By Dave-Te' Thomas, NFL Draft Report
The only thing that prevented Mackensie Alexander from possibly capturing the Jim Thorpe Award (nation’s best defensive back) was a series of second-half injuries that sidelined the second-team All-American selection. The major factor in the Tigers ranking among the nation’s top defenses during his two years in the lineup, Alexander might lack bulk, but he packed a “wallop” behind his hits before knee and hamstring issues occurred later in the schedule, causing him to miss the Wake Forest clash, a portion of the Orange Bowl vs. Oklahoma and nearly three quarters of action in the national title clash vs. Alabama.
Rated the fourth-best player in the nation by ESPN coming out of Immokalee High School (the highest rating by a Tiger signee since Da’Quan Bowers was first in the class of 2008) - the same school that produced former University of Miami and Indianapolis Colts star tailback Edgerrin James - Alexander led his team to an 11-4 record and a berth in the AAAAA title game in 2012.
That year, he recorded 51 tackles, four interceptions, two caused fumbles and one recovered fumble as a senior. He had 42 tackles and three interceptions as a junior and totaled 139 tackles and 10 interceptions in his career. He also ran track and was rated among the top 15 wrestlers in Florida in his weight class.
Alexander had to wait a year before he could play for the varsity at Clemson. He enrolled at the university in 2013, but injuries during fall camp would prevent him from suiting up that campaign. The next year, the red-shirt earned Freshman All-American honors in 2014, after posting 22 tackles and deflecting six passes as a full-time starter. His 766 snaps set the school freshman season-record.
Alexander’s 23 tackles with five pass deflections might not look impressive, but he was perhaps the top press coverage defender in the nation in 2015. He either rerouted or jammed his coverage assignments away from an FBS-best 40 passes. On 59 tosses targeted into his area, he allowed just eight receptions (13.56%) for 117 yards, no touchdowns and just two first downs.
The red-shirt sophomore delivered six touchdown-saving tackles, including four vs. the running game, proving to be highly effective tackling along the first-level edges, as he also stopped three runners for no gains and took two others down for losses. Fourteen of his tackles came on third-down hits and two more on fourth-down plays.
Right after the Tigers lost to Alabama for the national championship, the shutdown cornerback declared for the NFL Draft. He would close out his career recording 52 tackles, four tackles for loss and 12 pass breakups in 1,499 snaps over 27 career games.
ALEXANDER SCOUTING REPORT
Body Structure: Alexander has a compact frame with adequate muscle development, arms and hands, but shows good training room habits and decent playing strength. He has a lean upper-body frame with room to add more bulk and an adequate bubble and calf thickness. He is a player more built for speed, as he has a sprinter’s physique, but can put some decent “umph” behind his hits, as he posted two tackles-for-loss and took down three other runners for no gains in 2015.
Athletic Ability: Alexander has exceptional quickness and good lateral range. He shows above-average leaping ability that he uses effectively to win most jump-ball battles. He has loose hips to come out of his backpedal smoothly and does a very good job of flipping his hips to maintain relationship with the receiver throughout the routes. He is smooth to turn and has excellent speed in deep coverage situations, showing fluid movement when changing direction. His agility and flexibility lets him stick tight with the receiver and despite his short arms, he is very capable of riding up his opponent to get to the ball at its high point. He shows good hand/eye coordination in attempts to track the ball in flight and the body control to break down and make plays in space.
Football Sense: Alexander is a decent student and has a very good grasp of the playbook. He needs minimal reps taking the play from the chalkboard to the field. He is alert to blocking schemes and it is rare to see him bite on head fakes or pump action by the quarterback. He is very good handling game-day adjustments. He has the keen instincts to quickly sniff out the ball working through trash and a good diagnostic feel to break down plays in space. His outstanding flash of speed is further highlighted with his ability to mirror the receiver throughout the route. He is rarely beaten when he stays tight on the receiver’s hip and will make the big play when given the opportunity.
Competitiveness: Alexander is a very competitive player who seems to be at his best when challenging the bigger receivers. He has that “little train” attitude on the field and knows that he can shut down most opponents (did not allow a touchdown catch by an opponent in 2015). He is the type that will play in any role the coaches want and will not hesitate to mix it up in the trenches. He could be a little more physical in his tackles vs. the run, but he does like to hit. While he’s not a trained killer, he has the force behind his strikes to bring the ball carrier down. Because of his size, he will struggle some in run support, but he has that “try hard” attitude that coaches like. He will pursue from sideline-to-sideline and the thing you notice on film is that he will not take any “garbage” from the bigger receivers.
Key and Diagnostic Skills: Alexander excels at staying tight on the hip of the receiver. He is quick to recognize the play developing and, unlike most young cornerbacks, he will not eye the quarterback long, rather using his hand/eye coordination to mirror his coverage assignment throughout the route. He has that sudden burst to recover when a receiver manages to slip past him on crossing routes. You might be surprised at how effective he is playing the press due to his size, and you will also never see him get burned or caught out of position due to his closing burst, acceleration and good feel for the ball in flight. It is very rare to see him get lost in coverage because he does too good of a job of breaking down the play and closing on the ball. He has more than enough quickness to close or cover. He makes plays due to his ability to take proper angles to the ball. The thing you see on film is that he knows how to use his leaping ability to stick his hand in the crowd to break up the pass at its high point.
Man Coverage Ability: This is one of his best assets. Alexander has the closing burst and deep acceleration to recover when beaten. He demonstrates the loose hips to come out of his breaks cleanly and has that quick change-of-direction agility to maintain his timed speed without having to throttle down. He sometimes gets too aggressive in attempts to jam and reroute, needing to do a better job of taking arm swipes to prevent from getting knocked off-balance or losing a step when trying to get back into the play. I really like the way he maintains position on the receiver. He has the speed and quick reactions to run with any receiver in the game, college or pro. He has that natural, smooth turn and burst of speed that lets him catch up and close with good urgency. His ability to stay on the hip of the receiver will see him gain instant playing time in nickel and dime packages at the pro level. He also shows a good feel and anticipation ability to know when the receiver is going to break off the route. Even with his less-than-ideal size, he is certainly equally effective in man coverage and in generating the press. It is rare to see him beaten, even when he has to sometimes back off the receiver.
Zone Coverage Ability: When playing deep in the zone, where he can keep the plays in front of him, Alexander has a good feel for his zone assignment. He will get a little sloppy handling the switch-off, and has to compensate by using his burst to recover. He is adequate with special awareness when he has to switch off, but did show better ability during his red-shirt sophomore season. When he plays too loose, he tries to use his speed to recover, but is sometimes late to get back into the play. He shows good hip snap to get depth in his drops into the zone, but must be quicker to anticipate when the receiver will switch off on the route. He has the eyes to see the play develop, but does need to react quicker at times.
Backpedal Technique: Alexander demonstrates very good balance and body control in his pedal. He is quick and smooth through transition and does a good job of distributing his weight to turn and run on the ball. He takes a quick pitter-patter approach in his pedal with very good heel pivot motion. It is very rare to see him take a false step, as he does a great job of turning and running to the play while maintaining his speed throughout. His hip turn action is very fluid. He can also be very effective when utilizing the shuffle-and-bail technique. You can see on film the explosive feet he has. He can sink his hips to turn and has very good balance coming out of his breaks. He is also very effective at planting and driving out of those breaks. Other smaller cornerbacks tend to have to break off on stop routes, but you will never see Alexander double-step out of his pedal.
Ball Reaction Skills: Alexander is a master at reading the receiver’s eyes and hips to maintain relationship in the route. He has excellent leaping ability and timing to know when to go vertical and beat the taller receiver for the ball at its high point. He rarely allows the receiver to separate from him after the catch and even when that happens, he has the second gear and ability to take proper angles to shorten the field and close. His anticipation skills and ability to break on the ball generally keeps him right in the play. His leaping ability lets him go up and swat away quite a few passes at the last moment. He is just too explosive in his closing burst and too athletic attacking the ball in flight for any taller receiver to think that he can dominate Alexander. Even when he is late to locate the ball, he is quick to close once he recognizes the play, once he is pointed in the right direction.
Range and Recovery Skills: Alexander has the lateral range and closing burst to make plays on the ball in flight. He is surprisingly effective playing the press, even though he has adequate hand size and arms, as even the bigger receivers are not able to get a push off him. He has no problems combating the receiver’s arm-over action and Alexander makes a determined effort to prevent his assignments from getting into their routes cleanly by executing a physical jam. When he bites on a double move, he can be late to recover, losing a step in the process, though. Still, few cornerbacks possess the overall top speed to catch up or the range to cover the field like Alexander can. His loose hips and acceleration are evident in his ability to catch up and recover on deep throws. That burst lets him run and turn with his assignment.
Leaping Ability: Alexander not only gets very good elevation, but he times his leaps to get to the ball at its highest point. He has no concerns about getting a piece of the ball when matching up against the taller receivers, sort of relishing the challenge of taking the vertical route to make the play while giving up considerable inches in height in the process. He does a good job of adjusting his body in the air. Some might think that due to his size that he might have problems adjusting to ball carriers in run support, but he has proven to be very capable of lending a hand and making big tackles along the perimeters (four touchdown-saving tackles, two others for losses and three at the line of scrimmage for no gain in 2015). He’s the type of player who makes good use of his elevation and hands to deflect or pick off a pass that most defensive backs will not be able to get to.
Hands: Alexander has just average-sized hands. He is able to catch with his hands away from his framework and doesn’t fight the ball, showing the hand/eye coordination to look the ball in.
Run Defense: If an opponent latches onto Alexander at the line of scrimmage, he will struggle to disengage and get off blocks quick enough to make plays vs. the run inside the box. He is not timid and will not hesitate to come up and support vs. the run, but he just lacks the size to take on the bigger blockers. He stays low in his pads, and while he can redirect well to the ball in flight, he will have problems adjusting vs. runners that are coming right at him (does not have the leg drive to maintain position). He shows a good burst when working downhill, but will struggle to play off blocks and needs room where he can slip and avoid blocks with his quickness rather than engaging blockers.
Tackling Ability: While recording 55 tackles through 27 starting assignments fails to impress, Alexander will hit with good force. He is more of a drag-down tackler than one who can drive hard into a runner, but has had good success latching on and stalling until bigger help can arrive. In run support, he will make every effort to square up and put his hat on the opponent. Yes, he is much better making plays in space, where he can take angles to close. In the open field, he shows good explosion behind his hits, but can also impact in isolated hits when playing in tight quarters. When taking on receivers, he will produce better pop than when having to square up at the line of scrimmage, but with his success playing inside the box, he could see immediate time in nickel situations while waiting for a starting opportunity at the next level.