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 a quarterback perform against the best defenses on the schedule? This fall we're going to take a look at the best head-to-head matchups in that week's slate of college football games, and give fans a preview of the top names around the country off the field in the process. Every week I'll give you look at some key matchups to keep an eye on across the country, highlight a prospect that's on the rise, profile a small-school player outside of the Power 5 conferences to watch for next year's draft, find a Philly connection, and give out a well-deserved game ball to a prospect that stood out in a big way for his play in the previous week.
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, but let's look at a few more matchups that fans should keep their eyes on in this weekend's action along with some of the players that are getting buzz around the country in regards to their NFL Draft status.
The Senior Bowl released 11 more names of acceptances for this year's event in January, and at the top of the list is Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. The explosive three-technique defensive tackle is undersized at 6'1, 287 pounds, but he projects as a true disruptor up front in the NFL because of his quick first step, violence at the point of attack and his overall competitiveness and play personality. He needs to get bigger and stronger, but he's a much better run defender than people give him credit for and his toughness overcomes some of his physical shortcomings in that phase of the game. I think he'll really help himself in Mobile as he tries to cement himself as a certain first-round pick for next April.
Small School Spotlight
Earlier this fall I wrote about South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert, who I believe to be the top tight end in this class as we sit here today. He's not the only Jackrabbit to watch this year, however, as oversized receiver Jake Wieneke is a player to watch as well. At 6'4, 213 pounds, Wieneke has good hands and is a solid route runner for a college receiver, displaying the ability to attack defender's techniques to get on top of corners at the FCS level. His severe lack of speed and quickness will limit his overall upside, but this is a smart, savvy player who can be a reliable possession target in the NFL if given the opportunity.
There's obviously a ton of buzz about UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, one of the top signal callers in the nation, but don't forget about the man hiking him the football on a weekly basis in Scott Quessenberry. At 6'3 and nearly 320 pounds, the senior center has NFL size and looks like a player that can step in immediately and compete from a physical standpoint at the next level. Keep an eye on him as the draft process continues to unfold. What's his connection to Philadelphia? Quessenberry, whose older brother David was a teammate of Eagles guard Brandon Brooks in Houston with the Texans, happens to be coached by former Eagles center Hank Fraley with the Bruins in Pasadena.
Last Week's Game Ball
I've been a big fan of this kid since the summer so it was good to see a great finale from Florida State nose tackle Derrick Nnadi against the Gators last weekend. The senior dominated Florida with three tackles, 1.5 which came for a loss, and 1.5 sacks in the win. Nnadi, who reminds me of Eagles defensive tackle Tim Jernigan in a lot of ways, is one of my favorite defensive linemen in this class because of how stout he is in the run game and how violent he is with his hands. He's not a truly explosive pass rusher upfield like Hurst is, but Nnadi is equally as disruptive, just in a different way.
Three Matchups To Watch
(1) Georgia RBs Nick Chubb / Sony Michel vs Auburn LB Tre Williams
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA - 4:00 pm ET - CBS
All eyes will be on the SEC Title Game on Saturday afternoon in Atlanta and, for my money, the best prospect on the field is running back Nick Chubb. At 5'11, 228 pounds, Chubb is a naturally instinctive runner who may just have the best vision of any back in this class. He's tough, physical, and pretty well-rounded at the running back position. His athletic ceiling is a bit lower than others in the class, especially after a devastating 2015 knee injury, but Chubb can be a quality starter in an NFL offense if given the opportunity. Backing up Chubb is fellow senior Sony Michel, who is an accomplished receiver out of the backfield but is much better between the tackles than most analysts give him credit for. I'm a fan of Michel's game, and while I don't think he projects as a high-end starter in the league I do believe he can stick as a solid backup runner for an NFL offense.
The reason Auburn was able to upset Georgia a couple of weeks ago was because of their ability to stop the run (Chubb was held to 27 yards and Michel just 21 in that game). One of the reasons why is senior linebacker Tre Williams, a stalwart for the Tigers in the middle. There are a handful of talented underclassmen to watch in that Auburn front seven, but keep an eye on Williams as a strong run defender on the inside.
PREDICTION: Having watched Auburn dismantle Georgia a couple of weeks ago and then seeing the Tigers beat Alabama last Saturday afternoon, I find it hard to pick against them this week. If junior running back Kerryon Johnson is a full-go (he was listed by head coach Gus Malzahn as 'day to day' on Wednesday), I think the Tigers win this game by at least a touchdown. I think Georgia has trouble once again running the football in this game.
(2) Ohio State C Billy Price vs Wisconsin DL Alec James
Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN - 8:00 pm ET - FOX
A four-year starter for the Buckeyes, center Billy Price is arguably the best senior interior offensive lineman in the country. At 6'4, 308 pounds, Price began his career at guard before sliding inside to center this season. Price is a smart, tough blocker who may lack top-end athleticism and length for the position but makes up for it with a strong base, heavy hands, and the ability to finish defenders consistently at the point of attack. He doesn't come with a lot of fan fare, but Price is one of the best players in the country regardless of position in this senior class.
A defensive end in the Badgers' 3-4 scheme, Alec James gets moved around the formation and is used up and down the line of scrimmage. A high school defensive end who has added a bunch of weight since arriving on campus to play more on the inside, James has a high motor and plays with good leverage in the run game. They won't get matched up on every snap, but this would be a matchup to keep an eye on in this game. While watching the front seven, keep a close eye on nose tackle Conor Sheehy and outside linebackers Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley as well.
PREDICTION: I'm surprised that Ohio State is as favored to win this game as they are, but I do think they're going to win this game. Wisconsin has been a great story, led by a star freshman running back in Jonathan Taylor and a local kid at quarterback in Alex Hornibrook along with that defense. That being said, I think the Buckeyes go in and win this game (which probably opens the door for Alabama to make the four-team playoff).
(3) Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield vs TCU LB Travin Howard
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX - 12:30 pm ET - FOX
One of the best players in college football, all eyes will be on Baker Mayfield on Saturday afternoon for this Big 12 Title game. The Sooners handled TCU earlier this year, a game where the senior completed 67 percent of his passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns. Transitioning to the NFL, I think Mayfield will need a system (and a coaching staff) that allows the quarterback to operate outside of structure in order to succeed. He has great touch and elusiveness in the backfield, but poise and pocket presence are the primary on-field concerns of mine moving forward. He'll be one of the most polarizing prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft.
A first-team All-Big 12 choice a year ago for TCU, senior linebacker Travin Howard will likely return to the lineup for the Horned Frogs after missing the last two weeks with an ankle injury. He leads the team in tackles, despite missing those two games, and racked up a season-high 13 against the Sooners the last time he took the field. An undersized but athletic linebacker who actually saw some time at safety a year ago, keep a close eye on Howard in this game.
PREDICTION: I expect Oklahoma to win this game behind Mayfield's playmaking ability, and they'll most likely win by at least two or three scores.