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.
We've officially passed the halfway point of the college football season, and as we turn the corner we get closer and closer to the point where all-star games announce attendees and underclassmen begin making declarations for the NFL. Opportunities for prospects to impress NFL scouts (and improve their team's chances at postseason play) are beginning to dwindle, but there are a few really interesting one-on-one matchups set to happen on Saturday. This week on the Eagle Eye in the Sky Podcast, I spoke with Ohio State beat writer Bill Rabinowitz about some of the top players suiting up for the Buckeyes, focusing specifically on character evaluation. On the College Draft Podcast with Ross Tucker, we broke down the top matchups in two of the biggest games in preparation for the weekend, USC vs. Notre Dame as well as Penn State vs. Ohio State. Who else should you be watching? Let's take a look.
1. Memphis QB Paxton Lynch vs. Mississippi Defense
Liberty Bowl Memorial, Memphis, Tennessee - Noon - ABC
Memphis is off to a 5-0 start. One of the catalysts for that has been quarterback Paxton Lynch, who is starting to create some buzz as a draft prospect. At 6-7, 245 pounds, he's got great size and a strong arm. He's been very productive, throwing for at least 300 yards in each of the last four games. That buzz skyrocketed a week ago, when ESPN's Mel Kiper put Lynch at No. 17 overall on his newest "Big Board." If Lynch can have a good outing against one of the toughest defenses in the SEC, it will go a long way toward vaulting himself into that realm of first-round quarterbacks when he decides to enter the NFL Draft down the road.
Having a good outing against Ole Miss is no small feat. Defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche is one of the best players in the entire country. Many experts view him as a potential top-three selection either in 2016 or 2017. Nkemdiche has NFL size at 6-4, 296 pounds. He has a great pedigree as the consensus No. 1 player in the entire country as a high school senior out of Georgia. He's got an explosive first step, knows how to attack offensive linemen with his hands and has shown improved strength at the point of attack this year as a junior. Senior safety Trae Elston helps keep things in order on the back end. At 5-11, 195 pounds, he projects as a later-round pick in the draft by most services.
2. Louisiana Tech RB Kenneth Dixon vs. Mississippi State Defense
Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Mississippi - Noon - SEC Network
While Paxton Lynch has time in his career to improve his stock, Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Dixon is running out of time. The senior runner is facing off against the best defense he'll see all season long this weekend against Mississippi State. It's a great stage for him. Dixon, in my view, is the best senior running back taking the field in the entire nation this week. At 5-10, 213 pounds, he has solid size, but his competitive style of running and his quickness in the hole are what make him effective. Dixon is a fantastic receiver out of the backfield. His ability to find small cracks in the defense and burst through the hole is very good. I'm a big fan of running backs who "run angry," and Dixon definitely fits the bill. Against a Mississippi State defense loaded with future pro prospects, this is a big day for the senior.
There are a couple of players who you should know about on this Bulldogs defense. Perhaps the most talented player on the team is senior cornerback Will Redmond. He isn't a great run defender, but his quickness and speed make him a very intriguing player for the next level. Linebacker Ben Brown, a favorite of our friend Tony Pauline, is a stalwart inside for them. Edge player Ryan Brown is very interesting because of his combination of size (6-6, 262 pounds) and athleticism (he has repeatedly showed ability to drop in coverage). There are a lot of players with NFL talent for Mississippi State, and Dixon's performance in this game will go a long way toward shaping his draft stock.
3. LSU WR Travin Dural vs. Florida CBs Vernon Hargreaves/Brian Poole
Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, Louisiana - 7 PM - ESPN
The numbers haven't really been there for LSU receiver Travin Dural this season. He's caught just 14 passes for 229 yards and just one touchdown through five games, but his skill set makes him one of the more explosive playmakers in the country. He's got solid size at 6-2, 192 pounds and reported speed in the low 4.40 range. Dural has the ability to consistently get on top of defenders and beat them down the field. A track star in high school, Dural also is a threat to score any time he gets the ball in his hands because of his YAC-ability. He is a test for any secondary he faces each week.
Dural is going up against one of the best secondaries in the country, headlined by one of the most talked-about cornerbacks in Vernon Hargreaves. Ever since being an All-America as a true freshman in 2013, Hargreaves has been on the national radar because of his quickness, instincts and ballskills. He doesn't have outstanding size, but the Tampa native is sure to be one of the top cornerbacks selected in the NFL Draft whenever he decides to come out. Here's to hoping he stays in college for his senior season.
Hargreaves isn't alone in the Florida secondary though, as a number of talented underclassmen also join him. Sophomores Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor, as well as junior safeties Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal have consistently made plays this season. But don't forget about senior corner Brian Poole who, like Hargreaves, is a bit undersized, but has good instincts and the ability to play both inside and out. Poole and Hargreaves will both be matched up against Dural (or junior LSU receiver Malachi Dupre) at different times throughout the game. It will be one of the most interesting battles to watch in this game (although maybe not my favorite one - more on that later).
4. Virginia Tech TEs Bucky Hodges/Ryan Malleck vs. Miami S Deon Bush
Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida - 3:30 PM - ESPN-U
Virginia Tech might have the best duo of tight ends in college football with sophomore Bucky Hodges and senior Ryan Malleck. In my opinion, Malleck is pretty underrated at this point from a national perspective. He's a good route runner for a college tight end, has strong hands and is a really refined blocker, showing good strength and technique at the point of attack. He's a solid athlete, and gets moved all around the formation. Malleck isn't as dynamic as Hodges. Built like a receiver at a lanky 6-6, Hodges has surprising bulk at 249 pounds. He spends most of his time out wide, playing in space, but the former quarterback isn't afraid to mix it up in the running game either. Still, his strength is his ability to go up and win at the catch point. As a receiver, the draft-eligible Hodges (a third-year sophomore) reminds me a bit of Julius Thomas coming out of Portland State.
Hodges and Malleck will see a lot of reps in coverage against one of the best senior safeties in the country in Deon Bush from Miami. A versatile playmaker who lines up in a number of different ways for the Hurricanes, Bush has the ability to man up on tight ends in space and has done so consistently well in the past. Bush is a solid run defender, but his athleticism and instincts make him a quality coverage player as well. How he matches up against both Hodges and Malleck will be really interesting to watch as the game unfolds this afternoon.
5. LSU OL Vadal Alexander vs. Florida DL Johnathan Bullard/Alex McCallister/Bryan Cox
Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, Louisiana - 7 PM - ESPN
As exciting as it will be to watch gamebreakers like Dural and Florida's Demarcus Robinson fly on the outside, this game between Florida and LSU will be won or lost in the trenches, particularly with the LSU offense against the Florida defense. Up front for the Tigers, senior right tackle Vadal Alexander leads the way along with junior left tackle Jerald Hawkins. Alexander, who has played both guard and tackle during his career at LSU, is a true road grader up front. While he doesn't have outstanding feet as a pass protector, Alexander gets great movement at the point of attack and helps open holes for all-everything running back Leonard Fournette.
Alexander will get matched up against a furious Florida defensive front that rotates players in and out and moves them up and down the line. My favorite player of the group may be senior Jonathan Bullard. At 6-3, 283 pounds, Bullard is a very strong run defender, an instinctive playmaker and a deceptively athletic pass rusher inside. Behind Bullard's team-leading 4.5 sacks is junior Alex McCallister, who has come on strong this year after fellow underclassman Bryan Cox Jr. stole all of the headlines over the summer. At 6-6, 239 pounds, McCallister has the length that teams want, and is a really intriguing player for the Gators. Cox, whose dad was a seasoned NFL veteran who played for five teams, has great athleticism off the edge and shows the ability to consistently turn the corner against tackles. Florida will face its stiffest test of the year in this LSU run game, and winning the battle at the point of attack will be key for them to come away with the victory.
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.