One of the first things NFL scouts do when looking at prospects in preparation for the NFL Draft is watch them against the best competition they faced in the previous season. This fall, we're going to take a look at the best head-to-head matchups in this week's slate of college football games. Every week, I'll give you look at some key matchups to keep an eye on across the country, highlight a prospect who is on the rise, profile a small-school player to watch for next year's draft, find a Philly connection, and give out a well-deserved game ball to a prospect who stood out in a big way the previous week.
Many pundits view this Saturday's slate as a "down" week for college football, but when I look around the country I think there are a lot of fun games to study. 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 here's five more that fans should keep their eyes on this weekend.
Five Matchups To Watch
1. Penn State Saquon RB Barkley vs. Iowa LB Josey Jewell
*Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa - Saturday 7:30 p.m. - ABC *
Saquon Barkley, to me, is arguably the best prospect in the country, regardless of position. At 5-11, 228 pounds, he's been on an absolute tear to start the season, with five touchdowns and 548 yards from scrimmage in three games. Barkley is the complete package at the position as an explosive, powerful runner with contact balance and wiggle to make people miss. He's a load to bring down in the open field, and with his combination of size and speed, he's going to be tough for any defense in the country to stop.
Iowa always has a group of tough, instinctive defenders up front who will bring their best against the Nittany Lions on Saturday. The man to watch in the middle of that defense is senior linebacker Josey Jewell. At 6-2, 230 pounds, Jewell may not be a star once in the NFL, but he's going to be a really solid starter for someone because of his ability to key and diagnose plays quickly as a run defender. I think he'll transition well to the NFL because of his physicality downhill at the point of attack and ability to finish as a tackler (though he did have more misses in that department a year ago than I'd like to see). Jewell's biggest weakness is in coverage, and I think that could be a key component to this game.
Prediction: Barkley extends his scoring streak when he connects with Trace McSorley on a wheel route down the sideline for a big play, and he adds at least another 135 on the ground as Penn State rolls to victory by more than two touchdowns.
2. Nebraska QB Tanner Lee vs. Rutgers' D
*Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Nebraska - 3:30 p.m. - Big Ten Network *
In a class that's already being tabbed as one of the best quarterback drafts in recent memory, one senior who I think will be considered a riser throughout the pre-draft process is Nebraska's Tanner Lee. A transfer from Tulane now in his first year starting for the Cornhuskers, Lee has NFL size at 6-4, 220 pounds. He has made headlines every summer throughout his career because of how he's looked at the Manning Passing Academy. Lee started two years at Tulane before a coaching (and dramatic scheme) change forced his hand to leave his hometown Green Wave and join Nebraska. He's now taken the reins after a transfer year. Lee has solid physical tools and a quick release. He looks the part of a pro passer, but a rough outing last week against Northern Illinois has many questioning the senior's potential.
Rutgers has a few defenders who have turned heads of late. In the secondary, juniors Isaiah Wharton (6-1, 204), Blessuan Austin (6'1, 195), and Saquan Hampton (6-1, 207) certainly look the part. They'll present a challenge for Lee on the back end. The player I'll focus on, however, is pass rusher Kemoko Turay. The senior arrived on campus as a 210-pound track athlete who earned an offer at a Rutgers high school camp. In five years, he's developed into a 252-pound pass rusher with great bend and flexibility, and a quick first step. He's not a developed pass rusher right now, and he's still not where he needs to be against the run, but players with his combination of length and athleticism typically don't fall far on draft day. I've been studying Turay since his freshman season, and the Newark, New Jersey native is certainly a player to keep a close eye on in this game.
Prediction: Lee gets back on the horse this week against the Scarlet Knights. I think he throws for 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns with one interception, but Turay gets his first sack of the year. Nebraska wins the game at home, but I think it's a win by 10 points or fewer.
3. Old Dominion WR Travis Fulgham vs. Virginia Tech Secondary
*Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Virginia - 2 p.m. - ACC Network *
This may seem like a throwaway game on the schedule, but don't count out Old Dominion against the Hokies. The Monarchs have a player on the outside who has really caught my eye. Junior wideout Travis Fulgham (6-3, 214 pounds) is a physically imposing receiver who can attack downfield and win in the quick game. Fulgham leads the team with 10 catches for 183 yards and a score, and I'd feel even better about his abilities in this game if he had his partner in crime on the other side. Senior Jonathan Duhart (6-3, 221 pounds) stood out to me a couple of years ago, and had worked his way into one of the top seniors in the country, but was lost for the season two weeks ago due to injury. I've had multiple people text me about both players this fall, and it's for good reason from the flashes I've seen over the last couple of years. This is the kind of game that can put Fulgham on the national radar.
The reason for this is because the Virginia Tech secondary is chock full of NFL talent at both corner and safety. Senior Greg Stroman, in my opinion, is the best football player (right now) in the group, while junior Adonis Alexander has the highest upside. At 6-0, 180 pounds, Stroman doesn't have ideal quickness and speed, but I really like his instincts in both man and zone coverage. Senior Brandon Facyson, whom I've compared to former Eagles cornerback Byron Maxwell in the past, has size but his makeup speed is a concern. While ODU will be missing Duhart, the Hokies will be missing one of their stars in the secondary as well. Alexander, who missed last week's game against ECU, has the physical traits that you would list as "ideal" in a perfect world at the position. He's 6-3, 193 pounds, runs as well as anyone in the ACC, and has the quickness in and out of breaks to boot. Reports say he will miss this outing as well.
Prediction: Fulgham caught a 71-yard touchdown against UNC last week, and I think he follows that up with four catches for 58 yards and another score. It will be in a losing effort, however, as Stroman gets his second straight game with an interception as the Hokies win a close one in Blacksburg by nine points.
4. UMass TE Adam Breneman vs. Tennessee DBs Micah Abernathy/Evan Berry
*Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tennessee - Noon - SEC Network *
Local college football fans may recognize Breneman's name, as the Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania native starred at Penn State early in his career before briefly retiring due to medical issues. The former five-star recruit took a year away from the game, serving as a campaign manager during the state senate race, and decided to reunite with his true love of football. One of his best friends happened to play for the Minutemen, so Breneman joined the team a year ago and is now hoping to reach the upside many thought he had with the Nittany Lions. At 6-4, 250 pounds, Breneman is one of the fastest tight ends in the country and has soft hands to impact the vertical passing game. His knees will have to be checked out, but I think he will absolutely be viewed as one of the best prospects at the tight end position in this class when it's all said and done.
Senior safety Evan Berry had a lot to live up to when he arrived in Knoxville because his older brother Eric was one of the best players to ever play in the SEC and has turned into one of the best safeties in the NFL. He only started three games coming into this season and has been known more for his skills as a kick returner than as a defensive back. Junior safety Micah Abernathy is the starter to watch here, and with 16 tackles he's one of the leaders in the secondary.
Prediction: After the heartbreaking loss to Florida last week, Tennessee comes back with a vengeance against UMass, but Brenemen gets his touches. I'm calling for five catches, 58 yards, and his first touchdown (which is surprising since he has 24 grabs for 369 yards already) of the season.
5. Arkansas C Frank Ragnow vs. Texas A&M DT Daylon Mack
*AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas - Noon - ESPN *
A three-year starter with good size, strength, and a nasty temperament is always going to fare well in the lead-up to the NFL Draft, and Frank Ragnow is certainly one of those guys. The Razorback stands tall at 6-5, 317 pounds and he can line up at any of the three interior spots in the NFL. Ragnow has a strong anchor with the ability to handle a bull rush with ease. He looks very calm and comfortable in pass protection, showing the ability to read defenses after the snap and process what's happening in front of him. I'm a fan of his game and see him as a high-floor prospect who should stick in the league for a long time.
From a high-floor player in Ragnow, Daylon Mack is a high-ceiling player on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Mack arrived at Texas A&M as a big-time recruit and earned playing time right away, but has been a career backup thus far for the Aggies. An explosive penetrating tackle who plays with natural leverage and a quick first step, Mack will need to rely on his superior athleticism to win when he's matched up one-on-one with Ragnow. Mack will be in trouble if he gets locked up in hand-to-hand combat with Ragnow.
Prediction: I think Ragnow wins the battle, but Mack's Aggies will win the war in a close-fought game between two struggling SEC teams. Ragnow didn't allow a sack in all of 2016. I expect that to continue, but A&M wins by six.
Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser was highlighted by our friend Tony Pauline as a "riser" this week after a big performance against UConn. The senior is in his third year as a starter for the Cavaliers, and he wins with his size and strength. At 240 pounds, Kiser has the bulk to come downhill and thump blockers at the point of attack in the run game. The question with him will be his athletic upside and his play-recognition skills, which is the most important trait of all for a linebacker. I love Kiser's motor and he's a fun player to watch.
I mentioned Tanner Lee's struggles against Northern Illinois last week, and one of the players at the forefront of that upset win for the Huskies was cornerback Shawun Lurry, who has been on my radar since he earned All-America honors in 2015 when he finished with nine interceptions. Largely undersized at just 5-8, 180 pounds, Lurry's role at the next level will be limited to playing on the inside and on special teams, but he's got all of the athletic traits needed to play in the NFL and his ball skills are very good. He won't be a fit for everyone because of his measurables and he's not a great tackler (which he will need to fix to play on special teams), but seeing Lurry shine against Nebraska was no surprise to me. Keep an eye out for this kid as the season progresses.
It's not often that there's a player standing out for Alabama who has ties to the Northeast Corridor, but the best prospect on the roster (at least in my eyes) this year grew up not too far from Philadelphia. Defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick was the No. 1 player in the state of New Jersey out of high school. After his family was displaced by Hurricane Irene in August of 2011, Fitzpatrick and his family did everything they could for him to stay at St. Peter's Prep, and it paid off in a big way. In his hometown of Old Bridge, New Jersey (roughly 90 minutes north of Philadelphia), Fitzpatrick grew up to be a motivated, inspirational, and, most of all, focused kid who is chasing his dream of playing in the NFL. On the field, Fitzpatrick's instincts, athleticism, and versatility are some of his best traits. He can play any position in the secondary at a high level; and he's been a starter since his true freshman year in the secondary for Nick Saban, which is not an easy task. He needs to do a better job of finding the ball late downfield and he has some things to clean up in terms of his technique in press coverage. But there is no doubt that Fitzpatrick is one of the 10 best players in the country.
Going into last week's action, I had heard of Memphis wide receiver Anthony Miller but never had the chance to study him. I was very impressed with his performance against UCLA which the first time I watched him on TV or on tape. Reeling in nine passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns in an upset victory over the visiting Bruins certainly helped. He looked quick, confident over the middle of the field, and reliable at the catch point. I'm excited to dig more into Miller's tape this year and take a closer look at his quarterback, Riley Ferguson.
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.