This past weekend delivered probably the most exciting college football experience of the season, and it also provided some interesting developments on the NFL draft front as well.
We had plenty of options to choose from, but here are some of the standouts who helped themselves most — plus a few who failed to improve their draft stocks.
Alabama QB Mac Jones
Opinions on Jones this summer were decidedly mixed, as Tua Tagovailoa’s replacement was a bit up and down last season in relief and viewed more as a low-ceiling caretaker of an offense that had 5-star recruits at every other position. In fact, there was plenty of talk — even among NFL evaluators — about Jones possibly being benched in favor of Bama’s highly touted true freshman recruit, Bryce Young.
But to this point of the season, Jones has been fantastic. He might not be the world’s most talented QB prospect, and he only possesses average physical traits, but Jones appears to have improved his confidence, his command and even his arm strength this season.
With each game, he’s stepped up his performance incrementally. It doesn’t hurt that Jones has two possible 2021 first-round wide receivers in Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. (And sophomore John Metchie II also has been terrific.) Bama also has a star-studded offensive line, and one of the best backs in the country in Najee Harris.
But Jones is attacking better vertically, completing a tremendous 9 of 13 passes for 443 yards and four TDs on passes traveling 20 yards or longer downfield, per Pro Football Focus. And rarely have we see see Waddle, Smith or Metchie needing to slow up to catch those passes, either; Jones’ touch and placement has been very strong.
In the shootout win over Ole Miss on Saturday, Jones completed 28 of 32 passes (with one drop and one pass batted down) for 417 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, he’s completed 66 of 83 passes (79.5 percent!) for 1,101 yards, with an 8-to-1 TD-INT ratio.
And we love that he’s had a different go-to receiver each of the team’s three games so far. On Saturday, it was Smith (13 catches, 164 yards, one touchdown). Against Texas A&M, it was Metchie (5-181-2). And at Missouri, Waddle (8-134-2) was Jones’ leading man.
It’s easy to say that Jones is swathed in offensive talent. But it’s hard for a quarterback to distribute the ball evenly to so many weapons — that’s a lot of mouths (and egos) to feed. So far, Jones has been brilliant with that.
Entering the season, Jones was viewed as a late-round option. And he’s still got one more year of eligibility. But should he come out early, we would not be surprised if he goes higher than that — and that he ends up outperforming quarterbacks who are selected ahead of him.
Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond
As we wrote recently, Mond can be a tricky study. More than that, he can be downright frustrating to watch at times.
Blessed with high-end talent, Mond often will flash that ability with a handful of throws per game. But rarely does he turn in a mostly flawless performance — and less frequently, doing so against a strong opponent.
Saturday, however, was as good a game as we’ve watched from Mond in some time. He completed 25 of 35 passes (71.4 percent) against Florida for 338 yards, three TDs and no picks in the upset of Florida, leading four scoring drives in the final 20 minutes of action. Most importantly, Mond played in control and limited the heart-attack plays that sometimes mar his game.
Impressive TE Jalen Wydermyer and RB-WR Ainias Smith were Mond’s go-to targets the week prior against Alabama, but with the Gators committing to keeping those two under wraps, Mond put his faith in WR Caleb Chapman, who had a grand total of six receptions in four games over the past two years. Mond’s faith was rewarded, as Chapman had nine catches, 151 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-tying score with less than five minutes remaining.
That’ll catch the eyes of scouts. Mond now has stacked two fairly nice performances back to back, including a competitive outing for the first 20-plus minutes against Bama, even with a pick-six this week before.
Mond was earning third- and fourth-round grades over the summer, and he won’t be for everyone, but it’s easier to feel better about his trajectory after Saturday’s showing.
LSU WR Terrace Marshall, Jr.
The Tigers might be off to their worst start since 1994, but they have a draft prospect who is carrying the school’s reputation as one of the best factories for wide receiver talent in all of college football.
With Justin Jefferson off to a strong start in the NFL, and Ja’Marr Chase opting out this season, Marshall has stepped up as the Tigers’ clear-cut WR1 — and is emerging as yet another possible first-round pick.
On Saturday, Marshall seemed to get open at will, grabbing 11 passes for 235 and three scores, even as LSU shockingly fell to Mizzou. Most importantly, he didn’t drop a single pass, which was the one red mark from his first two outings, with a pair of drops in each of those games.
Through three games, Marshall has 21 catches for 424 yards (20.2 average) and seven TD grabs, well on his way to smashing the impressive receiving line (46-671-13) he put up as the third fiddle in LSU’s nuclear offense a year ago. Nineteen of those 21 grabs have gone for first downs or touchdowns.
It’s more impressive what the 6-foot-3, 200-pound wide receiver is doing this year considering everything the Tigers have lost since winning a national championship. He’s running a lot of the slot routes that Jefferson did last year but also is seeing time outside to fill some of Chase’s role.
Along with wildly gifted freshman TE Arik Gilbert, Marshall is doing his best to keep LSU in games while QB Myles Brennan adjusts and the defense gives up tracts of yardage each week.
Right now, we’d safely peg Marshall as a top-50 prospect if he declared in 2021. But creeping into the first-round range, with the way he’s playing early on, wouldn’t be a big stretch.
Notre Dame OT Liam Eichenberg
Saturday’s win over FSU won’t go down as Eichenberg’s finest individual performance ever, with a few pressures allowed and a less-dominant performance as a run blocker, especially coming off two excellent outings before that to start the season.
But let’s just consider for a moment what happened to Eichenberg on Saturday. He was poked in the eye — hard — by an FSU defender in the second quarter and had to miss 19 snaps.
Eichenberg looked like a heavyweight boxer who needed a new cutman:
Eichenberg came back in and battled. Sure, he was limited with the mostly closed eye, especially on a missed block on a fourth-down failure near the goal line.
But that kind of fight and grit won’t go unnoticed in scouting circles. Eichenberg had received a lot of fourth-round grades over the summer and still has some work to do to prove he can be an NFL left tackle. Yet we’ve been impressed with him to this point — and especially gutting through a tough situation on Saturday night.
Also of note: Aaron Banks, the starting right guard, stepped in for Eichenberg at left tackle and played well during his absence. Banks hasn’t received quite as much draft love as we think he should, and we think he’s as much an NFL prospect as fellow Irish OG Tommy Kraemer might be, even if not everyone agrees with us.
Impressive night all around for a Notre Dame offensive line that’s as talented and effective as there is in the country.
Georgia LB Monty Rice
We’ve been holding back on writing about Rice so far this season, but for no good reason. And yet I don’t think I am alone here on overlooking him. Are we all kind of sleeping on one of the better off-the-ball linebackers in the 2021 class?
That strip-sack-score was the big play in the Bulldogs’ win over Tennessee, but Rice was all over the field for the rest of the game, just as he was the week before against Auburn.
Granted, Auburn did catch him a few times in coverage and seemed to want to attack Rice through the air. But his athleticism makes up for his coverage technique at this point, but I am confident that he fixes it.
Rice is a really fine blitzer, fills gaps well against the run and brings an edge to his play. He can man an inside spot in a 3-4, but we’d love him as a weak side linebacker in a fast-flow defense. Rice plays like the Falcons’ Deion Jones, albeit without that elite LB speed.
He got some third-round grades over the summer, but Rice feels like a prospect who should crack the top 64 picks.
Clemson RB Travis Etienne
We’ve written quite a bit on the Tigers’ star back, dating back to last season when we thought he was going to declare for the 2020 draft. He’s unquestionably one of the most gifted runners in the county, but Etienne finds new ways to impress us each time we watch him.
Everyone knows about his big-play ability. Etienne has been a major weapon since he ripped off four touchdown runs on his first 23 college carries as a freshman in 2017.
His speed is also well-known, but for me, the most impressive thing from Saturday’s rout of Miami was Etienne’s zero-to-60 burst — on a wet field — down the sideline for the game-breaking score midway through the third quarter. Look at the acceleration!
Check out Etienne slow-playing Miami defensive back DJ Ivey, who clearly had the angle to make a tackle. But that tiny hesitation, followed by the turbo button, is a truly special element of his game. All while toeing the sideline, by the way.
The hot recent Twitter comp for Etienne is Alvin Kamara, and it’s pretty good. Kamara had those breathtaking runs in college where it just felt like he was gliding out there, and Etienne makes those same types of runs.
Could his game be a bit more well-rounded? Of course. But he’s made tangible strides in the passing game and had a terrific night catching wet balls against the Hurricanes, snagging nine passes (with no drops) for 83 yards. Kind of a Kamara-ish line, eh?
We’re on board with the comp, and with Etienne as an NFL prospect. He was given second-round grades this summer, but he’s feeling like the player who rewards a team greatly by outplaying his draft status in a deflated RB-value era. Etienne is an early, post-draft Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate type of prospect for a team needing a burst in its backfield.
Miami QB D’Eriq King
It just wasn’t his night, and King’s quest to be an NFL quarterback has added a hurdle — or better said, he lost an opportunity on a big stage to prove that he should be considered a passer first when scouts evaluate him.
King was just nowhere near the class of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence in Miami’s 42-17 loss on Saturday. Not that that’s a fair comparison, but King really never got in any kind of groove, completing only 12 of 28 passes for 121 yards and two picks on the rainy night.
But that’s where Lawrence, even with a fumble, just set the bar so comparatively high: He ripped most of his tight-window passes and threw well outside the pocket and downfield. Likewise, King’s passes wobbled and were off target more often than not. He just never got comfortable, although Clemson’s secondary (especially CB Derion Kendrick) had something to do with that.
We’re fans and want to see King get his shot at QB. But some scouts will believe that his running ability might be better suited to receiver, the position he played his first two years at Houston.
Auburn WR Seth Williams
In the opener against Kentucky, Williams looked like a star — the kind of player he teased being at times in 2019. With six grabs, 112 yards and two scores in that game, the slimmed-down Williams seemed to show the extra burst and acceleration we were missing at times last season.
But in the two games since, he’s taken two steps backward. Williams was bottled up two weeks ago against Georgia’s talented secondary, and that cannot merely be explained away by QB Bo Nix’s brutal outing.
And in Saturday’s narrow-escape win over Arkansas, Williams was a disappointment again. He dropped three of the nine targets that were thrown his way, which put a damper on the three grabs, including a 32-yarder, that he did make.
If Williams wants to cement a top-75 spot for the 2021 NFL draft, he needs to be more consistent. The talent is there — after all, we saw it in full splendor against the Wildcats.
Virginia Tech LB Rayshard Ashby
Ashby really caught our eye last year in the Notre Dame game, as the 5-foot-10, 245-pound wrecking ball forced a goal-line fumble that his teammate, Divine Deablo (an intriguing prospect who has been hurt most of this season) picked up and scored.
We kept our eyes on Ashby the rest of that game and were impressed. He fit that “lunch pail” motto former defensive coordinator Bud Foster was so keen on building.
But for some reason, Ashby has seemed to be a little off his game this season. We still think he’s a quality run defender, but he had a rough outing in the loss to North Carolina, missing three tackles, getting stung twice in coverage and not accomplishing much when he blitzed.
Ashby’s size already makes him a tricky evaluation in an era of football that’s trending away from the short, squatty, two-down inside linebackers. There’s still a spot for those players, but they are tougher sales as prospects — especially when their tape isn’t sterling.
We still want to see how Ashby adapts to how new coordinator Justin Hamilton is utilizing him. It doesn’t feel terribly different than how Foster did, except for perhaps sending him on pressures a tiny bit more often.
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