It’s bowl season, and the games are now in full flow. Over the next couple of days, there is plenty of action to look forward to and NFL prospects to keep an eye on. Today, we’re focusing on the games on December 29th.
Music City Bowl
Kentucky vs Northwestern
Wildcats versus Wildcats! The fact that the two teams share a mascot might be the most entertaining part of this game, to be completely honest. Kentucky has a negative scoring margin on the season, while Northwestern has a stout defense that only gives up about 19 points a game. While their 9-3 record indicates a strong team, I’m not sold on these Wildcats. They’re 4-1 in one score games, and also got throttled 41-17 by a Duke team that isn’t great. However, Northwestern ranks 43rd in S&P+, while Kentucky ranks 94th so it looks to be a substantial mismatch. I don’t expect this to be a pretty game by any stretch.
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Both teams feature solid running backs. Northwestern’s Justin Jackson has been one of the most productive backs in the country the last four years, and is one of the greatest players in the history of the program. He’s rushed for at least 1,000 yards in all four seasons and has also caught at least 20 passes during every one of his campaigns. He could be a steal for a team in the later rounds or as an undrafted free agent.
Kentucky has Benny Snell, who has rushed for at least 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons. This year he rushed for over 1300 yards to go along with 18 touchdowns. At 5’11” 223 pounds, he’s a big back who can be a workhorse for a team, and I think he has a legitimate shot at the NFL. Snell might be fairly undervalued by the Devy community, so keep an eye on him in this game.
Wake Forest vs Texas A&M
If you’re not following the Belk Bowl on Twitter, you’re missing out. It’s one of the more entertaining accounts out there, and I think this game can also provide some pretty good entertainment. While I was disappointed we didn’t get a Florida State Texas A&M matchup, Wake Forest isn’t a bad consolation prize. They’re actually favored in this game and are ranked 28 spots higher than the Aggies in S&P+ rankings.
Wake Forest’s senior quarterback John Wolford quietly had a tremendous season. He hit all the benchmarks I like to see a quarterback hit in their final year on campus: 60% completion percentage (63.7%), greater than a 9.2 adjusted yards per attempt (9.3), and greater than 150 rushing yards (615). He’s on the small side at 6’1”, 200 pounds, and he doesn’t have a strong arm, but we did just see Taylor Heinicke play for an NFL team on Monday. I think Wolford should at least carve out a role as a backup, and he could crack my top ten quarterback rankings this year.
Standout freshman receiver Greg Dortch won’t play for the Demon Deacons in this game after suffering a season-ending injury midway through the year. However, he still ended up as the team’s leading receiver and was named a freshman All-American. Posting a .40 Dominator Rating in a Power 5 conference will certainly garner you that recognition, but he has almost no buzz right now. This is understandable, since he’s a 5’9”, 165 pounds former 2 star recruit, but he’s still a name to remember for the future.
The name to watch on the Texas A&M side is Christian Kirk. He has been discussed as a first round pick by some, but I’m not sure I understand the hype. He broke out with a 1000 yard season while playing most of his true freshman season at 18, but his raw production has dropped each year since. His dominator rating has stayed stable at .32 for the last two seasons, and his yards per catch hasn’t improved at all.
He’s a solid athlete who had a 115 SPARQ score at the opening, but at his size (5’11”, 200 pounds), I can’t see him being more than a slot receiver. Using Kevin Cole’s regression tree, Kirk falls into a cohort of receivers that has not been successful in the NFL. Only 3.8% of this group has achieved a top 24 PPR season in their first three years. Kirk looks overrated to me at this stage of the process.
NC State vs Arizona State
This game has a good amount of talent on both teams, particularly in the receiving department. NC State is a top 25 with a lot of firepower on offense, but they’re just 3-4 against bowl teams this year.
Quarterback Ryan Finley has been solid this year, throwing for 3200 yards and 16 touchdowns, but I don’t see him as an NFL quarterback. He has a very weak arm and doesn’t have any dominant traits in his game. I’m sort of confused why he’s getting some buzz.
Nyheim Hines has been productive this year. He was banged up for two games, and in his ten healthy games he had 1000 yards yards rushing, nine touchdowns, and 23 receptions. This was his first productive rushing season, but last season he had 45 receptions, and his freshman year he had 20. He’s extremely fast, as he moonlights on NC State’s track team and was named an All American during the 2016 season. His personal best of 10.42 in the 100 meters is amazing, and I’d expect him to test well athletically. Hines could be a productive receiving back at the next level.
Jaylen Samuels doesn’t really have a position, but he is one of the most versatile players to play in the last few years. He’s one of five players to have 1000 yards and 15 touchdowns both receiving and rushing in his career. Three of the four players were drafted, and none of them are nearly as big as Samuels (5’11”, 230 pounds). The real problem with Samuels is where you play him. He only averaged over 10 yards per reception once, and never rushed for more than 400 yards. There’s certainly a role for him in the NFL, but I feel as though he’ll never be fantasy relevant.
Lastly, Kelvin Harmon garnered some buzz over the off-season and did end up having a decent year. His dominator rating ended up being .28, which is a decent number that he’ll hopefully improve on next year. He’s a tall, athletic receiver at 6’3”, 211 pounds. However, he hasn’t been super productive, and he’s on the older side for a wide receiver. He already turned 21 a few days ago, and for comparison JuJu Smith-Schuster just turned 21 in November. If he does come out next year, he’ll play most of his rookie season at 22 and a half. I like Harmon’s highlights, but he may be a little overrated right now.
Arizona State has some talented players on the offensive side of the ball as well. N’Keal Harry is my top wide receiver for 2019, and for good reason. This year he had a .36 dominator rating, and last year he broke out at a .26 dominator rating, when he played most of his season at 18 (he just turned 20 a few days ago on December 17th). He’s 6’4”, 216 pounds of pure muscle, and is an incredible athlete. While he’s not incredibly fast, he’s an excellent leaper who excels as a jump ball receiver. If he can improve his route running a bit and tests better than expected, he may be able to be a top ten pick in the 2019 draft.
Kalen Ballage was one of the most talked about running backs this off-season, and flopped hard. Save for his eight-touchdown game against Texas Tech last season, Ballage has never been a productive player. He obviously flashes a lot of potential, mainly because of his athletic prowess. Here’s what azcentral.com says about his athletic ability:
“Ballage is an elite athlete. Entering last season, he measured 6-2 5/8 inches, rounded up on the official roster to 6-3. He weighed 227 pounds with 6.37 percent body fat. He had a 37-inch vertical leap and a standing long jump of 9-11 ¾ inches. He could power clean 343 pounds, bench press 360 and squat 513.”
He also managed to hit a top speed of 23 miles per hour at practice this off-season, which is a similar number to Tyreek Hill. I would certainly take a flyer on Ballage late simply because of this ability, but I don’t think he’s a top ten back like I did coming into the year.
New Mexico State vs Utah State
I’m not excited for this game. New Mexico State has Jaleel Scott, a 6’6”, 215-pound wide receiver who has accepted to an invitation to the senior bowl. However, this is his best season to date and he has just a .29 dominator rating. He’s a redshirt senior for a Sun Belt team that doesn’t appear to have elite athleticism, with one non elite season of production for a Sun Belt team.
Their running back Larry Rose has been very productive, but has seen his carries dip each of the last two seasons and has not topped 1000 yards since his sophomore year. He is one of just four players since 2000 to have at least 4000 rushing yards, 30 rushing touchdowns, and 120 receptions (Elijah McGuire, Justin Jackson, Ito Smith). McGuire has had a solid season for the Jets this year, and like Jackson I think Rose has a shot at sticking on an NFL roster.
Ohio State vs USC
This game is loaded with NFL talent on both sides of the ball, but there’s not as much offensive firepower as you would think, particularly on the Ohio State side.
While JT Barrett is an extremely productive player and undoubtedly one of the better college quarterbacks in recent memory, I think he has no future in the NFL. However, I believe his backup Dwayne Haskins has a shot to be a starting NFL quarterback. He has a strong arm, good mobility, and solid accuracy. Coming out of high school, Urban Meyer called him “The best quarterback at his age I’ve ever seen.” He praised his footwork and quick release, which are two things that typically take long time for quarterbacks to develop. At 6’3”, 214 pounds he has good size, and I think he has the potential to have a Heisman-type season next year.
This year’s true freshman running back crop is special, and JK Dobbins leads the pack. He was second among true freshman and 15th in the nation with just over 1300 rushing yards, to go along with seven touchdowns. Athletically, he’s an absolute freak:
- 4.44 forty yard dash
- 4.09 shuttle
- 43 inch vertical jump
- 146.76 (!!!) SPARQ Score
He’s listed at 5’11”, 208 pounds, giving him a speed score of 107. He reminds me a lot of Saquon Barkley during his freshman season, as he blends an elite combination of size, speed, and agility to make him one of the best backs in the country. Dobbins was also able to catch 22 passes this year, showing that he’s more than a capable receiver. He’s my RB2 for the 2020 class and should also be in the mix for the Heisman next year.
USC has a ton of skill talent on it’s roster, and it all starts with star quarterback Sam Darnold. Darnold has seemingly lost a bit of his luster this season, but still projects as a first round pick if he does declare for this years draft. There have been rumors that Darnold plans to return to school for his redshirt junior year to boost his stock even more, but I feel that he should declare. The lowest I could possibly see him going is the fourth quarterback off the board, which should place him well within the first round.
Darnold clearly has the talent to be an elite quarterback at the next level, but he needs to become a more consistent quarterback. His footwork and decision making are the two things that he needs to clean up the most. These two things are what lead to his uptick in interceptions this year from nine to 12. He had six interceptions in his first three games and has cleaned up his game since then, but the consistency is ultimately what will keep Darnold from being my QB1. He has a brilliant arm and has flashes of amazing accuracy, but I see him being a Jameis Winston type player in the NFL. You’ll have to take the mistakes with those flashes of brilliance that Darnold shows.
The Trojans also have a pretty talented stable of running backs. Ronald Jones II leads the way with just under 1500 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns. He’s an extremely fast player who ran a reported 4.45 forty yard dash in high school. At 6’0”, 200 pounds, he’s on the smaller side but that doesn’t prevent Jones from being a solid runner between the tackles. He plays with an intense physicality, that when combined with his speed and agility makes him one of the best backs in this class. His acceleration is particularly impressive, as he seems to reach top speed almost immediately when he touches the ball.
Jones hasn’t been active in the passing game, catching just 21 passes in his career. He does have three receiving touchdowns, and I think he may have the tools to be a competent pass catcher at the next level. Right now Jones is my RB4 for this class, but he could jump up to the RB3 as I have him and Nick Chubb pretty close.
Stephen Carr should take over for Jones should he declare for the draft, and I’m not sure that there will be much of a drop off at the position. He missed five games this season, but during his first two games he was very impressive. He ran for 119 yards on just 11 carries against Stanford, and his burst was on display immediately, as he had a 52 yard rush in both the Stanford game and the team’s first game against Western Michigan. From then on Carr only received double digit carries once, when he started for the injured Jones against Cal. He had 20 carries for 87 yards and a touchdown while also catching six passes.
Carr reminds me a lot of Jones, but he’s even bigger (6’0”, 210 pounds), and might be even more physical. He should have a shot to be the top back in the Pac 12 next year if Jones and Bryce Love both leave for the draft.
At the receiver position, USC has a couple young players who should step into bigger roles next season. Tyler Vaughns filled the role of the team’s second receiver this year, compiling 690 yards and five touchdowns on 51 receptions. However, I think he may continue to play that role next year as five star Joseph Lewis becomes the teams top receiver.
Lewis only played in three games this season, but has the talent to become a great player for the Trojans. He doesn’t have elite speed, but his route running and hands will allow him to get open at will. Combine that with a 34 inch vertical and a 119 SPARQ score and you have all the makings of a top wide receiver.
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