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2021 NFL draft: Key prospects to watch in Week 1 of college football

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College football begins in earnest this week with a nine-game slate of action, with seven of those games coming on Saturday. It’s not a murderer’s row of heavyweight matchups, but our path to the 2021 NFL draft begins in earnest here.

With about a half-dozen or more draftable talents in action — including one very interesting QB-WR tandem — there is enough to whet our draft appetites.

Here are prospects we’ll most be keyed in on Saturday:

SMU QB Shane Buechele and WR Reggie Roberson Jr. at Texas State

It would be surprising if this game is a huge test for SMU, but Buechele started last season slowly and threw two picks in the 30-point win over Texas State in 2019.

Despite being undersized, he has a chance to be drafted next year. He’s currently on the Day 3 spectrum. Cleaning up some sloppy tape and being more consistent this season are keys for the intriguing Buechele. He’s a gunslinger, and that style brings good and bad.

SMU quarterback Shane Buechele warms up before the start of an NCAA college football game against Memphis Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
SMU quarterback Shane Buechele warms up before the start of a game against Memphis on Nov. 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The player we’re most jazzed to see in this one is Roberson, who suffered a season-ending foot injury that cut short a brilliant season. He’s a deep threat with some nice route subtlety to his game. Now it’s Roberson’s time to shine in a featured role with Baltimore Ravens sixth-rounder James Proche gone, and the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Roberson has a chance to be drafted much higher than Proche.

Roberson profiles in the third- or fourth-round range. He briefly considered coming out early for the 2020 draft. We’re glad he has returned to work with Buechele again this year, as a full season together could help each boost their draft stocks in their final seasons.

Middle Tennessee State S Reed Blankenship at Army

He’s not quite an Ashtyn Davis-caliber of athlete, but Blankenship could see a rise this season similar to Davis, a New York Jets third-rounder this spring. Blankenship is a good athlete who can cover a lot of ground as a center fielder, man slot coverage ably and carries surprising strength to handle box duty.

That latter skill will be tested against an Army team that averaged fewer than 10 passes a game. The one big area we need to see improvement is tackling. Blankenship can fly into the picture and bounce off tackle attempts, failing to wrap up and drag down opponents with proper form.

Middle Tennessee safety Reed Blankenship is an underrated playmaker who could break out with a full, healthy season. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Middle Tennessee safety Reed Blankenship is an underrated playmaker who could break out with a full, healthy season. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

There’s a lot to like about his NFL ability. And keep an eye on special teams, too: Despite playing only seven games last season because of a broken ankle, Blankenship tied for the national lead with two blocked kicks.

Arkansas State DT Forrest Merrill at Memphis

There are a few other draft prospects to watch in this game, including two receivers in Memphis’ Damonte Coxie and Arkansas State’s Jonathan Adams. But our eyes will be glued to the middle of the trenches, where Merrill plays — and he’s hard to miss.

The 6-1, 338-pound, redheaded Merrill is a squarely built, throwback defensive tackle. He figures to be a nose tackle at the next level, but the Red Wolves move him around the interior at multiple techniques. They suffered a huge dropoff inside when Merrill’s 2019 campaign was cut short with a torn biceps.

This play stood out. In the fourth quarter of a game against up-tempo SMU, Merrill quickly dispatched the center and took down the Mustangs’ back for a big tackle for loss. Merrill showed incredible stamina in this game, playing 71 snaps and making his impact felt throughout the game with eight tackles.

Arkansas State DT Forrest Merrill was extremely active against SMU in 2019.
Arkansas State DT Forrest Merrill was extremely active against SMU in 2019.

He’s a Day 3 prospect but can boost his stock with a healthy, productive final season. Memphis lost its starting center (2020 seventh-rounder Dustin Woodard, who retired from football) and will be breaking in someone new in the pivot, so Merrill might be able to do some work inside.

His ascendence after transferring from Missouri State, via Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, makes him a great draft story to follow this season.

BYU DT Khyiris Tonga at Navy

Yet another interesting man of mass, Tonga spoke one year ago of his desire to enter the 2020 draft, but his parents helped talk him into one more year of college. The 6-3, 323-pounder has good length and plays with leverage. He’s not the space eater/lane clogger you expect for a man his size, but Tonga’s skills are impressive on the whole.

The best game I watched of him this summer was against USC. He fired fired off the ball early despite getting banged up the prior two games. Tonga’s first-quarter performance against the Trojans might have been the best quarter I saw from a defensive lineman in this upcoming draft class.

Watch as he bullies USC guard Jalen McKenzie and drives him back into QB Kedon Slovis for the sack. This was about his third disruptive play in about a five-snap span in this game:

BYU DT Khyiris Tonga had some dominant tape last season against USC but faces a different type of challenge in this season's opener.
BYU DT Khyiris Tonga had some dominant tape last season against USC but faces a different type of challenge in this season's opener.

Navy’s smallish interior line is a quick, cut-blocking group, so I’ll be watching to see how Tonga keeps his balance, reads the run-game and uses his length and power to try to dominate.

Marshall OT Josh Ball vs. Eastern Kentucky

The junior-college transfer spent his first two years at Florida State, and Ball was actually the Seminoles’ starting left tackle for their final nine games of 2017 before being dismissed from school after being accused of dating violence by his then-girlfriend. (Charges were never filed in the case.)

After a stint at Butler Community College, Ball jumped into the mix for the Thundering Herd last year. He started only a single game despite receiving significant snaps at left tackle a year ago.

The 6-8, 310-pound Ball has NFL ability and earned some early Day 3 grades from scouts this summer, even if he’ll have to answer character concerns that might linger. His surprising athleticism and big, heavy hands are projectable traits.

He’s slated to play both tackle spots again but has more experience on the left side. Eastern Kentucky won’t be a great test for Ball, but it will be interesting to see how the Herd utilize their tackles in Ball’s final season. They have a good run game led by RB Brenden Knox, also a possible 2021 draft pick.

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