Back after a week hiatus which included me attending the Maryland/Michigan game and talking with an NFL scout before the game, I’m locked and loaded for the college football weekend.
Alas, this week features few marquee matchups. One of the most interesting came Thursday night with North Carolina and Mitch Trubisky–still my QB1–battling a spunky Duke team.
Baylor at Oklahoma, 12 PM on ABC/ESPN2
Sometimes I write too much and some readers lose interest. So I’ll keep this one brief:
Watch Oklahoma WR Dede Westbrook, a rising prospect who plays bigger than his size and is gaining respect for his all-around game. Picture Aaron Rodgers or Cam Newton at QB throwing to Westbrook with this sort of ability to separate over the top:
That’s it. You’re welcome.
Mississippi State at Alabama, 12 PM on ESPN
I’ve written about Alabama just about every week, so the focus here is on the Bulldogs. I haven’t seen much of Mississippi State this year, but I did catch their astonishing upset of Texas A&M last week.
One of the standouts from that game is a guy I’ve been fixing to study more this season. That would be wideout Fred Ross, whom I liked quite a bit from my work on Dak Prescott last season.
Ross has decent size and uses it well. And against the Aggies he showed the ability to separate from press man coverage. I saw plays like this last season against LSU and Arkansas, so this is nothing new…
Fred Ross’ 60 yard score. pic.twitter.com/s9PCB7LfTO
— Jared Stanger (@JaredStanger) November 5, 2016
Of course, Alabama has Marlon Humphrey at corner. He might be the stickiest cover man this side of Jourdan Lewis, and his closing burst will force Ross to attack the ball in the air. Ross isn’t a threat to run past him, so it could be a long night for the Bulldog with the fun hairstyle.
When the Crimson Tide has the ball, the matchup to watch is left tackle Cam Robinson against Bulldogs DE A.J. Jefferson. Not to be confused with the former Fresno State CB of the same name, this Jefferson is a power-to-speed 280-pounder. His quickness in getting into the blocker’s pads and propelling himself off stand out, and that poses a problem for Robinson, who can be tentative with his punch and doesn’t always get into his set quickly. Jefferson can also drive bigger guys back with outstanding leg drive. Robinson has had a couple of strong games lately, but Jefferson is a different sort of rusher.
SMU at East Carolina, 12 PM on ESPNews
Not exactly a sexy game, but this AAC tilt features two receivers who are going to keep getting a lot more attention as the draft process progresses.
ECU’s Zay Jones leads the nation in an astonishing 127 catches in nine games. No other player has topped 100 yet. Racking up almost 15 receptions per game gets noticed. It doesn’t necessarily make him a high-end prospect, however. Remember Justin Hardy, Jones’ predecessor as the Pirates prolific receiver?
Hardy caught an NCAA-record 387 passes in the dink/dunk quick-hit spread. Most of Jones’ receptions come in the 5-10 yard range, just as Hardy’s did. Jones is a little bigger (listed at 6’1”, 205) than Hardy and looks like he’s faster off the line. That will be critical as you watch him here, because Hardy struggles with the Atlanta Falcons at getting into his route quickly and crisply with defenders impeding him. Granted the SMU defense isn’t a great challenge, but I want to watch Jones run something that looks like actual NFL routes and also transition quickly from receiver to runner. He averages barely 10 yards per catch and has found the end zone just 5 times. Those are flags for false positives in productivity.
SMU offers Courtland Sutton. He’s a more polished route runner with excellent body control in and out of breaks for a bigger (he’s 6’4”/215) wideout. There is real nuance to his movement, as you can see from this clip:
Courtland Sutton showing savvy w/ head nod to outside, breaks to open space in MOF, grabs ball slightly behind himhttps://t.co/X3SNjX1pM3
— Ryan Booher (@bootang25) September 12, 2016
I’ve only seen two full Mustangs games this year, and there are two things I want to see more of with Sutton. Twice I’ve seen him fail to get two feet down on sideline catches. I know, in college you only need one. Yet I’ve seen both Corey Davis and Juju Smith-Schuster concertedly stick two feet down with extreme difficulty to put it on tape. I have yet to see that with Sutton. I also want to see him eat up the skinny but not unskilled Pirate CBs. Sutton has close to 50 pounds on freshman Colby Gore, who starts and has intriguing long-term potential, and about 30 on junior Bobby Fulp, who is 6’4” but built like a pipe cleaner with oddly muscular triceps.
Pittsburgh at Clemson, 3:30 PM on ABC
Tigers QB Deshaun Watson gets a golden opportunity to post some gaudy numbers at home against what is statistically the third-worst pass defense in college football. The Panthers rely heavily on edge rusher Ejuan Price to pressure opposing QBs into mistakes, and the shorts-loving senior has a diverse package of moves to get into the backfield. At 5’11”, Price is almost assuredly going to have to move to OLB at the next level, so pay attention to him in spatial situations beyond his pass rushing.
When Price doesn’t agitate Watson, Clemson’s passing game should thrive. Wideouts Mike Williams and Artavis Scott should find open spaces well, and for Williams this is another chance to prove he can win contested catch situations against bigger corners. Pittsburgh’s Ryan Lewis is a legit 6’ and 200 pounds and sees the ball in the air well. By my charting of 6 games with Williams, he’s under 40% in converting contested catches. That’s a very legitimate flag to throw at the potential WR1 in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Clemson has some fun defenders too. I’m not a big Ben Boulware advocate as a draft prospect, but guys who do this make my job more awesome…
— Hawres (@HDizzleX) November 5, 2016
Attack cat Carlos Watkins up front and feisty, physical CB Cordrea Tankersley outside give you something to watch on every play with the Tigers defense.
LSU at Arkansas, 7 PM on ESPN
Arkansas TE Jeremy Sprinkle is one of the first players who is publicly acknowledged as a Senior Bowl invitee. He’d be smart to pack his bags for Mobile and show off his skills at what is the largest gathering of NFL personnel evaluators outside the Combine in Indianapolis a month later.
Sprinkle is a bigger TE at 6’5” and about 260 pounds. While he lacks suddenness off the line, he moves well once he’s out in space. He might have the biggest and most reliable catch radius of any TE in this very impressive class, too. While Michigan’s Jake Butt chips and released from inline better, No. 83 is no slouch here either.
LSU has an underappreciated LB in Kendell Beckwith who is quite adept in coverage despite being over 250 pounds himself. He handled speedy Ole Miss hybrid TE/WR Evan Engram nicely. This will be a fun matchup to watch play out, especially if the game remains close. Beckwith has a natural flair for making the big play when LSU needs one. Of course it helps having superb safety Jamal Adams roaming behind him.
Fans of goliath Arkansas LT Dan Skipper might want to avoid this one. LSU’s speedy sack master Arden Key–a potential top 5 overall pick in 2018–is a terrible matchup for the 6’9”, heavy-footed Skipper. However, if Skipper can prove he can latch on and use his length successfully, it helps his fading draft stock.
USC at Washington, 7:30 PM on FOX
The marquee matchup here is USC wideout Juju Smith-Schuster squaring off against Washington corner Sidney Jones. Both are scraping the top of their positional draft rankings, and for good reason.
Smith-Schuster is at his best getting separation and building upon it once he gains an advantage. This play against Notre Dame highlights how well he uses his hands and strength to keep the defender from regaining a step:
He faces a challenge with Jones, who is very smart about using his cushion when he’s not playing press-man. In zone, Jones does a great job of keeping one eye on the receiver and the other on the quarterback. Smith-Schuster will have to be aggressive in working back to the ball and quickly securing the catch.
Jones does more than just cover. For a lighter corner (listed at 180), he’s a solid hitter who isn’t afraid to stick his nose in run support. I love the closing burst to the ball here after quickly diagnosing the play from outside the formation:
Corners don’t get drafted high for this, but they don’t often get drafted high if they don’t do this either.
There’s intrigue inside too. The Trojans have a pair of NFL-caliber offensive tackles in Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner, and a junior left guard in Damien Mama who is definitely one to watch going forward. Washington features my potential 2017 draft crush Vita Vea as a playmaking big man on the D-line, along with Elijah Qualls. They help keep linebackers Azeem Victor and Psalm Wooching free to roam. Wooching could have a big game here with his delayed blitz game as well as his ability to feign the gap and drop quickly into passing lanes. No. 28 got hurt last week and missed the second half but is expected to play against USC.
Michigan at Iowa, 8 PM on ABC
If you’re still holding out any hope for Iowa QB C.J. Beathard as a draftable commodity, No. 16 must have a decent showing against the nation’s best pass defense. Given how handily Wisconsin and Penn State smothered Beathard and Iowa’s pedestrian receivers, the odds are not good.
Ah yes, the Michigan defense. I was in the Big House last week to catch them annihilate Maryland. When senior LBs Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray are playing well, and they both shined against the Terrapins, there really aren’t any holes in the Wolverine defense. McCray is an interesting prospect, a thickly-built (6’3”, 250-ish) downhill thumper who has potential as a 3-4 ILB at the next level. He’s instinctive and definitely packs punch behind his pads. The issues are in ranging laterally and choices of angles. Teams with speed and shiftiness at running back and tight end often exploit big No. 9.
Iowa doesn’t have much on offense, but they do have a talented pair of RBs who will get looks at the next level. Akrum Wadley is the shifty back with the accelerator always at full throttle. He’s great in space:
— Heavens! (@HeavensHawkeye) November 6, 2016
He’s just a junior and I’ve not heard any indication he is leaning towards declaration, but I’m not in those small circles. Senior Leshun Daniels is the power back at 5’11” and 225 with a fantastic low center of gravity and leg drive. You can tell in watching him run his father was an offensive lineman. If he doesn’t show better vision and ability to make himself narrow thru small holes, he’ll not survive the first week of NFL training camp.
Jabrill Peppers figures to see most of his time at linebacker in this game, and that makes for a useful evaluation tool. Those Iowa running backs are diverse and talented, and the Hawkeyes remain hellbent on running the ball even when it’s not effective. Peppers is an outstanding finisher against the run.
Of course he might not get many opportunities to finish plays with the likes of Chris Wormley, Maurice Hurst and Ryan Glasgow up front all showing why they figure to be middle-round draft picks. Hurst forced a 3-and-out all by himself last week, and his ability to occasionally look like the very best player on a very talented Michigan defense teases what might be at the next level.
Colorado at Arizona, 10 PM on FS1
Another game, another cornerback vs. wide receiver spotlight. This time it’s Arizona wideout Trey Griffey against the Colorado corner tandem of Chidobe Awuzie and Akhello Witherspoon. Griffey doesn’t have much production (20 catches) but still has impressive size and sticky mitts. Being the son of one of the most beloved athletes of the last 25 years doesn’t hurt, either.
Awuzie should be Senior Bowl bound, and Witherspoon has shown enough to merit a Shrine Game invite. As I mentioned in the Sports Illustrated On the Clock podcast this week, Awuzie is a player who doesn’t have any standout abilities other than not having any earl holes to his game. Being a fundamentally advanced, versatile and consistently strong corner doesn’t sell the sizzle, but NFL coaches will appreciate Awuzie’s steak game.
The Wildcats don’t throw the ball effectively but do present a dual-threat challenge. Quarterback Brandon Dawkins is their leading rusher and a dangerous threat with the ball in his hands. For Witherspoon, safety Tedric Thompson and underrated LB Kenneth Olugbode, playing the pass with the threat of the run will be revelatory. Defensive tackle Josh Tupou can show off by controlling the interior gaps, too.