American Football

Oregon head coach Dan Lanning’s analysis of CB Christian Gonzalez is music to your ears


NCAA Football: Oregon at Colorado
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

After a season like the one that the 2022 New England Patriots sowed and reaped themselves into, hope is found in the draft. And based on the way the 2023 draft class shook out – with 4 potential top-10 picks at quarterback, another virtual top-10 lock in Georgia phenom defensive tackle Jalen Carter, a handful of brick-wall offensive tackles, and a bevy of pass-rushers that’d make Steve Spagnuolo jump for joy – it was more or less guaranteed that there’d be a run on one position or another, leaving the Patriots in prime position to pounce on whichever top-10 pick ended up being, well, not top 10.

Enter Oregon Ducks cornerback Christian Gonzalez, selected by Bill Belichick and the gang at pick #17, long after just about every draft nerd predicted he’d be off the board. Gonzalez ended up not even being the first or second cornerback off the board – that honor would go to spiritually-Kam-Chancellor/physically-Asante-Samuel Illinois corner Devon Witherspoon, as well as Mississippi State turnover wizard Emmanuel Forbes, who got picked just 1 slot before the Patriots were back on the clock. So for some of us, because the New England way is to hope for the best, but expect the worst, it begs the question: why did all these teams (albeit with the caveat that many teams picking in the top 10 are either very good traders, or very, very dumb) say “meh” on Gonzalez?

A more optimistic way to phrase the question is, is this kid all he’s cracked up to be? We’ve all devoured the draft profiles and scouting reports and all that, so can he possibly as good as advertised?

To borrow a phrase from an indie band enjoyed by washed millennials nationwide, Oregon Ducks head coach Dan Lanning has the facts, and he’s voting Yes.

Granted, Christian’s coach kind of has a vested interest in selling Gonzalez as the best thing since UberEats; everything is recruiting, after all, and of course Dan is going to talk up his guys. The specifics Coach Lanning can serve up about what makes Christian Gonzalez who he is as a prospect, though, will scratch you right where you itch. Especially in terms of not only who Gonzalez is in general, but how he can drop into the Patriots defense and maybe – just maybe – be that lockdown corner that we adore around these parts.

Phil Perry of NBC Sports Boston had Coach Lanning on his Next Pats podcast this week, and we’ll let them take it away from there.

On fit:

Phil: What was your first thought when you saw that Christian would be going to the Patriots in the first round?

DL: Well, perfect fit. You know, I think you’re anxious because you’re excited for Christian and you want him to get drafted, but when you talk about organizations that you can go play for, getting to play for the Patriots and coach Belichick, that’s pretty unique. And then recently, one of our coaches just joined the staff there for y’all, Adrian Klemm, so it’s nice to know that he has a familiar face up there with him that will be looking out for him. So I think it’s a perfect fit, and a great setup for Christian.

On scheme fit (sort of):

Phil: When it comes to Christian in particular, what makes him a perfect fit? What about Christian from his makeup or even on the field, Dan, we can talk about that too – why he would fit in a Bill Belichick defense?

DL: Yeah, if you were building a player in Madden, right, you’d create them very similar to Christian, especially for the corner position. He’s got length, he’s got size, he’s got speed, he carries that size very effortlessly, and he can obviously run. So those are skill sets you look for in a DB. He has great ball skills. I honestly believe he could play wideout, if someone needs him to play wideout. He could be a returner as well, if somebody needed that. We didn’t ask him to do that, but we probably should have, at times. But he has all the skill set. So if you’re designing a player, you design him in the mold of Christian.

And then maybe more importantly, in my mind, is he has the mindset. The last play never affects the next play, he’s able to hit the flush button really easily. And his demeanor, he’s very calculated. Some people might take it as a lack of passion, that’s not the case at all. The guy’s extremely passionate, but he’s extremely focused, and he’s able to play within the moment. So I think the Patriots are getting a really good one. I’ve had a lot of really good DBs, and he ranks up there as high as any of them.

On Christian’s (pardon the cliche) freaky athleticism:

Phil: Is there anything that you ever saw from Christian, that really just forced you to drop your jaw at what an athletic specimen this guy is?

DL: I don’t know if I can pick one moment, other than he plays the ball in the deep part of the field better than any DB that I’ve had. I’ve had a lot of them, but he judges the ball extremely well in the air, and goes and gets it. And I think that’s really unique. A lot of guys can cover, a lot of guys can impact the release of a wideout, but for him to be able to play the ball in the deep part of the field, I think that’s really impressive.

I think we were about 10 practices into his first year, and I don’t know that he’d given up a catch the first 10 practices. It was really impressive. And eventually, our offense had a “don’t throw it to Gonzo” rule, right, because it was just going to be an incomplete pass or potentially a pick. And he created that, just by the way he practiced every day. So there’s a lot of moments, a lot of impressive catches down the field. He has catchup speed, but nobody gets behind him very often, so you don’t see that all the time.

But probably the most impressive thing to me was we played Arizona earlier in the year, and they had a really good slot receiver. So we asked Gonzo to move inside that week and play the nickel, and he had never really done it for us all year. And then, that became something we did throughout the rest of the season, especially on third downs, just because he had the skill set to do it. He’s impressive, he’s adaptable, he has all those traits.

That could come in awfully handy, what with the AFC East looking like every division game requires betting the over.

On man coverage:

Phil: What is it about his mindset, his makeup, that will make him a good man corner for the Patriots?

DL: Yeah, just that. He’s long, he doesn’t have a lot of false steps, he’s able to keep a narrow base, and he’s going to be able to react on the release to the guy across from him, which I think is one of the toughest traits for a DB is to be able to react, not guess, what the person across from you is doing. So he doesn’t panic in the route, he’s going to be able to transition really smooth, it almost looks effortless at times for him. But yeah, he’s going to allow you to play both.

On how Christian Gonzalez compares to some GOATS of the Patriots’ past like Ty Law and Stephon Gilmore, and how he carries himself:

Phil: Does Christian have that (attitude/trash talk/swag) to his game, or is he a little bit different personality at that position?

DL: That’s not who Christian is. He has confidence, he has the level of confidence, but he doesn’t have to tell you about it. I wouldn’t mistake that for anything other than focus. The guy’s focused. He realized, look, he can go out there and talk, and he will at times, but you’re not going to see that a lot. But ultimately, he’d rather show you, and he’s going to do that consistently.

You can watch the full episode here, if you’d like:

Enjoy the holiday weekend, and remember that it’s OK to get excited about our draft prospects, friends. N’Keal can’t hurt you anymore.

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