Rivalry Week. So many great games spread out over the long weekend. Try not to eat too much while you indulge in the cornucopia of draft prospects on display.
This week is divided into Friday and Saturday in the interest of space and time.
All times Eastern…
Washington at Washington State, 3:30 PM on FOX
The Apple Cup being at a palatable hour for those of us in the Eastern Time Zone and the only real action going on makes this a great showcase for draft evaluation.
My focus here is Washington State QB Luke Falk against a loaded Huskies secondary that features top 125 prospects Sidney Jones and Kevin King at corner and Budda Baker at safety. Falk had some issues last week against a talented Colorado secondary, notably when under pressure.
I love Falk’s touch and easily natural arm strength; he can deliver a catchable ball on the wide side out route while zipping it in before the coverage can break on it. What I want to see against Washington is the second and third read throws, or deliveries where he’s forced to move off his mark and the intended angle is disrupted. The junior struggled in those situations versus the Buffaloes.
Falk’s game reminds me some of Sam Bradford coming out of Oklahoma, though the Cougar isn’t near the athlete the 2010 No. 1 overall pick was. It took Bradford years to improve at these same issues, though to be more optimistic with Falk, Bradford’s Rams teams often had receivers playing at least two spots too high on the depth chart relative to their skill.
Gabe Marks is Falk’s top receiver, and this is a great challenge for the lithe senior on the receiving end of that very typical Falk pass. Sidney Jones is very good at steering the release and throwing off the route precision. King has great length and plays the ball in the air quite well, but he can be overpowered. At 6’3” but just 195 pounds, he tends to run tall in coverage. That’s not a problem against Marks, a lanky 6’ and 190 himself.
Marks set the PAC-12 mark for career receptions last week but also spent part of the game in the concussion protocol. Falk figures to lean heavily on his main target with No. 2 option River Craycraft out for the season. Marks is at his best changing up speeds and using slick feet to work free. I see him as a poor man’s Golden Tate, though that’s probably inflating his quickness too much.
Falk will see some pressure from Vita Vea, still criminally underrated by the online draft community. Vea is a legit top 40 prospect who can disrupt from the 3 to 5 technique.
Vea and fellow linemates Elijah Qualls and Damion Turpin will go at the heart of the Washington State pass protection in guards Eduardo Middleton and Cody O’Connell. Middleton is a redshirt senior who will at least be in a camp, but O’Connell at left guard is the high-end prospect. Just a junior, he’s an Outland Trophy finalist who is the highest-ranked guard in pass protection by Pro Football Focus. He’s also got some ability as a one-on-one people mover in the run game. O’Connell isn’t expected to declare early, but it never hurts to get a bigger impression on a guy who should enter 2017 as a top positional prospect.
Nebraska at Iowa, 3:30 PM on ABC
A big game for sorting out the Big Ten bowl slotting, there are also several NFL prospects on display in Iowa City.
The two quarterbacks are both considered prospects, though I’ll leave the broader analysis to your own opinion as you watch Iowa’s C.J. Beathard and Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong. I expect to see both at the Shrine Game, which is a step up from preseason thoughts on Armstrong but a step down for Beathard. Armstrong is expected to start after suffering a horrifying neck injury at Ohio State.
My big focus here is Cornhuskers wideout Jordan Westerkamp against Iowa CB Desmond King. Westerkamp possesses outstanding hands and a big catch radius, and he shows it off routinely on plays like this:
QB Ryker Fyfe had a passer rating of 135.4 when throwing to WR Jordan Westerkamp in Nebraska’s 28-7 win over Maryland. pic.twitter.com/RnMxnstnUN
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 20, 2016
That throw was from backup QB Ryker Fife, not Armstrong. Westerkamp has missed two full games and portions of others this year with a back injury, though he’s been fine since his return. He’ll need to be at full speed and strength against King, one of the most aggressive and cocksure corners in the nation.
King plays with a lot of hostile swagger, and that’s not intended as a negative. The 5’10” senior tries to gain a mental edge by yapping, pushing, chucking and bumping up to and after the whistle. Westerkamp doesn’t typically bite on the extracurricular activity, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be impacted by it.
The Iowa corner is also a top-notch return specialist, which is nice added value. Westerkamp has the frame to shield King away from the ball in the air. No. 14 has strong click-and-close ability and is also excellent at extricating the ball from the receiver’s hands. He plays bigger than his size, but NFL scouts do question how effective he can do that at the next level. Squaring off against Westerkamp, a late-round prospect, is a good barometer. We also get to see Westerkamp and fellow senior WR Alonzo Moore block, as King is outstanding at attacking the run.
Boise State at Air Force, 3:30 PM on CBSSN
A few weeks back I opined on Air Force WR Jalen Robinette, whom I will see at the Shrine Game in St. Petersburg in January. He’s not a prolific numbers guy, but it’s hard to post big production for a wideout on a team that throws about 12 times a game. He has 30 of the team’s 58 receptions on the year.
His routes out of the run-based option are the big question. Robinette is a big guy at 6’4” and a listed 215, though I’ve been told by a trusted source he plays at closer to 225. He needs to focus on keeping his weight and center of gravity low on breaks. Sometimes No. 9 sinks his weight and bursts, other times he doesn’t and it leads to him making contested catches instead of getting cleaner separation.
Boise State RB Jeremy McNichols is just a junior but has some draft juice. He’s a thickly built, inside-out type of runner. What stands out are his quick feet and ability to sift through traffic, as on this run against Wyoming:
He’s tied for the national lead in rushing touchdowns with 22, and he’ll top 300 carries on the season with his 27th carry against Air Force. There aren’t many breakaway runs, but McNichols is very good at maximizing gains between the tackles.
Boise has a couple of defensive prospects to monitor, and they’re an odd pairing. Safety Chanceller James (6’2”, 218) is actually bigger than linebacker Ben Weaver (6’0”, 220) and it shows in their play. James should get some NFL sniffs as a hybrid safety/LB; he reminds me some of Lions rookie Miles Killebrew, though he’s not as big of a hitter.
I was hoping to get another look at Broncos LB Tanner Vallejo, but unfortunately he’s out for the year with a wrist injury.
Toledo at Western Michigan, 5 PM on ESPN2
The MAC West comes down to this game, and there could be more future NFL players on the Waldo Stadium turf than in all but one Big Ten game this weekend.
Corey Davis continues to gain fans by the week as he rows the boat towards being the first wideout selected. The Broncos star devoured the more passive off-man coverage thrown at him, but Toledo plays a more active and physical defense. My biggest question about Davis’ ability at the next level is his acceleration, and if the Rocket corners can slow him off the line it validates those concerns.
His work in the middle of the field will also be tested by Toledo, which has a pair of senior safeties who will at least get into NFL minicamps. Dejuan Rogers looked great in their heartbreaking loss to BYU but hasn’t stood out in the two other Rockets games I’ve seen this year.
The Rockets have a couple of NFL prospects as weapons for junior QB Logan Woodside, a name you’ll want to know entering 2017. Running back Kareem Hunt is a do-it-all weapon. At 6’ and a legit 225, he’s a handful to tackle once he gets moving, and he’s elusive enough to never take a big shot despite being a bigger guy. Hunt also catches the ball out of the backfield quite well, and that’s one area where the Broncos defense has shown vulnerable.
Hunt gets lost in the shuffle of this deep RB class, but he’s a solid middle-round prospect in my book. So is tight end Michael Roberts, a player who probably would have merited a Senior Bowl berth in last year’s barren TE class but might need to be lucky to get a Shrine Game invite in this loaded group. The 6’5” senior with sticky mitts and the frame of a power forward is coming off a subpar game where he caught just one of three targets, but he’s been a handful in the red zone: 12 of his 39 catches are touchdowns, and 31 of his 39 receptions moved the chains.
There is a solid matchup between Toledo left tackle Storm Norton and Western Michigan edge rusher Keion Adams. Adams (6’2”, 245) has some juice as a 4-3 OLB convert in the NFL, while Norton has appealing length at 6’7” and has enough athleticism to develop.
On the flip side, Senior Bowl invitee Taylor Moton should fare well against a Toledo team that doesn’t have a strong edge rushing presence. Moton will play inside at the Senior Bowl and in the NFL, though he can handle his business with physicality at right tackle. QB Zach Terrell gets sacked on this play, but watch No. 72 at the top manhandle the unimpressive rush.
Toledo DT Treyvon Hester should at least get into a camp. No. 91 leads the team in sacks (5) and has nice agility for a 300-pounder. The senior from Pittsburgh leads all MAC defensive tackles in hurries (15) despite missing two full games. The one area where Terrell, a very impressive rhythm passer with improved athleticism in 2016, can really struggle is interior pass rush. That can be seen in the play above. Hester could be a major factor in this game if he can generate some up-the-gut pressure and force Terrell off his spots.