Tuesday, November 29 2022

By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst

A few things have become obvious over the first couple weeks of the 2022 college football season.

For one, the sheer quantity (and quality) of player transfers prior to the season has redistributed talent throughout the country. This reshuffling of the talent pool has undeniably contributed to some of this year’s early upsets within the Top 25.

And for those watching with an eye toward the 2023 NFL Draft, players getting fresh opportunities with new programs has predictably created a virtual tidal wave of breakout NFL Draft prospects. 

Oklahoma vs. Nebraska: Keys to the game

RJ Young is joined by Geoff Schwartz to break down the matchup between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Perhaps most exciting, last year’s relative dearth of talent at quarterback feels like ancient history, as this year’s draft-eligible passers have largely lived up to their preseason hype. 

Thus, with so many of this year’s hottest prospects starring in new locations, below is the first of a season-long TV viewing guide of the top matchups you — and professional scouts — should be watching. 

No. 6 Oklahoma at Nebraska (noon ET; FOX and the FOX Sports app)

The visiting Sooners are likely to develop more of a defensive personality under head coach Brett Venables, but with Nebraska struggling again this year, do not be surprised if explosive junior receiver Marvin Mims is featured in an effort to get Oklahoma out to an early lead.

Mims is coming off a breakout performance last week against Kent State, hauling in seven passes for 163 yards and two scores. Similar in stature to former OU star (and current Arizona Cardinals standout) Marquise “Hollywood” Brown at 5-foot-11, 177 pounds, Mims’ game is less about straight-line speed as a vertical threat. Instead, he relies on savvy route-running, as well as body control and hand-eye coordination to make impressive grabs against tight coverage. His frame suggests a traditional vertical threat, but Mims plays tougher than he looks, showing awareness and courage over the middle. 

If the Cornhuskers are to pull off the big upset, edge rusher Ochaun Mathis will likely have to make his presence felt. A highly-touted transfer from TCU with a prototypical 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame, Mathis has an explosive first step and good bend for a rusher of his size. He pairs his upper and lower halves nicely, slapping at the hands of would-be blockers and accelerating around the arc with real closing speed and power. Mathis looked like a future first-round pick for the Horned Frogs in 2020, recording 12.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks, but those numbers dropped to just four and two, respectively, a year ago. Part of this, however, was due to the way TCU used him, asking him to read and react rather than simply attack, as the Huskers are allowing him to do this season. 

Texas State at No. 17 Baylor (noon ET; FS1 and the FOX Sports app)

With the visiting Bobcats a 30-point underdog according to FOX Bet, one might assume that this is a game most scouts would ignore. But in-state contests like this often draw out the competitiveness of players, and Texas State has a veteran-laden offensive line that could challenge Baylor defensive tackle Siaki Ika, a 6-foot-3, 350-pound star in the middle who was arguably the most dominant interior defensive lineman in the Big 12 last season. 

Sure, Ika is going to face tougher competition throughout Baylor’s conference schedule, but NFL clubs interested in him are going to want to see his motor run just as hot against lesser opponents, especially considering that the former five-star recruit at LSU has just five total tackles (one solo) over the No. 17 Bears’ first two games this season. Ika is a talented athlete who will test shockingly well given his classic run-stuffing frame, but he must prove that he has the all-around game and consistency to warrant his first-round hype. 

No. 12 BYU at No. 25 Oregon (3:30 pm ET; FOX and the FOX Sports app)

This is one of just two games in Week 3 pitting teams ranked in the AP Top 25, and scouts will need a spreadsheet to keep track of all the future NFL talent on the field. Should BYU’s flashy wide receiver Puka Nacua be able to return from the foot injury that kept him sidelined last week in the Cougars’ double-overtime home win over Baylor, his matchup against Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez might be worth the price of admission itself. 

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Nacua is every bit as physical as his size suggests, offering almost a Deebo Samuel-like tackle-breaking ability after the catch. He is also highly competitive and scraps for every blade of grass. Gonzalez also possesses prototypical size at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, and he is a smooth mover for that frame, changing directions fluidly and accelerating quickly to run with receivers downfield. He wasn’t as steady as an open-field tackler in the Week 1 blowout loss to Georgia, however, making this a potentially fascinating matchup. 

Even without Nacua, BYU quarterback Jaren Hall has quietly emerged as one of the better dual-threats in college football. He doesn’t always throw the most aesthetically pleasing ball but displays good spatial awareness of rushers around him, and vision to set up his blockers while running or in keeping his downfield passing options open. He also possesses plenty of arm strength. 

Hall and the Cougars face a stiff test, however, against Oregon inside linebacker Noah Sewell, who is a heat-seeking missile generating early-round buzz — just as his older brother, Penei Sewell, did at offensive tackle for the Ducks prior to the Detroit Lions picking him seventh overall in 2021. Speaking of brawling blockers, both teams offer a lot of quality, underrated talent along the offensive line, guaranteeing that this contest will attract plenty of interest from scouts. 

Toledo at No. 3 Ohio State (7 p.m. ET; FOX and the FOX Sports app)

With the Buckeyes a legitimate national title contender, there will be plenty of opportunities for future first-round picks C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba to polish their resumes, but Saturday’s matchup is easily the toughest competition for the Rockets, a team that boasts an intriguing edge rusher in 6-foot-2, 250-pound senior Jamal Hines, a Cincinnati native. 

A three-time MAC honoree who enters the game with 39 career tackles for loss and 15 sacks under his belt, Hines is surprisingly powerful at the point of attack, generating good push due to his leg drive and leverage advantage. Further, Hines locates the ball quickly and has good hand-eye coordination, showing a real knack for batting down passes over his career (11). 

The always-gifted Buckeyes boast two future NFL Draft picks at tackle in left tackle Paris Johnson, Jr. and right tackle Dawand Jones. Hines is likely to match up most often with the massive Jones, who is officially listed by the Buckeyes at an eye-popping 6-foot-8, 359 pounds. While there is no doubt that Jones can move people in the running game, he can get walked into the backfield by good bull rushers and — like a lot of big tackles — can get himself in trouble leaning outside to combat speed moves, which opens up counters back to the inside. This could play into the hands of Hines, who needs to show that he can close with more violence, having forced just one fumble during his otherwise impressive college career. 

No. 11 Michigan State at Washington (7:30 p.m. ET; ABC)

Eight months removed from the ankle surgery that ultimately forced him to reconsider his plans at entering the 2022 NFL Draft, Washington left tackle Jaxson Kirkland is expected to return to the field against Michigan State, a team that enters Seattle boasting a formidable but somewhat unknown (at least nationally) edge rusher in Jacoby Windmon, one of several flashy transfers lured to East Lansing by Mel Tucker. There is plenty of “other” talent to watch in this contest, but perhaps none will play a more critical role in determining the outcome of this game, or in shaping the NFL Draft stock of both players. 

When healthy, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Kirkland is remarkably light on his feet for a man of his size, easing out of his stance and showing good lateral agility to mirror edge rushers. Hardcore draft fans might recall his struggling on a few snaps a year ago against then-Michigan star (and future No. 2 overall draft pick) Aidan Hutchinson, but after that game, Kirkland played very well. He has a somewhat unusual frame for an offensive tackle, with hulking shoulders and long arms, but a relatively narrow base. This has raised questions about his ability to hold up to NFL bull rushers and create movement at the point of attack. The time off, however, has given him an opportunity to build up his lower half and he’ll need it if Washington is able to establish the ground game likely necessary to pull off the home upset. 

Windmon transferred from UNLV and has hit the ground running, earning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Week honors for the Spartans with an eye-popping 6.5 tackles for loss (including 5.5 sacks!) over his first two games. At “just” 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he isn’t the most imposing edge rusher, but he’s quick off the ball and has terrific balance and bend to rush the edge, dipping his shoulder and turning the corner in a flash. Kirkland needs to remind scouts of his talent, and Windmon is seeking to build upon his early success, making this one of the more intriguing one-on-one matchups of the weekend.

No. 13 Miami at No. 24 Texas A&M (9 p.m. ET; ESPN)

Even with the Aggies being stunned last week by Appalachian State, this inter-conference Top 25 showdown still ranks among the most-anticipated games of the weekend. 

Of course, a great deal of the buzz surrounding the game is due to Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, a prototypically-built 6-foot-3, 225-pounder already considered a possible first-round draft candidate. In terms of size, poise, accuracy and arm strength, Van Dyke has everything NFL scouts are looking for — except experience. Saturday’s game will be just his 11th career start, and the Aggies boast one of the nation’s most formidable defenses, allowing just 8.5 points per game thus far this season. Few fan bases are more intimidating than the 12th Man at College Station, which will provide scouts quite the opportunity to evaluate Van Dyke’s leadership and mental toughness. 

Working in Van Dyke’s favor is his new head coach — Mario Cristobal — who deserves credit for helping develop Justin Herbert into a superstar at Oregon, as well as a fellow first-round candidate in blindside blocker Zion Nelson (6-foot-5, 316). 

The Aggies remain one of the more gifted teams in the country and certainly won’t rely on just their crowd to rattle Van Dyke. They boast a talented secondary, which includes strong safety Demani Richardson (6-0, 210) and cornerback Myles Jones (6-foot-3, 190), each of whom are on the Senior Bowl’s Watch List.

Fresno State at USC (10:30 p.m. ET; FOX and the FOX Sports app)

Fans and scouts willing to stay up late are going to be treated to some fireworks, as this West coast battle features two of the most prolific offenses in college football, largely due to transfers. 

USC’s Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison have proved every bit as dynamic as expected for Lincoln Riley, with the flashy true sophomore quarterback completing nearly 80% of his passes with a sparkling six touchdowns and no interceptions. Meanwhile, the silky-smooth Addison — the reigning Biletnikoff winner — has more touchdowns catches than Fresno State’s quarterback Jake Haener (three) has scoring passes. 

Haener remains a quiet favorite of some scouts due to his grit and anticipation, though he lacks ideal size and arm strength, projecting similarly to Washington Commanders’ backup Taylor Heinicke

There isn’t a receiver in college football as smooth in and out of his breaks as Minnesota Vikings star Justin Jefferson, but Addison is among the closest, generating consistent separation with his burst, balance and lateral agility. These traits, along with his grit and body control, make him a nightmare to tackle in the open field, an area in which Fresno State struggled last week against Oregon State.

Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.

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