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.
College football is here, and to get the season started there are a number of big-time out-of-conference games. Some of the biggest matchups, including Ohio State vs Virginia Tech, TCU vs Minnesota and Texas A&M vs Arizona State were games that I broke down on this week's College Draft Podcast with Ross Tucker. What are some of the other big games to watch? Who are the players should fans keep an eye on? Let's start at the quarterback position.
1. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg Vs. Temple Defense
One of the most polarizing prospects in all of college football, Christian Hackenberg looks the part of a franchise quarterback. He's got good size (6-4, 238 pounds), a cannon for a right arm and displays traits inside the pocket that has a lot of evaluators drooling. But in 2014 he had as many downs as he had ups, and issues with his footwork led to long stretches of erratic passes, which led to more interceptions than many would hope to see from a top draft pick. For the first time since high school, Hackenberg didn't have to learn a new offense this offseason. If he can be more consistent with his accuracy and decision-making, he will be one of the top picks in the draft when he decides to enter the NFL, whether that's in 2016 or in 2017.
Hackenberg will have a chance to prove himself against a Temple defensive unit that has a solid corps of upperclassmen, led by veteran Tyler Matakevich, one of the most productive defenders in the country the past two seasons. Matakevich is instinctive, he's physical and he's a very strong tackler. If he can answer questions about his athleticism, he could hear his name called earlier than most expect on draft weekend. Matakevich gets protection up front from a pair of defensive tackles, Hershey Walton and Matt Ioannidis, two disruptive linemen who could hear their names called in the later rounds of next year's draft.
On the back end, senior cornerback Tavon Young is experienced and has the ability to hold up in coverage against Penn State's receiving corps. While Temple doesn't have any star players on a national scale (outside of Matakevich), there are a number of players on the unit who have a chance to step up against the best quarterback they'll see in 2015. If you're searching for a specific one-on-one matchup in this contest, focus on Matakevich when he's lined up against Nittany Lions' tight end Kyle Carter, one of the most athletic players at his position in the country.
2. Bowling Green RB Travis Greene Vs. Tennessee LB Curt Maggitt
I will put the focus here Tennessee's Curt Maggitt, who at 6-4, 251 pounds has good size for the SAM linebacker position and has the mindset to be a very good run defender at the next level. Maggitt (pronounced "muh-JIT"), is a high-motor kid who plays sideline-to-sideline. He may not be the best running back in the MAC, but Travis Greene from Bowling Green has ability, and if he can have a productive outing against a Tennessee defense loaded from front to back with NFL talent, that will go a long way toward him being drafted next spring.
3. Richmond WR Reggie Diggs Vs. Maryland CBs Sean Davis and Will Likely
One of the top small-school prospects at the wide receiver position, Richmond's Reggie Diggs is entering just his second season as a starter for the Spiders, but his size (6-4, 200 pounds) and ability to win in contested situations will make him a very interesting player to watch this fall.
Playing at the FCS level, Diggs won't face many secondaries as talented as the one he'll see from Maryland this weekend. Sean Davis might be the most underrated defensive back in the entire country in my mind. Davis shares a lot of similarities with Eagles cornerback Eric Rowe. He played a majority of his junior season at safety before moving to cornerback because of injuries, and is making the move to cornerback full time in 2015. He's got big-time size for an NFL cornerback at 6-1, 200 pounds. He's an aggressive run defender who isn't afraid to come downhill and make a tackle in the flats. He does a good job in press coverage, and he has the athleticism and speed to hold up in man down the field. Whether you see Davis as a big corner who can run, or if you see him as a safety with cornerback cover skills, he's going to be a high pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
His counterpart in the Maryland secondary is junior Will Likely, who doesn't have Davis' size at 5-8, 175 pounds but has been very productive both on defense (six interceptions in 2014) and on special teams (two touchdowns as a returner last season). If Likely is two inches taller, everyone in the country would be touting him as one of the top defensive backs in the country. How he performs in 2015 will be one of the things I focus on most from the Big Ten Conference.
4. Notre Dame WRs Chris Brown and Corey Robinson Vs. Texas CB Duke Thomas
All summer I've been touting Notre Dame as having one of the most talented rosters in all of college football. Not only do you have blue-chip prospects like linebacker Jaylon Smith and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, but cornerback Kei'Varae Russell, safety Elijah Shumate, defensive tackle Sheldon Day and the two players I want to focus on in this piece, wide receivers Chris Brown and Corey Robinson, help form a lineup that is stacked with NFL talent.
Possibly the best senior wide receiver in the entire country, Brown is certainly flying under the radar a bit. At 6-2, 191 pounds, he's got a ton of physical ability in terms of his quickness and explosiveness, giving him the skills necessary to separate from defenders with ease. He's got some dynamic traits with the ball in his hands, and is one of the best yards-after-catch players at the position. Brown had one of his best performances last year in the bowl game against LSU, so if he improved during the offseason at the rate he did during bowl practices, he could do some amazing things in 2015.
Opposite Brown is not only one of the more physically imposing receiving threats in the nation, but sports royalty here in our country. Corey Robinson, son of David "The Admiral" Robinson of San Antonio Spurs fame, has (to no one's surprise) great size at 6-4, 215 pounds, and uses that size well to win at the catch point. Just a junior this fall, he's not a polished route runner at this stage of his career, but Robinson is a matchup problem because of his size and how the coaching staff is willing to put him out on an island. Many analysts may not be talking about him yet, but I would expect Robinson to gain a lot of steam when he does enter the draft in 2017 after his senior season.
The Texas secondary has a tall order in defending these two threats in the passing game, and leading the charge for them will be senior cornerback Duke Thomas. Thomas has good size at 5-11, 182 pounds, and his scrappy playing style will be interesting to watch both against the physical Robinson and the more finesse Brown, who present two completely different ways to win as a receiver. In this game between two high-profile programs, this is the matchup I'm most excited to watch.
5. Virginia Tech WR Demitri Knowles Vs. Ohio State CB Eli Apple
The fifth and final matchup I'll focus on this week comes from the weekend's headliner, where the defending National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes take on the one team that beat them in 2014, Virginia Tech, on the first unofficial Monday Night Football game of the season (think of it as a teaser before the Eagles take on Atlanta in nine days). I covered a lot of the best matchups in the College Draft Podcast this week, but the best player on the field that we didn't talk about is the youngster, Eli Apple. A 12-game starter for the champs last fall as a redshirt freshman, Apple enters his second season and first of NFL Draft eligibility with a good amount of buzz.
A native of Voorhees, New Jersey just over the bridge from Philadelphia, Apple went to Ohio State as a five-star recruit and the top player in the state out of high school. He's got great size at 6-1, 200 pounds, and when you pair that with outstanding speed and athleticism in the open field you have a recipe for a blue-chip player at the cornerback position. As just a freshman last season, I thought Apple performed very well against Oakland Raiders first-round pick Amari Cooper in the Sugar Bowl last year, and the arrow is pointing up for him as he enters the 2015 campaign.
Opposite Apple will be Hokies wide receiver Demitri Knowles. A senior with good size (6-1, 180 pounds) and athleticism, Knowles offers a reliable target to Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer and presents potential as a kick returner as well. A standout performance for Knowles against Apple could help raise his stock as he inches closer to the end of his college career.