Like our Yahoo Sports friends Nick Bromberg and Sam Cooper, who handle the college football version of Winners and Losers adeptly, we want to be careful how we react to one week’s worth of play.
One game never determines any player’s draft stock in its entirety, and certainly not that of the first week of the season. Certain games will always carry more weight, though, and there were a few interesting developments among the prospects who could make up the 2020 NFL draft lot.
Here are some observations from the weekend’s games — with plenty of time to change what direction these players are headed.
Either up or down.
Quarterbacks in new places
Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts stole the show in the Sooners’ opening-week victory over Houston. Washington’s Jacob Eason completed 27 of 36 passes for 347 yards and four touchdowns in his Huskies debut, a 47-14 rout of Eastern Washington. And despite two costly turnovers in a loss to Wyoming, Missouri QB Kelly Bryant threw for a career-high 423 yards.
None of the three are firmly in the first-round discussion, save for Eason perhaps. But all three showed some strong skills in their debuts at their new schools.
Eason is a popular dart-throw pick in very early mock drafts because he’s a former ballyhooed recruit who started out well at Georgia before getting hurt and replaced by Jake Fromm. People we’ve spoken to chalk that up as bad luck for Eason, who very likely would be doing similar things for the Bulldogs had it worked out more favorably for him.
The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Eason has all the traits NFL teams are seeking, and they were all on display Saturday. Some will write off the fact that his big game came against an FCS school, but Eason’s throws certainly passed the eye test. Even with a few misses in the game, the high-level completions were a perfect snapshot of what he can become.
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) September 1, 2019
We can’t wait to see Eason and the Huskies face a very good Cal defense (especially in the secondary) next week as a better barometer of how he’ll fare this season, but you can’t help but be excited about his start.
Hurts will be a fascinating Rorschach test for the draft community this season. It’s fair to say that most of 20 completions (on 23 attempts) were to wide-open targets on a brutal day for the Cougars’ defense. There’s no doubt that the Sooners’ elite offensive talent and a creative, formidable system are huge boosts for Hurts’ production. In fact, one scout who was at the game joked via text that Lincoln Riley might have boosted his NFL stock more than Hurts did.
But Hurts executed the throws well, showed poise and leadership (lamenting his team’s “sloppy” execution after the game) and was a demon as a runner, racking up 176 rush yards (128 in the first half) and three scores on 16 carries. Not even Baker Mayfield nor Kyler Murray went 300-150 in this system in any game the past three seasons.
Anyone denying that Hurts will have a shot to play QB at the next level isn’t seeing the big picture. He might not be for everyone, and Hurts certainly won’t follow his predecessors as a future No. 1 overall pick. But there is fascination over his skills, which will be put to use at the next level.
The NFL might be behind the times on its willingness to put athletic quarterbacks to best use, but the league is slowly coming along. If Murray succeeds this season with the Arizona Cardinals and Hurts continues to impress in college, it won’t be hard — even with those two players having different skills — to see how Hurts can push his way into the 2020 QB discussion.
Like Hurts, Bryant isn’t a classic NFL passer. But he completed 31 of 48 attempts (that included an unofficial seven dropped passes) for two touchdowns and gave his team a chance to win. Bryant also saved a touchdown with a tackle after a Missouri fumble at the Wyoming goal line and was elusive as a scrambler and designed runner all night.
He files under the category of “developmental passer,” but Bryant has some ability worth cultivating.
Penn State EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos
It was a game against Idaho, sure, but Gross-Matos registered a career-best 2.5 sacks — and did so in about one half’s worth of work when many starters were pulled early in the 79-7 blowout. The Vandals’ offensive line had no answers for blocking him on most plays, as Gross-Matos helped put them behind the chains early and often.
“Yetur Gross-Matos played really well,” Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin said immediately after the game, without first needing to see the tape.
It was a nice debut after the talented pass rusher was suspended for a violation of team rules over the summer. Scouts are intrigued with his upside.
The EDGE class looks loaded next year. Gross-Matos has another year of eligibility remaining after this one, but don’t be shocked to see him declare for the draft if he puts up another big season after his breakout (20 TFLs) in 2018. Seeing him line up inside and out and use his excellent hand technique to toss aside blockers has us excited for what’s to come.
Oregon offensive line
It’s time to give the big guys some love. There was plenty of words spent on QB Justin Herbert recently, and for good reason, but we had to note what a few of his blockers did in Saturday’s 27-21 bonkers loss to Auburn.
Yes, the Ducks blew a 21-6 lead midway through the third quarter. Still, we’d be remiss not to mention the work of the Ducks’ offensive line, especially the left-side duo of Penei Sewell and Shane Lemieux. Sewell isn’t draft-eligible until 2021, but for you draft completists out there, he’s someone you have to be excited about down the road. Several times in the eventual loss to Auburn the 6-6, 325-pound left tackle made his presence felt, showing the power of a man his size and mobility of a man 50 pounds lighter.
PENEI SEWELL PACKS A PUNCH pic.twitter.com/wloZzlfOL2
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) September 2, 2019
Lemieux, a senior, is eligible for the 2020 draft, and the left guard is one of the finest interior blockers in the country. More than once he dominated his man against a very good Tigers front and set his season in motion with a strong performance.
And the left guard! (Shane Lemieux) https://t.co/vEdRkzhTy5
— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) September 1, 2019
We see an easy top-50 projection with Lemieux at this point, with his stock only likely to rise. Oregon center Jake Hanson also held his own against All-American defensive tackle Derrick Brown on several reps. It might not have been the result the Ducks wanted, but their offensive line showed some spunk in that game.
Many NFL scouts were on hand to witness Utah State QB Jordan Love’s performance against Wake Forest, one of two road games the Aggies have this season against Power Five opponents that will help determine his stock. Love made some big-time throws and also had a few plays he’d like back.
But the player who perhaps opened the most eyes in that game for Utah State was LB David Woodward. He certainly was on the radar of diehard college observers and scouts alike coming into the game, having earned third-team All-America honors from the AP in a brilliant redshirt sophomore season in 2018.
This game, however, should get Woodward’s name in a more national spotlight. Woodward was credited with a career-high 24 tackles — 18 solo tackles, 3.5 for losses and two shy of the school record of 26 set in 1974. He also had a sack and two forced fumbles in what was a dominant performance in the 38-35 loss.
David Woodward did everything he could for Utah State against Wake Forest. pic.twitter.com/CXL6pKeLPV
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 1, 2019
Woodward made his presence felt early, making the first stop of the game and forcing a fumble deep in Wake territory. He even had a strip sack and recovery called back and made many of his impressive plays in the red zone, including a TFL on the play prior to the Deacons’ game-winning TD pass in the final minutes.
Woodward was all over the field Saturday and is a terrific NFL prospect with his three-down ability as a run stopper and in coverage. Get to know the name — the scouts are well ahead of many people on this already.
Lesser-known tight ends
You’ll soon see below in the “Losers” section where we’re headed with this, but let’s start out on a positive note.
First, in Thursday’s UCLA-Cincinnati game, we loved what we saw from Bearcats junior TE Josiah Deguara. In addition to catching a game-high four passes and hauling in a catch-and-run touchdown from 16 yards out, Deguara made a play that NFL scouts will love.
After a Cincinnati touchdown, the 6-3, 241-pound Deguara delivered his Benjamin Watson moment when he chased down UCLA corner Jay Shaw after a goal-line interception, with Deguara running more than half the field to save a touchdown the other direction.
It was the first play Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell mentioned in his postgame news conference.
“To see Josiah Deguara run 60 or so yards, never give up, get a guy down and give us the opportunity to not lose complete momentum of the entire game,” Fickell said. “That's what we pride ourselves on. … It will be the first play we watch [on tape] as a team."
The grad-student senior is a team captain and one to watch. He had a few big games last season and has earned respect in his locker room.
Western Michigan TE Giovanni Ricci had a nice season debut with five catches for 97 yards and two TDs in 48-13 win over Monmouth University. He’s an interesting, late-developing prospect who was a high school QB and shifted from receiver earlier in his Broncos career, reshaping his body along the way. At 6-3 and 240 pounds, he’s more of a split-out option at tight end, but Ricci might be one to keep an eye on as the coaching staff believes he’s developing into a matchup problem for opponents.
He had only three TDs last season (two coming in a blowout of FCS Delaware State) and faces a far tougher chore this coming week against what looks like a terrific Michigan State defense. But if Ricci can improve his production against the Spartans, who held him to two catches for 5 yards last season, it could help keep scouts on his trail.
Jordan Love and Justin Herbert
Now hang on a second. Neither quarterback was bad. Both made high-end throws and made sparkling plays in their respective teams’ opening-game losses. But neither player helped boost their reputations from scouts’ perspectives. Every game counts, especially at this position.
Love put up some big numbers (33-of-48 passing for 416 yards, three TDs) in the loss, but he also made some questionable decisions. The game-ending interception with just over a minute left was surely one of those — a throw the redshirt junior would like to have back. On the day, he had three interceptions; another poor one came when he underthrew his receiver on a quick out with pressure coming. It’s hard to know what he saw on the play, but Love appeared to misread the coverage and pressure.
That will come with growth and time as Love and the Aggies are adjusting to a new offensive scheme and major personnel changes from last season. He still has big-time ability and remains a dark-horse candidate to land a first-round NFL draft projection.
He’ll have to improve on this opening performance, with several big opportunities (at LSU, at Fresno State, vs. Boise State) left to come, in order to secure that lofty a draft status.
Herbert also flashed his high-level chops against Auburn, especially early when he was mostly lights out. And if you consider how many wide receivers the Ducks were missing, it makes what he did even more commendable. The lack of separation by the healthy wideouts was clear, as Herbert had few go-to targets to lean on, which might have been why the Ducks tried to take the air out of the football as early as the third quarter.
So again, in no way are we dumping on Herbert for this game. But it feels more like a missed opportunity for the potential No. 1 overall pick as his coaches took the ball out of Herbert’s hands for big stretches in the second half, which was stunning considering how Auburn put the game in the hands of a true freshman QB who had struggled most of the evening — and yes, the Tigers were rewarded for that approach.
The passes the Ducks did call late often were of the safe variety. The late possession in which Herbert connected on three straight short tosses for a total of 9 yards, followed by a punt on fourth-and-1, was especially maddening. Does Mario Cristobal not trust his QB or his receivers? It’s almost certainly the latter, and it will be answered over the coming weeks.
Still, with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa standing out with aggressive, downfield passes — and accurate ones — in a blowout of Duke, gets the early, slight edge over Herbert in the battle for QB1.
And yes, we’ll be stacking these talented players up on a weekly basis this season, fair or not. What, you think scouts aren’t doing the same thing?
Big-name tight ends
Vanderbilt’s Jared Pinkney once again was held in check (two catches, 11 yards) by Georgia’s defense, which features strong linebackers and maybe the best pair of safeties in the country in J.R. Reed and Richard LaCounte. In 2018, the Bulldogs held him to one catch. Tough assignment for sure both times.
On Saturday, new QB Riley Neal threw his first pass as a Commodore to Pinkney for a 2-yard gain. He wouldn’t see another target until well into the second quarter, and Neal targeted him only once more the rest of the game despite being down 21-0 after 22 minutes and throwing a lot after that. Pinkney also was flagged for a hold that wiped out a Neal scramble.
Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam caught three passes — for 32, 28 and 12 yards. That was the good part; he clearly found some work to operate vertically and flashed some of his intriguing athleticism. But he also didn’t register a catch until deep into the second quarter and had a touchdown called back on a blatant pass-interference call.
A lot of the scouting knocks against Okwuegbunam seem to be for his lack of a well-rounded game, especially as a blocker where his experience is limited. But the PI play also showed that he’s still learning the finer points of football and could develop more savvy to his game. The broadcast crew appeared shocked that Okwuegbunam was not targeted more often, indicating that Missouri head coach Barry Odom had a plan to flood him with opportunities in what would be a 37-31 Wyoming win.
Oklahoma TE Grant Calcaterra was targeted only twice in the Sooners’ blowout win over Houston. He caught both of his passes, including a throwback pass designed to go his way, for 20 yards. A quiet debut surely, and no one should look too hard into it. He was far from a high-volume target in a loaded offense last season; Calcaterra never caught more than three passes in a game in 2018.
It will be interesting to see whether he develops the same rapport he did with Jalen Hurts as he did with Kyler Murray last season. Most of Calcaterra’s best work came in the second half of last season, so it’s possible that the same pattern develops with Hurts.
Stanford’s Colby Parkinson was somewhat quiet in the box score (four catches, 38 yards), but QB K.J. Costello flat-out missed him for big plays down the seam twice, including one possible touchdown. Parkinson hauled in a 26-yard grab and seemed to separate nicely a few times. But he also was flagged for a hold deep in Northwestern territory late as Stanford tried to make it a two-score game. The Cardinal threw Parkinson’s way eight times and now has to find a way to connect on these passes more readily.
Hard to find much fault in any one South Florida player, as they were undressed at home by Wisconsin in a 49-0 rout. The Bulls completed 16 passes for a mere 131 yards and a long gain of 15. They looked completely unprepared, top to bottom. Mitchell Wilcox was silent with one grab for 11 yards on four targets. He also had a short catch wiped out by penalty. This effort, though, was sullied by the other players on the field.
Michigan QB Shea Patterson
We wrote back in July about how bearish scouts were about Patterson’s NFL outlook, and his 2019 season debut against Middle Tennessee State didn’t help matters.
Patterson fumbled twice, losing one of them. And though he threw three TD passes, Patterson also completed only 17 of his 29 attempts for 203 yards and had few “wow” plays in the uninspiring effort.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh carried through in this game on his promise to play both Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey this season — and they even appeared on the field together. But that rarely bore much fruit, and Patterson was called for an illegal formation penalty when he came out at wide receiver with McCaffrey at QB. Harbaugh hinted that Patterson was dealing with an injury but did not give much detail.
Perhaps that had an effect on his play. But credit Patterson for knowing that his mistakes can’t continue if Michigan is going to end Ohio State’s recent dominance in the Big Ten.
“A win is a win, but I don’t think anyone in that locker room felt like we lived up to our standard,” Patterson said. “We’ve got to play better. I’ve got to play better.”
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