Week 8 of the 2016 college football season is here with some really intriguing matchups in every region of the country. This is set up to be a great week of action. On the College Draft Podcast with Ross Tucker, I broke down all the best matchups from some of the top games, but let's look at five more matchups that fans should keep their eyes on this weekend.
1. Iowa QB C.J. Beathard vs. Wisconsin's Defense
Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa - Noon - ESPN
Though he's likely going to be a third-day selection, I looked at C.J. Beathard as the top senior quarterback entering the season. While some seniors at other schools have improved their stock as the season has progressed, Beathard is still a solid prospect in his own right. He's a timing and rhythm quarterback with good physical tools, but I have questions about his accuracy and ball placement. There are times when he looks good in the pocket, but others when he seemed to struggle with pressure. He has solid physical traits, but what is his upside in the NFL? Those are the concerns evaluators have with Beathard, which is why strong performances against teams like Wisconsin will go a long way toward his final evaluation.
Wisconsin's defense looks to be getting a boost this week with the return of linebacker Vincent Biegel, who has missed the last two games with a foot injury. An outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme, Biegel has good size at 6-4, 241 pounds. He was very productive as a junior in 2015. He had nine tackles and a sack in the four games before his injury, and scouts will be excited to see his return to the field against Iowa and the rest of the Hawkeyes' offense.
2. N.C. State RB Matt Dayes vs. Louisville S Josh Harvey-Clemons
Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, Louisville, Kentucky - Noon - ABC
At 5-8, 202 pounds, Dayes is undersized, but has been very productive so far this season, rushing for at least 100 yards in every game but one. The senior is quick, decisive and has a good feel for the zone run schemes. The biggest question with him is his ability to make the first man miss, as he frequently gets tripped up by arm tackles. He's a pretty good receiver out of the backfield, is a decent blocker in pass protection and is more than willing to work between the tackles despite his smaller frame. Dayes is vying to be one of the top senior backs in the class, and trying to earn a trip to January's Senior Bowl all-star game.
The Cardinals have a couple of second-level defenders who will have an impact on this run game. Nose tackle DeAngelo Brown is stout inside and a strong run defender. Linebacker Keith Kelsey is a thumper who nearly declared for last year's draft. The player I want to focus on, though, is safety Josh Harvey-Clemons. At 6-4, 225 pounds, Harvey-Clemons has great size for a defensive back and can bring the wood downhill. The Georgia transfer is a strong tackler in the run game, and his physicality is apparent whenever you watch this defense. Harvey-Clemons may have to face a position switch in the NFL to linebacker, but his downhill abilities will certainly be put to the test against the elusive Dayes.
3. ECU WR Isaiah Jones vs. Cincinnati DBs Zach Edwards/Mike Tyson
Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio - 7 PM - CBS Sports Network
Considered one of the top senior prospects at the wide receiver position, Isaiah Jones has good size at 6-2, 193 pounds and the versatility to play inside or outside in the NFL. He does a good job working over the middle of the field. I want to see him improve as a route runner and get a bit better in contested situations. However, he does have pretty natural ball skills and is strong at the catch point. There's an Eagles tie-in here as well, as Jones is the younger brother of Cayleb, who was here with the team during the preseason and is the nephew of former Eagles quarterback Jeff Blake. Expect to hear more about Jones in the coming months in the leadup to April's draft.
Jones is going up against a Cincinnati secondary on Saturday night with two senior safeties. Strong safety Mike Tyson has good size at 6-1, 206 pounds and is a good downhill tackler. Free safety Zach Edwards is the better though, and he's a player who spent a ton of time deep while also seeing some time in the slot. Edwards is smart, quick and a good coverage player. His role in stopping Jones and the ECU passing attack will be huge against Cincinnati.
4. Ole Miss TE Evan Engram vs. LSU S Jamal Adams
Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, Louisiana - 9 PM - ESPN
One of the most dynamic pass catchers in the entire country, Evan Engram has been extremely productive as a senior after nearly declaring for last year's NFL Draft. At 6-3, 233 pounds, Engram is undersized for the position, but has great speed down the seam, is able to separate with ease at the top of his routes and is a natural at the catch point. He may not be a traditional every-down tight end, but Engram can absolutely play a role as a moveable chess piece for a creative offensive coordinator.
Engram will be matched up in some situations with LSU junior Jamal Adams, one of the most highly regarded safeties in the country. Whether he's lined up deep, playing in the slot against receivers and tight ends, or flying downhill to attack ball carriers in the run game, Adams does everything at top speed. With reports of teams liking him as a Top 10 pick in the upcoming draft, tracking his progress against a player like Engram will be of the utmost importance as the season progresses.
5. Tennessee State G Jessamen Dunker vs. Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham
Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tennessee - 7:30 PM - ESPN U
Jessamen Dunker is one of the best small-school prospects in the country, but he doesn't have a small-school pedigree. A four-star recruit out of high school before signing with the University of Florida, Dunker redshirted with the Gators in 2012 before transferring after off-the-field issues. Three and a half years later, Dunker has started at three different positions along Tennessee State's offensive line, including left tackle and both guard spots. He was named to the Senior Bowl Watch List this summer and figures to hear his name called potentially as early as the fourth or fifth round in April's draft. A quality performance against SEC competition will go a long way toward that realization.
On the other side of the field from Dunker is one of the country's top linebackers in Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham, who was the hero of last week's upset win over Georgia. Cunningham finished that day with 19 total tackles, the last of which came on a fourth-down stop to seal the win. At 6-4, 230 pounds, Cunningham has size, good short-area burst, a nasty demeanor, the ability to rush the quarterback, drop in coverage and defend the run. He'll be a name that I think a lot of Eagles fans will be interested in if he declares for the draft this offseason.
One of last year's top cornerback prospects was Clemson's Mackensie Alexander, who ended up being drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Vikings. Alexander was undersized and had very little statistical production, but his competitiveness was off the charts and athletically he had the makings of a starting NFL corner. On the other side of Alexander in that Clemson secondary last year was an underclassmen who flashed every time I watched the Tigers' defense, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley.
At 6-0, 194 pounds, Tankersley has very good size, more than enough speed (rumored to be in the mid-4.4s in the 40) and outstanding ball skills. He first flashed to me against Louisville with a ridiculous acrobatic interception along the sideline. He had the makings of a high-level starter on the outside, but lapses in technique caused him to give up seven plays of 20-plus yards, including three touchdowns as a junior. His technique at the line of scrimmage in press coverage was also subpar. This year? That appears to have completely changed, as another year of seasoning has made Tankersley one of the best cover men in the country in what figures to be a loaded cornerback class. A toolsy player with every physical trait you could want in a starting cornerback on the outside, look to hear Tankersley's name often this upcoming spring.
The prospect I'll focus on this week isn't from the FCS ranks, but he does sit outside college football's Power 5 conferences. Making plays in the Sun Belt conference since 2013,Louisiana-Lafayette's Elijah McGuire is one of the better senior ball carriers in the country. Athletically, McGuire has everything you want in an NFL running back with quality burst, speed and change-of-direction ability, which also showed up on the hardwood for the school's basketball team.
He's one of only two active players in the country with 3,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving. In the six games I've studied of McGuire, he's never put the ball on the ground. He holds up fairly well in pass protection, and he was moved all around the formation. The problem? He's not the most instinctual runner in the world, and often looks too hesitant in a crowd as he approaches the line of scrimmage. He doesn't pack much power in his lower body at just 204 pounds, and his athleticism doesn't always translate to him making defenders miss. If he can earn a spot in January's Senior Bowl, look for McGuire to try and help his stock as the draft inches closer.
One team with a host of draft prospects is in the western part of the state, as the Pitt Panthers have begun to churn out quality talent with head coach Pat Narduzzi at the helm. On offense, the Panthers run a pro-style attack with a misdirection element that keeps defenses on its toes. On defense, the 4-3 scheme brings us back to Narduzzi's days as the defensive coordinator at Michigan State. The Panthers are aggressive and do a lot of things you see in today's NFL game. To get a sense of how Pitt's best prospects are away from the field, I chatted briefly with Panthers reporter Lance Lysowski, who covers the team for DKPittsburghSports.com.
One of the best stories in college football is that of redshirt junior running back James Conner, who tore his ACL in Pitt's first game of 2015. While rehabbing, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma, publicly announcing his cancer last November. In May, the Erie, Pennsylvania native was declared cancer free and is back to his old ways bowling through defenders on a weekly basis.
"It's been pretty well documented that when James was going through chemotherapy he was working out as many times as he could," Lysowski said. "He went to the practice facility while the team was getting ready for spring football, doing anything he could to be around the team. He's the hardest worker on the team. I think it speaks volume to how much work he puts in and how impressive he is that he was named a captain on a team with 19 seniors. Off the field, he's as good as it gets. He puts a lot of time in with cancer patients. He did that before he got sick. James is really as good as it gets."
Senior quarterback Nathan Peterman is a player who caught my eye and is one of the real sleepers in this draft class. Peterman transferred from Tennessee after graduation in 2015, and is making the final year of college count.
"He does a lot of things at the line of scrimmage that people don't really recognize," Lysowski said. "He checks Pitt out of bad plays and really puts them in good positions both in the run and the passing game. He makes a lot of good calls. He doesn't get sacked. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. Really a cerebral guy that's put a lot of time in off the field. When you look at the offense they ran last year with Jim Chaney and what they do now with Matt Canada, it's night and day. The amount of success they've had is a credit to the work he's put in. He put a lot of time in this offseason working with his receivers and it's showing up this year. They have a lot of confidence in him. He's the leader of that offense."
Peterman is protected by one of the top offensive lines in the country, particularly on the left side, where left tackle Adam Bisnowaty and left guard Dorian Johnson have been opening up holes for the last three and a half years. Both prospects could be selected in the top 50 of the upcoming draft.
"Adam Bisnowaty may be the leader of that team," Lysowski said. "Very outspoken. He gets scolded by Nathan Peterman sometimes for jawing with opposing linemen, but he's a fun, goofy guy. He's really humble. He has done a lot of work in the community and loves working with kids. Dorian Johnson is very quiet, very soft spoken. He's not going to talk a lot about himself but you can tell by the way he handles himself that he has it all together off the field."
While Conner's story is certainly the most fascinating off the field, defensive end Ejuan Price isn't far behind. He's gone from a player who no one really knew to one of the best playmakers in the entire ACC.
"Ejuan Price is outstanding. Team captain. Really great back story, he missed all or most of three seasons before Narduzzi was hired. When Narduzzi arrived on campus, he looked down the roster and he didn't know if Price was a guy he could rely on. Some of the training staff admitted to him that Price was known as a soft player and didn't play through injuries. Narduzzi pulled him into his office and told him, 'You're not going to get hurt, we want you to be the guy that leads this pass rush.' Price took a hold of that in the first spring practice and never let go," Lysowski said. "A lot of the players on that defense talk about how he leads by example. When there's a loss, when other areas of the defense struggle, he's accountable and takes the blame himself. Just a leader on that side of the ball."
Next to Price is a player who has come on this year in a big way, senior nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett, the supersized run stuffer at 6-3, 335 pounds.
"The coaches just continually rave about Tyrique," Lysowski said. "That started in the spring and continued in the summer. There was a big hole at defensive tackle. Jarrett, after being inconsistent, having some weight issues, he's stepped up. He's the leader of that group inside. He's playing faster, he's playing more snaps. From what I'm hearing, their pretty optimistic that he's making a name for himself nationally."
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. 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.