Not all were necessarily battling in-state foes during rivalry weekend, but all these players did stand out this week in helping their draft stock.
Brian O’Neill, OT, Pittsburgh
In one of the most significant results of a weekend that shook up the rankings once again, Miami’s defeat to Pitt was tough to envision pre-game as being one to factor into the mix, especially considering the Panthers were giving a first start to a true freshman quarterback in Kenny Pickett, whose dynamic playmaking contributed big to the 24-14 victory.
Helping the youngster’s cause was the protection he received throughout from his offensive line, led by Brian O’Neill at the left tackle spot, who has improved greatly over the course of the season and perhaps had his best performance of the season yet against a talented Hurricanes front seven. The line gave up just one sack all game, late in the contest and from the right side away from O’Neill, who was dependable all night.
The junior is a converted tight end, who has retained his excellent athleticism and movement while bulking up his frame to 6’5”, 300lbs. The fact that he is still developing at the position, both physically and mentally, is encouraging for his draft stock given the potential upside if he continues to progress positively.
His pass protection stood out through the Miami game, with his easy movement allowing him to protect the edge comfortably, and his arm extension and punch allows him to make the most of his length. The left tackle does play a bit too upright out of his stance and ought to work on improving his pad level for the step up to the NFL, but otherwise looks the part technically.
His ability to adjust and recover when countered was showcased multiple times when challenged by the Hurricanes’ defense. Nearly beaten on an inside move early in the fourth quarter, he reacted and reset quickly to maintain his block and the pocket’s integrity.
As a run blocker, O’Neill’s quickness out of his stance and to fly up to the second level is a top-tier trait, finding blocks in space effectively. There’s a well-rounded skill set to back up the movement and physical measurables, and while his film earlier in the year won’t look quite so convincing at times, in what probably won’t be a great class at the tackle position, O’Neill has as good a ceiling as most should he enter the draft.
Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida
It’s a second week in a row that a UCF defender makes the list in this series, but it’s fully warranted after one of the best performances of the week in college football from cornerback Hughes. The junior college transfer (after initially starting out at North Carolina) is combative off the line with good use of his hands against receivers. With fluid movement in pass coverage, he transitions smoothly out of his backpedal, all of which combines to looking the part in press coverage.
He’s still a work in progress however, with Temple receiver Adonis Jennings burning Hughes several times the week before on the in-route for some easy separation. That said, the junior is reportedly getting a lot of interest from scouts as a potential Day 2 draft selection and could well choose to cash in on a season that likely won’t be topped next year.
The Knights marched on to 11-0 after a highly entertaining 49-42 win over South Florida. Hughes got off to a slightly shaky start as an early misread contributed toward a big play to another Week 13 standout in wide receiver Tyre McCants, but was near-flawless the rest of the way. The 5’11”, 185lb corner proved he could handle big-bodied and long receivers, in particular with a trio of impressive plays in the first half.
The first saw Hughes break up a pass down the sideline to 6’4”,245lb tight end Mitchell Wilcox late in the first quarter, playing him physically and challenging him vertically at the catch point to knock the ball away on third down, forcing a field goal attempt that was ultimately missed.
That was followed up in the second quarter by another pass breakup deep down the middle of the field to speedy 6’5” receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, keeping in phase throughout before timing his play on the ball perfectly.
He rounded out his strong first half by making a superbly athletic interception on another target to Valdes-Scantling that was slightly over-thrown, turning into the receiver and showing great hands to secure possession going to the ground.
Not done there, the dynamic athlete made the play of the game with less than two minutes to go and tied at 42-42, taking back a kickoff 95 yards the other way for the winning score. Though helped by good blocking up front, Hughes made some fantastic cuts before the burst of speed to take it to the house, his third special teams return touchdown of the season.
Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State
In the final home game of his time with the Aztecs, one of the most productive players in the nation put on a show once again in the 35-10 win over New Mexico. Coming off a ridiculous 429 all-purpose yards against Nevada the week prior, Penny had another outstanding day, taking his 22 rushes for 203 yards at 9.23 yards per carry and two touchdowns, while adding a 33-yard kick return on special teams.
It was the fourth consecutive game of over 200 rush yards from Penny, and made him the first player this season to surpass 2,000 rushing yards for the season. He also sits second in the FBS in total touchdowns on the year with 24 (19 rushing, two receiving, two kick returns and one punt return). Yet somehow, he was left off the list of finalists for the Doak Walker award for the top back in the country.
It’s safe to say that he took any chip on his shoulder from that out on the Lobos, taking his first carry of the game down the sideline 41 yards, showing impressive burst at 5’10”, 220lbs, and only a desperate lunge at his ankle prevented him taking it the rest of the way for a touchdown.
The vision and decision making are perhaps what stands out most in Penny’s game. That showed up on an important touchdown run late in the first half to open up a two-score lead in a tight game, working out to his left initially before cutting back inside as the hole opened up to hit north for a 20-yard TD run.
He followed that up on the opening drive of the second half with a 51-yard burst to the end zone. It was fairly simple after some great blocking opened up the middle of the field, but he still showed the top speed to outpace several defenders from the back seven to finish the play.
Penny is short but stout, with an appealing combination of quickness, power, physicality, and effort, all backed up by the sensational production to match, regardless of doing so against some relatively lesser competition at times. He’s a smart, efficient runner who doesn’t waste time in getting upfield and importantly can break tackles for extra yardage.
The Aztecs run a lot of pro concepts that will aid his transition to the next level. He excels in the two-back outside zone play, thriving when asked to make one cut and go, using great vision and timing. He’s shiftier than many backs his size, capable of lateral moves and to make the first man miss. He finishes his runs, often delivering blows as well as absorbing them, driving his legs for yards after contact.
Penny hasn’t totaled a great deal of receptions and will likely want to show more of his pass catching ability during the pre-draft process. His hands are trusted on special teams though, a good sign. Pass protection is rather inconsistent and he whiffed badly on a fourth quarter sack by New Mexico. Still, he has the size and physical play to improve.
Far from a one-season wonder, Penny managed to top 1,000 yards on the ground in a backup role to Donnel Pumphrey last season, and now “only” needs 107 rush yards in San Diego State’s bowl game to beat Pumphrey’s 2,133-yard mark from last season. Regardless though, the senior has the game and measurables that should translate better to the pros than his former teammate’s.
Javon Wims, WR, Georgia
After playing only one season of high school football, barely being recruited, taking a path from small-school Belhaven to Hinds Community College in Mississippi, Wims is seeing all that hard work paying off now on the big stage at Georgia.
After a modest 16 receptions in his first season with the team in 2016, he has become Jake Fromm’s favorite target this year, and made big plays yet again in the Bulldogs’ dominant 38-7 win over rivals Georgia Tech.
Georgia tend to run more than pass, and after opening up a big lead were even more ground-orientated as the game progressed. That resulted in Wims making no catches in the second half and finishing with a solid stat line of five receptions for 77 yards (15.40 per catch) and a touchdown. Maybe not the most remarkable numbers, but within that were several key plays and impressive catches from the 6’3”, 215lb receiver.
He was desperately close to two touchdowns on the day. Positioning himself favorably against the covering defensive back on the sideline, Wims made an outstanding grab in the opening quarter a yard or so short of the goal line, showing great focus to secure the ball with his feet in bounds but then the awareness and athleticism to contort and reach for the pylon. It looked a score on replays, but after being called short initially, the call on the field was upheld.
He got his touchdown later on in the half, beating his man inside for a catch over the middle of the field for the score with as clean a catch with both hands as you’d like. The last of his receptions was a 23-yard gain in the final seconds of the first half to put the Bulldogs in field goal range to add a key field goal before the break.
While he didn’t add to his numbers in the second half, he continued to work for the team, blocking impressively throughout for his running backs, arguably as good a part of his performance in this game as his work as a receiver. A player who has had to battle his way to give himself a shot at the next level, his effort in the run game emphasizes that attitude on the field.
There are some limitations to his game. Though solidly built, he’s not overly explosive or dynamic off the line or in his route breaks. The short area quickness and top speed could test quite averagely, and he might have some issues separating at the NFL level. Still, he’s proven he can use his body well and make contested catches that could make him a useful possession receiver in the pros.
Sam Hubbard, EDGE, Ohio State
It may not have had the same level of hype as last year’s game, but this rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan never lacks intensity, with the Buckeyes securing a crucial 31-20 win to keep their hopes of the playoffs alive.
Their redshirt junior edge defender has arguably slightly underwhelmed for parts of this season, but had one of his most impactful performances of 2017, particularly in the pass rush, finishing the game with five tackles that included 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
His first sack came via a nice rip move as he worked past another draft prospect in left tackle Mason Cole and reached a stricken John O’Korn, taking him down with help from Tyquan Lewis.
With only a one-point lead as the third quarter came to a close, Hubbard beat the right tackle this time, easily deflecting his block attempt before knocking the ball out of O’Korn’s hands for a sack-fumble, though Michigan were ultimately able to fall on the loose ball to maintain possession.
His final sack came on the game’s final play with the win already secured, in which Hubbard kept working as the play broke down, ultimately finding O’Korn as he tried to step up from the pressure of his OSU teammates.
Where his game is a bit lacking in polish is in his run defense, where his set-up and flow to the ball carrier is at times inefficient, can sometimes take him out of the play, and at worse see him expose space where he ought to have been. The awareness and timing are frequently off in order to position himself to make a play.
As a pass rusher, Hubbard doesn’t have an overly explosive first step and his strength at the point of attack is nothing special either. Where he gets his wins though, is using his length at 6’5”, 265lbs to his advantage along with good hand use and polished rush moves to work off blocks post-contact to rip through and turn the corner effectively.
Small School Watch: Andrew Vollert, TE, Weber State
The always-entertaining FCS playoffs are already underway and often sees a number of small-school prospects boost their draft stock as part of a team that makes a good run in the 24-team knockout tournament.
The Wildcats earned a 21-19 first round win over Western Illinois, but regardless of how far Utah-based Weber State advance, their highly productive tight end should be on the radar of plenty NFL scouts leading up to the draft.
Vollert was a significant factor in the victory, collecting eight catches for 112 yards at 14.0 yards per reception and a touchdown. Two of those grabs highlighted his exceptional natural hands, first with a spectacular one-handed catch retrieved from high over his head down the middle of the field without breaking stride. The 50-yard gain set up a key touchdown before the half.
Later, with Weber State holding a narrow two-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Vollert split out to the sideline as a wide receiver and ran a slant and go to the end zone. He collected a tricky ball over his shoulder under tight coverage despite the double move on the route and controlled the ball to the ground for the 21-yard touchdown.
Vollert may not have the most notable measurables at 6’4”, 245 lbs and is not a true burner, but he has more than enough football speed in pads. His routes are sharp and polished, showing precision and timing to go with the very reliable hands. His good technique extends to his blocking, including when pass protecting where he sets up and executes with form better than some actual offensive tackles.
Vollert’s numbers are slightly down on his totals from last season, but only as a product of the offense spreading the ball out more to their various weapons this year. The San Jose State transfer, who also spent a year playing at the junior college level in between, currently has 52 receptions for 669 yards at 12.9 yards per catch, and four touchdowns with at least one more game to add to his numbers in 2017.
There were some tense and dramatic battles during rivalry week, as expected, but one west coast contest got out of hand early due to mistakes by their experienced quarterback.
Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
He may be the PAC-12’s all-time leading passer, but the Cougars’ leader ended his time in the conference with a very disappointing performance that factored into a crushing 41-14 loss to state rivals Washington in the Apple Cup game.
Washington State were scoreless entering the fourth quarter with two late touchdowns slightly salvaging the scoreline but little else. Falk was certainly facing a talented defense, but even so, showed hesitation and indecision, and took too long to work through his progressions. He failed to recognize coverage and compounded the issue by telegraphing his intentions with his eyes.
Sometimes interceptions are not on the quarterback, but all three resulted from errors by the Cougars’ QB. After getting nothing going through the first 15 minutes, Falk took a rather desperate-looking shot at the end of the first quarter into heavy coverage, proceeding to overthrow his target and being picked off by junior DB JoJo McIntosh.
Even when getting a nice drive going with a couple good touch passes as he did just before the half, it ended in another interception. The ball may have been tipped up by a WSU receiver’s hand, but that doesn’t mean Falk was not at fault. It was a dangerous throw back across the middle of the field that again was into traffic and again had too much air under it.
The third and final pick ruined another decent drive midway through the third quarter. Falk completely misread the defense and the dropping linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven went completely unnoticed for a simple INT over the middle of the field.
There were at least three other throws later in the second half that were up for grabs as well; the box score could have been uglier and included a second quarter lost fumble as he tried to escape pressure. One of the biggest negatives in Falk’s skill set is very average arm strength and that showed up repeatedly versus Washington that gave defensive backs opportunities to jump routes.
There’s no doubt that he has a lot of likeable traits to go with the level of production over his career, regardless of the system he may run, but this game highlighted some of the issues. The fact that Falk will reportedly play at the East-West Shrine All-Star game rather than the Senior Bowl also somewhat reflects his standing with NFL people, and may find himself waiting until Day 3 of the draft to hear his name called.
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