One of the first things NFL scouts do when looking at prospects in preparation for the NFL Draft is watch them against the best competition they faced in the previous season. This fall, we’re going to take a look at the best head-to-head matchups in this week’s slate of college football games. Every week, I’ll give you look at some key matchups to keep an eye on across the country, highlight a prospect who is on the rise, profile a small-school player to watch for next year’s draft, find a Philly connection, and give out a well-deserved game ball to a prospect who stood out in a big way the previous week.
Many pundits view this Saturday’s slate as a “down” week for college football, but when I look around the country I think there are a lot of fun games to study. This week on the College Draft Podcast with Ross Tucker, I broke down all the best matchups from some of the top games of the week, but let’s look at five more matchups that fans should keep their eyes on.
Five Matchups To Watch
1. Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph vs. Pittsburgh
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh- Noon – ESPN
At 6-5, 235 pounds, senior quarterback Mason Rudolph has gotten off to a scorching-hot start for the Cowboys this season, throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in each of the team’s first two games against Tulsa and South Alabama. The Cowboys take on their best opponent yet in Pitt. It’s the first real test for Rudolph and his star receiver James Washington. One of Rudolph’s best traits is his deep ball, and I’d expect to see it early and often against the Panthers. He comes from an offensive system that doesn’t typically translate well to the NFL, but I think Rudolph can buck the trend and last in the league for a long time. He’s got light feet, a pretty good arm, and has the touch and timing of a pro quarterback.
Pitt (1-1) has had a rough start to the year, eeking out a win over Youngstown State at home before getting throttled by Penn State on the road. The Panthers are missing their best pro prospect in safety Jordan Whitehead due to suspension, so, unfortunately, we won’t get to see him in this game. In the secondary, keep an eye on cornerback Avonte Maddox. Maddox is an undersized cover man who has been a starter since midway through his freshman season. He was named to the Senior Bowl Watch List this summer. He needs to improve in a number of areas, including his eye discipline and ability to find the ball late downfield, but this will be a good test for the senior corner.
Prediction: Rudolph keeps on rolling to the tune of 325 yards and three touchdowns, and the Cowboys get a win on the road in Pittsburgh. I’d expect to see OSU win by three scores.
2. USC RB Ronald Jones vs. Texas LBs Malik Jefferson/Anthony Wheeler
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles – Saturday 8:30 p.m. – FOX
Ronald Jones is one of the hottest players in college football right now. He has five touchdowns in two games in his first full season as a starter. Jones has NFL size at 6-0, 200 pounds and breakaway speed that lets him leave defenders in the dust. Watching him a year ago, I didn’t always see a back who displayed great vision approaching the line of scrimmage, but watching him last week against Stanford he seemed a bit more confident and comfortable working downhill. This year’s draft looks to be strong at the running back position once again, and I think by the end of the season there will be more than a few Eagles fans excited about Jones.
Lining up on the other side of the field from Jones will be a pair of Texas linebackers who complement each other well. Junior Malik Jefferson is one of the bigger names in the country at his position and is viewed as one of the best Longhorn prospects in recent memory by most media publications. I don’t think the hype matches what I’ve seen on film. Jefferson is certainly a dynamic athlete. He’s got the speed to match Jones and his ability to close from the back side makes him one of the best pure sideline-to-sideline linebackers in the country. He’s also a very good blitzer and one of Jones’ weaknesses happens to be in pass protection, so that could be a battle to watch in this game. Keep an eye on fellow junior linebacker Anthony Wheeler, who is more of a physical, point-of-attack-type of player when compared to Jefferson.
Prediction: Jones carries the ball 22 times for 148 yards and a pair of scores, including one run of 25-plus yards. Jefferson gets his first sack of the season. USC wins by at least 15 points and gives new head coach Tom Herman his first loss against a top-25 team (he’s 6-0 so far as a head coach).
3. Clemson WR Deon Cain vs. Louisville CBs Jaire Alexander/Trumaine Washington
Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, Louisville, Kentucky – 8 p.m. – ABC
Coming into the year, one of the biggest questions in the entire country was who would step up at the skill positions for the Clemson Tigers. Losing Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, and Jordan Leggett to the NFL Draft, many wondered who would fill the void. The only name that the masses were aware of was Deon Cain, a 6-1, 210-pound speedster who made a bunch of plays as a backup in 2016. Cain needs a lot of refinement as a receiver, but the talent is there for him to be a viable option on the outside in the NFL. Cain is far from the only threat for this Clemson offense at receiver because junior Ray-Ray McCloud, slot man Hunter Renfrow, and Trevion Thompson are all prospects to keep a close eye on in this game.
Junior cornerback Jaire Alexander is one of the best cover corners in the country and would be a huge asset to the Cardinals in this game. The problem is that he’s day to day with a knee injury. His father has said that Alexander won’t play until he’s 100 percent, so it’s unsure that we will see him on Saturday. Alexander could play outside or inside in the NFL. His athleticism, speed, and ball skills make him one of the top prospects at the position if he enters the draft. Across from Alexander is senior corner Trumaine Washington, who projects as a better zone corner than man-to-man cover guy. He struggled against the Tigers a year ago, allowing two touchdowns, so it’s a great opportunity for Washington to get some revenge from last year.
Prediction: Cain catches four passes for 98 yards and a touchdown, but Lamar Jackson leads the Cardinals to victory. Louisville was on the precipice of an upset last year on the road, and they pull it out this time at home.
4. Notre Dame T Mike McGlinchey vs. Boston College DE Harold Landry
Alumni Stadium, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts – 3:30 p.m. – ESPN
Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey is one of the top tackles in the country. Well, he has the potential to be. Consistency has been an issue for the Philadelphia native ever since he slid from the right side to the left, whether it’s been penalties or pressure on the quarterback. I’m probably a bigger fan of McGlinchey than most because I see the physical traits to be a starter on the blind side in the NFL. I think he would have been the first tackle off the board had he come out a year ago because of his combination of size, feet, and pop in his hands. He gave up the sack that helped seal the loss to Georgia last week. He can’t afford to dwell on it, however, because he’s got an even bigger test on Saturday afternoon.
Harold Landry nearly declared for the 2017 draft after setting a school record with 16.5 sacks and leading the country with seven forced fumbles, but the 6-3, 250-pound edge rusher decided to go back for one final year at BC. I haven’t studied him yet this season (the Eagles snuck past Northern Illinois to start the year and got drubbed by Wake Forest last week), but his 2016 film was extremely impressive, enough so that I view him as the top pass rusher in the country at this stage of my process. Landry is pretty quick and sudden with his hands and has a solid overall plan of attack when getting after offensive linemen. I also love that he’s a great finisher in the backfield. If he has you in his sights, you’re not slipping away from his grasp. Landry only has one sack so far, but this is a big week for him because scouts will likely plug this game tape in first when watching him this offseason.
Prediction: Landry had six multi-sack games a year ago, and I think this is his first one of the season. I’m predicting a two-sack performance against McGlinchey and company, with a forced fumble to boot. When it’s all said and done, however, Notre Dame leaves with a W. That being said, it’ll be much closer than people think, I think it’ll be a victory by a touchdown or less.
5. Mississippi State LT Martinas Rankin vs. LSU DE Arden Key
Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Mississippi – 7 p.m. – ESPN
I previewed Mississippi State left tackle Martinas Rankin last week, and he’s got an even bigger matchup this Saturday. Rankin made headlines last winter when he told reporters that he received a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee. At 6-5, 302 pounds, he has the frame that teams want at tackle, as well as hand strength and foot quickness. I think there’s definitely something there to work with. I think he has a ways to go before being relied on as a starter at the NFL level (based off last year’s tape). He’s not overly powerful in the run game and there are areas where he needs to continue refining his technique. A strong performance against Key would go a long way toward proving me wrong.
Arden Key missed the first two weeks of the year with a shoulder injury that some reports say have bothered him through most of the offseason. A lean, explosive edge rusher built in the mold of former LSU Tiger Barkevious Mingo or Georgia Bulldog Leonard Floyd, Key has a freakish first step and closing speed that will make your jaw drop. He’s not polished as a pass rusher right now, and head coach Ed Orgeron said he had to knock some of the rust off in practice this week, but his physical gifts are undeniable. College football is better when this guy is on the field.
Prediction: Key posted a modest five tackles with two sacks and a forced fumble against Rankin a year ago in this game, and I’ll expect a somewhat similar performance this week in his return to the field. LSU snuck away with a three-point win a year ago, and this year I think they win by two, with Key posting three tackles and a sack in the near-upset.
While I like Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey as a prospect, I LOVE the guy lined up next to him in left guard Quenton Nelson. The junior blocker is tough, smart, athletic, and pretty sound technically. He tries to steal your soul if you get in his way and is one of the most ferocious blockers I’ve evaluated in recent years. I haven’t studied this year’s film yet, but I saw this clip on Twitter and couldn’t help but smile. This kid is the total package at guard and looks to me like a first-round talent at the guard position.
I’m admittedly late to this guy’s bandwagon because Draft Twitter has been all over Richie James from Middle Tennessee State. I didn’t get a chance to watch him until recently, but I like everything about this kid (outside of his size at 5-9, 175 pounds). A spitting image of Washington Redskins slot man Jamison Crowder, James is a plus route runner, is quick and sudden out of breaks, reliable at the catch point, and aggressive as a blocker and after the catch. He projects extremely well to the slot in the NFL, and his abilities as a punt returner only add to his value. He’s one of the best pure route runners in this class, and those guys always sit well with me. Consider me as being a member of the junior’s fan club as he continues to rip apart Conference USA.
Eagles fans could get their first regular-season look at rookie defensive tackle Elijah Qualls this week with Destiny Vaeao being out of the lineup. I was a big fan of Qualls during the draft process this spring, and he fell a lot further than I anticipated. His linemate for the Huskies last year is getting considerably more pub at this point in the process – Vita Vea. The nose tackle from Washington reminds me a bit of former Kansas City first-round pick Dontari Poe because of his size, strength, and light feet. An outstanding run defender who uses his hands really well, I think Vea has scheme versatility. He isn’t a great pass rusher at this point, but I think he has the ability to turn into a really strong player up front who should last in the NFL for a long time.
I mentioned the questions that analysts had about the Clemson offense going into the year, but the only question on defense was if the defensive line was the absolute best in the country, or just number two behind Ohio State. The leader of that group is junior Christian Wilkins, a defensive end a year ago despite weighing over 300 pounds. Wilkins is getting a bit more national recognition as a potential top-10 pick now that he’s back at his more natural position of defensive tackle (he slid outside due to injuries at end in 2016). He put up 10 tackles, two sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss a week ago against Auburn, making him more than well deserving of this week’s game ball. Now let’s see if he can follow that up against Lamar Jackson and Louisville.
Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the “Eagle Eye In The Sky” podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.