A pair of running backs kick off our choices for this week.
Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa
With the success of New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara as a rookie, most recently with 152 yards from scrimmage against Tampa Bay, teams will continue to look for similar versatile athletic playmakers at the running back position, which could add to Wadley’s stock, who looks more polished at this stage than the former Tennessee back did leaving college.
He didn’t find the end zone against Ohio State, but was a big playmaker in Iowa’s upset win over the Buckeyes, doing so against one of the most talented front sevens in the country which bodes well for his projection to the next level. Wadley totaled 118 rushing yards on 20 carries (5.90 yards per carry) and added 40 further yards on three receptions.
With help from some excellent blocking up front by his offensive line, Wadley got off to a hot start to burst through to the second level on a 30-yard gain on his first touch of the game. His first quarter work also saw success getting to the edge and as a target in the pass game to showcase the versatile skill set he offers.
On a standout play toward the end of the first half, quarterback Nathan Stanley found a late check down to Wadley on the sideline who made a superb play after the catch in space, making the first man miss and setting up a key touchdown score to extend the Hawkeyes lead to 31-17 before the break.
Overall, Wadley highlighted not just his trademark shiftiness and short-area quickness, but also his impressive combination of vision and reactions that led to several instinctive runs throughout, and to break tackles, as he did on a fantastic 22-yard run in the third quarter as part of another TD drive.
He had his moments of getting smothered for little gain or a loss of yardage, but that’s expected now and then against a run defense with as much ability as the OSU group have. The senior is not the biggest, around 5’10” and 195lbs, but has the skills to be considered on Day 2 of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn
The Tigers convincingly defeated Texas A&M 42-27, and while Jarrett Stidham put up good numbers through the air, it was workhorse back Kerryon Johnson who stood out. The junior back was heavily featured en route to taking his 29 carries for 145 yards at a 5.0-yard average and adding 29 yards on five catches. He hit the end zone twice with a touchdown in both the run and pass games.
A lot of what Johnson does is not always flashy, but he’s tough, hard-working and plays efficient football, helped by his solid 6’0”, 212lb frame that looks at times like he might be playing heavier than his listing. He took what was there for the most part, finding the right lanes, churning out the hard yards and maximizing the opportunities in front of him.
That said, there were a couple hugely impressive carries. His rushing touchdown saw Johnson completely run over safety Larry Pryor to force his path into the end zone. Later in the final quarter, he attempted his best Marshawn Lynch impression, breaking a couple tackles, and throwing an angry stiff arm on his way to a 22-yard gain.
Elsewhere, he also showed good patience and burst, allowing his O-line (particularly right guard Braden Smith who was also outstanding in this game) to set up their blocks, and his great hands, most notably on an excellent one-handed grab on a 3rd and 7 conversion in the fourth quarter.
Although he’s been overtaken by Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. as the leading rusher in the SEC this year, second-placed Johnson is putting together a consistent season that now totals 868 rush yards at 5.23 per carry and a fantastic 15 rushing touchdowns through just seven games played.
Averaging around 25 touches per game, the junior could be tempted to hit the NFL after this year, rather than take on another high workload next season as well.
Kendrick Norton, DL, Miami
The Hurricanes hadn’t convinced everyone of their playoff credentials and the validity of their undefeated start to the season, but Mark Richt’s side secured arguably their best win of the season over Virginia Tech by 28-10. The turnover chain was on show once again multiple times for the ‘Canes defense, but the work done up front by Kendrick Norton deserves plenty credit as well.
Norton made his presence felt midway through the second quarter with an awesome bull rush that destroyed the anchor of Hokies center Eric Gallo, driving him back into the pocket before taking down running back Deshawn McClease immediately after receiving the handoff, recording a joint tackle for loss (TFL) with teammate Joe Jackson.
Later in the first half, he again dominated Gallo, shoving him out the way dismissively before taking down QB Malik Rozier, who was in the process of scrambling and attempting to step up in the pocket. Throughout the game, Norton played solid run defense and finished with 3 tackles, 1.5 TFLs with one sack.
The 6’3”, 312lb junior lineman was near-impossible to move off his spot the entire contest, holding his ground and winning at the point of attack consistently, doing his best work after contact by using his hands aggressively to work off blocks. His work helped his teammates make plays even when he was not doing so directly himself.
With a stout build, good movement within that frame and impressive strength, he has some nice foundation traits for the next level.
Junior Joseph, LB, Connecticut
On a Saturday with a packed schedule of high-profile matchups, the AAC contest between South Florida and UConn was a little more under the radar, but with a lot of NFL potential on the field from both teams in a game that USF won 37-20.
Most of the top prospects for the Huskies feature on the defensive side of the ball, and Joseph is having an outstanding senior season.
Very active through the game, but particularly during the first 20 minutes, Joseph was the team’s leading tackler on the day with nine tackles (seven solo stops), even if one less impressive moment saw him fail to make a play on Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers’ opening TD run.
It appears as though he ought to have also been credited with a play behind the line of scrimmage early in the second quarter after taking down Flowers for a couple yards loss. His consistent playmaking has him now with 77 tackles on the season through nine games, with 5.5 TFLs, three sacks and three pass breakups.
With a solid toned build and good overall movement and range around the field, the 6’1”, 232lb linebacker has some likeable measurables to help find a role at the next level. As his numbers suggest, he’s highly active around the ball, reading the game well to get in good positions and backing it up by playing with a high motor and effort, particularly notable in his pursuit.
A physical tackler, Joseph generally wraps up well with a decisive hit. There’s a discipline and reliability about his play that is encouraging, even if there are more dynamic prospects at the position that have a greater upside than Joseph may offer. He’s closing in on 300 career tackles and deserves a shot to continue at the NFL level, either as a Day 3 draft selection or free agent after the seven rounds.
Donnie Ernsberger, TE, Western Michigan
A few days prior to Saturday’s main event, Central and Western Michigan got November underway on a Wednesday night with an entertaining contest that saw the Chips battle back to earn a 35-28 victory.
The Broncos’ senior tight end may have been on the losing side and put up a modest stat line for himself, but still looking very good in terms of the potential he is showing to get a shot at the pros.
Ernsberger finished with four receptions for 35 yards, an 8.75-yard average. He ought to have had a couple more catches but was poorly overthrown multiple times by his freshman quarterback making his first start. However, he looked the part in running sharp routes as well as blocking extremely well throughout as part of a run-heavy gameplan.
During coach P.J. Fleck’s successful tenure with Western Michigan, Ernsberger was mostly known as a blocker, an area in which he has and continues to excel in, destroying defenders at times as he opens running lanes for a very productive backfield. He was rarely given the opportunity to get involved in the pass game though, with just 11 catches over his first three seasons.
That is all changing as a senior under new head coach Tim Lester however, with 26 receptions so far in 2017 for 305 yards and three touchdown catches. He doesn’t have the ideal length or catch radius of many tight end prospects at 6’3”, 255lbs but plays fundamentally sound football.
Though not a blazer with elite burst, he does get off the line of scrimmage well with good acceleration, moves fluidly in space with enough football speed in pads. His routes are polished and well-timed with a consistency and reliability that quarterbacks love.
Add in his unquestioned effectiveness as a blocker and there’s a useful all-round skill set to stick on an NFL roster with the right opportunity, even if he may not hear his name called on draft weekend.
Small School Watch: Detrez Newsome, RB, Western Carolina
After never having injury troubles during his first few seasons of college, Newsome has been unfortunate to find himself struggling in that manner in his final year when it matters most for his pro prospects, with shoulder and hamstring issues keeping him off the field for several weeks.
The highly productive back has returned to fine form immediately however, with 130 yards from scrimmage (110 rushing, 20 receiving) in his first game back versus Furman, and following that up this past week with a huge game of 197 yards on 24 rushes, at 8.2 yards per carry and a touchdown in the 31-19 win over the Citadel.
Granted, those numbers were greatly inflated by his opening run of the second half, breaking one desperate arm tackle before out-sprinting the remainder of the defense for an 81-yard touchdown run through the middle of the field. His O-line won the battle in the trenches all game, consistently opening big holes for Newsome to run through.
Still, Newsome was none-the-less showing good shake and burst in his return from injury. The decision making, vision and timing were all on point to exploit the space that was in front of him, before doing some good grinding by eating up the clock over the course of a couple fourth quarter drives to seal the game late on. The only real negative was one failed handoff with his QB that hit the turf for a Citadel turnover.
Very decisive with his run, Newsome finds the right moments consistently to turn upfield or bounce outside with some instinctive running and plenty burst to execute. His quick feet and nice balance allow him to brush off weak tackle attempts for yards after contact.
Despite missing time, he still has 933 rush yards at 7.0 per carry in seven games played, with a chance for a third straight season with over 1,000 yards on the ground. That production should get the 5’10”, 210lb back some looks from scouts.
While not a vintage performance, Alabama looked comfortable in their win over LSU to remain unbeaten, but the win came at a cost.
Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB, Alabama
He’s been a key playmaker over the last couple seasons on arguably the best college defense over that period, yet Hamilton has rarely been one to get as much attention as his performances deserved, which is inevitable for some players on such a loaded roster as the Tide always put together.
He would still likely go fairly highly in the draft, carrying a Day 2 grade with RealSport entering the season, but there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding his stock now, after suffering a second significant injury in the last couple years.
Hamilton’s breakout 2016 season came to an end in the SEC Championship game last season against Florida with a torn ACL. After a successful return this year, it’s a fractured right kneecap that saw him require surgery this week that presumably ends his college career, unless there is a case to be made for a medical redshirt to return in 2018.
Not the biggest for the linebacker position at around 5’11”, Hamilton is probably also maxed out on his frame in the 230lb range he is listed at. He absolutely plays big though, and his athleticism and abilities in coverage gave him the traits wanted by pro teams but can be difficult to find. At this stage, it’s tricky to predict where he might be selected in the draft, but with a full recovery, he could end up a bargain.
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