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 five more matchups that fans should keep their eyes on in this weekend's action.
Five Players To Watch
(1) Alabama LBs Shaun Dion Hamilton & Rashaan Evans vs LSU Run Game
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, AL - 8:00 pm ET - CBS
At 6'0, 234 pounds, senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton ranks second on the team with 37 tackles, third with 2.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. A good athlete for the position with the ability to hang in all forms of coverage, Hamilton is a smart, tough linebacker with three-down potential at the next level. Next to Hamilton is fellow senior Rashaan Evans, who returned from injury recently with a vengeance. Formerly a full-time pass rusher in their 3-4 scheme, Evans now is more of a stacked linebacker who comes off the edge situationally, but he's got NFL size at 6'2, 230 pounds. Keep an eye on both players in this pivotal matchup.
Alabama has to stop this LSU run game if they want to win the game. Junior Derrius Guice is back in the starting lineup and ripped off a huge performance two weeks ago against Ole Miss, while senior Darrel Williams held steady while Guice was on the sideline.
PREDICTION: This is my favorite college football game of the year, so my eyes will be glued to the TV in this matchup. There are a lot of players to watch, but this matchup most of all. Former LSU Tiger Leonard Fournette was crushed by many analysts this spring because he never was able to put up numbers against this Alabama front. I expect that theme to continue for Guice and Williams. Alabama wins by three scores, and LSU is held to under 125 yards rushing. Hamilton leads the Tide in tackles in the win.
(2) Oklahoma State WR James Washington vs Oklahoma CB Jordan Thomas
Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater, OK - 4:00 pm ET - FS1
The biggest matchup to watch in 'Bedlam' is definitely on the outside with wide receiver James Washington. The big-play threat for the Cowboys hasn't eclipsed 100 yards receiving since the team's October 14th win over Baylor (when he caught six passes for a ridiculous 235 yards and a score). Washington isn't a burner, but he wins with his length and physicality at the catch point to outmuscle defenders and make plays after the catch. Keep a close eye on him in this game.
Tasked with trying to keep Washington out of the end zone is difficult for anyone, and last year the Sooners were able to do it. Washington was held to two catches for 50 yards in 2016, and he saw almost all of his reps against Oklahoma left corner Jordan Thomas. At 6'1, 199 pounds, Thomas can match Washington from a size perspective and he has the ballskills to compete with him at the catch point. This is one of the best pure one-on-one matchups of the year, with two of the top seniors at their respective positions battling it out on the outside.
PREDICTION: I don't know what the 'Over/Under' is in this game, but I'd take the 'over' with two big-time offensive attacks duking it out. You've got these two talented players to go along with two of the top senior quarterbacks in the country (Baker Mayfield for Oklahoma and Mason Rudolph for State). I'm going to go with Oklahoma in this one, as much as I'd love to root for Mike Gundy and his wonderful hair. The Sooners again keep Washington out of the end zone in the victory.
(3) Notre Dame LT Mike McGlinchey vs Wake Forest EP Duke Ejiofor
Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, IN - 3:30 pm ET - NBC
We've written a lot about McGlinchey lately, who has seen some of the best pass rushers in the country this year. In Week 2 he saw Georgia and their talented duo of Lorenzo Carter and Jay Bellamy. The next week he saw Harold Landry and Boston College. Five weeks after that, he started what is a four-game stretch against Uchenna Nwosu (USC), Bradley Chubb (NC State), and this week's game against Wake Forest and their senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor (next week they play Miami and defensive end Chad Thomas). McGlinchey is 6'7, 311 pounds with long arms, light feet, and the demeanor to play tackle on the blind side in the NFL. I'm a big fan of his game and see him as a first-round prospect in this class.
Ejiofor has 3.5 sacks in the last two games, including one against Louisville last week, and he's one of the smartest pass rushers in the country. The Houston, Texas, native wins in a lot of different ways, is able to string multiple pass rush moves together, and is one of the best technicians in this class. I don't know if Ejiofor will turn into an NFL star, but he certainly is a more than competent NFL talent with starting ability off the edge.
PREDICTION: Notre Dame has been one of the biggest surprises in the country this season, and there's no reason to think they shouldn't win this game, even though Wake Forest shocked people with a win over Louisville a week ago. I like Notre Dame in this game, and McGlinchey prevents Ejiofor from getting to quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
(4) Oregon RB Royce Freeman vs Washington LBs Keishawn Berreria / Azeem Victor
Husky Stadium, Seattle, WA - 10:00 pm ET - FS1
Freeman hasn't reached the end zone in nearly two months, but he has eclipsed 130 yards rushing in each of the Ducks' last three games. A physical grinder who protects the football and has the ability to run through first contact, Freeman will struggle to set himself apart in the NFL with his athleticism but I think he can find a role on a depth chart thanks to that physicality downhill.
Washington's defense has really hit it's groove, and patrolling the middle of the field for them are a pair of senior linebackers. Azeem Victor (6'2, 223 pounds) and Keishawn Bierria (6'1, 230 pounds) are both rangy players with plus athleticism and the ability to play sideline to sideline. Bierria is probably a better coverage player, while Victor is more of the aggressive, downhill-type of 'backer. Both need to improve as tacklers, but this will be a good opportunity for them to go up against a big, physical back in Freeman.
PREDICTION: Washington has only allowed more than 14 points twice this season, and the season-high was 23 points last week against UCLA in a blowout victory. Before last week's big win over Utah, Oregon had struggled to move the ball consistently with their backup quarterback getting acclimated to more playing time (starter Justin Herbert is out with an injury). I like the Huskies in this game, and Freeman is held to 90 yards rushing in the loss.
(5) Mississippi State LT Martinas Rankin vs UMASS EP Da'Sean Downey
Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, MS - 12:00 pm ET - SEC Network
Bulldogs left tackle Martinas Rankin has gotten buzz as a potential first round pick this spring, and for good reason. He's got NFL size at 6'5, 307 pounds with long arms and pretty good feet. Watching him over the summer, I saw a lineman that still needed to get a lot stronger at the point of attack but with definite starting upside in the NFL either at tackle or at guard.
This won't be the biggest matchup for Rankin this season, but one of the pass rushers on the other side will certainly be looking at this game as a huge opportunity to raise his stock. Senior Da'Sean Downey has a tall, lanky frame (6'4, 220 pounds with extremely long arms), but his explosive first step and top-end closing speed make him an intriguing option as a developmental pass rusher. He put up seven tackles last week against Appalachian State but had the best game of the season two weeks ago against Georgia Southern with eight stops and two sacks.
PREDICTION: Mississippi State will win this game easily at home, but I think Downey is able to get into the backfield on a few plays. I think the senior gets five tackles and a sack in the loss.
The Senior released a Midseason All-Senior Team last week, and one name that made the list after being completely off the radar just a couple of months ago is cornerback Levi Wallace from Alabama. A former walk-on for the Crimson Tide who wasn't even ranked by most recruiting services when he arrived at the school at 140 pounds (he actually played intramural football in his first semester), Wallace is a self-made player who worked his way up the depth chart throughout his career. His hard work paid off this year as he took over the starting left corner job from Baltimore Ravens first-round pick Marlon Humphrey, and he has turned into a lockdown cover man. Pro Football Focus views him as one of the best corners in the country, he's been very productive (nine pass breakups and three picks), and on film he displays the kind of competitive toughness that you need to have to play on the outside in the NFL. There was a lot of buzz surrounding Alabama's other starting corner, senior Anthony Averett, but I actually like Wallace a little more as we stand here today. I'll be keeping a close eye on any matchups he has with LSU wideout DJ Chark on Saturday night.
Small School Spotlight
At 6'4, 225 pounds, Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White has the size and frame NFL teams look for at the position. A three-year college starter who actually began his career at USF, White has impressed me over his career with his ability to navigate the pocket with his eyes up to deliver the football, a necessary trait for pro quarterbacks. He needs a lot of work on his mechanics, and he can be a little erratic as a result, but keep a close eye on him as the season progresses. White had a 'down' game last week against FAU with 356 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, but expect to see him get back on track this week, even against an SEC opponent in Vanderbilt. White has NFL ability.
A lot of attention is put on Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, and for good reason, but don't forget about another dangerous weapon on that offense, tight end Mike Gesicki. At 6'5, 250 pounds, Gesicki has extremely long arms and excels at going up and fighting for the football downfield. The senior from Manahawkin, New Jersey (just over an hour east of Philadelphia), Gesicki is automatic at the catch point, and reminds me in a lot of ways of Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. The Lions take on ranked Michigan State this weekend, a game I expect them to win, but keep a close eye on the senior who set a bunch of records for the Nittany Lions a year ago.
Gesicki and Penn State were upset by Ohio State a week ago (I'll pat myself on the back for that one now), and the biggest reason for that was senior quarterback JT Barrett. The senior completed his last 16 passes in the win, and was pinpoint accurate on a couple of critical touchdown throws to keep Penn State at bay. Barrett has been mostly erratic this season, and many have soured on his NFL potential (I still think he has the ability to stick as a backup in the league), but this was a game that many will point to as an example of his ability to be accurate and poised in a pressure situation.