What Caught My Eye Week 12

November 25, 2020

We are now starting to see some showdown games, as it were, that should separate the fly poop from the pepper. Unbeatens Indiana and Ohio State had a terrific showdown game which contained a large number of 2021 Draft prospects, and proved that IU Head Coach Tom Allen and his staff know what they are doing up there in Bloomington with that football program. The Buckeyes prevailed, with their boatload of talent (and then some), but the Hoosiers gave them more than expected in what turned into a nail-biter in the 4th Quarter. ‘BAMA rolled over Kentucky and Florida took care of Vanderbilt to indicate which two teams we might see in the SEC Championship game. TEXAS A&M might have been the wild card “third wheel” so to speak, but not believing in the Pandemic down in Texas, the Aggies have had their last two games postponed because of Covid-19 issues in their ranks. Meanwhile, in the ACC, the Seminoles received verbal reprimands from POPE DABO for a last minute cancellation of their game against Clemson, when the former school’s Athletic Dept. administrators abruptly called off their game with Clemson over Covid concerns, only a couple of hours before scheduled kick-off. In expressing his ire at the situation, DABO claimed it cost Clemson over $300,000 in travel costs for making the wasted trip from Clemson to Tallahassee. If that number is real, then maybe big time college football has more wrong with it than we ever realized. The Clemson campus is only about a 5 hour bus ride from Tallahassee. However, let’s get going with some prospect evaluations from the games that were played.

My first watch of the day’s games was Indiana at Ohio State, and after the Buckeyes got off to a 2-TD lead, the Hoosiers settled down to make quite a game of it. I had decided in advance that my main viewing target would be QB JUSTIN FIELDS (#1), who stands 6’3/228 and who many see as competition for TREVOR LAWRENCE as the first Pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, if they both declare. FIELDS clearly demonstrated that he is a great athlete, with a strong throwing arm. He might have a chance to set a new QB speed standard at the NFL Combine, but he also showed a tendency to hold the ball too long in the pocket at times, and a willingness to “fling it” into traffic when pressured. There were many more pluses than minuses to his game. FIELDS ran for 78 yards on 15 carries, which in college, includes lost yards from sacks. Those rushes included a running TD as well. He passed 18/30, 60%, for 300 yards and 2 TD’s. IU’s Defense is good enough that I did not expect a 75% completion rate in this game. However, I also did not expect FIELDS to blunder into 3 Interceptions on the day.  There has already been speculation by some that FIELDS may have some of the same flaws that have retarded the growth of DWAYNE HASKINS in the NFL. This game performance by FIELDS was not enough to knock him from the No. 2 ranking on my prospect list, but it widens the gap between he and LAWRENCE if they both come out, and I am picking a QB in that No. 1 slot!

I almost got hand cramps trying to write fast enough on my notebook with observations on all the top talent on display in this game. I have been watching CHRIS OLAVE (#2) since his freshman season in 2018. I think a lot of folks are surprised when I mentioned that OLAVE was Ohio State’s leading receiver last season with 49 catches, which included 12 TD’s. Remember that 3 Buckeyes wideouts from last year’s team are on NFL rosters this season. OLAVE IS 6’1/190, and is faster than many folks seem to think. He has shown very reliable hands his entire 3 years in Columbus, and a nose for the end zone.  He was FIELDS favorite target in the IU game with 8 receptions for 101 yards, but IU did keep him out of the end zone. He is very elusive after the catch, and has a knack for catching the ball in traffic. He is tough in traffic for his size and will run patterns in the middle of the field. I watch him perform and find him to look very smooth in his craft. I believe he could also help a pro team with his return skills, which are no longer called upon much given his role as their top receiver. I see OLAVE as an early 2nd Rounder for the 2021 Draft.

It must be noted that despite the talent stockpile the Buckeyes have at the skill positions, they also play some solid Defense. Perhaps their best all-round defensive prospect is a guy who first caught my eye back in 2018. In a crowded LB group, PETE WERNER got 13 starts in his first two seasons in Columbus. Last season he emerged, ending second on the team in tackles (64) behind now NFL LB MALIK HARRISON. What makes WERNER special is his above average overall athleticism, which includes the ability to stay on the field for all downs because of his work in coverage. He is also being asked to rush the passer a bit more this season (with Harrison gone) and has responded, as indicated by his 4th Quarter sack against Indiana. He was credited with 8 tackles, 5 of them solo efforts, and a TFL in the 2nd Quarter on a running play in a first and goal situation at the Buckeyes 3 yard line. WERNER is a a steady, smart player that can do it all, and is without a doubt a Top 100 prospect for the 2021 Draft.

Part of the success of the Hoosiers in 2020 (4-1) is due to several of their players making a big leap in their play from earlier in their careers. Perhaps their biggest rising player is WR TY FRYFOGLE (#3), a 6’2/215 senior that exploded in this game with 7 receptions for 218 yards and 3 TD’s. Ohio State’s D hasn’t been burned like that by one man in a very long time. That’s an average of 31.1-yards/catch for you math challenged football fans. Other than an early drop on a crossing pattern, FRYFOGLE showed excellent hands and the ability to catch in traffic, pile up YAC and outrun an athletic Buckeyes secondary. FRYFOGLE had 12 starts last season with 45 catches and 3 TD’s. He now has 31 catches this year in 5 games. His 3 TD catches in this game equal those 3 TD catches for the entire 2019 season. He’s a big target that plays up to his size level. Leaving Buckeyes DB’s behind on some deep throws, I would guess that for his size he will post a solid Combine 40-time. As Dick Clark used to say on Rate-A-Record, this guy is rising with a bullet. His emergence, along with some others, could make this another talented and very deep WR group for the next Draft.

One of the least exciting position groups for the 2021 NFL Draft is sizing up to be the DT group. I truly don’t see any “sure things” for Round One in this group, although the top 1 or 2 guys from this list might slip into the late First Round. And I am counting on a lot of underclassmen declaring for entry into 2021, as you will see below.

  1. JAY TUFELE    JR    Southern Cal    Opt Out
  2. MARVIN WILSON    Florida State    Opt Out
  3. LEVI ONWUZURIKE    Washington    Opt Out
  4. JAYLEN TWYMAN    JR    PITT    Opt Out
  5. JORDAN DAVIS    JR    Georgia
  6. CHRISTIAN BARMORE    RSo    Alabama
  7. TYLER SHELVIN    JR    LSU    Opt Out
  8. JACK HEFLIN    Iowa
  9. JEROME JOHNSON    Indiana
  10. TYRONE TRUESDELL    Auburn

So while we are looking at the DT group, let’s talk just a bit about what we used to call “late bloomers” in athletic circles. His name is DAQUAN NEWKIRK (#44) Auburn, who is a robust 6’3, 317 lb. Senior. NEWKIRK appears to be a sleeping giant that has found himself and has stepped up his level of play considerably over last season when he recorded all of 5 tackles, including 2 TFL. Auburn is yet another SEC school that recruits heavily on the DL, and uses at least a 2-deep rotation system along their defensive front each and every game. NEWKIRK might be a poster boy for the well used phrase as having a ‘wide base’ and thick legs to anchor his play with. This guy is now playing low and pushing blockers into their own backfield. Against Tennessee, NEWKIRK posted 6 tackles, 1 of them solo, and had 1/2 Sack. If he keeps up this intense and powerful play, he might find himself getting Drafted next Spring, albeit in a later round. If not, he may be in the process of making sure he’s at least on a Training Camp roster as an URFA in 2021.

Even NICK SABAN and his ‘Bama football program are not immune to the Covid-19 pandemic. After a couple of weeks dealing with non-football issues, his team was back on the field facing a talented Kentucky team, whose biggest issue this season seems to be finding the right QB to start for them. Despite the loss of the TAGOVAILOA brothers, ‘Bama has no such issues to deal with. And the reason is a young man named MAC JONES (#10), the young QB who took over for TUA last season when he was seriously injured, and has been good, and getting better, with every game that he plays. Kentucky’s D made him work hard with some solid defensive play and scheming, but the Crimson Tide dominated the scoreboard 63-3. JONES had, what for him, was a fairly pedestrian outing, going 16/24, 67%, for 230 yards and 2 TD’s. Almost shockingly, he suffered an Interception on the day. And by the way, those numbers came in 3 Quarters of play. JONES has been a poised leader from his first start forward. He is cool and confident. He does not have a cannon arm, and to his credit, I believe he understands that and plays within his physical limitations. He also appears to throw a very catchable ball to his receivers, showing nice touch on his throws. He’s not a great runner, but is athletic enough to extend plays and pick his spots for a scramble or two rather than take sacks. Other than WILSON for BYU, I think JONES has helped himself the most this season as a pro QB prospect. He should be the 4th or 5th QB taken if he opts into the 2021 Draft. And I think his spot would be in the late First Round.

Let’s talk about his top receiver for a bit here. With the season ending injury to JAYLEN WADDLE, DeVONTA SMITH (#6) has upped his game even further, and is now setting receiving records with almost every game he plays. Going into the Kentucky game, SMITH was tied with AMARI COOPER for the most career receiving TD’s at 31. He added 2 to that total, giving him 33 career TD grabs. Not only did that secure first place in the ‘Bama record books, but it also establishes him as the SEC All-Time receiving leader in TD receptions. SMITH is incredibly explosive with the ball in his hands. And those hands don’t drop many targets coming his way. In fact, of 72 targets coming into this game, he had been officially charged with 1 stopped ball. On the day, he caught 9 balls for 144 yards and those 2 TD’s. In his spare time, he’s returning punts. He is credited with running good patterns and turns the burners on into another gear for Yards-After-the Catch. If you asked a scout about his shortcomings, the only thing he might bring up is SMITH’s size at 6’1/175. However, he’s a sinewy build and has been relatively healthy in college. My suggestion is just don’t send him over the middle a whole lot. I thought it was great after SMITH’s first TD catch of the game, he and WADDLE hugged on the sideline. He’s a high character kid, and a certain First Rounder.

The Alabama DL is loaded this season, and many of those young dudes are still improving in their play each week. I just kept watching numbers in this game, and the guy who impressed me the most was #48, PHIDARIAN MATHIS, a 6’4/312 lb. Junior. MATHIS seemed to get the most snaps in this game and was relaying coaches line calls to his teammates from the ‘Bama sidelines. My only criticism of his play might be that he is not always explosive off the snap of the ball.  He pressures the pocket and is formidable in stopping the run. Keep in mind that the Tide primarily play in a 3-4 alignment, relying on blitzes and stunts to create extra pocket pressure throughout their games. MATHIS was credited with 5 tackles against Kentucky, and I felt like he pressured the pocket a least 2-3 times. This guy looks to me to have upside if he goes for the 2021 NFL Draft. Just as an aside, I felt like BARMORE was just behind MATHIS last weekend in overall play.

In a very joyous coincidence, the football gods allowed me to watch my two highest ranked CB Prospects in back to back games. In the ‘Bama game it was PATRICK SURTAIN, and in the previously mentioned Ohio State contest it was SHAUN WADE. It is almost a toss-up in my mind which of these two ranks highest as a prospect. I believe I will give the nod, albeit quite slight, to SURTAIN (#2). My first reason is my ever loving respect for the gene tree. SURTAIN’s dad was a very good NFL CB, primarily with the Dolphins. My other reason is that SURTAIN has been a starter since his true freshman season. So by the end of this, his junior year, he will have well over 30 starts as an SEC CB. It is a bit tough to grade SURTAIN for his cover-work because most teams hardly ever test him by throwing to his side of the field. However, at 6’2/203, he has the size D.C.’s covet and his play is smooth, but physical. I would not classify him as a ball hawk but he finds a way to get a couple of INT’s every season. He’s a willing tackler, but I don’t rank him as a ferocious tackler against the run game. He has some physical tools similar to MINKAH FITZPATRICK, but is not the flash play guy MINKAH was, and is. As indicative as it is of teams playing away from him, SURTAIN had 2 tackles and 2 PD against Kentucky. WADE (#24) has much less starting experience than SURTAIN. If he can play out this season, including post season, he will still barely top 20 career starts. But that is clearly a testament to the talent level of the Ohio State program’s talent stockpile in the defensive backfield. Even though WADE is slightly smaller than SURTAIN at 6’1/195, he is much more physical as a tackler than a hitter. Teams also tend to throw away from WADE if possible. As mentioned earlier, IU WR FRYFOGLE toasted the Buckeyes for over 200 yards receiving Saturday, but as often as possible, they tried to move him around away from coverage by WADE. WADE was credited with 3 tackles, 4 PD, 1 INT and was called on a PI once.  If they both come out after this, their junior seasons, I will be most anxious to compare workout numbers by each at the Combine. Both players also contribute on Special Teams, by the way. Assuming they declare for the 2021 Draft, I expect both of these two players to go in Round 1, perhaps both in the top half of the Round.

One last side-note on the ‘Bama/Kentucky game. There wasn’t much to cheer about Offensively for the Wildcats, but I am very impressed with the determination and tenacity of their OC, DRAKE JACKSON (#52). JACKSON is 6’2/310, with what looks like a maxed out frame. He’s going to struggle against 3-4 base schemes that have a huge, effective Nose Tackle, but he’s smart, tenacious and functionally strong overall. A Zone Blocking scheme will best hide some of his physical limitations. The game against ‘Bama was his 41st straight start for the Wildcats. He held his own against a large and deep ‘Bama DL. Given a couple of seasons, he could win himself a starting job somewhere in the League. He was All-SEC 1st Team in 2019. He’s a leader with a high FBI. He’s not going to be drafted until Day 3, but the NFL is full of slightly undersized, tenacious and smart Centers.

This weekend is scheduled to be the Iron Bowl contest between Alabama and Auburn.  I would expect the Crimson Tide to take care of business at home, but with rivalry games you never can tell. In watching game action to date, ‘Bama clearly gets the talent edge, but Auburn has an excellent pro prospect at WR by the name of SETH WILLIAMS (#18). WILLIAMS, another junior, is a big (6’3/211) sure handed, high leaping, big play threat. He makes the spectacular catch look easy. However, there seems to be a disconnect between WILLIAMS and Soph QB BO NIX and perhaps O.C. CHAD MORRIS. WILLIAMS does NOT get targeted enough, given his talent. Some of that is the prince of several other very good receivers, but… That is why many in the Draftnik community (including yours truly) expect SETH to declare for the 2021 Draft. WILLIAMS finds the end zone.  Thru 7 games this season, he has 33 receptions, including 3 TD’s. Against Tennessee last Saturday, he had 5 catches for 52 yards. No TD targets at all. He is a very willing blocker, especially for his fellow receivers. He also toils in coverage units on Special Teams. He has big soft hands that are very strong. I like his competitive spirit, but think he will need to get to a team initially as a pro with a strong vet presence in the locker room. I think he could be a No. 2 WR in the right Offense, on the right NFL team. Round 3, unless he blows the numbers sky high at the Combine and aces the interview process.

Enjoy your Turkey and your holiday football. Friday has a nice slate to add to a solid Saturday. Hate to harp on it, but I already show 7 D-1 games being cancelled or postponed this weekend. Record extra games folks. This strange Pandemic season is winding down.