The SEC gives its fans great games. Sometimes part of what makes those games “can’t-miss TV” is a marquee matchup between two great players that only happens once a year.
This week, that matchup is Kentucky cornerback J.D. Harmon going 1-on-1 with Florida receiver Antonio Callaway. Though teams like to rotate defensive backs, I think we’ll see quite a bit of Harmon, arguably UK’s best defensive player, on Callaway, Florida’s signature playmaker.
Florida fans might not remember the name J.D. Harmon. If that’s the case, I’m going reintroduce him to them using a play from last season that serves as a good place to begin our preview of this matchup.
The Vine above features an interception made by Harmon in last year’s meeting between the Gators and Wildcats. What I want to highlight from that play is the ball skills, meaning how well Harmon turns his body around to make a play on the pass at its highest point.
Turnovers on defense sometimes are a matter of right place, right time. So a body of work is important when judging how reliable a player really is. For Harmon, plays like that are not unusual as he proved again in Week 1 of this season.
Observe the similarities between the Vine above and the interception he made last season. If Harmon is even near his assigned receiver when the ball arrives, he’s won the play in part due to his 6-foot-2 frame.
The video above shows another play where Harmon was able to neutralize his assignment, even without a turnover. The Wildcats play a lot of Cover 3 defense which involves putting their outside cornerbacks on islands with little to no help down the field. That task is tough for any corner, but Kentucky has recruited and trained its guys to play physical and fast against 1-on-1 matchups — most of the time in press coverage.
Harmon is at his best when a receiver either runs a simple route down the sideline, or a quarterback puts air under a ball instead of zipping it in there.
So how can Florida’s Antonio Callaway beat Harmon in Cover 3? The answer is: attacking the inside.
Because of the nature of Cover 3, cornerbacks have to be overly cautious to give up the straight-line route down the sideline knowing there isn’t help behind them. A way for an offense to use that knowledge to their advantage is to call quick slants like the one shown above. That play was in last week’s Kentucky-Southern Mississippi game, and, yes, that is Harmon in coverage.
It’s not a bad play by Harmon, or even one that would be classified as him getting beat, but it is a way for Callaway to use his quick speed to counter how Kentucky uses their corners.
As much as I expect Florida to run, UK’s linebackers will be occupied with the ground game. This should not only open up windows for quick slants, but also improve the success of play action up the middle of the field.
The play above is of Callaway from last year’s UF versus UK game where Callaway was in the slot and found space over the middle. That’s the key to success for Florida this week.
Callaway won’t be the only receiver facing that Cover 3 press coverage, but he will be a key part to dismantling it. If Florida tries to attack Harmon on long routes down the sideline, he’ll make inexperienced quarterback Luke Del Rio pay, like he made the best passer in Conference USA pay twice last week.
Look for Florida to attack the middle of the of the field with quick hits to get around Kentucky’s long, physical cornerbacks who thrive on defending passes to the sideline. How Callaway fares against Harmon will play a major factor in determining how successful that will be.