LOS ANGELES – The broader matchup, No. 1 Alabama against No. 20 Southern California, is sexy enough. But some of the individual battles within Saturday night’s season-opening showdown are as good as it gets, certainly for NFL scouts.
“That’s going to be the game of the week,” Trojans offensive tackle Zach Banner said, “possibly the game of the year.”
When Banner and Crimson Tide defensive end Jonathan Allen collide, when USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is covered by Bama’s Marlon Humphrey and when Trojans corner Adoree’ Jackson attempts to shadow Tide star Calvin Ridley, in each case it will be one former 5-star recruit – ranked first or second nationally at his position – against another.
“What a tremendous opportunity,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “To compete against the best, that’s why you come to SC. We know everybody will be watching, and we look forward to the opportunity to compete against the best.”
So let’s take a quick look at three must-see matchups in this one and what the Trojans had to say about them during SEC Country’s recent visit to training camp:
SMITH-SCHUSTER VS. HUMPHREY
The Trojans’ star receiver is a monster at 6-2, 220 pounds. Smith-Schuster was rated the nation’s No. 2 safety recruit by Rivals.com and plays with that head-hunting mentality. He used his big body and freakish athleticism to lead the Pac-12 in receiving last fall with 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns.
His competition, the 6-1, 196-pound Humphrey, had eight pass break-ups, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and 3 ½ tackles for loss as a freshman. He’s already a projected top-10 pick in the next draft. NFLDraftScout.com, in fact, has Humphrey rated the No. 8 overall prospect and Smith-Schuster No. 11.
“That’s the great part about it: You go against an elite team, a prestigious team, that has great defensive backs – they’re known for putting their guys in the league – it just teaches me what I’m capable of,” Smith-Schuster said. “Out here, I compete against one of the best cornerbacks, Adoree’ Jackson, and I think going against him makes me better. It makes him better, too.
“But to go against someone new, some big boys who are actually my size, it’s going to be fun.”
JACKSON VS. RIDLEY
It’s true that both USC and Alabama’s star receiver/cornerback combos have probably prepared each other in practice for Saturday night’s matchup as well as anyone could. The 6-foot-1, 188-pound Ridley will face bigger corners than Jackson (5-11, 185), but perhaps only Humphrey is arguably better.
Jackson, another projected first-round pick next spring, is electric. In two seasons for the Trojans, he has 552 receiving yards, 1,587 kick/punt return yards, 10 total touchdowns, 84 tackles and 17 pass break-ups. And he spent the preseason focusing solely on defense.
Ridley, who led all Power 5 freshmen nationally with 89 catches for 1,045 yards last fall, will provide a serious test. But Jackson feels ready.
“Because I go against JuJu, who’s potentially about to win the Biletnikoff (Award, given to the nation’s top receiver), so that’s always a blessing to have somebody like that to have to stick,” he said. “That helps us a lot. They have All-Americans on both sides of the ball … so it’s just like practice all over again.”
Smith-Schuster and Jackson have quite the collaboration.
“I use a certain move on Adoree’ and he figures out how to beat it,” Smith-Schuster said. “I ask him, ‘How’d you do that?’ He’ll tell me and then I’ll beat it, and then we’ll just go back and forth, like playing chess.”
BANNER VS. ALLEN
In addition to absurd size (6-9, 360), Banner’s claim to fame is having surrendered just one sack – and only nine quarterback pressures – in two seasons as a starter. That will be tested early and often against the Crimson Tide’s fearsome front seven, led by Allen.
“They’ve got a great front,” Banner said, launching into a recitation of the jersey numbers for Allen and linebackers Tim Williams, Rueben Foster and Ryan Anderson. “We’ve been watching film on them like crazy, know all of them in and out, can’t wait to play against them.”
That quartet he mentioned combined for 46 ½ tackles for loss and 29 ½ tackles for loss last season. Allen (6-3, 291) is the best of the bunch at getting into the backfield, a projected first-round pick who has 25 ½ tackles for loss and 17 sacks the last two seasons.
“This will be a good first game for USC,” Trojans legend and new athletic director Lynn Swann said. “It will be a way of measuring a variety of things. It’s always a way for players to measure themselves against other players who have some recognition.”
And we can’t wait to watch.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.