We start this week’s “5 prospects to watch” with the best quarterback battle on the college football slate in Week 6: Joe Burrow and LSU hosting Utah State and its intriguing passer, Jordan Love.
There are several other tasty matchups to watch, including several that feature great individual battles in the trenches:
Utah State QB Jordan Love at LSU
We wrote about Jordan Love’s tough game in the Aggies’ win over Colorado State last week. Love’s ball security was concerning, as he threw an early pick-six, opened the second half with an interception on a similar pattern and later dropped a clean shotgun snap at the CSU 5-yard line that cost his team points. The player whom many (ourselves included) felt could rise to first-round status now has a 6-5 TD-INT passing ratio and has coughed up three fumbles in four games.
What Love can do to refurbish his reputation as a gifted thrower and runner is have a big game at LSU. Scouts might not admit it, but big performances against good competition can wipe out or offset poor performances versus lesser competition. This is a good LSU defense Love is facing — albeit a very banged-up unit to this point — and Tiger Stadium is a tricky place to play, even with an 11 a.m. kickoff time cutting into fans’ pregame activities a bit.
LSU’s defense has forced only four turnovers in four games, so taking care of the ball will be paramount. This is also a unit that has failed to tackle effectively, so Love can likely take the small profits during this game and let his playmakers go to work. But scouts also want to see more success when Love rolls out, scrambles and throws on the move. He’s been close to a few big connections the past few games but hasn’t quite hit on those special plays recently — it’s a bit like watching future Bills first-rounder Josh Allen at Wyoming where you’re forced to grade Love’s skill set as much as you are his tangible successes on the field.
We’re still on Team Love, believing he could remain in the first-round picture, and LSU head coach Ed Orgeron agreed this week when he said he believes Love will end up being a first-round selection. But we also recognize that he’s not met the high expectations bestowed upon him to this point of the season. Part of that has to do with an offensive unit that lost a lot of talent from last season. Love has had to carry the team for stretches this season, and it’s led to some uneven play. If he thrives in this one, the Love Fest is officially back on.
Oregon TE Jacob Breeland vs California
I spent a little time this week looking at Jacob Breeland, who is maybe not special in any one way but has a chance as a “move” tight end in the NFL. The 6-4, 245-pound Breeland has five TDs in the past three games, which already matches his career high for a season with the Ducks. I’d like to see Breeland use his natural length and size better, but he’s a savvy, sneaky route runner who just finds ways to win.
Oregon TE Jacob Breeland is having a nice season so far— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) September 27, 2019
5 TDs in past three games — stung Stanford twice
Check out this back-shoulder catch pic.twitter.com/4Wv7pjAHnX
You’ll see him lined up in the backfield, as an in-line tight end and flexed out. He’s going to be tested against a good Cal defense, but Breeland can win matchups in space against the Bears’ tackle machine, Evan Weaver. But can he beat their fast-closing safety, Ashtyn Davis, in the seam?
Florida pass rushers vs Auburn offensive tackles
One reason I couldn’t include Jabari Zuniga in my first first-round mock draft was because he has missed a few weeks with an ankle injury, and I just want to see a little more from the pass rusher who started out the season so strong. The 6-foot-3, 246-pound edge rusher can stand to bulk up a tad and he’s just a bit too speed-dependent on his rush, in our view. But there’s a lot to like in his overall projection, and he’ll have a great test at home against Auburn’s tackles now that Zuniga appears cleared to play again.
The Gators’ bookend pass rusher, Jonathan Greenard, also has opened eyes this season. The Louisville transfer is a more well-built base end who racks up plays in the backfield with his strong, consistent effort and knack for finishing. Greenard looks fully healed from last season’s wrist injury and currently leads the SEC with four sacks. At 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, he possesses really nice mass albeit with limited length. He’s also not an upper-class athlete for the positions but could work into the Day 2 draft mix at this rate.
They’ll be locking horns with two very respected tackles for the Tigers — LT Prince Tega Wanogho and RT Jack Driscoll. Tega Wanogho is relatively new to the game, not playing football until midway through high school after emigrating from Nigeria. But in just the past five years or so, he’s developed an impressive skill set, even after converting from defensive tackle. Tega Wanogho has great length and natural balance, along with his strong athletic potential. He’s coming off a really nice game against Texas A&M and could work his way into the first-round discussion — hey, if Tytus Howard can go in the top 25, so could the 6-6, 306-pound Tega Wanogho.
Driscoll isn’t quite as highly regarded but is a fast riser after transferring from Massachusetts in 2018. Although he’s been banged up, Driscoll has displayed some really intriguing athletic traits after growing from a tight end-sized high-school recruit into an NFL-caliber right tackle. He’s a solid prospect who could end up being a sneaky-good NFL player with the right coaching, and this matchup absolutely will be one that NFL scouts dissect thoroughly.
This press box should be stacked with NFL talent evaluators. There are a ton of prospects in this game pitting two 5-0 teams.
Michigan State DE Kenny Willekes at Ohio State
Kenny Willekes has been hot this season and somehow gotten better after winning the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year award last season. After suffering a broken leg in the bowl game vs. Oregon, Willekes has come back even stronger — and more NFL-ready. He has completely remade his body into more of a streamlined, toned physique.
Watching Willekes this season, he’s displayed the game length, effort and football smarts he did in 2018, when he registered 20.5 tackles for loss (tied for eighth-most in FBS). But this year, he’s added some pass-rush versatility to his game and more burst, it seems. Defending read-option plays has been one of his specialities, too. The one knock I can fairly bring up is that Willekes has missed a few tackles the past two games, so that’s something he must clean up.
Willekes will rush from both sides of the line, but we are especially looking forward to watching him go head to head against Ohio State LT Taylor Munford. The 6-6, 320-pound Munford was the Buckeyes’ lone returning starter on the offensive line this summer, and he’s been the leader of that high-powered group that’s leading the way for QB Justin Fields and some tremendous playmakers at the skill spots. Seeing how Muford and Willekes battle in the run game will be some top-tier tape to look back on, one way or the others.
Want to boost your draft stock? Play well against Ohio State. Scouts are flocking to see them every week, not just for Chase Young, Jeffrey Okudah and Co. in the 2020 draft, but also for Fields and those wide receivers for 2021.
Iowa EDGE A.J. Epenesa at Michigan
It has been a curious start to the season for A.J. Epenesa, who has one sack in four games as a starter after logging 10.5 as a reserve a year ago. But the tape shows a player who is receiving constant attention and opening up plays for others. Opponents are just determined not to allow Epenesa a free run at their quarterbacks, but he’s doing a great job engaging in (and occasionally beating) the double teams he’s seeing.
Iowa’s team defense — third nationally at 8.5 points allowed, fifth in total defense (251.0 yards per game) — is dominating, and Epenesa clearly is a big part of that success. Losing underrated fifth-year senior DT Brady Reiff will have an effect, too, so how that Hawkeyes’ defensive line responds will be interesting to watch. That puts some pressure on the 6-5, 265-pound Epenesa to step up his game with a bit more production, but we’re not really down on him.
After all, we didn’t place him at No. 7 overall on our first 2020 mock draft for a lark. He’s that good, in our view.
But the test here in the Big House is a good one. The Wolverines’ offensive line has been a disappointment to date, at least in the bigger games. But LT Jon Runyan Jr. (son of the former NFL tackle and current league discipline chief) is rounding into form after he missed the early part of the season with injury. We thought Runyan had a tough game in his season debut at Wisconsin, but he responded by settling in a little more last week vs. Rutgers, which actually has two edge players we think could end up in NFL camps.
And one bonus matchup ...
Army CB Elijah Riley vs. Tulane
File away the name of the Black Knights’ Elijah Riley, who made a name for himself with an incredible performance in the overtime loss at Michigan and who possesses NFL size for the position at nearly 6-foot and 205 pounds. In that game, Riley made 13 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. That game alone probably gets him drafted, but Riley can continue putting up impressive tape against the Green Wave’s talented receivers.
Riley’s speed is something scouts wonder about, as he plays with the look of a 4.6-second player. That likely means he’ll primarily be a zone player or perhaps might need to switch to safety. However, we think it’s worth trying him outside and seeing if he can develop into a Peanut Tillman type of defender. Tulane WRs Darnell Mooney and Jalen McCleskey are the outside receivers Riley will mostly face up against, and each possesses different skill sets and challenges. You draft completists might want to DVR this under-the-radar puppy.
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