NFL draft: 5 prospects to watch for Week 0 in college football

College football gets the full treatment next week, but there are two tasty appetizers waiting for us while we wait for the main course.

Two FBS games will kick off the season Saturday, and we — like NFL scouts — can’t wait to get to analyzing the prospects in these two contests with an eye on the 2020 NFL draft.

So here goes with our first installment of what will be a weekly feature: the five prospects each week we’ll be eying in the games to come.

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Florida QB Feleipe Franks vs. Miami

He’s a fascinating study as a wonderfully gifted but maddeningly frustrating prospect. This tweet and highlight attempt to sum it up:

The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Franks passes the eye test physically, and he makes one or two throws per game like you’re seeing above. The problem is that there are not enough of them per game. Franks’ arm strength and athleticism are clear pluses, but his consistency is a major hurdle he must overcome.

The Miami defense likely will be Franks’ and the Gators’ toughest challenge until conference season in October. Can he avoid crippling turnovers against a Hurricanes defense that has been good at forcing them the past two seasons? Scouts will want to see Franks turn in a more composed performance vs. a veteran group (save for a secondary that has a lot of new parts).

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Franks had a solid statistical season in 2018 with 2,457 yards passing, 24 touchdowns and six interceptions, plus 350 rushing yards and seven more TDs. Head coach Dan Mullen also says that his QB has taken “huge strides” and has “already improved more during the offseason than he did last season on the field, in his performance and understanding the system and decision making and making plays.”

One other factor to keep in mind with Franks this season: He was drafted by MLB’s Boston Red Sox in the 31st round and signed for a modest $40,000. Will football remain his priority if he gets off to a slow start?

Miami LB Shaquille Quarterman vs. Florida

We had planned to write about EDGE Trevon Hill, who arrives at Miami after being dismissed from Virginia Tech, but the talented pass rusher was not listed as a starter in the Canes’ initial depth chart. His future is in the air, so we’ll go in a different direction until we know more of Hill’s status on the team.

Instead we go with Quarterman, who is a throwback linebacker with some NFL-caliber skills but a murky projection as a pro prospect. His hitting and blitzing ability (five sacks last season) will work on the next level.

Miami Hurricanes linebacker Shaquille Quarterman can kick-start his NFL draft stock vs. Miami in the opener. (Getty Images)
Miami Hurricanes linebacker Shaquille Quarterman can kick-start his NFL draft stock vs. Miami in the opener. (Getty Images)

But his inconsistencies in coverage and tackling can make him a liability, as he appears far more comfortable moving forward than in reverse. There’s a Vontaze Burfict-ish quality to the 6-1, 230-pound Quarterman’s game.

Quarterman has played extensively the past three seasons, so there are hours of tape out there on him to course through. But in order to vault his mid-round stock (he considered declaring for the draft this year but came back when he received return-to-school grades) he needs to make strides in coverage. And in this game he could have success as a blitzer vs. a revamped Gators line and vs. a passing game that likely will include a lot of short stuff to quick receivers.

Florida CB C.J. Henderson vs. Miami

The next in a long line of talented Gators DBs is Henderson, who is a junior but will be on the watch list for possibly declaring in 2020. His running mate, Marco Wilson, could be one of the prizes of the 2021 crop, too. This will be a very good test for both.

The Hurricanes have some talent at receiver now that Jeff Thomas is back (after it appeared he might transfer to Illinois) and grad transfer K.J. Osborn (893 yards receiving at Buffalo last year) is in the fold. The 5-10, 170-pound Thomas is shifty, and the 6-foot, 205-pound Osborn is a talented deep threat; which one of them the 6-1, 191-pound Henderson ends up covering will be interesting.

Henderson also can blitz effectively, possesses good closing speed and handled nearly all of his varied assignments well last season. The only receiver who seemed to tax him was Missouri’s speed merchant Emmanuel Hall.

The Gators don’t face a host of upper-tier wideouts until later in the season, so this early test will be a good tape to review when breaking down Henderson amid what appears to be a banner year of cornerbacks possibly available in 2020.

Arizona QB Khalil Tate vs. Hawaii

This won’t be a banner defense Tate faces, and there’s still the question of whether he’s going to be a QB at the next level. Tate’s blinding speed has been on display the past two seasons, but last year — outside of a few massive performances — was a disappointment for the talented playmaker. Hindered by an early season ankle injury, and held back by an offense that didn’t appear to highlight his ability, Tate was nowhere close to his 2017 form last season.

The 6-2, 215-pound passer has a chance to prove he’s healthy again and open the season with a bang against a Hawaii defense that allowed more than 35 points per game last season and lost star LB Jahlani Tavai to the NFL. Tate has a very strong arm, better size than many realize and has had a terrific TD-INT ratio (26-8) even in a disappointing 2018 season.

Arizona QB Khalil Tate struggled at times last season, but he has a chance to remind people of his athletic gifts. (Getty Images)
Arizona QB Khalil Tate struggled at times last season, but he has a chance to remind people of his athletic gifts. (Getty Images)

With more spread and run-dependent quarterbacks slowly being accepted in the NFL ranks and with Kyler Murray having gone first overall in the 2019 NFL draft, Tate might be entering the league at the right time, even if his touch and accuracy are nowhere close to Murray’s. Still, if Tate can rebound and put together a complete season running and passing, the NFL might reignite its interest in him at that position.

His athleticism is special, but he needs to convince us he can throw more accurately and read defenses consistently in order to get a shot at the next level. Every game counts, so the scouts will be watching this one with interest with so much at stake in Tate’s draft stock.

Hawaii QB Cole McDonald vs. Arizona

We shot our shot when we listed the 6-4, 205-pound McDonald as a dark-horse first-round QB prospect this summer. No, he’s not there yet. But there were times last season he showed real inspiration in his game. Even with a tough finish to last season, there appears to be fascinating traits and real, tangible upside to his game.

McDonald’s offense allows him to showcase his arm on deeper routes (35 completions of 25-plus yards last season), puts him in favorable situations with the quicker, shorter passing game and will provide opportunities for him to flash his scrambling ability.

If Hawaii’s receivers are better at hanging onto the football this season than they did in 2018, it would help McDonald even more. Even with John Ursua having declared early for the draft, the wideout talent looks solid, and there’s an experienced offensive line in front of McDonald to help keep pockets clean, which is where he thrived as a passer last season.

Hawaii has a strong enough schedule to open eyes for McDonald early on if he stands tall, with Saturday’s game against the Wildcats followed by contests vs. Oregon State and at Washington. Play well in these three and the redshirt junior has a chance to make a real draft name for himself and kickstart his hype train again.

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