Two of the proudest offensive line producers are set to clash when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish meet the Wisconsin Badgers in a Soldier Field exclusive battle. Although filled with rich history up front, Notre Dame’s offensive line has been less than spectacular early on in the 2021 season.
Despite those shortcomings, running back Kyren Williams has still managed to demonstrate excellent contact balance, impact in the passing game and big play potential. Williams faces off against one of the better linebacker duos in the entire nation, in the form of senior Jack Sanborn and junior Leo Chenal. Sanborn takes the cake in terms of accolades and notoriety, but Chenal may end up being the better NFL Draft prospect when all is said and done.
Whether working in the run or pass game, Williams will be seeing a ton of #57 and #5. For each player, this matchup brings important layers to not only victory for their team, but to each NFL Draft evaluation.
ALL PURPOSE WEAPON
Williams burst onto the scene during the 2020 season, going from mop up duty the season before to one of the most dynamic all around threats in the nation. Williams was once a standout all purpose weapon while at St. John Vianney in St. Louis, Missouri, although was still only rated as a three star recruit by a majority of recruiting services. Playing both at running back and wide receiver while at Vianney, Williams brings a skill set that NFL teams will value heavily trying to isolate him in space against second level defenders. That’s why this matchup matters so much.
After seeing limited action during his initial season, Williams exploded during a dynamic second season, to the tune of 1,438 total yards and 14 touchdowns in twelve games. His work in the passing game as a wide receiver should have taken no one by surprise. Williams’ work as an early down ball carrier and pass protector, however, is not something you would expect from a player his size.
Now a junior, and draft eligible for the first time, Williams has an opportunity to assert himself a part of a middling 2022 running back class. This matchup is his finest test against two NFL caliber NFL linebackers.
DYNAMIC DUO IN THE MIDDLE
Sanborn enters the contest as one of the most highly decorated linebackers in all of college football. The senior has stuffed the stat sheet over the last three seasons for the Badgers, securing 145 total tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and four interceptions during his career. The Deer Park, Illinois native hovered between a three and four star recruit from various recruiting services, landing in Madison with a ton of expectations.
Sanborn has been a myriad of consistency for a typically staunch Badgers defensive unit led by defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. He is the unquestioned communicator and leader of the defense, bringing the intangibles and production that next level evaluators will love. The questions surround athleticism when referring to Sanborn. Is there an upside to affect the game on more than early downs? Working against Kyren Williams in space, particularly in the passing game, will be a huge test to determine that upside.
This type of success was not always a certainty for the Chenal family. Coming from a small town in Wisconsin, Leo and his brother John (current Badger fullback) put together dominant careers at Grantsburg High School, eventually securing opportunities to suit up for the home stare Badgers. Leo made an instant impact as a true freshman in 2019, asserting himself into the rotation at linebacker. Chenal took that early momentum into a starting job in a haphazard 2020 season, posting 46 total tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks in just seven contests.
As if the impact on the field wasn’t enough, the Athletic’s Bruce Feldman also included Chenal as a part of this year’s Feldman’s Freak List, putting into context how special of an athlete Chenal is for a linebacker listed at 6’2” and 261 pounds.
Feldman had some rave reviews for the junior linebacker:
“The 6-2, 255-pound junior (31 tackles, six TFLs in 2020) is one of eight Badgers who bench 400 pounds or more. Chenal does 420 and cleans 385. The big man clocked a 4.00 time in the pro agility and has hit a top speed of 20.95 MPH on the GPS. He’s also broad jumped 10-1. Technically, Chenal isn’t the strongest Chenal on the team — big brother John, a senior fullback, benches five pounds more and squats 620, but he isn’t quite as Freaky in terms of his speed and agility.”
For a player this athletic, you would expect Chenal to have a nice showing working in space. The biggest question will be in terms of flexibility for a player this size. If he is isolated against Kyren in the passing game, particularly on angle or option routes, how comfortable will he be? That would go a long way from a projection as an early down thumper to something a lot more potentially.
WHAT THE MATCHUP MEANS
Kyren Williams is about to his ceiling in terms of NFL Draft outlook. His all around skill set is enough for evaluators on the next level to value the skill set he brings heavily. The ability he has to affect space, both in the run and pass game is beyond attractive. Add in that he might be the best pass protector in the 2022 class, Williams has an easy and clear projection. His biggest impact in this football game will be to highlight what types of translation each of Sanborn and Chenal have to the next level.
For Sanborn, this game offers a lot of questions for his ability to play in space. We know he has leadership. We know he brings consistency in the run game. We know that he is productive. Evaluators need to find out how he can match up athletically in the passing game. This matchup with Williams, and star tight end Michael Mayer, will put him fully to the test. Notre Dame will try to get Sanborn isolated in this game. How he responds will be huge for his team and his NFL prospects.
There might not be a player with more impact to gain than Chenal. At 261 pounds, he is an uncommon size for a position that continues to get smaller. With his reputation athletically, showing an ability to affect every down would be huge for his projection. That could be the difference between a day three designation and every down outlook to the first three rounds.
This being Chenal’s first game of the season after recovering from COVID brings another huge element to his projection. Being only a junior, it is no guarantee that Chenal will be a part of this cycle. If he is able to showcase his talents at a high level however, this could be the beginning of a massive rise.
With Notre Dame’s most difficult test to date, both teams are in need of a big boost in an up and down early portion of the season. Williams, Sanborn and Chenal will be among the biggest indicators of success for their respective teams.
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