For the past two seasons, Virginia fifth-year senior Matt Conrath has played a position that doesn’t quite suit him and isn’t likely to be a significant part of his football-playing future. There’s a reason you don’t see many 6-foot-7 defensive tackles in college football or in the NFL.
But Conrath, who is 6-7, was asked to transition from being a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme to being a three technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme when Coach Mike London took over the Cavaliers programs. That Conrath has demonstrated an aptitude to excel at a spot that is not his natural position has caught the attention of NFL scouts, as well as of those who analyze the NFL draft.
“Because [Conrath] is being successful in a position where I don’t think he necessarily projects very well at, I think it’s all the more impressive about his work ethic, his commitment and his natural physical talents,” NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst Rob Rang said Thursday in a telephone interview. “And then the experience that he got in both schemes, you know, there are so few teams anymore that go just 4-3 or just 3-4 in the NFL. It’s a lot of hybrid [defenses]. That’s the new thing is that depending on the down and distances, teams are mixing up their coverages and how many people they have on the line. I think that versatility is only going to help his cause.”
In fact, Rang said, the Virginia defense fields an impressive trio of players whose NFL Draft stock will benefit from having displayed the skills necessary to thrive in numerous scenarios. Senior defensive end Cam Johnson could play either as a 4-3 defensive end or as a 3-4 rush linebacker in the NFL, while senior cornerback Chase Minnifield could prove to be an effective free safety at the pro level, according to Rang.
“You talk about three of the most versatile players certainly in the ACC and quite possibly in the country, when it comes to defensive players, because of their ability to play not just one position, but multiple [positions] in multiple schemes in the NFL,” Rang said.
We’ll get to Johnson and Minnifield in a minute, but let’s stick with Conrath for now. In his second year as a defensive tackle, Conrath has demonstrated an ability to overcome the disadvantages his mammoth size creates for him on the interior of the line. Conrath lines up against offensive guards who typically are four to six inches smaller than him. So staying low, being flexible in his hips and gaining leverage are constant battles.
The Virginia coaches knew sliding Conrath to the inside wasn’t an ideal move for either party, but when they first arrived the Cavaliers’ roster lacked the combination of body types and skill sets needed in a defensive tackle in Virginia’s 4-3 scheme. Conrath was one of the few exceptions. Hence, the position shift.
Virginia defensive line coach Jeff Hanson said this week that the team’s scheme calls for a defensive tackle to be more athletic, someone who can provide a pass rush up the middle. The other defensive tackle plays over the center and is more responsible for defending against the run. Hanson described the prototype of a one technique in Virginia’s system as a player that is compact, rugged and strong.
The Cavaliers primarily rotate three defensive tackles during games. Conrath plays the three technique, senior Nick Jenkins plays the one technique and junior Will Hill plays either spot, depending on which of the other two guys is in at the same time.
“We want some length and height in our three technique, and the reason you want that is for the pass rush,” Hanson said. “We want people that can rush the passer inside and get up in his face and smack balls down. [Conrath] has done a lot of that this year. Really, one of your defensive tackles you want a taller bigger guy so that he’s got some pocket presence that when he does push the pocket, he can get up in the quarterback’s face and create problems as far as seeing his throwing lanes.”
Conrath certainly does that. He’s batted down several passes at the line of scrimmage this season. He’s also used his long arms to block two field goals.
While Conrath’s strength – especially because he does have such long arms – impressed Rang when the draft analyst studied film of the player this week, what surprised Rang was Conrath’s quickness, given his size. Conrath’s listed weight is 280 pounds.
“We currently have him as a seventh round-to-undrafted free agent, and I thought he was significantly better than that,” Rang said. “With that height, it’s pretty rare to see his explosiveness off the snap. I mean, he’s got some legitimate burst to him.”
Rang said Conrath “most likely” projects best as a 3-4 defensive end NFL prospect and complimented Conrath’s swim move and lateral agility.
After watching film of Virginia’s game last season against North Carolina and of the Cavaliers’ game this past Saturday against Georgia Tech, Rang said he now views Conrath as “a middle round prospect, at least, with the possibility of moving up.”
“As a 4-3 defensive tackle he’s obviously been very effective at the collegiate level,” Rang said. “I worry that he may not be as effective [at that position] in the NFL because generally when you’re 6-7, that tall, then those shorter guards and centers, they can get their hands into a guy’s chest and belly area just because they have the natural leverage advantage.
“When you’re as tall as he is, those interior linemen are usually able to get into him. So it’s pretty impressive that he’s been as successful as he has been as a three technique defensive tackle.”
But, Rang noted, as a 3-4 defensive end, Conrath would be asked primarily to eat up blockers, something his size and strength would put him in prime position to do.
Rang said Conrath does not quite possess the skill set to serve as a 4-3 defensive end. Conrath is quick, Rang said, but not fast. Or at least not fast enough.
“You really want someone who can turn the corner and be able to get around the offensive tackle before he can do anything about it,” Rang said. “I don’t know that he has that kind of speed.”
Rang does, however, believe Cam Johnson possesses that kind of top-end speed off the edge.
Johnson “has that explosive burst to be a 4-3 defensive end – not just quick, but fast,” Rang said. “The only concern I have about him is I want to see more tape of him chasing down plays, like if a running back is going out into the flat, kind of peel off and cover. So it’s whether or not he has that flexibility, or if he’s a little stiff. That’s what makes the difference between a guy who’s a 3-4 rush linebacker who’s okay, and then the Clay Matthews and DeMarcus Wares of the world who are just superstars.
“I’m kind of going back and forth on Cam. I just want to watch more tape on him because you see flashes of that. … I will tell you this: We moved him up. I had to do a first round mock draft already, as ridiculous as that is, and I had him at the end of the first round going to the Patriots, just because that pass rush ability is pretty rare. Not many guys have that.”
As for Minnifield, Rang said he’s been impressed with “how consistent of a tackler” the player has been this season.
“I’ve talked to some [NFL] teams that question whether he has the pure speed of a Chris Cook or a [Ras-I] Dowling,” Rang said. “But there’s a lot of people out there who think that maybe he could make a transition to become a free safety, and then he could potentially rank as one of the better safety prospects and, I think, one of the better corners, as well.”