The 2018 College Football season officially kicks off this week and there is a great slate of games with plenty to be excited about. Who are the players you should be watching? Which games have the most NFL talent? Who is helping themselves most as we inch closer and closer to the 2019 NFL Draft? Let's take a look.
This is a player who had a strong performance a week ago and helped his stock because of it.
The "soft opening" of college football was actually a week ago, when a handful of teams partook in the first real action of the 2018 campaign. We had a thriller out west as Hawaii hung on to beat Colorado State 43-34 on the road, but this was not for the faint of heart. Hawaii jumped out to a 37-7 third-quarter lead before the Rams bounced back to within a touchdown late in the game. One of the catalysts for that comeback was CSU quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels. Making his first collegiate start, Carta-Samuels went 34-of-50 for a school-record 537 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception in the loss.
The graduate transfer, who spent the last four years backing up Jake Browning in Washington, nearly joined Chip Kelly at UCLA this spring, but had a change of heart when CSU sophomore quarterback Collin Hill tore his ACL. Carta-Samuels changed gears and ended up in Fort Collins, and now he has a chance to make some noise by throwing to a pretty talented receiving corps. Preston Williams (nine catches, 188 yards, and two touchdowns) and Olabisi Johnson (6-157-2) are both prospects for the upcoming draft, while Warren Jackson (5-72) is a young player to keep an eye on for much further down the road. We'll get an idea of what this team is made of early with this weekend's matchup against state-rival Colorado followed by two SEC battles with Arkansas and Florida.
This is a player who continues to generate positive attention and has the arrow pointing up with his draft stock at this point in the process.
Going into the season, one of the most highly regarded seniors in the country lines up for the Washington Huskies. Left tackle Trey Adams has outstanding size (6-8, 327 pounds) and impressive athleticism for that size. The four-year starter has next-level feet, length, and a mean streak to match. Most analysts view Adams as a first-round pick and many believe that had he declared a year ago he may have been the first tackle off the board. The Husky stayed in school, however, after an ACL injury ended his junior campaign prematurely. Watching how Adams bounces back from surgery will be one of the many storylines early on for the Huskies, who take on the Auburn Tigers this weekend in one of the biggest matchups in the Week 1 slate. Adams, in particular, has a tough matchup ahead against a talented Auburn defensive line. If he does well, you can expect that Adams will be a consistent presence in the top 15 of most Mock Drafts between now and next April.
Best Pro Comparison
Comparing draft prospects to NFL players is tough, but here's a player with an easy picture to paint when looking at his NFL future through my eyes.
One of my favorite players in the country is Alabama running back Damien Harris. Going into his third year as a starter for the Crimson Tide as a former five-star recruit, Harris is a very decisive runner with great feet and the ability to impact the game on third down both as a receiver and as a blocker. He's not a truly dynamic athlete, and that may limit his upside in the eyes of some, but I like Harris' ability to make people miss and he never puts the football on the ground. One day in the middle of the fall last year, a player who Harris reminded me of hit me like a bolt of lightning - former Buffalo Bills star running back Fred Jackson. I think Harris is a better natural talent than Jackson, who went undrafted and never made a Pro Bowl, but the instinctive, competitive running style is similar, as are the body types. I'm a huge fan of Harris and his transition to the NFL. Check him out against the Louisville Cardinals this weekend.
This is a player who comes from a lower level of competition but has a potentially bright future in the NFL.
This is a player that I actually talked about this week on the Journey to the Draft podcast as a name I felt was snubbed from the Senior Bowl Watch List. Coastal Carolina wide receiver Malcolm Williams may not have great size (5-10, 190 pounds) and only has one year of real production for the Chanticleers, but he has a skill set that I think translates pretty well to the next level. One of the best vertical route runners I've seen in this draft class to date, Williams has flashes of brilliance at creating separation from corners in the Sun Belt (last year was the team's first in that conference and its second season at the FBS level), using his feet, eyes, and shoulders to throw defenders off his trail mid-route.
He's not the biggest, strongest, or fastest, but Williams certainly has the ability to make the transition to the next level as a slot receiver. Keep an eye on him this week in a game that every scout in the NFL will be watching when they study his film as he matches up against South Carolina and its two talented senior corners, Keisean Nixon and Rashad Fenton.
This is a player with a special tie to the City of Brotherly Love or to the Eagles that you should keep a close eye on.
There's a regular-season game taking place at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday afternoon with the Temple Owls and Villanova Wildcats meeting in a cross-city rivalry game. Temple has a couple of names to watch, including quarterback Frank Nutile, running back Ryquell Armstead, and defensive lineman Michael Dogbe, but I want to focus in on wide receiver Ventell Bryant. The 6-3, 200-pound pass catcher burst onto the scene back in 2015 as a freshman, particularly in the near-upset of Notre Dame. Bryant followed that up with a strong 2016 campaign, but struggled as a junior with new coach Geoff Collins at the helm. Can Bryant bounce back as a senior? Early signs in camp have been good. Bryant is strong at the catch point, but studying him as a junior there are certainly athletic limitations and he's not where he needs to be right now as a route runner. I'm excited to see what he looks like this fall, and it starts this weekend against Villanova.
Three Matchups To Watch
One of the first things NFL evaluators do when scouting college prospects is watch them against the best competition. 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? These are the first games scouts will look at, and here are three matchups that fit the bill this week.
1. LSU TE Foster Moreau vs. Miami S Jaquan Johnson
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas - Sunday, 7:30 p.m. - ABC
Moreau isn't a flashy pass catcher who will be a consistent matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. That's not his game. What the senior is, however, is a relentless blocker. Moreau is one of my favorite tight ends in this class because of his consistent level of effort in both the run and pass games. His technique is very good at the point of attack, he's strong enough, smart enough, and sound enough with his technique to hold his ground against defensive linemen. Moreau has to prove himself as a pass catcher this fall. If he can do that, he will be one of the first tight ends off the board.
When Moreau does find himself out in space, he'll be seeing a good amount of senior safety Jaquan Johnson. An aggressive thumper with severe size limitations, Johnson has plus instincts on the back end that allow him to play faster than I think he will time at the Scouting Combine next spring. That being said, he's a leader in a talented Hurricane secondary, made some outstanding plays in coverage a year ago as a second-team All-ACC selection, and will come down and lay a hit on you if you're not ready for him. Don't miss fellow senior safety Sheldrick Redwine, who has a bit more sideline-to-sideline range than Johnson but isn't as instinctive, particularly in man coverage. Moreau will also get matched up in the run game with a talented Miami front seven which includes names like defensive end Joe Jackson and linebacker Shaq Quarterman.
PREDICTION: I think Miami wins this game. I like rooting for LSU head coach Ed Orgeron and that defense always has a ton of talented players, but there has been so much turnover on that LSU offense both at the skill positions as well as up front along the offensive line. On the other side, "The U" returns a large portion of the team that won 10 games a year ago as the runner up in the ACC. I'll pick the Hurricanes to win by 10. Moreau finishes with two catches and Johnson finishes with six tackles and a pass breakup.
2. Michigan RB Karan Higdon vs. Notre Dame LB Te'Von Coney
Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Indiana - 7:30 p.m. - NBC
Last year at this time, Karan Higdon was the third-string running back for the Wolverines as they prepared for their opener against Florida. By the end of the year, the former three-star recruit had worked his way up to first string and ended up being named the team's Most Valuable Player on Offense. Higdon isn't flashy. He's not overly powerful or explosive, but the senior is a competitive runner who runs bigger than his size and is also the best pass protector in the Wolverines' backfield. I don't see Higdon as a player who makes the transition as a starter at the next level, but he is a "dirty work" player who will find a home on the back end of a depth chart in an NFL backfield.
At the Combine this spring, I asked LSU running back Derrius Guice after his press conference who the toughest player he faced was in his final year with the Tigers. He told me it was a guy he faced in his final game - Notre Dame linebacker Te'Von Coney. I didn't know much about Coney up to that point, but I studied him this offseason and can see what Guice saw. The senior is an aggressive, athletic kid who will come downhill and lay a lick on ball carriers, even throttling offensive linemen backwards at the point of attack. An instinctive player against the run, Coney led the Irish in tackles a year ago, and I'd expect more of the same from him this year.
PREDICTION: I like Coney in this matchup, but I don't like the Irish. I think Notre Dame, with the turnover they had up front on the offensive line, will struggle blocking one of the most gifted defensive lines in the nation. The Wolverines win by a touchdown, with Coney racking up nine tackles (one for loss). Higdon paces Michigan with 82 yards rushing and a touchdown.
3. Maryland LT Derwin Gray vs. Texas DL Charles Omenihu and Breckyn Hager
FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland - Noon - FS1
There's a lot going on away from the field with the Terps, but I had a chance recently to study their offensive line (they have three seniors up front), and the player who I walked away impressed with the most was left tackle Derwin Gray. His size is not that far off from Trey Adams, and like the Washington star, Gray has pretty good feet. A big, strong, powerful man with the ability to both withstand a bull rush and move people up front in the run game, I think Gray is a player people should be more aware of in this senior class. With a good season I think he will be in the top-50 discussion, and possibly higher than that when it's all said and done.
The Longhorns have some young returning talent on defense at all three levels, but let's focus on their two senior edge defenders, Charles Omenihu and Breckyn Hager. While they move both of these rushers around a little bit, each of them usually line up in the same spot. Omenihu, who has outstanding size at 6-7, 280 pounds, lined up mostly on the defensive left side (so he'll see mostly right tackle Damian Prince, another senior for Maryland), while Hager saw most of his action on the right. I have to do more work on the undersized Hager (6-3, 255 pounds), but he's someone that has been on my radar for a couple of seasons.
PREDICTION: Texas coach Tom Herman is a good coach, and I'd guess that he will have his team in better standing than their 2017 finish. I like the Longhorns to win this one, and likely handily, especially with all of the strife surrounding the Maryland program. Gray should perform very well, and I predict he'll keep Hager off the sack sheet while Omenihu notches a sack against Prince on the other side.
What fun is making predictions if we're not keeping score?
Check back for this next week ...