Alabama freshman receiver Calvin Ridley already has a habit for making big plays.
No SEC receiver caught more passes of 40 yards or longer this season than Ridley (eight). Ridley caught two 50-yard deep balls from quarterback Jake Coker – one of which was a touchdown – in the Crimson Tide’s victory over Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
However, Clemson redshirt sophomore cornerback Mackensie Alexander habitually prevents such big plays from happening. In the regular season, Alexander had the lowest percentage of completions per target allowed against him (31 percent) and by one measure hasn’t allowed a touchdown reception in 23 games.
That makes the matchup between the two in Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T all the more enticing. It will be one of the nation’s best corners against one of the country’s best young receivers.
So how do you cover Ridley?
"Just like any other receiver,” Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones said.
Except Ridley’s not just like any other receiver.
“He’s explosive. Has good releases. So you’ve just got to be technically sound from the beginning,” Jones said. “It all starts with good stance and good balance at the line of scrimmage, try to get your hands on him, counter him, quick-jam him, do different types of things to try to knock off his timing and the quarterback’s timing and also just staying over top of him, not letting him get those big plays. I think that goes with any receiver.”
Alexander is well suited for physical play. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound cornerback is not shy about getting into the face of an opposing receiver, no matter how talented or explosive he might be.
“He's a bigger guy who is used to playing physical,” Texas A&M secondary coach Terry Joseph said of Alexander. “He does have the skill set to match up with [Ridley] and obviously, Alexander has played a lot more ball at this level than Calvin has.”
One tactic opposing coaches have used against Ridley with some success is press coverage. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin counters that by moving the 6-1, 188-pound Ridley around, moving him into the slot on occasion. That allows Ridley to get a free release.
Ridley also uses double moves effectively to beat defensive backs and get separation.
“I just think he has excellent body control and he knows how to run routes,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “He has a knack for shaking the defender. He certainly did that against us.”
Alexander is certainly aware of this. A noted game-film fiend, he undoubtedly knows well by now Ridley’s tendencies and tactics. And on Monday, he’ll be certain to let Ridley know, when lined up across from him, what’s on his mind.
“He has no filter,” Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley said of Alexander before their Capital One Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma. “He backs it up pretty well.”
The experience factor could be an edge for Alexander, who has one more season of game action under his belt than Ridley. And it won’t just be a one-man job. The Tigers have a quality secondary overall.
“This is an elite team we’re playing and the athletes that they have are, they’re as good as anybody,” Coker said. “And they mix up things they do real well, so we’re going to have a lot of things to study. And then on top of that, we’re really going to have to execute and get things done because they’ve got the athletes to match ours.”
Clemson’s likely to mix it up with a combination of coverages. The pressure Clemson’s excellent defensive line generates will also factor into how the Alexander-Ridley matchup plays out.
“There's probably 10 plays out of the 80 plays that they run that's going to involve those two,” Joseph said. “Whoever wins those 10 plays, that’ll probably have a big part in deciding this game.”