NFL draft matchups: Fascinating QB tilt in Death Valley, plus a nearly 700-pound SEC trench battle

For this week’s prospect matchups, we are highlighting some fairly well-known prospect names in draft circles — along with some ones you might not be as familiar with.

We’re still two weeks away from the Big Ten taking the field, almost four weeks from #MACtion being back and just about a month away from the Pac-12 restarting activities.

As one scout pointed out to us this week, the thinner slate of games has allowed them to hone in on some lesser-known players — first-time starters, transfers, players coming off injuries, etc. — that they might not normally have been able to take such a long look at now.

With four matchups of top-25 teams facing each other this week, plus several other solid games featuring future NFL talent, there are still plenty of games with big draft implications until we return to a nearly full slate of games by November.

Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence vs. Miami QB D’Eriq King

Yes, we know the quarterbacks technically aren’t facing one another directly. But it’s a massive game for each as NFL draft prospects at the very least, and it’s also one of the bigger regular-season games for either program in recent history.

Lawrence has been cruising through the first three games, completing more than 73 percent of his passes, throwing seven TDs in 75 pass attempts and carrying a streak of 314 consecutive passes without an interception into the game.

King has been a revelation for Miami, completing 67 percent of his passes, notching a 6-0 TD-INT ratio and also rushing for 157 yards and a score in three outings. The debate of whether he’s an NFL quarterback or not is going to be fascinating, but the 5-foot-8 passer is doing great things on the field again after transferring to the program this offseason.

Miami Hurricanes quarterback D'Eriq King is still trying to prove he can play that position in the NFL. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Miami Hurricanes quarterback D'Eriq King is still trying to prove he can play that position in the NFL. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

If King wants a better shot to be an NFL passer despite his unusually small frame, he needs big performances in games such as this. He has the weapons in TE Brevin Jordan and RB Cam’Ron Harris to get it done, and Clemson’s defense seemed to struggle to contain Virginia’s agile QB, Brennan Armstrong, last week.

That Clemson unit is fairly young, starting only two seniors (LB James Skalski and S Nolan Turner) and coming off the first game where it allowed more than 400 yards of offense to an ACC team since 2017. But this is still a highly athletic group that will provide some tough resistance against King and the Hurricanes.

The Tigers could use pass rushers Xavier Thomas and Justin Foster, neither of whom have suited up this season, for this game. Last week was the first time this season that the lack of push up front really seemed to show up. They also were without DT Tyler Davis, who got hurt vs. Wake Forest but is expected back for this game.

Clemson is still patching some holes in the secondary, too. But one defender back there who has played well to date has been CB Derion Kendrick, whom NFL scouts like more than many draft wonks do at this stage. Kendrick has yet to allow a reception in his two games, and he had two passes defended last week vs. Virginia.

Luckily for Clemson, its offense is still humming. Lawrence, RB Travis Etienne, WR Amari Rodgers and a talented but young offensive line have been getting the job done. The stakes are raised in this one, though, against a Miami defense that has 10 sacks, four forced fumbles and four picks through three games.

Pitt EDGE Patrick Jones II vs. Boston College offensive tackles

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Jones has a fascinating backstory, having grown up in Japan (where he first learned football on a naval base there) and Italy before coming back to the United States and earning a scholarship at Pitt.

And most importantly for our purposes, he’s an excellent player. The high-energy rusher almost never takes a play off, and it’s a big reason why he logged 12 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in a breakout season in 2019, earning all-ACC mention. This season, after a quiet start, Jones has four sacks in his past two games.

Jones reminds us a bit of a poor man’s Clelin Ferrell, albeit lacking Ferrell’s advanced hand technique and core strength. But Jones has the kind of diverse game, rushing effectively from both end spots, to be an impact defender on all three downs.

Pittsburgh's Patrick Jones II (91) had a breakout season in 2019 and is off to a good start so far in 2020. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
Pittsburgh's Patrick Jones II (91) had a breakout season in 2019 and is off to a good start so far in 2020. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

When he lines up at left end, he’ll be squaring off with Boston College’s impressive young right tackle Tyler Vrabel (yes, the son of Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel). And when Jones rushes from the other side, he’ll face off against BC’s most accomplished lineman and best 2021 OL prospect, Zion Johnson.

Johnson has a short, squatty frame and is being pegged as an NFL guard. He was moved from left guard to left tackle this season, which is what Jeff Hafley and his staff thought was best for this season. But Johnson has struggled a bit with allowing edge pressure this season, especially to longer, quicker defenders such as Jones.

Jones received mostly third-round grades this summer. He briefly considered entering the 2020 NFL draft but came back for one more season. It would not be stunning to see him crack the top 50 overall picks when it’s all said and done.

Tennessee OG Trey Smith vs. Georgia defensive line

The 6-foot-6, 330-pound Smith is a potential first-round pick who is off to another strong start after turning in an All-SEC season in 2019. Potential roadblocks toward landing in the first 32 picks include his medical evaluation, after he suffered through blood clots earlier in his career, and perhaps the athletic testing portion of the NFL scouting combine.

But flip on the tape, and Smith does a lot of mashing up front, especially in the run game. The left guard helped open up several big runs last week against Missouri, springing a 232-yard, four-TD rushing attack against the Tigers.

Last year’s battle against Georgia started out well for Smith and the Vols before turning sour. Tennessee actually led, 14-10, in the second quarter before the Bulldogs ripped off 33 straight points in the cakewalk.

The early battles in that game between Smith and UGA’s defensive line went more Smith’s way. Check out the first play from scrimmage, where Smith (No. 73 at left guard) is able to bully 6-foot-6, 330-pound Jordan Davis and help spring a 16-yard run through his gap:

Trey Smith (73) is able to move Georgia's massive nose tackle, Jordan Davis, on this run last season.
Trey Smith (73) is able to move Georgia's massive nose tackle, Jordan Davis, on this run last season.

Smith and the Vols did a good job early, and he and Georgia DL Devonte Wyatt got into it a bit after a few plays. But Smith had his leg rolled up on late in the first quarter, missed the rest of the series and wasn’t moving around quite as well from that point on. Tennessee really bogged down offensively after Smith returned to the lineup that game.

Davis and Wyatt comprise two-thirds of Georgia’s three-man starting front, along with Davis manning the nose typically and Wyatt and Malik Herring lining up at the 5-techniques. It’s a good group with depth, backed by strong linebackers and an excellent secondary.

If Davis ever puts it together, watch out. He received some second- and third-round grades this summer strictly because of his massive upside. To date, his production has been fairly minimal — 48 tackles (six for losses), four sacks and no fumbles forced or recovered in 27 career games — and he’s been a bit quiet the first two games this season.

But Davis also eats up a lot of space and flashes some shocking athleticism for a man his size. The Bulldogs even used him as a lead blocker on a few short-yardage runs last week in the blowout over Auburn. His skill set cannot go overlooked, but to this point he hasn’t met his potential and his limited snaps suggest he could stand to build up his stamina and conditioning a bit.

Still, we love this heavyweight battle in the trenches. It should be worth watching for the OL-DL junkies.

Virginia Tech RB Khalil Herbert vs. UNC LB Chazz Surratt

Every college season produces surprise prospects, and even this weird campaign is no different. We only had “TV scouted” Herbert prior to this week, having seen him barrel through Boston College for 187 yards on 11 carries in Kansas’ big upset a year ago.

Herbert transferred to Virginia Tech for his redshirt senior season, and it appears to have paid off in a big way. NFL scouts now quickly are gathering notes on the grad transfer.

Limited to 320 carries over parts of four seasons with the Jayhawks — which featured Pooka Williams most of the past two seasons — Herbert has truly shined in his first two ACC games, rushing for 312 yards on only 26 carries (for a whopping 12.0 average) and three TDs. He’s also caught two passes for 46 yards and run back five kickoffs for 195 yards, a 39.0-yard average.

Virginia Tech running back Khalil Herbert (21), a Kansas transfer, has been running by people so far this season. (Nell Redmond/Pool Photo via AP)
Virginia Tech running back Khalil Herbert (21), a Kansas transfer, has been running by people so far this season. (Nell Redmond/Pool Photo via AP)

Running behind a good offensive line (led by OT Christian Darrisaw), Herbert is leading all of FBS in all-purpose yards per game (276.5) and rushing yards per game (156.0). Duke had no answers for him last week, as Herbert’s 83-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown that was the game’s backbreaker.

Listed at 5-9 and 212 pounds, Herbert is a round ball of granite. But what impressed me upon watching him this week was his shiftiness and burst. His nickname is “Juice,” and it’s easy to see why. Herbert hits the hole hard but also has displayed some nice tackle-breaking, good vision and the ability to bounce runs outside for extra yards.

Off the top of our heads, he reminds us a bit of 2020 Seattle Seahawks fourth-rounder DeeJay Dallas and 2014 Minnesota Vikings third-rounder Jerick McKinnon. One Virginia Tech staffer told us that Herbert’s body composition reminded him of former Kansas City Chiefs back Priest Holmes.

Standing in Herbert’s way is a UNC defense that has held its two opponents to 108 rush yards on 54 carries, with a long run of 15. (Worth noting: The first two opponents, Syracuse and Boston College, rank at the bottom of the ACC in rushing.) But that unit will need to be sharp to cut down the cutback lanes for Herbert.

We’ve discussed Surratt previously, as the highly athletic converted QB has transitioned nicely to his role on defense. A fast-reacting defender, Surratt brings quick-strike ability against the run, even if he’s prone to missing a tackle or two (though he’s been better in that department this season).

If Herbert wants to keep impressing, this is the game to do it. A big performance here and talent evaluators will be forced to take more notice. Herbert wasn’t really on our radar at all entering the season. But two games have changed that quickly.

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