There are some solid matchups on the college-football slate this week, but we wanted to be sure to mix things up a bit and cover some 2020 NFL draft prospects who remain under the radar. Here are some of the players we’ll be especially attuned to in the Week 9 matchups:
Washington State QB Anthony Gordon at Oregon
It’s clear that Gordon hasn’t been intimidated in following in the footsteps of two draft picks who have started games in the NFL this season in Luke Falk and Gardner Minshew. Gordon will be the second-most talented quarterback on the field Saturday at Autzen Stadium behind Oregon’s Justin Herbert, but Cougars head coach Mike Leach (of course) is backing his guy.
“I just think [Herbert is] talented, I think he’s a talented guy,” Leach said this week. “But I’m very pleased we have ours instead.”
Leach has to say that. But we must say that we’ve been impressed with WSU’s 6-foot-3, 210-pound QB who entered the season with a mere five college pass attempts but is leading all FBS passers with 2,981 passing yards, along with a tidy 29-7 TD-INT ratio on 347 passes this season.
Gordon is at a 70.5 percent completion clip this season, and though that number has come down in recent games, he hasn’t completed less than 61.2 percent in any one game. And after back-to-back two-pick games against UCLA and Utah (easily his least-impressive game to date), Gordon has thrown only one interception in his past 122 attempts.
The league might have shied away from a one-year starter steeped in an Air Raid system as recently as five years ago, but attitudes are changing in some corners of scouting on experience and the type of offense a QB runs. Gordon has shown some nice feel and accuracy as a passer, and he continues to simmer as a pro prospect.
A big game here against a Ducks defense that is strong against the pass and has held five of its seven opponents to seven points or fewer should continue to help Gordon’s case. There should be a strong scouting contingent on hand to look at Herbert, so Gordon will get a few longer looks he might not already have had.
Clemson RB Travis Etienne vs. Boston College
We’ve spent so much time dissecting Trevor Lawrence and asking why he has yet to destroy the universe and not enough on the exploits of Travis Etienne. The 5-10, 210-pound back isn’t matching his video-game touchdown numbers of a year ago, when he found the end zone a whopping 24 times. But make no mistake, he’s running just as effectively, and is just as dangerous a weapon for the unbeaten Tigers.
The past two games, Etienne especially has broken out. In only 14 carries at Louisville, he ran for 192 yards — with 155 of those coming after contact. The week before vs. Florida State, Etienne ran for 116 yards on 19 carries. Few backs in the country can generate as much production as Etienne can with a limited workload, and he’s doing it with explosion and the ability to break tackles and make people miss.
Etienne is facing a Boston College secondary and linebacker group that has been prone to missed tackles, so this could be a tremendous opportunity to make it three straight games where he’s doing damage. Watch how as a speed back Etienne can burst through a tight hole and keep working through contact to gain extra yardage:
One of the other pleasant developments in Eitenne’s game has been his receiving ability. Although he might never be a 50-catch back in the NFL and display natural hands or advanced receiving skills, Etienne has become more reliable in this department. A year after dropping four passes on 17 targets, he’s caught 16 of the 17 balls thrown his way this season. Etienne still needs to expand his receiving ability, mostly catching shovels and screens, but he’s at least shown growth in this area.
Notre Dame TE Cole Kmet at Michigan
We first profiled Kmet in this space after his thrilling season debut at Georgia, and in the three games since — even with less volume — he has enhanced his NFL draft stock to the point where many folks in South Bend believe he could throw his hat into the draft ring next year. The redshirt junior has another year of eligibility, but there’s a decent chance that Kmet could be the first tight end drafted if he declares. He might even have an outside shot at the back end of Round 1 with a strong finish and good athletic testing.
Head coach Brian Kelly has had an unreal stable of NFL tight ends in his time at Notre Dame: Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack, Durham Smythe and Alize Mack among them. Kmet has the highest ceiling of all of them, save for perhaps Eifert when he was healthy and in his prime. The sample size has been very small to date, but the results have been eye-opening. Kmet looks like an NFL mismatch piece when he’s posting up safeties or separating from linebackers.
This is a terrific test in Ann Arbor for Kmet and the Irish passing game. Michigan’s defense has stepped up on this side in recent games after losing a lot of talent after last season, and it will be interesting how the group handles the Irish’s big targets. The Wolverines allowed big plays to Mack, Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool early in their matchup last season. But with Boykin and Mack gone, it figures to be the Claypool-Kmet show this year.
Notre Dame also has effectively employed a lot more “12 personnel” (one-RB, two-TE) packages with Kmet and redshirt freshman Tommy Tremble recently with great success.
It has been a disappointing year for tight end draft prospects on the whole, but Kmet is the big riser in the group, even after missing the early part of the season with a broken collarbone. Don’t dismiss how high he could end up going in April — the buzz is real.
Houston OT Josh Jones vs. SMU
One of the better low-key NFL matchups could happen in Houston on Thursday between the Cougars’ ascending left tackle and the unbeaten Mustangs’ best defender. Houston LT Josh Jones has been attracting scouts for a few years now with his 6-7, 305-pound frame, natural athleticism and sophisticated handwork. He has been starting since his freshman season of 2016, and Jones steadily has risen to the rank of being a top-75 (and perhaps a top-50) prospect. He looks the part of an NFL tackle in a pass-heavy system.
SMU’s talented edge rusher, Delontae Scott, most often lines up on the other side of the ball, but he also flips to the right side, where he would square off against Jones in a good matchup. Jones’ improvement — especially as a run blocker — has been noticeable, and handing the hard-changing Scott will be a chore if it happens. Here’s the type of disruptive play Scott is capable of, defeating multiple blocks earlier in the season against North Texas:
Because of Jones’s height and wingspan, he tends to be a bit too upright in run blocking and needs to handle power better. But Pro Football Focus’ metrics show a more disciplined and effective player this season. In 2018, Jones averaged a penalty every 109.1 snaps; this year he averages one flag every 235.5 snaps. Last season Jones allowed three sacks and 10 charted pressures in 971 snaps; this year, those numbers are zero and two, respectively, in 471 snaps.
Both of these players have a chance to go surprisingly high in next spring’s draft, so if you’re not feeling the Redskins-Vikings matchup on Thursday, do yourself a favor and switch over for this sneaky little battle between these teams and specifically these two players.
Ohio State CB Jeffrey Okudah vs Wisconsin
A week ago, we watched Ohio State toy with Northwestern in a 52-3 blowout, and it became clear in pregame conversations with people from the NFL and the Buckeyes that Jeffrey Okudah could be locked in with fellow OSU defender Chase Young to the top 10 picks next spring.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Okudah can coast from here on out and be assured a spot that high in the 2020 NFL draft. League talent evaluators are enamored with his coverage ability, especially with the NFL trending toward more man-coverage schemes — at least among successful defenses — the past few seasons.
This Wisconsin-OSU matchup looks like a tasty one, and prior to Wisconsin being upset against Illinois, the buzz was that many of the folks who were there last week to watch the Buckeyes could make a return trip for this game, which features as many as 15 NFL prospects who could enter next spring’s draft. The most talented of the Badgers’ wide receivers is Quintez Cephus, who was reinstated to the program. He adds a big-play element to complement the running of Jonathan Taylor.
Cephus mostly lines up outside, and he is lined up on the offense’s right side most often. Although he doesn’t see a ton of passes thrown his way in a run-dependent system, Cephus has made the most of his chances with 24 catches on 34 targets for 353 yards and three scores. His production has been limited the past several games since a big outing in Week 2 vs. Central Michigan, but Cephus is still capable of big plays such as this one two weeks ago against Michigan State:
Okudah can shadow and mirror receivers extremely well, often running their routes for them. He’s still learning the feel for off and zone coverage, and the only touchdown he allowed this season — to Michigan State’s Darrell Stewart — looked like a miscommunication along with safety Jordan Fuller. Both defenders initially react to the back leaking out into the flat, but that appears to be Fuller’s man, and Okudah’s hesitation allowed Stewart to gain a step on the skinny post:
But there might not be a better man-cover corner in college football now, and this will be one of Okudah’s tougher coverage chores.
He most often lines up on the defense’s left side, which should pair him up against Cephus many times in Saturday’s big game. We can’t wait to see how this individual battle turns out.
And now a bonus small-school prospect we’re excited about ...
Liberty WR Antonio Gandy-Golden at Rutgers
Did you realize that Liberty is at least a touchdown favorite on the road against Rutgers? Even with the Flames possessing some solid talent, that’s a stunner.
One of its best performers is Antonio Gandy-Golden, who is fast-tracking his way to a Senior Bowl invitation and a possible top-100 spot in the 2020 NFL draft. For that to happen it will require the 6-4, 220-pound Golden-Gandy to test well athletically for his size. He also must continue to excel on the field. As bad as Rutgers is, it at least has a few defensive backs who could end up in NFL camps, making this one of the better individual challenges remaining this season for Liberty’s all-time leading receiver.
Gandy-Golden is fifth in Pro Football Focus’ receiving grades among wide receivers with at least 20 targets this season. Thirty-five of his 43 grabs have resulted in first downs, and he has dropped zero passes. There might be questions about his separation ability at the next level, but Gandy-Golden is getting open and making plays. He thrives when defeating press coverage, able to use his length and strength to defeat defenders easily. That will be his game in the NFL, should he make it: winning with strong hands and a good catch radius.
Last week, Gandy-Golden caught nine passes for 149 yards vs. Maine, and before you discredit the Black Bears as a weak opponent, they have a cornerback — Manny Patterson — who could be drafted. (Golden-Gandy caught one 20-yard pass when the two were matched up on a handful of occasions.)
Gandy-Golden has had 115 or more yards receiving in nine of his past 18 games, and QB Buckshot Calvert throws his way about one out of four times he drops back to pass. Rutgers has allowed only three receivers to total 100 or more yards this season, but Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson torched the Scarlet Knights for six grabs, 130 yards and a touchdown last week. A big game here might lock Gandy-Golden’s ticket to the Senior Bowl and boost his overall draft standing prior to what will be an important winter and spring.
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