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Fran Duffy's College Football preview: The top seniors to watch this fall

Every February when I travel to Indianapolis for the National Football League's Scouting Combine, I greatly enjoy talking with players, whether it's one-on-one or in a press conference setting. My strategy for this session changes from year to year, and sometimes from player to player, but this spring I wanted to place an emphasis on getting the prospects for the 2019 NFL Draft to preview some of the top names for the 2020 class.

My goals? Hopefully I'd find some anecdotes on some of the top prospects in America. Maybe I'd get a few sleepers who not enough people were talking about. Or maybe I'd just find out who was either respected or liked most by their peers. Whichever way you slice it, it's fun looking back on some of these notes, months later, as the College Football season officially kicks off this weekend …

THE TOP NAMES

• Obviously one of the most high-profile prospects in the country is quarterback Justin Herbert from Oregon. His former top target, Dillon Mitchell (now with the Minnesota Vikings), told me that Herbert was a great guy who he believed would really take the next step this offseason as a leader in the locker room. He saw glimpses of that in 2018, citing the overtime loss to Stanford where Herbert lit into the entire team afterward and captured the entire room. Former Ducks (and current Dallas Cowboys) pass rusher Jalen Jelks recalled the same meeting, saying that was the first time the team saw that kind of fire from the potential NFL franchise quarterback. Jelks continued, saying he was certain that Herbert was ready to make that leap this offseason. Jelks also told me that Herbert really loves his chocolate milk, particularly alongside a chicken sandwich so, there's that.

• One of the best players in the country is Raekwon Davis, a defensive lineman from (surprise) Alabama. I was smitten with Davis entering last season after watching him in 2017, and while Quinnen Williams got most of the love this spring, Davis is an elite prospect in his own right. That feeling was shared by former Oklahoma tackle Cody Ford (a second-round pick by the Buffalo Bills), who told me in February that of all the players he matched up with last year, Davis was the toughest. And that's including Williams, the third overall pick of the New York Jets. Ford told me that Davis was a big kid who used his length really well and had the ability to win as a bull rusher, but he was not a one-dimensional player. He continued by saying that Davis brought everything to the table in their matchup and countered as a pass rusher better than anyone he saw. Davis reminds me of Pro Bowl defensive lineman DeForest Buckner in a lot of ways. I think he could be an elite interior lineman in the NFL.

• Another interior defensive lineman with impressive upside is Oklahoma's Neville Gallimore, who former Sooners wide receiver (and Baltimore Ravens first-round pick) Marquise Brown singled out to me as the player returning to Norman who not enough people were talking about in the spring. A highly athletic 330-pound tackle from Canada, Gallimore is a player who you need to know about as the start of the season approaches, if you don't already. He's not close to being a finished product, but he has real upside. Former OU (and current Los Angeles Rams) offensive tackle Bobby Evans agreed with Brown that Gallimore was poised for a breakout in 2019 on a national scale.

• TCU right tackle Lucas Niang was named second-team All-Big 12 a year ago, and his former teammate (and Seattle first-round draft choice) L.J. Collier thinks he could be the best player returning to the Horned Frogs who not enough people are talking about right now. Collier said Niang is huge (he's listed 6-7, 328 pounds) and is a good pass protector thanks to his combination of strength and athleticism. Watching Niang on film, I was taken aback not only by his anchor strength and heavy hands on contact, but also by his natural lower body flexion. I like him best in a phone booth, but he's definitely got starting potential all over him for the NFL.

• Widely regarded as the top senior running back in the class, Utah's Zack Moss is the player who former Washington linebacker (and Seattle Seahawks rookie) Ben Burr-Kirven told me was the toughest guy he lined up against last year, saying that Moss ran even harder in person than he did on film, which is saying something. Former Utah safety (and Burr-Kirven's teammate in Seattle) Marquise Blair chimed in, saying that the same physicality and intensity Moss displayed in games showed up in practice every day. Former USC safety Marvell Tell, who was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the fifth round, said that Moss was "absolutely" the single toughest guy he faced last year out west.

• One of the big surprises of last winter was Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall announcing that he was returning to campus for his senior year. The first-team All-ACC pick was widely considered by those in the media as a potential first-round selection in this year's draft, and so going back to school was a shock to some. Throw former N.C. State (and current Washington Redskins) wide receiver Kelvin Harmon onto that list, who told me that Hall was the best player he faced in a talented ACC last year. I watched their matchup and Hall challenged Harmon at the catch point consistently, showing off his outstanding ball skills. When I spoke with former UVA safety Juan Thornhill, who was later drafted by Andy Reid and the Chiefs, I asked him for a scouting report of his former teammate. He described Hall as a "heck of a player ... a big guy who is disciplined and never makes mistakes." He went on to say that he "is always in the classroom watching film and always trying to improve himself." While I, personally, am not quite sure I buy into the first-round hype for Hall at this point, I really like his play recognition and ball skills. He will play in the league for sure.

• I spoke with former Ohio State right tackle Isaiah Prince, who was eventually selected by the Miami Dolphins, and he told me to keep a close eye on rising senior receiver K.J. Hill for this fall. He didn't necessarily need to give me a heads up on Hill, who flashed on film whenever I studied the Buckeyes last year, but Prince told me that that the receiver's "for sure" hands set him apart. Hill made some of the best catches of the entire college season last year. Hill is actually my favorite senior receiver entering the season.

• Former Texas receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey, who is now with the New Orleans Saints, scared Big 12 secondaries on a weekly basis with fellow oversized wideout Collin Johnson last year, and Humphrey expects big things out of the rising senior for 2019. Humphrey said Johnson isn't just a big, physical receiver, but he's also patient and creative both with and without the ball and is very business-like in his approach to the game. Johnson is 6-5, 220 pounds, and is so physically imposing and one of the best blockers I've studied at the receiver position in recent years. If Johnson can prove himself athletically, he'll be a pretty high pick next spring.

THE SLEEPERS

• Former Vanderbilt cornerback and New England Patriots draft pick Joejuan Williams told me that the toughest matchup he had in 2018 was Florida's Van Jefferson. The transfer from Ole Miss impressed Williams because of all of his great moves off the line of scrimmage, which made him a really tough cover. Williams said that likely came from his father, a former NFL receiver Shawn Jefferson, who coached receivers last season for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Williams said Jefferson gave him a real battle when they took the field last fall.

• That wasn't the only SEC wide receiver who Williams talked up, as he thoroughly enjoyed discussing his former teammate Kalija Lipscomb with me. Lipscomb, a rising senior, was a great guy to go against every day in practice, according to Williams, who said he was "tough, physical, talked trash every day and was a really competitive player who made me a better player." Lipscomb, a rising senior, had one of the best seasons for any receiver in the history of the Vanderbilt program last year, and will look to build on that in his final season on campus.

• Multiple Ole Miss players in attendance at the Combine told me that Alex Givens was a name to watch in 2019. Javon Patterson (drafted by the Colts) told me that Givens, who played right tackle last year but appears to be set for a move to the left side this fall, exhibits great toughness and plays with an edge that you look for up front. Carolina Panthers second-round pick Greg Little described Givens as a big guy, saying he was very physical and a "pain in the butt" for defensive linemen. Former Rebels tight end and Buffalo Bills rookie Dawson Knox chimed in as well, saying Givens has a really strong anchor and is a great guy away from the field as well.

• A top 15 pick by the Green Bay Packers this spring, Rashan Gary faced a lot of great players during his time at Michigan, but when I asked him who the toughest player he was that he lined up against he pointed to his teammate, Jon Runyan Jr. The son of former Eagles Pro Bowl right tackle of the same name, Runyan was first-team All-Big Ten a year ago. Gary said Runyan was extremely patient with his pass sets and was tough as nails.

• Ex-Washington and current Miami Dolphins running back Myles Gaskin was effusive in his praise of rising senior wide receiver Aaron Fuller back in the spring, telling me he was the best guy returning to the Huskies' offense. Gaskin said Fuller really took big strides as a leader last fall, instilling a work ethic in his teammates as he tried to outwork everyone in everything he did, including in the weight room.

• Fuller isn't the only Husky getting love. Former Washington safety Taylor Rapp, a second-round pick of the Rams, couldn't stop glowing about his ex-teammate Myles Bryant, a senior corner for the Huskies. Rapp said that Bryant was the hardest worker on the team and was a very savvy football player to make up for being undersized. Rapp described Bryant to me as "a dog" out there on the field. I haven't studied Bryant yet, but the former walk-on has definitely gotten buzz from people around that program.

• Tell told me point blank that rising senior linebacker John Houston Jr. was the best player on the Trojans who no one was talking about. Tell said Houston is a blue-collar kid, a hard worker with natural instincts for the game.

• In talking with South Carolina offensive lineman Zach Bailey, I found out that rising senior center Donell Stanley really impressed last year as a junior with his leadership skills. Stanley, who reportedly thought about entering the 2019 NFL Draft, went back to school for his senior season and should be one of the tone-setters for the Gamecocks this fall, according to his former teammate. I thought it was also notable that both South Carolina linemen I talked to (Bailey and left tackle Dennis Daley) came to the defense of quarterback Jake Bentley. A rising senior, Bentley had an up and down season last fall but appears to be very well respected by his teammates and was described as the leader of the entire team going back to his sophomore season.

• When I spoke with former Texas linebacker Gary Johnson in Indianapolis, he told me that not enough people were talking about Horns linebacker Malcolm Roach, describing him as a versatile, relentless competitor. Roach was already on my radar after popping on the film while I studied Sam Darnold back in the 2017 season.

• When I asked ex-Fresno State wide receiver KeeSean Johnson (who is now buzzing in Arizona Cardinals camp) who the breakout player would be for the Bulldogs next year, he was very quick to respond with rising senior linebacker Mykal Walker, a transfer who was named first-team All-Mountain West Conference last year as a junior after being named the Defensive MVP of the Mountain West title game.

• Former Oklahoma State pass rusher Jordan Brailford said that one player poised for a big jump is Cowboys defensive end Mike Scott. The former SMU transfer is long and fast off the edge and made an impact when called upon in 2018. Keep an eye on him to step into Brailford's shoes as one of the top pass rushers in the Big 12 this fall.

• In talking with both Memphis running backs at February's Scouting Combine, Darrell Henderson (now with the Rams) and Tony Pollard (now with the Cowboys) both singled out rising senior running back Patrick Taylor Jr. Henderson told me how impressive he is downhill with how hard he runs and praised his physicality. Pollard also went out of his way to mention senior slot receiver Pop Williams, who he expects to make a big impact on both offense and special teams in 2019.

• Some good news for fans of the University of Miami, who played their opener this past Saturday against Florida, as former Central Michigan cornerback Sean Bunting told me that K.J. Osborn was the toughest receiver he faced last year. Osborn transferred to "The U" from Buffalo this offseason as a graduate transfer and will play right away for the Canes. Osborn is an "all-around" receiver, according to Bunting, who also said he was big, fast, and had a "dog mentality" with the ball in the air, playing with a chip on his shoulder. Miami is looking for more help on offense, and Osborn should give them that in his final year of eligibility.

• Former Arkansas cornerback Ryan Pulley commended his teammate, middle linebacker De'Jon Harris, saying he was the best player returning to campus for the Razorbacks this year, citing his great production (he led the SEC in tackles and tackles for loss last year) and his physical, downhill style.

• Former FAU wide receiver Jovon Durante said he's really excited to see what fellow wideout Tavaris Harrison can do in his final year on campus this fall. Durante said that Harrison (6-3, 187 pounds) has been dinged with injuries so far throughout his career, but that the arrow is pointing up on him in the future. Harrison led the Owls with four receptions for 57 yards last year in the team's Week 1 matchup with Oklahoma.

• Still a relatively new program, the big names to come out of the University of Charlotte include Larry Ogunjobi (a starting defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns) and guard Nate Davis from this past draft. I asked Davis who would be next in line, and he told me that offensive tackle Cam Clarke was the first one on the list. A rising senior in this class, keep an eye on the fifth-year player for the 49ers. On the defensive side, Davis said to keep a close eye on senior pass rusher Alex Highsmith, who broke out in 2018.

• I asked a similar question to former San Jose State tight end Josh Oliver, and he told me the next NFL prospect in the pipeline for the Spartans was rising senior receiver Bailey Gaither, who made his living in the slot in 2018.

Make sure you're subscribed to the Journey to the Draft podcast all season long to follow all of the performances of the top prospects all around the country and how their skill sets will translate to the NFL in the coming years.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominatedEagles Game Planshow which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts,Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as theJourney to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices, and opponents.

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