One of the first things NFL scouts do when looking at draft prospects in the spring in preparation for the NFL Draft is watch them against the best competition they faced in the previous season. How did a wide receiver fare against the best cover corner on his schedule? How did a pass rusher do when he faced a top-flight left tackle? How did "Quarterback X" perform against the best defenses he faced? This fall we're going to take a look at the best head-to-head matchups in each week's slate of college football games, and give fans a preview of the top names around the country in the process.
With one weekend in the books, college football is in full swing with a number of big matchups in the season's second weekend. I recapped a lot of the Week 1 action both on the Eagle Eye In The Sky Podcast, as well as on the College Draft Podcast with Ross Tucker, where I was also able to preview the top matchups in the heavyweight battle between Oregon and Michigan State this weekend. What other games should you be keeping an eye on? Let's look at some of the top battles across the country.
1. Florida RB Kelvin Taylor vs. East Carolina LBs Montese Overton and Zeek Bigger
It's never easy to follow the footsteps of a legendary father figure, but Florida's Kelvin Taylor is looking to do just that for the Gators. The son of Florida legend and former Jacksonville Jaguar Fred Taylor, Kelvin is a great athlete, and consistently displays the quickness, acceleration and change-of-direction skills to be a weapon in space at the next level. A reliable ball carrier with strong hands and good vision in the open field, Taylor isn't the biggest or strongest, but he's looking to take the next step this fall and develop into the type of player who can be a feature back in the NFL.
Believe it or not, Taylor will be going up against a pretty talented linebacking corps from ECU. One of the most athletic players at his position in the entire country, Montese Overton is the type of defender who can match up with Taylor in space. A member of Bruce Feldman’s list of college football's freak athletes this summer, Overton reportedly runs in the low 4.5s in the 40-yard dash, the low 6.9s in the 3-cone drill and sub 4.10 in the short shuttle. All of those numbers would put him in the top 20 percent of all linebackers drafted in the last five years. Overton is very comfortable in space, is a reliable drag-down tackler and can play sideline to sideline. When Taylor gets out on the perimeter, it's Overton who I expect to see show up to the ball first.
Lining up next to Overton is Ezekiel "Zeek" Bigger. At 6-0, 228 pounds, Bigger isn't too much bigger than Overton, but he's instinctive, physical and has a high motor, making him a worthwhile prospect to watch as well. While he's not the same type of athlete, Bigger shows the ability to play sideline to sideline, and his instincts help to overcome the fact that he doesn't have great first-step quickness. Look for Overton and Bigger to both be active in a big game for both of their careers moving forward.
2. LSU WR Travin Dural vs. Mississippi State CB Will Redmond
LSU has consistently put talented wideouts from Baton Rouge into the NFL, and it appears as if Travin Dural is next in line. At 6-2, 192 pounds, Dural's size paired with his reported 4.40 40-yard dash time will make him a popular player for fans to to talk about when he enters the NFL Draft in 2017. The junior has outstanding speed, showing the ability to get on top of corners, and he looks just as fast with the ball in his hands. A solid route runner who can separate at the top of his stem, Dural shows solid hands at the catch point and wins consistently in the "small" game as a wide receiver. He's not the biggest or strongest, but Dural is certainly one of the more talented wideouts in the SEC.
One of the few players who can match Dural step-for-step downfield in the conference is Mississippi State's Will Redmond. At 5-11, 185 pounds, Redmond reportedly runs sub 4.40, and if his other testing numbers (6.50 in the 3-cone, 3.92 in the short shuttle) are true, he will be one of the top performers at the Combine this spring. A starter for the first time in his career in 2015, Redmond has the athleticism and natural ball skills to make the transition to top-shelf cover corner at the NFL level. He was suspended for a combined 18 games earlier in his career, so if he can put that behind him and focus on improving between the lines, he could be a "fast riser" as the draft process continues to unfold. When I watch this game, I'll be focused on the WR/DB matchup on the opposite sidelines (LSU corner TreDavious White and Mississippi State wideout DeRunnya Wilson are two of my favorite players at their respective positions), but the Dural vs. Redmond matchup will be one to watch as well.
3. Colorado State WR Rashard Higgins vs. Minnesota CBs Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray
An All-America selection in 2014, Rashard Higgins is still one of the more underrated college football players in the country right now. Despite losing his quarterback and head coach at the end of the season, Higgins continued producing at a high level in the season opener, recording seven catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in Week 1. The true junior, who reminds some experts of 2015 top-5 pick Amari Cooper, is a good route runner, has the ability to beat corners deep down the field and is a true threat after the catch. The Dallas native got more consistent with his hands as the season progressed last year, and with continued improvement he should be on track to being a first-round pick when he does decide to enter the NFL Draft.
Higgins will face potentially his toughest test of the season on Saturday when the Rams take on Minnesota and their talented duo of senior cornerbacks. Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who is undersized at 5-9, 190 pounds, lines up all over the field for the Gophers and displays great quickness and change-of-direction skills that should translate to him being a very good slot corner at the next level. What's really special about Boddy-Calhoun, however, are his ball skills. Numerous times in 2014 he was able to make great plays on the ball because of his hand-eye coordination and body control at the catch point, where he was able to pull in the interception or get the ball on the ground. With his body type and physical skill set, Boddy-Calhoun reminds me a bit of former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu when he came out of college.
Opposite of Boddy-Calhoun, Higgins will find Eric Murray. At just under 5-11, 196 pounds, Murray is built differently than his teammate, so he presents a slightly different skill set. Murray doesn't have the ball skills of Boddy-Calhoun, but he's patient at the line of scrimmage in press situations, is really smart in zone coverage and is an aggressive run defender. How Minnesota decides to defend Murray will be interesting, but with two seniors that are likely to be NFL Draft picks this spring, they've got a good starting point.
4. LSU OT Vadal Alexander vs. Mississippi State LB Ryan Brown
The final matchup I'll focus on this week goes back to that pivotal SEC matchup between the Tigers and Bulldogs. Offensive tackle Vadal Alexander is a big, physical mauler at the point of attack. He played guard a year ago, and is sliding back to right tackle this fall, but Alexander has a nasty demeanor and his 334-pound frame is tough to move in the run game.
He'll have a tough matchup this week in Ryan Brown, who flashed to me a year ago while I was watching his teammates Preston Smith and Benardrick McKinney. Brown has good size (6-6, 262 pounds), and with that frame it's really fun to watch him drop in coverage as a curl/flat player in zone. Seeing him get back into space comfortably, then react to a throw, approach the line of scrimmage, come to balance and make a tackle is really intriguing, and he did that multiple times in 2014. Brown is a good run defender, and he'll have a test in the stout Alexander, who went toe-to-toe with blue chip prospects like Robert Nkemdiche and A'Shawn Robinson inside a year ago and held his own. This will be a fun one to watch in the trenches.