This week on the College Draft Podcast with Ross Tucker, I broke down all the best matchups from some of the top games of the week including the College Football Playoff matchups, but let's look at a few more matchups that fans should keep their eyes on this weekend. The column also features some of the players who are generating buzz around the country in regard to their NFL Draft status.
In a piece on The MMQB, Albert Breer noted that team evaluators believe N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb will end up being one of the top four picks in the draft and one of the three best overall prospects in the entire class. For that reason, it wasn't a shock to see that the senior decided to sit out the team's bowl game on Friday. Chubb reminds me a bit of current Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett. He wins in a lot of different ways off the edge, can play the run, and has a very high motor. He doesn't have the athletic upside of some of the other pass rushers in this class, but Chubb's transition to the league could be much smoother next fall.
With so many new Eagles fans in the state of North Dakota, I assume there will be a lot of people asking about North Dakota State linebacker Nick DeLuca this spring. The two-and-a-half-year starter will be at the Senior Bowl next month. DeLuca has very good size at 6-3, 243 pounds and what stands out most to me are his instincts. The Nebraska native plays traffic cop in the middle of the Bison defense, helping get teammates lined up pre-snap. He sees things quickly inside after the snap and is able to read plays and react in a hurry. DeLuca rarely false steps and has a knack for working through traffic. He's one of the more physical linebackers I've studied this fall. I don't know if his top-end athleticism is good enough for him to be a starter in the NFL, but he's a great special teams player with a high floor. I feel good about his ability to stick in the league as a backup at the very least. You can watch DeLuca play on January 6 in the FCS National Championship in James Madison.
He didn't play in the team's bowl game this week against Utah, but West Virginia running back Justin Crawford does have a lot going for him as the draft process approaches. He didn't have quite the season he was hoping for as the senior broke the 100-yard mark twice in the final seven weeks after hitting the milestone in each of the team's first five games). Crawford is a decent-sized runner with a knack for playing off of his blocks and the speed to break away from defenders in the open field. It doesn't look like he's headed for the Senior Bowl, but keep an eye on him moving forward. I think the player who took over for running back Wendell Smallwood with the Mountaineers could be chosen on the third day of the NFL Draft.
Last Week's Game Ball
Our top matchup to watch last week was San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny against the Army defense. I predicted that the senior would go for at least 200 yards with a pair of touchdowns. That's exactly what he did, posting 221 yards and four touchdowns in the Aztecs' loss. Penny is a decisive runner who can slip through tackles at a high level with potential to be a three-down runner in the NFL. Donnel Pumphrey's backup last year will be a name that's talked about all offseason long in the lead-up to the NFL Draft.
Five Matchups To Watch
1. Washington WR Dante Pettis vs. Penn State CB Christian Campbell/S Marcus Allen
Fiesta Bowl, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona - Saturday, 4 p.m. - ESPN
Coming into the season, I thought that Washington receiver Dante Pettis was one of the most natural pass catchers in all of college football with maybe the best set of hands in the country. At 6-0, 189 pounds, the senior may not be the type who will line up consistently on the outside and win at the NFL level, but I think he projects extremely well into the slot. Pettis, one of the best punt returners in the country, also does a nice job with the ball in his hands. He's a player you absolutely have to keep an eye on in this game.
Pettis will face one of the better secondaries he's seen this year against the Nittany Lions, and they have two defensive backs heading to the Senior Bowl in January. Cornerback Christian Campbell has prototypical size at 6-1, 188 pounds with extremely long arms. He doesn't travel into the slot, but he will match up against Pettis on the outside. When Pettis does go inside, he'll see a dose of Marcus Allen in zone coverage. The hard-hitting safety also has NFL size at 6-2, 208 pounds, and he's one of the best pure tacklers at the position in the class.
Prediction: I think Penn State wins this game by a touchdown behind the run game, but when you look at this matchup I do think that Pettis is going to get his share of targets and catches. I'm going to call for five catches, 75 yards, and a score for the senior's swan song.
2. Auburn G Braden Smith vs. UCF DT Jamiyus Pittman
Peach Bowl, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta - Monday, 12:30 p.m. - ESPN
Auburn junior running back Kerryon Johnson is reportedly back to full health, so expect to see a lot of him in this game against UCF. Leading the way for him on the ground will be senior right guard Braden Smith. The 6-6, 301-pound three-year starter uses his hands very well in the run game and is one of the toughest blockers in the country. He needs to get stronger at the point of attack, but Smith is projected by many analysts as one of the top linemen in the country entering the draft in 2018.
Senior defensive tackle Jamiyus Pittman, who will be at the East-West Shrine Game next month, has been a stalwart for the undefeated Knights. At 6-0, 311 pounds, he's shorter than desired for the position but he wins off the ball with a quick swim move and is a player who makes a ton of plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Pittman is violent with his hands and is one of the most active players in that front seven, along with senior linebacker Shaquem Griffin, who should also be heavily mixed up with Smith in this game as well.
Prediction: For two teams that just missed out on the playoff, this will be a big game. UCF has plenty to prove after going undefeated outside of the Power Five conferences (12-0). Their entire coaching staff has been working to recruit for Nebraska, and with all of the transition, I'm going to say Auburn wins this game by double digits. Smith helps open up holes for the Tiger offense, as they run for over 200 in the victory.
3. Georgia LT Isaiah Wynn vs. Oklahoma DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo
Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif. - Monday, 5 p.m. - ESPN
A three-year starter for the Bulldogs, Isaiah Wynn made the move to left tackle this fall and has performed extremely well. He wasn't on the NFL radar coming into the season, but the former left guard rebounded with a first-team All-SEC campaign as Georgia's best blocker all season long. Wynn, who is a relentless player in the run game, uses his hands well and displays pretty good athleticism out on the perimeter. Watching Wynn, I'm reminded of former Georgia Tech offensive lineman Shaq Mason, who has started for the New England Patriots since his rookie year on the inside. I think Wynn can have a similar role in the NFL.
The biggest challenge for Wynn will be Oklahoma pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, one of the most productive pass rushers in the country over the last two years. The senior flies out of his stance when he lines up out wide. He's going to threaten the edge with his quick first step throughout this matchup. If Wynn can get his hands on him, however, I think that's where the advantage can go Georgia's way.
Prediction: What I like most about this individual matchup is that it includes two players who likely will have to change positions in the NFL. I think Wynn will have to slide back inside to guard in the NFL, while Okoronkwo is more of a standup "stacked" linebacker in my eyes. In fact, he's listed as such by the Senior Bowl. Okoronkwo hasn't recorded a sack since the first week of November after a hot start to the season with at least a half sack in each of the team's first six games. I think he gets back on the stat sheet with a sack in this game, but as far as who wins the game ...
4. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield vs. Georgia LBs Lorenzo Carter/Davin Bellamy
Sugar Bowl, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta - Monday, 8:45 p.m. - ESPN
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner is the player who will draw the most eyeballs in the College Football Playoff, and for good reason because he's been extremely fun to watch all season long. He's made throws from the pocket and on the run. He has his share of flaws, but he's going to be one of the most discussed prospects this entire draft cycle. An argument can be made for Ohio State, but I don't believe that the Sooners have seen a defense quite like Georgia's this season, so this will be a big test for the senior passer.
It will take a full team effort to stop Mayfield and this Oklahoma offense, but I'm putting most of the onus on the Bulldogs' defensive line, namely their two senior edge rushers, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy. Both players who will be at the Senior Bowl are the two names to keep an eye on up front from the senior class. Mayfield is able to create plays for himself in the backfield, but when he feels pressure snap after snap he can be affected just as much as any other quarterback. Carter is a high-motor player with a quick first step, while Bellamy has a number of moves he can rely on to get into the backfield to make plays. This match will be pivotal in this game.
Prediction: ... I think Georgia wins this game by a touchdown. The Bulldogs' defense is stout. If Georgia can prove to match up step for step with some of the speed Oklahoma has on the perimeter I think the Bulldogs will be able to keep this offense under 35 points, something that's only happened twice this year. Georgia is known as a defensive team, but the Bulldogs have put up over 35 points eight times this year. Mayfield is battling the flu. He may struggle against the Georgia defense, and the Bulldogs move on to the National Championship.
5. Clemson G Tyrone Crowder vs. Alabama LB Rashaan Evans
Dollar General Bowl, Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Mobile, Alabama - 7 p.m. - ESPN
Senior right guard Tyrone Crowder is the player I want to focus on, but keep an eye on redshirt junior left guard Taylor Hearn (who reportedly is declaring for the draft) in this game as well. I truly believe this matchup will be won in the trenches on both sides of the ball. I like Clemson's defensive line against Alabama's offensive front, but on the flip side, I think this is going to be a really well-fought battle. In previous years, Clemson's offensive line was young and the skill players were the experienced playmakers. Now, the tables are turned. Players like Crowder (6-2, 330 pounds) will need to win their one-on-ones up front to open up running lanes and keep quarterback Kelly Bryant clean. Ideally, Crowder gets up to the second level to take on linebackers in the run game.
If Crowder does get up to the linebacker level, he'll be seeing a lot of middle linebacker Rashaan Evans. He is a former edge rusher in their 3-4 scheme who made the switch inside in 2016. Evans uses his hands very well and brings a level of physicality to the interior of the defense that is going to be desperately needed in this game. Evans has NFL size at 6-2, 230 pounds. A "stack-and-shed" type of player in the run game who can double as a quality blitzer from depth, Evans is viewed as one of the top seniors in the entire country at his position.
Prediction: I know Alabama limped into the playoff losing to Auburn in the regular-season finale pretty handily. The Crimson Tide were banged up at that point and are now fully healthy, outside of a couple of injuries at linebacker. I think the Tide are able to keep the Clemson offense in check, and they go on to win this game by a touchdown.