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NFL draft prospects to watch: Oregon QB Justin Herbert needs to recapture some buzz

Eric Edholm
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This week’s slate of college football matchups can’t match what we saw last week, but there’s still some quality action — and a few notable 2020 NFL draft prospect matchups. Here are five prospects we’ll be keyed in on this weekend as we get into the second half of the college season (all 2020 prospects listed in bold):

Justin Herbert QB Oregon at Washington

This is a big week for Justin Herbert. The buzz on him, even after a 45-3 blowout victory last Friday against Colorado, might be at its lowest point in a few years. He returned to school with a chance to emerge as the top overall pick next spring, but there’s a sense in league circles that he could be some teams’ QB3 — behind LSU’s Joe Burrow, this year’s breakout star, and Bama’s Tua Tagovailoa.

To this point, Herbert’s decision to stay in school hasn’t improved his draft stock significantly.

The Ducks head to Washington to face a Huskies defense that averages more than an interception and more than two sacks per game, as well as being stingy vs. the pass. Herbert was just OK against them a year ago, completing 18 of 32 passes, and it was one of the few games last season where dropped passes were not a real concern.

Oregon’s offense displayed more creativity and had more of a vertical element against the Buffaloes last week, which is a good thing. But we’d still like to see the Ducks’ coaches show a more aggressive mentality consistently with one of the strongest-arm quarterbacks in college football. Better health at receiver should help give Herbert the weaponry he needs. And this is one of the better offensive lines in the country — let them do their job, we say!

The quarterback on the other side of the equation, Washington’s Jacob Eason, also could use a big game here after a recent slip in play — and Oregon’s defense is no joke either. This will be a fascinating game for the draft community.

Here is a look at what Herbert did last week, and yes it included some quality passes, including two potential touchdowns that were dropped:

Arizona State WR Brandon Aiyuk at Utah

You say Brandon Aiyuk. But we now say Ai-YAC — as in yards after catch. The Sun Devils’ breakout star might be one of the most improved wideouts in the country a year after landing at ASU from junior college, and he’s doing a ton of damage after the grab. The 6-1, 204-pound Aiyuk has tallied 424 of his 651 receiving yards — a stunning 65 percent — after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus.

It might not be a stretch to say that Aiyuk’s play is approaching what 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry did last season. That said, they’re different players. Aiyuk reminds me quite a bit of the Dallas Cowboys’ Michael Gallup. Both have good (not great) speed, nice route-running savvy and smoothness.

Arizona State WR Brandon Aiyuk (2) has been running past people this season. (Getty Images)
Arizona State WR Brandon Aiyuk has been running past people this season. (Getty Images)

Aiyuk has surpassed his 2018 yard and TD numbers, and he’ll eclipse his reception total from last season with three more catches. That could happen in the first half against Utah, even against tough CB Jaylon Johnson (a possible top-75 pick). Last season, Aiyuk had his best game of the year vs. the Utes in Tempe, catching six passes on six targets for 101 yards — 55 of those after the grab.

That game was the first sign that Aiyuk might emerge as a WR1 this season, but he has far surpassed most reasonable expectations. Scouts have taken notice.

Louisville OT Mekhi Becton vs. Clemson

Whenever Clemson plays, NFL scouts follow. But they’ll also be at Cardinals Stadium on Saturday to check out Louisville’s best prospect this year in Mekhi Becton, a massive left tackle with intriguing athleticism. Not many men who stand 6-7 and weigh 369 pounds — that’s his listed weight — move the way Becton does.

“Probably the biggest left tackle that we're ever going to see,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said this week.

Mekhi Becton might actually block out a portion of the sun. (Getty Images)
Mekhi Becton might actually block out a portion of the sun. (Getty Images)

He’ll likely draw comparisons to Orlando Brown, the former Oklahoma tackle who was knocked for his lack of athleticism coming out but has emerged as one of the better young right tackles in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens.

Take it for what it’s worth, but former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino once compared Becton to Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden — and this was before Becton broke out fully. He has rare mass, an absurd wingspan and better feet and lateral quickness than you might imagine.

Is Becton entering the first-round discussion? Maybe not yet, but he’s going to be highly regarded if he comes out this season (he has one more year of eligibility). Talking to some scouts about Becton, it appears his current draft range falls somewhere on Day 2.

A big performance against Clemson’s edge rushers might keep his stock on the rise. Xavier Thomas is the Tigers’ best pass rusher, but he’s questionable for this one (and often lines up opposite the opponent’s right tackle anyway). Losing Thomas would be a big blow. Becton locked horns last week with Wake Forest’s emerging junior pass rusher, Carlos Basham, and they each won a few reps — call it a draw in their head-to-head meeting.

South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw vs. Florida

Javon Kinlaw has emerged as one of the best interior rushers in the country this season with five sacks and multiple pressures in each game this season, per PFF, save for his 18-snap workout against Charleston Southern. Last week, Kinlaw was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week in the Gamecocks’ massive upset of Georgia, a team teeming with quality offensive line talent.

Asked this week what the difference has been between a solid 2018 campaign and a mostly dominant 2019 one, Kinlaw smiled and said, “I can’t give you my recipe, man.”

South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw (3) dominated again last week against Georgia. (Getty Images)
South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw (3) dominated again last week against Georgia. (Getty Images)

But the 6-6, 308-pound Kinlaw went on to credit Gamecocks strength coach Mark Campbell for the work he did with not only him, but the rest of the defensive line. As much as anything, Kinlaw said, Campbell tested him mentally and challenged him to be great through improved effort and motor.

It’s showing. Week in and week out, Kinlaw has been disruptive. His back-to-back performances against Alabama and Missouri, along with last week’s game, have pushed Kinlaw firmly into the first-round discussion for 2020.

This week, he has a chance to feast. Facing the No. 9 Gators will put a lot of eyes on him, but Florida’s interior offensive line appears to be an exploitable group. The interior trio seemed to struggle (especially undersized Gators center Nick Buchanan) last week vs. LSU, so this could be a huge stage for him to keep building his reputation in the scouting community.

Last week, we placed Kinlaw at No. 24 overall to the Seattle Seahawks in our initial mock draft, so you can probably tell we’re big fans.

Utah DT Leki Fotu vs. Oregon

If you’ve not had the pleasure of watching the 6-5, 335-pound Leki Fotu, please do yourself a favor and check out at least a few reps this weekend in this game. He has had a few shocking disruptions this season, as Fotu will dazzle with his combination of length, mass, power, burst and surprising flexibility and agility for such a massive human.

“Leki Fotu, I think, is the best [front seven] defender in the Pac-12,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. Whittingham even several times has compared Fotu to former Utah defensive lineman Luther Ellis, the former 20th overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft and a two-time Pro Bowler for the Detroit Lions in the late 1990s.

Utah DT Leki Fotu, right, is a big man with bad intentions — and an NFL future. (Getty Images)
Utah DT Leki Fotu, right, is a big man with bad intentions — and an NFL future. (Getty Images)

If there’s a weakness on this Arizona State offense, it’s probably the line. C Cohl Cabral is a try-hard blocker and a better fit in the pivot than when he was forced to play out of position at tackle the first two games of this season, as well as for the entire 2017 campaign. Cabral is more of a bump-and-steer guy than a people mover, best on combo blocks and when he’s able to get in space in the screen game.

How will Cabral handle the power of Fotu? He struggled to generate much push against the size and quickness of Michigan State’s front line, so dealing with the massive Ute will be worth watching.

Fotu is just starting to scratch the surface of his immense potential. The converted offensive tackle has as much rugby in his background as he does football, which he didn’t even play his junior year of high school. It’s easy to see why, even in an NFL game that favors quickness over size at defensive tackle, scouts feel there is ample room for this young man as a potential centerpiece up front on defense.

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