Week 0 was the amuse bouche, but the first real course of college football gets delivered to our table this week, starting Thursday night. We have four straight nights through Sunday with quality CFB action and NFL draft prospects in the majority of FBS games.
Here’s our second installment of what will be a weekly feature in this space: five NFL draft prospects whom we’ll be keeping an extra-close eye on in this weekend’s games.
Oregon QB Justin Herbert vs. Auburn
Any NFL team interested in drafting Herbert is likely going to watch all of his games this season, and he’ll have some tough defensive tests against conference foes such as Cal, Washington and even Washington State (the Ducks avoid perhaps the best Pac-12 defense of Utah in the regular season). But those talent evaluators certainly will weigh certain games more heavily, and Saturday’s contest against the Tigers in Arlington, Texas will carry quite a bit of heft.
Auburn’s defense is especially loaded up front, but the secondary also has some talent. The Ducks counter with a terrific offensive line and a few impressive talents in RBs C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye, and WR Juwan Johnson, a Penn State transfer. Even with two receivers (senior Brenden Schooler and freshman Mycah Pittman) down for this game, Herbert has enough weapons to move the ball. But if a strong Tigers front can have success vs. the Ducks’ experienced O-line, Herbert must show that he can handle pressure.
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The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Herbert has all the traits NFL teams want in a franchise quarterback, but he also has a penchant for hanging onto the ball and taking sacks at too high a rate. He also can stand to reset his feet better and deliver off-platform throws, even if his 2018 tape shows he can do it at times.
Coming back to school for his senior season means the microscope on Herbert will be focused even more.
This is a big test for both teams, and it should be a terrific game to watch. It carries extra weight for NFL scouts who want to see poise, control and pro-caliber accuracy from the Ducks passer. There has been a theme this offseason at Auburn to prevent big plays, which was an issue last season. Will Herbert show restraint when taking his shots downfield in this game?
He’s our QB1 entering the season by a narrow margin, and his campaign kicks off with a huge matchup that can set his draft stock in motion in one direction or the other.
Quarterbacks in Oklahoma-Houston game
What a fascinating showdown of two intriguing passers with unorthodox styles — at least as far as the NFL is concerned. And, yes, both will be heavily scouted by the pros, even though one is considered extremely short and the other has done his best work as a runner.
Jalen Hurts has won the Sooners’ starting QB job after transferring from Alabama, where he was 26-2 as a starter before being supplanted by Tua Tagovailoa. It’s highly unlikely that Hurts will make it three straight years with an Oklahoma quarterback being drafted first overall, as Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray have. But don’t discount Hurts’ passing potential in this potent system with elite targets such as WR CeeDee Lamb and TE Grant Calcaterra, especially in this game against a Houston defense that must reload.
And if you liked Murray last year, we recommend you also closely watch the other QB in this game. Houston’s D’Eriq King is probably the best athlete in the AAC, running for 14 TDs and throwing 36 TD passes (with only six INTs) despite missing the final two games of last season. Now he’s running the system of new head coach Dana Holgorson, and King should thrive again.
(This is also a reunion of sorts, as Hurts and King worked together this summer in Atlanta with personal quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery at the Black Quarterback Club, where they worked alongside NFL quarterbacks to mentor high school athletes.)
Although King — a converted wide receiver — is listed as 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, a scout we spoke to who has been through the program says King will end up measuring “closer to 5-8” than he will his media guide listing. That will be an issue for some NFL teams, even if Murray has a successful rookie season with the Arizona Cardinals.
What’s remarkable about King is his passing touch, poise and footwork, all of which are very strong, especially for a player who switched to the position after the 2016 season and struggled to throw effectively in 2017.
Virginia CB Bryce Hall vs. Pitt
Hall surprised some folks when he returned to school this season, and he’s predictably found dotting all kinds of preseason All-America and all-conference lists. The hype is warranted. Hall might have been overlooked as a high school recruit, but he has been a rock for the Cavaliers the past three seasons.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound corner has ideal length, great size and terrific physical skills and instincts for the position. He’s ready-made for the NFL in those regards. But the senior cornerback’s quickness and speed will be tested out of the chute in the season opener at Heinz Field.
Underrated Pitt WRs Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack will be an excellent test for Virginia’s secondary. Ffrench is Pitt’s big-play specialist, and Mack made several highlight-reel grabs last season. The reports have been strong on Panthers junior QB Kenny Pickett, who is a talented runner who also will take shots deep in the pass game.
Hall grew up a few hours down the road and played at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Of the seven college scholarship offers he received, Duquesne was the only Pittsburgh-area school in the lot. Hall registered five tackles and a strip sack in the 23-13 home loss last season, but now he heads back closer to home for a chance to earn a little payback.
Hall has said he has no regrets about coming back to school and that it was the right decision. We think this will be a very interesting matchup that NFL scouts will want to watch closely.
Vanderbilt TE Jared Pinkney vs. Georgia
One of eight seniors to receive a first-round grade from National Football Scouting entering season, Pinkney had 774 receiving yards in 2018, tops among all returning FBS tight ends, and seven touchdowns. The 6-4, 260-pounder moves extremely well as a route runner and also can contribute as a blocker, even with some refinement needed there. Back for another college season, Pinkney could be primed for an even bigger campaign.
“I had a lot of goals that I didn’t achieve so personally, team-wise,” Pinkney said. “I feel that we can be better as a team, and I definitely feel that I can be better as a player.”
He comprises one-third of a terrific skill-position trio for the Commodores, along with RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn and WR Kalija Lipscomb. But what we don’t know heading into Vandy’s meeting with No. 3 Georgia: who is the starting QB? It’s between Ball State transfer Riley Neal or Deuce Wallace, a converted DB. Pinkney hasn’t caught a pass from either in a game, so the chemistry remains to be seen.
There’s also the test of the Georgia defense, which is fast and aggressive. The Bulldogs held Pinkney to one 12-yard catch in the meeting a year ago. Linebackers Monty Rice, Tae Crowder and Brenton Cox, and safeties J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte are an excellent group, so Pinkney will have his hands full again in this matchup.
Boise State WR John Hightower vs. Florida State
This summer, I texted a few area scouts to ask them about potential breakout players in their regions. Some of the higher-end prospects ended up in a story about long-shot first-round possibilities for the 2020 NFL draft. A few more names were below that level but still intriguing.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Hightower was one of those names. I liked what I saw. He might be Boise State’s fastest player and one of the fastest players west of the Mississippi.
Kinda diggin Boise State WR John Hightower— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) August 13, 2019
* averaged 16.3 ypc (6 TDs on 31 grabs)
* 20.4 ypc (2 TDs on 8 runs)
* KO returner too
* only 9 games played
* raw as heck, pretty spindly, but boy he can scoot right by people pic.twitter.com/w7i6Zcvj0m
Although he was a specialist last season, playing only 219 snaps in nine games after transferring from junior college, Hightower was extremely effective as an offensive and special-teams weapon, just as dangerous running a fly route as he is catching a screen or taking an end around.
This is a fast FSU defense, and DBs Stanford Samuels and Lavonta Taylor highlight a talented secondary. Hightower has the vertical jets to test this group and will face a kickoff-return defense that was near the bottom of NCAA rankings last season in what should be one of his showcase opportunities this season.
A lot of NFL scouts plan to attend this game, although it reportedly has been moved from Jacksonville to Tallahassee because of Hurricane Dorian. Hightower has a chance to make some money in this game, but temperatures could reach the 90s on Saturday and rain is still expected at Doak Campbell Stadium, which might affect Hightower’s effectiveness.
Previous installments: Week 0
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