacks are receiving some early NFL Draft love from far and wide. Israel Mukuamu has the ball production that entices while Jaycee Horn has the recruiting pedigree. Which one is the better player, what do they each bring to the field, and what scheme will best fit them at the next level?

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Two South Carolina cornerbacks duke it out for draft position

Let’s talk about size

It is a heavyweight bout indeed. Both of these cornerbacks are in the new mold of a physically intimidating athlete, standing at over six feet tall and both weighing over 200 pounds. And that size isn’t just for looks either. Both players use their frame well at the line of scrimmage and throughout the receivers route stem, to the point where both are almost asking to be penalized.

But one must ask “how tall is too tall?” Brandon Browner is recognized as the tallest notable cornerback at 6-foot-4. And he was very good… for a short amount of time in Seattle in a coverage scheme that fit his style perfectly. In his final season of football in 2015 he set the NFL record for penalties at 24 while playing for the Saints.

Richard Sherman is the exception, not the rule. And although he’s a bit shorter than Browner, he is still a tower on the back end. But even he needs to be deployed in a very specific way to be successful. A large part of his success is actually his mind over his physical ability. Sherman is one of the most intelligent players in the league and it’s why he’s overcome less than desirable physical traits into his 30s.

But the list of 6-foot-3 and taller cornerbacks is shorter than a casual drinker’s beer distributor receipt. It’s just so difficult for players with that anatomical length to have the twitch needed to mirror receivers at as quick of reaction time as is necessary. So, can the 6-foot-4 listed Mukuamu be an outlier?

Too much of a good thing can be bad

We’ve all heard it before. I’m sorry, but Mukuamu is no physical outlier. When we’re forced into using phrases beginning with “for his size,” we’re already hedging our takes. And we shan’t be cowards. Sure, “for his size” Mukuamu can change direction pretty well. He has some oil in the hips that allow him to open up and recover at the line of scrimmage. But “for his size” just won’t get it done against the level of athlete he’ll face at the NFL level.

He’s simply too long. Those legs take up a lot of real estate and he simply does not have the step frequency to mirror receivers without having the freedom to play as physically as possible. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t be a good NFL player. But first, we will not forget about his partner in crime.

Horn is the perfect size for NFL play

You read that right. At 6-foot-1 and a smidgen over 200 pounds, this stacked together gentlemen is the prototype size for the position at the next level. He possesses good mass throughout his frame and plays with great functional length at the line-of-scrimmage. Horn’s play strength and physicality will leave defensive back coaches salivating.

His situation is far less complex. If you were to build a defensive back in a lab, they would come out looking a lot like Horn.

Tale of the tape: Who beat who where? 

Press technique: Horn over Mukuamu 

This might come as a surprise to some given Mukuamu’s length, but it has less to do with his inability to press and more about Horn’s physicality at the line. That young man wants to punch you in the mouth early and often, and then straight through the whistle. He wants to get under your skin. He has that gnat-like attitude that Jaire Alexander possessed, just in a more intimidating package. So you could say he’s that one horse fly that sticks with your boat well offshore, buzzing around and ruining beer thirty with a nasty bite to the calf.

Mukuamu could be more effective if he was a bit more patient. He can get out a little over his skis at times trying to create contact instead of allowing receivers to get to him. He has all the reach in the world, and when he gets a hand into the chest he can literally delete your route, as he did once against Henry Ruggs in their game from 2019. Consistency will be key for him.

Processing and zone match coverage: Mukuamu over Horn

Mukuamu has to be smart to be successful and thriving while playing forward and in zone match schemes (and the deep third) will be his path to carve out a nice NFL career. While playing at depth in single-high safety looks, teams see a lot of slant/flat RPO looks. He definitely clicks downhill quicker than Horn, and those long arms allow him an extra few inches to make a play on the ball. He clicks downhill quickly to defeat screens as well.

Horn can get a bit of tunnel vision and not communicate well with linebackers and safeties as his receiver snaps underneath immediately on drags. He’ll follow too far inside, vacating his area of responsibility. Horn just needs to keep getting reps and become more comfortable with recognizing his keys in coverage.

Man Coverage: Horn over Mukuamu

This may have been a giveaway after talking about Mukuamu’s issues with movement, but as Billy Mays famously used to say, “But wait, there’s more.” And that “more” is not necessarily a great thing here. Speed is only truly crucial at one position, cornerback. Unfortunately, Mukuamu struggles there. Now, when you’re chasing Henry Ruggs around the field even “fast” guys look not fast, but Mukuamu looked to be standing still at times compared to Ruggs. If he’s on the line, he MUST win with physicality and disrupt the receivers’ stem angle and timing to win the rep.

Horn was a bit crowned in this win. He too has a game predicated on physicality than efficient and quick feet. And he can get a bit aggressive with that physicality at times, drawing penalty flags, sometimes very unnecessarily. Horn doesn’t really struggle mirroring horizontally, but his ability to start/stop and drive forward from a pedal, half-turn, shuffle or full turn is an area of improvement.

Ball skills: Mukuamu over Horn

Even though Horn doesn’t have an interception to his name yet, he’s not a poor player when it comes to attacking at the catch point. He’s very physical when he has the opportunity to be at the catch point, which was evident by a nice punch out on the otherwise sure-handed Devonta Smith of Alabama.

Mukuamu has some hands. Smith made him look silly on a goal-line fade when he was unable to locate the football or get his hands up, but he flashes his hands and ability to sneak those vines through the ball to break passes up. But his diving interception against Georgia was the most intriguing one I’ve seen to date from a cornerback in the 2021 class.

Who gets drafted first?

It will probably be Horn, and in a vacuum, that’s the way it should be, at least as we sit today. But all it takes is one Cover-3 team to fall in love with the ball skills and size of Mukuamu, who has also spent some time playing as a safety for the Gamecocks. That versatility/position flex could also help his draft stock. Hopefully, these two young men get to show some growth on the field in 2020 and help improve their stock would they decide to declare.

As of today, I’d expect Horn to be a day two pick with Mukuamu landing as a high-upside gamble early on day three. I know at least one of my colleagues might disagree with me.


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