Pre-Christmas bowl games lack the panache of their post-Christmas brethren, but devy owners should never be caught up in the name on the front of the jersey. While depth of talent may be underwhelming in comparison, good players come from all over. To the games.
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BOCA RATON BOWL
Alabama-Birmingham Blazers vs. Northern Illinois Huskies
ESPN, 8:00PM EST
The UAB Blazers are one of the best storylines this bowl season. After two seasons without a program, the Blazers are back in action and Bill Clark has UAB sitting at 10-3 heading into this bowl game. The player to watch for UAB is true sophomore running back Spencer Brown. While obviously not draft-eligible, Brown has been a force since day one on campus. He is tough, compact, and has a no-nonsense style which is the lifeblood of this offense. While his lack of receiving work and explosive lateral abilities are concerning, he’s certainly in the mix to get drafted whether he declares for the 2020 or waits until 2021.
Northern Illinois is also led by its lead back, Virginia transfer Tre Harbison. Like Brown, Harbison excels running downhill; he’s decisive and avoids dancing yet has some burst when he gets into the open field. While eligible for the 2019 Draft, it would be an upset if he declares. He still has two years of eligibility and figures to use both of them. Also like Brown, Harbison has work to do as a receiver. He has not yet received an opportunity to earn a voluminous role in the passing game. Without the passing background, he may be a bit of a relic from a running back standpoint.
Marshall Thundering Herd vs. South Florida Bulls
ESPN, 8:00PM EST
Thundering Herd Tyre Brady is a standout, even dealing with uneven quarterback play. Brady can be a bully at the catch point; his bread and butter is using his big frame and strong hands to make contested catches. He’s thrived within Marshall’s offense for two years now. An older prospect (24 by draft day) whose athleticism looks to be a mixed bag on film, I am not pushing people out of the way to acquire Brady in rookie drafts, but he could have an NFL future as a possession receiver.
South Florida also features a pass-catcher, Tight End Mitchell Wilcox. Wilcox quietly may be the best skill position prospect in this slate of games; he’s got an excellent frame and is a fearless player. Wilcox can work the middle of the field and is a smooth mover when he gets space to operate. His game is well-suited to the current NFL, and he has Day 2 type of talent.
The Bulls also have former Gator running back Jordan Cronkrite. He emerged as South Florida’s lead back in 2018, with a slashing running style and smooth gait which makes him faster than he appears. Comparisons to former Bull Marlon Mack are going to be natural, but there are some similarities. Cronkrite flashed as a receiver during his two years at Florida, though he has not been asked to do much in the passing game for Charlie Strong’s bunch. After Cronkrite ascended past Johnny Ford (a talented back in his own right) he deserves attention as a prospect.
San Diego State Aztecs vs. Ohio Bobcats
ESPN, 8:00PM EST
San Diego State has become somewhat of a running back factory. A year after Donnel Pumphrey departed with all sorts of records, Rashaad Penny took the mantle. In 2018, it was expected to be Juwan Washington, though an injury wiped away a large chunk of his junior campaign. But he was back to close the season, and did so in style against Hawaii, piling up 158 rushing yards. At 5’7” and 190 pounds, he will have questions to answer regarding his size, but such concerns have been less of an impediment in an NFL which has found roles for space backs. Washington’s short-area quickness and burst lend itself to an impactful role in some capacity whenever he declares. With a year of eligibility remaining, it is very likely he returns to campus for his final season and looks to boost his stock with a mammoth campaign similar to the seasons Penny and Pumphrey posted before their NFL shot.
Ohio receiver Papi White is easy to root for simply thanks to his name. He’s more than just a catchy name, however. He’s a jitterbug who is nearly impossible to cover off the line. His size at 5’8” and 169 pounds is more of a deterrent than Washington’s, but his ability to separate with ease and his flair for playmaking makes him somebody who could find a role at the next level. At the very least, he should be in an NFL camp.
Running Back A.J. Oullette finished the season strong with 168 or more yards in each of the Bobcats’ final three games. You can go ahead and insert the clichés attached to white running backs here, but Oullette is the type of uber-productive running back who could surprise in the right situation. Much like White, he may not hear his name called on draft, day, but he should find his way onto a preseason roster.
Under center, Nathan Rourke has established himself as one of the better dual-threats in the MAC. He acquitted himself well in the Bobcats only contest against a Power 5 team (at Virginia) and could figure into the 2020 landscape at quarterback, even if merely as a free agent add post-draft.