NFL draft: Georgia-Notre Dame features some outstanding prospect battles

It’s a big week in college football with some choice matchups on the slate. Here are some of the big tests for five 2020 NFL draft prospects we’ll be keyed in on:

Georgia QB Jake Fromm vs. Notre Dame

Fromm entered the season viewed as somewhere behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert, and above most of the rest of the field in the 2020 NFL draft hierarchy. And through three games, Jake Fromm has completed 75 percent of his passes with a 5-0 TD-INT versus a soft slate.

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He has been good. Not great, but certainly effective. The degree of difficulty on his throws has been moderately low.

Watching the Arkansas State game from last week, Fromm threw 15 of his 22 passes within 6 yards of (or behind) the line of scrimmage. The downfield completion percentage was significantly lower in that game, with most throws 10 yards or more downfield just missing the target.

Fromm was more aggressive in the first two games in terms of attacking deep. This is what NFL talent evaluators’ biggest question is with Fromm: Can he show consistent downfield accuracy and threaten teams deep?

It will be tough against a good Notre Dame pass rush and versus a secondary that features NFL talent. Cornerback Troy Pride Jr., and safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott are among the better performers at their respective positions in the 2020 draft pool. We’d like to see Fromm manipulate them with his eyes and not be afraid to rip the ball deep on early downs when the Irish are defending against the Bulldogs’ great rushing attack.

Truth be told, this is a game where Georgia running back D’Andre Swift could dominate. The Notre Dame run defense has been wildly shaky in two games, allowing 10 runs of 10 or more yards in two games. If anything, the play-action possibilities should be very strong.

A big game in this setting should enhance Fromm’s reputation. Although he has been statistically shaky in some marquee matchups in his career, Fromm appears to embrace the spotlight — one he has been in since becoming a Little League World Series hero at age 11.

Georgia QB Jake Fromm and OT Andrew Thomas have big matchups this weekend vs. Notre Dame. (Getty Images)
Georgia QB Jake Fromm and OT Andrew Thomas have big matchups this weekend vs. Notre Dame. (Getty Images)

Georgia OT Andrew Thomas vs. Notre Dame

This game is loaded with NFL draft talent.

The highest-drafted player next year from either squad could be Andrew Thomas. So far this season, he’s the best offensive lineman I’ve watched.

Thomas has all the earmarks of a franchise protector and could end up a top-five selection. He’s 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds with long arms and quick, light feet — Thomas checks just about every physical box you can think of. The most impressive part of his game is how technically sound he is. Thomas doesn’t make glaring errors in pass protection.

It sounds odd to say it, but he’s a little boring to watch. That’s a high compliment. Sure, everyone loves the slobberknocker blocks, and Thomas can do that, but he reads as a highly technical blocker who does his job as it’s drawn up, finishes assignments and goes looking for more work. It’s very impressive, even if it’s not highlight-reel stuff.

He’s Fromm’s most trusted pass protector and the leading escort for Swift and the other runners, as well as in the screen game. The Irish have three good ends — Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hayes — who will present myriad skills and styles that will present a strong challenge for Thomas and the Dawgs’ o-line. If there’s one area where he can improve it’s in not lunging as much and bending at the waist too often, which can lead to a quick win for a quality defender. Thomas allowed a pressure on an inside pass-rush move early against Vanderbilt, but it’s hard to find too many other flaws in his game.

Washington QB Jacob Eason at BYU

Jacob Eason’s first three games as a Husky have been a see-saw affair. He was confident and dangerous against Eastern Washington, hesitant and unsure at times vs. a good Cal secondary and mostly back to his gunslinging ways last week against Hawaii, even with the game getting out of hand early.

The Huskies had a few dropped passes in that home loss to Cal, and some of those clearly were on the receivers. But Eason needs to develop a little more touch — he’s a fastball thrower at times, and not every 6-yard slant needs to be rocketed through the wideout’s chest.

Eason also displayed a little hesitancy, double-pumping and second-guessing what he saw. That’s a byproduct of having started only four college games since 2016, we suspect, so there’s a growth period here. Eason also can identify pressure better, pre-snap as this rep shows:

Eason has all the physical traits required for the position. He has a big arm that can spray the ball to all parts of the field. He can reset and reload quickly when his first read is covered. He showed decent escapability in the pocket and is an effective short-yardage runner when needed.

That’s why there’s talk that Eason would consider coming out early after one season at Washington, especially after he’ll turn 22 in November.

He still needs to stack more big performances to boost his stock and give a clearer picture of where he might land in the upcoming draft.

This game might be a little less about what challenges BYU presents (although the Cougars’ defense has held up pretty well vs. the pass) and more about how Eason handles a big environment. The Cougars are coming off back-to-back thrilling victories — double-OT win at Tennessee, overtime at home against USC — and now welcome the Huskies for what should be a showdown and a raucous environment.

BYU’s freshman QB, Zach Wilson, has been fearless, so Eason might need to match him throw for throw and play for play.

Oklahoma State RB Chuba Hubbard at Texas

If you’ve not had the pleasure of watching Chuba Hubbard run, do yourself a favor and check him out. He displays some Le’Veon Bell-like patience and vision before putting his foot in the ground. And once Hubbard gets into some space, it can be lights out for a defense. He also gets low for a back who is listed at 6-foot-1 and can squirt through the trash to find daylight.

Hubbard split carries last season with 2019 Ravens fourth-rounder Justice Hill and came into the season with only 124 rushes for 740 yards and seven TDs, along with 22 catches for 229 yards with another two scores. On the ground this season, he has already matched that TD total (leading FBS in that category) and has amassed 521 yards on only 66 runs.

Interestingly, Hubbard has yet to catch a pass this season, which is something the Cowboys coaches are likely to change against the Longhorns. The best way to slow down the rush will be to get him involved in some checkdowns, screens and help pull in the safeties who are guarding against deep shots to WR Tylan Wallace, the nation’s leading receiver at 390 yards.

Hubbard also doesn’t back down from his pass-protection assignments, often throwing himself into harm’s way for the betterment of the team, but his technique can appear crude and unrefined. This is a skill he easily can develop based on the small sample size we’ve seen.

Hubbard is a redshirt sophomore, but this is a fast draft riser who is very much on the radar of NFL scouts. With college backs coming out as early as possible in many cases in recent years, he’s a candidate to declare early if he keeps up this pace. Texas will be his biggest and best test to date.

Utah CB Jaylon Johnson at USC

We’re fans of Johnson, a lean-framed corner for the Utes who makes up for his lack of mass with toughness, good arm length and polished technique. You’ll see it fail him from time to time, and Johnson can be tested deep with good but not great speed.

He’s a heady player who anticipates and jumps routes when the time comes, such as the Stanford game last season when he used one of Eagles second-rounder J.J. Arcega-Whiteside’s bread-and-butter moves — the post-up — against him for a long pick-six.

The challenge for Johnson this week comes against a similarly sized receiver in the Trojans’ Michael Pittman Jr., the son of the former NFL running back. The senior wideout Pittman logged a career-best nine grabs in the loss to BYU, as well as two TD catches. He’s rocked up at 225 pounds and has good ball skills, so this is a premium matchup for Johnson when they go head-to-head.

Johnson also could face off against USC junior WR Tyler Vaughns, who is not as big but flashes great high-point leaping ability. Sending signals that this could be his final season, Johnson absolutely will get an NFL-caliber taste of what he could face in the league next season versus these two receivers.

Johnson was the Utes’ best pro prospect entering the season for 2020. That’s still the case, but how he fares in this game could have a say in where he ultimately falls in the draft picture.

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