We look ahead to the biggest games of the day…
Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs Clemson Tigers
ESPN, 4:00pm EST
Notre Dame finished the regular season undefeated, but outside of an early game against Michigan, there were few other challengers for the Fighting Irish with fringe top 25 teams Syracuse and Northwestern being the only other ranked opponents. And unlike the other playoff teams, the Fighting Irish do not feature a single player inside DLF’s top 50 devy rankings. That said, there are a few intriguing players on the roster who could emerge as future NFL players.
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One player who has seen his stock rise this season has been senior running back Dexter Williams. A college career that has featured everything from injury, suspension, arrest, and helping a sick mother; Williams has overcome a lot to put together his strongest year. While not much of a receiver, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound runner has shown a second gear; breaking off big runs (season long of 97 yards) and managing 13 touchdowns in just eight games. With a good bowl game against Clemson, Williams could become a day two option in a running back class fraught with uncertainty.
A pair of receivers also have some positive momentum, especially after the early season quarterback change from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book. Chase Claypool has all the size (6-foot-4, 227-pounds) that the NFL looks for in a physical downfield threat. He is competitive at the catch point and while still raw, has shown a lot of improvement throughout the season. While he could declare early, it is more likely he returns to school for another season with Book to raise his stock further.
The former Citrus Bowl MVP, Miles Boykin is leading the team in receptions, yards, and receiving touchdowns. Another big receiver, the 6-foot-4 possession receiver uses every bit of his 228-pounds to command the middle third of the field. With great hands and a naturally knack for adjusting to poorly thrown targets, Boykin’s limited explosiveness is what keeps him from being more prominently mentioned. The senior will need to test well this off-season to move beyond a later round complementary receiver on an NFL roster.
The aforementioned Book has done well as the Fighting Irish signal caller, kickstarting an offense that struggled for the first month of the year. Completing 70% of his passes and averaging nearly two more yards per attempt than Wimbush (50% completion rate) has catapulted Book into the NFL Draft discussion. While his 6-foot, 203-pound frame is not the prototype for the NFL, Book has made evaluators aware of his presence after being lightly recruited out of high school. Just a redshirt sophomore, there is a good chance he returns to the Fighting Irish, Wimbush has already indicated he will transfer, so the offense looks like his for another year. He could be an interesting stash in superflex devy leagues.
Clemson had another dominant season and while the defense gets much of the credit, there is some strong talent on offense that should not be overlooked. A quarterback change, to a true freshman in Trevor Lawrence, did nothing to slow down this offense. Add in an otherworldly running game and this offense will look to showcase itself during the playoffs.
Let’s start with Lawrence, the former five-star high school recruit (he averaged 16.6 yards per attempt his senior year!) turned starter for the second-ranked Tigers. A consensus top-five devy quarterback according to the DLF rankers, Lawrence has the size (6-foot-6, 208-pounds) teams look for in a future franchise signal caller. He has tremendous zip on his throws and good accuracy for such a young player. While he isn’t a running quarterback, Lawrence has enough mobility to avoid a sack or extend a play if needed. He may be the safest devy quarterback outside Alabama.
While Lawrence has a bright future, running back Travis Etienne is the centerpiece and MVP of the Clemson offense this year. Etienne is a big play machine as evidenced by his ten-plus yard per carry average in five different games this year, including the conference championship against Pittsburgh. The speed he generates in his 5-foot-10, 200-pound frame is complemented by a hard running style that smashes through arm tackles. Etienne is the second ranked running back and third ranked devy asset by DLF rankers and while he isn’t eligible until 2020, it is clear that he belongs in the top tier already.
Another 2020 eligible player, wide receiver Tee Higgins looks to be the next in a long line of successful Clemson receivers who make a splash in the NFL. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound pass catcher leads the team in receptions, yards, and receiving touchdowns; doing so with advanced route running and deceptive deep speed. There are some areas for improvement here, notably inconsistent hands and a lanky frame that can be bullied at the line of scrimmage. That said, Higgins is a certain top-20 devy option with the ability to climb the board further.
Just in case Higgins leaves next year, The Tigers already have their next star receiver in Justyn Ross. He already has the size (6-foot-4, 201-pounds) to play with the older kids and has proven it as the second leading receiver on the team in just his freshman season. Ross wins the downfield jump balls and the team knows it with him averaging over 20 yards per reception. Expect his role to expand further in the coming years and he jumps up the devy draft board (currently ranked 43).
Other players to watch include 5-foot-9, 210-pound bowling ball receiver Amari Rodgers and freshman pass catcher Derion Kendrick. The former lacks the upside of the other wide receivers on the team but may be its most consistent while the latter is still learning the position after playing quarterback in high school.
Oklahoma Sooners vs Alabama Crimson Tide
ESPN, 8:00pm EST
The Sooners did not skip a beat in the post-Baker Mayfield era, seamlessly transitioning from one Heisman-winning quarterback to another. The consistent scoring led to a near perfect season for Oklahoma and showcased their offensive talent in video game-like fashion. Against Alabama, the offense will face a stiffer defensive test than what they were up against in Big 12 conference play.
The most recently crowned Heisman winner, albeit controversially according to this Alabama fan, Kyler Murray was initially expected to play this football season as his last with a transition to professional baseball looming. The top-ten MLB draft pick has left the door open on an NFL career however, clearly enjoying his successful season and perhaps having second thoughts on his future. Murray has already accumulated nearly 5000 yards of offense and 50 total touchdowns including 900 rushing yards with 12 scores. He lacks the NFL size (5-foot-10, 190-pounds) but has an incredible arm with the decision making that scouts love to see. If baseball was not on the table, Murray would be a potential NFL first round pick a la Lamar Jackson, but as it stands, this situation makes his devy status murky at best with rankers ranging from the sixth overall quarterback to outside the top 25.
While another receiver gets more of the attention, it is CeeDee Lamb who deserves the longer look. While he desperately needs to add mass to his 6-foot-1, 173-pound frame, Lamb is fearless over the middle and contorts his body to make some amazing catches. Not as much a speedster as he is quick, expect Lamb to be a solid Day two prospect for NFL teams and a top 20 devy option for owners.
Living up to his nickname, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown sure does command a viewing audience when he is given the stage. His second straight 1000 yard season came off six 100-yard efforts despite seeing double digit targets in just three games. Brown is a pure speed receiver who could stand to polish up his route running and overall strength, but he only has two years of experience at the FBS level. Expect Brown to light up the combine, particularly the 40-yard dash, which will be needed given his 5-foot-10, 168-pound frame. While most see Brown as a top 25 devy asset, it is just as likely he falls into the third round or later in 2019 rookie drafts.
Oklahoma has a trio of running backs who should be on radar of devy players, although Rodney Anderson’s injury means he won’t be available against Alabama. Keep an eye on his progress during draft season as he could be a legitimate day two option in the NFL Draft. The most intriguing of this threesome may be Trey Sermon, the hot and cold sophomore who just as easily can register a 100-yard game as he could manage under five carries. His size (6-foot, 222-pounds) rightfully suggests a bruising back capable of fighting for extra yards but also speaks to his speed and agility limitations. A strong game against Alabama could put his hype train back on the rails and justify the top 25 devy ranking.
The darkhorse of the running back group is Kennedy Brooks, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound ball carrier who has assumed the backfield down the stretch including three 100-plus yard running games in his last four. Not eligible for the NFL Draft until 2020 like Sermon, there is likely going to be a battle in the backfield this off-season, which may be one of the more intriguing competitions in all of college football.
Alabama, unsurprisingly, is loaded with NFL caliber talent and their offense has lived up to it. A near Heisman winning quarterback (thanks Georgia!) and no less than eight other NFL-level talents spread across the skill positions. They may be one of the few offenses who could keep up with Oklahoma if this does become a bona fide shootout.
Let’s start with Tua “Don’t make me pronounce your last name” Tagovailoa. The sophomore is the near consensus top devy quarterback and has done so despite barely playing in the fourth quarter of his games. He has great touch on his passes, particularly downfield, and fits the ball into tight windows when needed. Tua does hold the ball at times and takes some big hits, but he is also mobile enough to escape pressure and extend plays when needed. A little small at 6-foot-1 but he can withstand the hits given his thick, 219-pound frame. This is the 1.01 in all superflex leagues and likely the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Running back at Alabama has rarely been a one man show and this year has been no exception. Once again, senior Damien Harris led the team in rushing but battled some lingering injuries and saw his competition catch up to him. Harris is decisive and has great vision, leading to few missed opportunities in the run game. He has the size (5-foot-10, 221-pounds) to break tackles and the speed to create big runs, but the foundation of his game remains efficiency. A plus receiver and blocker, there is little he cannot do. Harris won’t be the best running back to leave Alabama for the NFL, but he may be the most well-rounded. Expect to see his name pop up on Day two of the NFL Draft.
Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris did their best to usurp Damien Harris, or at least take touches away from him. Jacobs is the best receiver of the running backs and has a knack for breaking tackles and gaining yards after contact. His thick frame (5-foot-10, 212-pounds) belies his ability in the pass game where he is among the better route runners at the position and has natural hands to catch the ball. Jacobs could rise if he chooses to declare, but staying another year may be an option even with a stronger 2020 class. In the other Harris, the Tide saw what made him an elite high school prospect just two years ago, the sophomore led the team in yards per carry (6.7) and showed the vision and toughness to break tackles. While he nearly transferred a year ago, Harris could be in line to assume an even larger role in 2019 as he has the receiving and pass blocking ability to go along with the skills as a featured runner. A step slow for the NFL, Harris’ 6-foot-2, 227-pound frame limits his explosiveness and his upside.
At receiver, the Tide are unfairly loaded at the position. It starts with sophomore Jerry Jeudy, who registered his first 1’000-yard season and seemed to find the end zone on every other play. He understands the position, running good routes and finding ways to create separation for his quarterback. Jeudy is a good athlete and at 6-foot-1, 187-pounds, has a similar build to former teammate Calvin Ridley, albeit a few years younger. Jeudy is a likely first round NFL Draft pick in 2020 (or 2021) and should be in the top 10 of most devy draft boards.
While Jeudy was inarguably the most productive receiver, freshman Jaylen Waddle may have still been Alabama’s most impressive. Waddle not only cracked the starting lineup of the defending national champions as a true freshman, but he is second in receiving yards and third in receptions. Add in his ability to return punts and Waddle has become an invaluable part of the team. He has the speed one would expect of a big play threat but his agility is his calling card. Capable of making anyone miss, Waddle uses it to set up defenders and combines it with great vision and solid route running to make him a threat every time he is on the field. Waddle is a bit small at 5-foot-10, 177-pounds; but expect him to continue to rise and may outplay Jeudy as early as 2019.
Two other solid receivers in Henry Ruggs and DeVonta Smith also could have NFL futures. Ruggs is largely a slot option with solid route running and good quickness. He is a versatile receiver with a nose for the end zone but doesn’t quite have the upside of Waddle or Jeudy. Smith grades out as the lowest ceiling of these four receivers. He is a decent athlete but doesn’t have the play strength at 6-foot-1, 173-pounds to consistently win against physical corners. These two are likely more in the late Day two or Day three conversations when they are eligible.
The only tight end in the playoffs worth talking about is Irv Smith Jr. While Oklahoma and Notre Dame have draft worthy options, Smith has proven to be a versatile vertical threat, averaging over 17 yards per reception. Smith shares some similarities with Evan Engram in terms of big slot potential and size (6-foot-3, 243-pounds). The Alabama product is not as polished as Engram however, still rounding out his route running along with consistency with his hands. If Smith finds the right NFL offense that leverages his downfield abilities and receiving skills, he could be a nice stash in deeper and TE premium leagues.