The likes of Saquon Barkley and Josh Rosen are easy to discuss and praise, but let’s look elsewhere for some others who stood out, with receivers and linebackers making particularly good impressions this week.
TJ Edwards, LB, Wisconsin
The Badgers made an unexpectedly slow start to their season opener against Utah State, losing by as much as 10 points for the majority of the first half. While the offense worked to gradually shake off the early rust, the always impressive Wisconsin defense kept the score down, with redshirt junior linebacker TJ Edwards leading the way. His strong second quarter saw the powerful 6’1”, 244lb defender take control by making three stops during one Aggies drive and forcing a punt. Particularly notable was the execution on a number of open field tackles that relied on him alone to control the yardage gained. Showing anticipation and positional discipline, Edwards closes quickly while taking good angles to the ball carrier and wraps up forcefully.
A very solid athlete to go with his stout build, Edwards made a strong impression in coverage versus Utah State. Continuing his standout second quarter, and with the Badgers still down 10-7, Edwards was in the right place at the right time to grab a bobbled ball out of the air for the fourth interception of his career. That was followed in the second half by a couple other close opportunities for a second interception as his instincts and active game saw him constantly in position to make plays versus both the run and pass. Looking to lead Wisconsin in tackles for a third straight season, Edwards made a great start with seven tackles (including five solo stops), one tackle for loss (TFL), two pass breakups and an interception.
Simmie Cobbs Jr., WR, Indiana
Plenty of high-profile, high-ranked teams have been given stern tests from relatively lesser opponents over the early part of this 2017 season, and the Buckeyes were among them in struggling to match with a Hoosier pass game that proved difficult to contend with. The sheer size advantage in a lot of cases led to Indiana QB Richard Lagow throwing up 50-50 jump balls time and again, with his receivers winning a large chunk. Cobbs Jr. was the favorite of those targets and set a career high of 11 catches, for 149 yards (13.55 per catch) and a touchdown. He got off to some start in the first quarter, not only making a one-handed grab, but doing so on the sideline, under tight coverage, and contorting his big 6’4”, 220lb frame to get a foot in bounds.
As the game went on, he also showed footwork in other ways, to stop sharply, work back to his quarterback and buy a split second from the cornerback to secure the catch on a few occasions. Cobbs repeated the one-handed feat in the second quarter, before finishing the same drive on a third attempt at a jump ball to the corner of the end zone. He by no means came down with every ball thrown his way and that was challenged at the catch point, but he wins more than enough to declare him as a solid talent in contested catch situations.
He uses his big body to his advantage, has strong hands and shows timing and control as he executes both route and catch. His top speed is a little bit of a question, but his good footwork and physical advantages make up for anything else regardless. After getting past the 1,000-yard mark in 2015, Cobbs missed pretty much all of last season, but now looks poised for his most productive season yet.
Devante Downs, LB, California
Perhaps as good a display from a senior defensive prospect as anyone this week, Downs rightfully has been announced as the Pac-12 defensive player of the week for his performance in the entertaining 35-30 win over North Carolina; the first ever meeting between these two schools from opposite ends of the country. Well built at 6’3”, 245lbs, Downs was impressive in terms of the range and areas of the field in which he made an impact, getting involved on all three levels of the defense.
He impressed in run defense, consistently in position to make stops, got behind the line of scrimmage to disrupt the action, and dropped back well to defend the pass, that resulted in an interception late in the first half that he returned 39 yards back the other way. Doing the majority of his work during the first half, Downs finished with 13 tackles (eight solo), an assisted TFL, one quarterback hurry, a forced fumble, and the aforementioned interception. His hustle in pursuit stands out that led to several of his stops of ball carriers.
After suffering a torn ACL his high school senior year, then converting from primarily a running back at that level to the defensive side of the ball, it’s been a very gradual process for Downs into becoming a more complete player for the Golden Bears. He broke out in 2016 as a full-time starter for the first time, leading the team in tackles with 84, and now looks all set to put together a strong senior campaign that is sure to see his draft stock continue to rise if there are more performances like his opener against the Tar Heels last Saturday.
Ty Isaac, RB, Michigan
The former high recruit and USC transfer has always had the physical skill set, with a big 6’3”, 230lb frame with long arms, and rare speed and burst for someone of his size and power. Applying those skills effectively on the field has been a long-standing issue however. There’s been the change of schools. There’s been injuries including a hamstring issue. He sat out the latter part of the 2015 season due to something simply referred to as an “internal matter”. When he has been on the field, there’s been trouble holding on to the football, such as a couple fumbles against Maryland a couple seasons ago. As good as the measurables are, he’s not previously backed it up with smart, aware football, often missing holes and showing poor vision in general.
If Saturday’s win against the Florida Gators was anything to go by though, it’s all starting to click for the talented runner. There was more evidence of instinctual and efficient running ability, taking the right lanes and exploiting space for maximum gains. Backing up that better execution with his natural ability to shift and evade, and the results were devastatingly effective. Carries were divided, and sophomore Chris Evans saw twice as many handoffs as Isaac did, but the senior made a case for more touches as he took his 11 runs for 114 yards at a massive 10.36 yards per carry. In terms of his pro prospects, Isaac does need to put together a more complete and consistent season. He won’t have as much wear and tear as many though, with just 152 touches in his college career prior to his final year.
Terrell Edmunds, Safety, Virginia Tech
It got somewhat overshadowed by the dramatic Josh Rosen-led UCLA comeback over Texas A&M but the other Sunday Night contest was gripping in its own right as two rivals renewed their battle for the Black Diamond Trophy at FedEx Field, with the Virginia Tech Hokies claiming a hard-fought 31-24 win. Will Grier and the Mountaineers offense eventually found a number of big plays in the second half, but were shut down for the most part during the first couple quarters by a hugely talented Hokies defense. Redshirt junior safety Terrell Edmunds exemplified the energetic nature of the unit with his active performance that had him around the ball constantly, including for some key plays.
The big 6‘2”, 210lb defensive back is considered a hybrid strong safety and linebacker type in Bud Foster’s defense, but that doesn’t do full justice to the completeness of his game in which he has the speed, range and ball skills to navigate the whole field, including deep and to the sidelines. He’ll take some risks but attacks the ball and challenges receivers, that helped him toward a team-leading four interceptions last season, as well as 10 pass breakups over the previous two seasons. He added to that in his 2017 opener with a pair of pass breakups to go with his seven tackles on the night.
His superb closing speed is backed up by his direct angles to the action when tracking downhill in run support and he routinely finishes strongly in the tackle, using good technique, his physical build and his momentum to take down ball carriers. All that said, there’s issues with consistency that led to some negative plays during the win over the Mountaineers. Poor initial positions, incorrect reads and late reactions can lead to being responsible for some chunk plays being surrendered, such as being unable to make the play on West Virginia wide receiver Gary Jennings Jr.’s 60-yard catch-and-run touchdown, and being late to the catch point on a couple sideline targets. His enthusiasm can affect his discipline, but this is a defensive back with all the measurables for the next level.
Small School Watch: Brandon Norwood, WR, Florida A&M
The Rattlers were resoundingly beaten by their SEC opponents, as expected, but the matchup offered the opportunity for their polished senior receiver Norwood to prove he could make plays against better quality athletes as a player who has openly spoken about his belief in himself as an NFL prospect and his determination to make it as a pro. He had to be patient, as the passing game and offense as a whole struggled to move the ball, leading to only a couple targets heading his way in the first half, and on quick, short throws not conducive to netting more than a handful of yards in each instance.
On those early completions though, and on a couple more in the third quarter, Norwood was still able to show his smooth footwork and field awareness to work the sideline, find little pockets of space between the corner and safety, and buy a yard or two of separation as he broke off at the top of his routes. He had targets that were under- and over-thrown for incompletions, but generally caught everything he should have, barring one hit to his 6’1”, 190lb body that jarred the ball loose from his hands.
Norwood finished strongly in the fourth quarter with a fantastic sideline catch under tight coverage, then completed the drive for the Rattlers' only points by collecting the touchdown over the middle in the back of the end zone, after easily shaking the covering corner on a smartly executed dig route. Norwood ended up with a stat line of six receptions for 54 yards and a score. He’s not a game-breaking type for the most part, but is a smooth and reliable receiver with trust-worthy hands who knows how to work himself open. He’s worthy of a shot in an NFL camp.
Another receiver is the focus of this week’s stock down section, after a decent performance that did come with some concerns.
DaeSean Hamilton, WR, Penn State
Saquon Barkley looked incredible, McSorley looked as sharp as ever, and the defense shut out a team in Akron they were expected to dominate and delivered. One experienced key player on the offense likely wasn’t completely happy with his own contributions in the 52-0 win over the Zips however. To be fair, it was the first game of the season and not everyone flies out of the blocks in the opener, there was some wet weather conditions involved, and a 24.67 yards per catch average (three receptions for 74 yards) is nothing to dismiss by any stretch.
Still, those plays were interspersed with a number of drops, including one particularly poor one early on that had he secured the ball, the space was open for him to take it the rest of the way for a touchdown score. The worry is that it’s something that has been an occasional issue in the past, most notably a late drop last season against Pitt as the team narrowly lost the game. While his former teammate Chris Godwin excelled at bringing in contested catches, Hamilton loses more such battles than would be liked. Whereas many receivers are adept at bailing out their quarterbacks by bringing in slightly off-target throws, Hamilton often fails to make the adjustment.
Make no mistake, he’s a talented receiver with a sturdy 6’1”, 211lb frame, and has come down with some beautiful grabs and big play moments. However, he needs a good senior year. His total receiving yards have dropped over each of his previous three seasons, and was only able to contribute one touchdown last year. He’s got the ability for the pros though, and is one to watch closely as the season progresses.
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