No question that the star of the week was the unrivaled Saquon Barkley, but everyone is aware of that, and in truth, his stock is already about as high as it can get as it is. Let’s look at some others who impressed this week:
Micah Kiser, LB, Virginia
In a weekend filled with impressive overall team performances, one of the best of Week 4 has been somewhat forgotten about by many, having been played on Friday evening before most had taken to the field. An underdog playing at the notoriously difficult home field of the Boise State Broncos, Virginia won convincingly on the road, even more so than the 42-23 scoreline suggests. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has something going here, and it’ll be fascinating to see how far the 3-1 Cavaliers can go this year. Many draft-eligible offensive players stood out including quarterback Kurt Benkert, wide receiver Andre Levrone, and right tackle Brandon Pertile, but it was defensive star linebacker Micah Kiser who is the focus here.
As a player who absolutely piles up the numbers on the stat sheet (251 tackles over the previous two seasons just to start with), his relatively modest haul of 9 tackles and 2 pass breakups isn’t up there with his greatest days on paper, but Kiser was all over the field in the win over Boise, working on every level of the defense and flying to either sideline. His blitzes were particularly effective, forcing rushed throws for incompletions a number of times; impactful plays that never made it to the aforementioned stat sheet. In the final quarter, one particular perfectly timed blitz resulted in a big hit on quarterback Brett Rypien and led to an under-thrown and tipped ball that was intercepted by a teammate.
The tackle machine that is Kiser is well-built for the next level at around 6’2” and 240lbs, and it’s his energy and hustle that stand out immediately on viewing. He may or may not test with the athletic elites at the position but moves well for his size, covers ground, and his reads and reactions help greatly toward getting in on the action in time to make the play. He’ll receive check marks in every off-field and intangible box in the scouting report as an intelligent and high character person and an unquestioned leader on his team. He’s on track for a third consecutive triple-digit tackle season and for an early round draft pick after the season.
Damien Harris, RB, Alabama
The Vanderbilt defense is no joke, as a mainstay of head coach Derek Mason’s tenure in charge. Yet a unit that was one of the best in the nation last year and had started very strongly again in 2017, were made to look less than ordinary by the Tide in a 59-0 demolition that saw the majority of Alabama’s roster see action late due to the result being long since decided. It was the ground game that did the majority of the damage, finishing just four yards short of a full 500 rush yards. Freshman Najee Harris looked good and Bo Scarbrough had his moments but Damien Harris is the one who caught the eye in a lot of ways.
In some minds, there is a slight skepticism of the typical Alabama power back for the next level, and though highly productive since 2016 (7.32 yards per carry over the past 19 games), is not quite as explosive as his teammate Scarbrough. That said, the 5’11”, 221lb junior has a lot to like in his game. Along with his good build, Harris is a determined back who finishes runs, drives forward, breaks arms tackles, proving tough to bring down with the first man.
While not always the flashiest player, Harris is an intelligent runner with some of the best vision of any draft-eligible back for 2018. The decision making, timing and reactions of his cuts upfield and instinctive adjustments during the course of a run are clear plusses in his game. He sets up and follows his blockers effectively, and has proven that when the holes aren’t there and he is in congested traffic, that he can bounce outside and create yardage by himself. Combine that with his ideal pad level and natural leverage, to go with his build and physical running style, and Harris is exceptionally efficient.
Against Vanderbilt, Harris only saw 12 carries, but made the most of them for 151 yards (12.58 per carry) and 3 touchdowns, along with one catch for a further nine yards. Early in the first quarter, he broke a long 61-yard TD run, which was a perfect example of finding a play when there were no lanes to run, and showed that while not a true burner, he could do enough to keep ahead of chasing defenders. His two other scores were short yardage runs, but the last one early after halftime was a result of a couple big gains earlier in the drive to set himself up. The day could have been better still, but was wrongly called down on one run, when replays clearly showed that he had pivoted off the ground with his hand to stay up.
Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas
A wild battle between two struggling SEC teams saw Texas A&M outlast Arkansas, but Razorbacks’ center Ragnow emerged with another superb individual display for his role in a run-heavy offense that kept the ball on the ground 45 times for 226 yards. In both run blocking and pass protection, he had an interesting potential battle with former big-time Aggies recruit Daylon Mack, making his first start. Ultimately, they did not face off too often, with Mack rotating out fairly regularly, and when in the game, often taking on the guards instead. Ragnow won out in most of their engagements, though Mack did provide Ragnow’s poorest moment of the day in which Mack quickly attacked out of his stance prior to the center setting his anchor, resulting in being walked back into the pocket. Outside of that, Ragnow was at his imposing, destructive best.
The senior dominated at the line of scrimmage, getting impressive push forward after contact. In his work as a run blocker, pulling from center as a lead blocker, getting onto the second level and general work in space, he moved well and was taking out linemen and linebackers alike. Ragnow really drives the legs and moves defenders out of the path of the play with ruthless efficiency and in an eye-catching manner when taking in the game film.
Ragnow has ideal size and length for the position at 6’4”, 320lbs, while also having starting experience at guard for added versatility. Sacks and penalties against are both rare. There have been times in the past where he can get a bit high in his stance, giving up leverage, and to misplace his hands on contact, but overall has the look of a player set up to have a long career, and potentially enter the league as a pick in the opening couple of rounds.
Bradley Chubb, EDGE, NC State
The Wolfpack entered the season as a team with dark horse predictions and upset potential, and a significant area of strength is their outstanding defensive front line, which if it weren’t for the dominant group on conference rivals Clemson, would be getting more of the attention they deserve. They showed up big in the win over Florida State, taking advantage of a questionable Seminoles offensive line, and plenty of praise must also go to under-rated defensive tackle B.J. Hill who was equally impressive in proving why he’ll be an early pick. Chubb was the standout performer however, even if his success was marred by an unpleasant and regrettable post-game incident in which he spat on the FSU logo in the center of the field after the game.
That aside, Chubb proved his potential first-round credentials. The edge defender was active throughout that led to 7 tackles (5 solo stops), 2 sacks and a forced fumble. The fumble play, while debatable on replay in a call that would stand, was an outstanding football play in which he hustled to knock the ball out, which his teammates chased down the field to recover the loose ball for the turnover at a key moment in the second quarter. Just before the half, he masterfully turned the corner for a crucial sack, just as a trailing Florida State were driving for a late score before the break. His final sack admittedly was as easy as it gets after going unblocked, but he’s not going to miss those opportunities when in position. An earlier crunching hit on debut quarterback Blackman during the third quarter was as impressive as either sack play.
More than just a polished, technical pass rusher with good size at 6’4” and 275lbs, Chubb’s run defense is as good a part of his game as any. There’s a high football IQ, in which he is very situationally aware with positioning and patience, and impresses with his ability to disengage from blocks with timing to make takedowns on the ball carrier. There’s an all-round skill set with no obvious flaws in his game, even if he needs to avoid poor decisions like the one he made after helping secure the victory.
Keke Coutee, WR, Texas Tech
Coutee had lofty goals for himself in the preseason, claiming that he wanted to break Michael Crabtree’s school record of 22 touchdowns in a season. He’s a little behind schedule on that target, but still has an impressive four receiving scores through his first three games, adding another in the win over Houston to help take the Red Raiders to 3-0 on the year. He had a fantastic game overall as he compiled 11 catches for 161 yards (14.64 per reception) and the TD. Add in a couple rush yards and a couple kick returns and he was close to 200 all-purpose yards on the day.
The normally explosive Tech offense was surprisingly lacking in rhythm through the first half, but Coutee was the reliable target during those early drives. His biggest play came in the third quarter, as he took advantage of an admittedly busted coverage for a 77-yard catch and run for the touchdown, showing off his dynamic top-end speed to finish off the play for six.
For a smaller receiver, listed at 5’10”, 175lbs, he is very difficult to bring down, regularly breaking tackles, helped by his excellent balance, and takes advantage post-catch of his shifty moves and short-area quickness to pile up yardage after the catch. No concerns about getting to that point either, with great hands that routinely pluck the ball out of the air cleanly with natural timing and control. Coutee is only a junior but is a candidate to head to the pros early with a big season.
Shareef Miller, EDGE, Penn State
A game that fully lived up to its pre-game hype, Penn State’s last second winner concluded one of the most dramatic finishes likely to be seen this season. Saquon Barkley was a monster, and despite being projected as the one to maybe slow the runner down, Hawkeyes’ linebacker Josey Jewell was superb none-the-less. One of the best breakout players of this season though is edge defender Miller, who was practically unblockable throughout. He was so much better than his numbers suggest, after 5 tackles with 2 for a loss. He was facing a right tackle in Sean Welsh who is playing somewhat out of position, being a natural interior lineman, but even though it was a bit of an unfair mismatch, Miller was still exceptional.
Miller has all the measurables at 6’5”, 257lbs with room to maybe add a little more bulk, and has a devastating combination of athleticism, speed and power with which to take on opposing linemen. He switched up his attack regularly, that saw him win off the edge, inside, with his first step or with his power at the point of attack. One of the best plays of the night saw him pursuit a laterally traveling Akrum Wadley and taking down the dynamic runner in the end zone for a safety. Wearing the #19 jersey of his injured teammate Torrence Brown, rather than his usual #48, his constant disruption saw a number of plays hastened or even halted before they barely go going.
An important point to mention here, in that Miller is only a redshirt sophomore, and while that makes him draft-eligible, is still very inexperienced. He might therefore be a longshot to head to the pros as early as the next draft, but he’s built for the pro game and could play now, even if his process and development is not necessarily all there yet. If he completes a big season, potentially with team playoff success thrown in, it’s not impossible, with more redshirt sophomores making that leap these days.
Small School Watch: Caylon Weathers, WR, Tennessee-Martin
It's just the way it plays out sometimes, but this marked the third out of four UT Martin games watched already this year, and they have several intriguing prospects for the next level, including guard Robert Burleigh and defensive back Tae Martin, who may get discussed in more detail later on in the season themselves. Caylon Weathers is another though, and it’s his physical traits that immediately grab the attention, with a 6’4” and 228lb frame, backed up by impressive quickness that sees the offense try to get the ball in his hands in alternate ways such handoffs via backfield cross motion, something used a couple times during the Skyhawks’ dominant win over in-state rivals Tennessee State.
The big early lead meant that a running game that was always going to be a focus (given their very talented junior running back Ladarius Galloway), resulted in even less passing targets for Weathers, who finished with a relatively modest four receptions for 37 yards and a touchdown, but showed off exactly why he has the ability to get a shot at the next level. He had to wait until the end of the first quarter to see his first target, but it came on a short-yardage goal line situation, in which a quick jump ball was thrown out to the right corner of the end zone. Weathers high pointed it above the out-matched defensive back, using his height to full advantage, before showing good feet to get his foot down in bounds.
His other receptions were also impressive, each one collected on the sidelines, including a nice out route for one, and claiming another jump ball later, in this case using his big body well to position himself for the catch. He has to spend much of his time in games waiting for opportunities, but it’s pleasing to see that Weathers gets stuck in elsewhere, with good effort and physicality as a blocker, helping out the often run-heavy game plan. After 62 receptions and 8 TDs in 2015, his numbers dropped last season, and may not put up the biggest stats in this his senior year either, but the traits are there to translate into a role at the NFL level.
It seems that it has regularly been a quarterback chosen for this section of the article this season. While not intentionally looking to do that, it is indeed another that is featured this week.
Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
A big performance again LSU the week before, and an undefeated start had plenty of buzz building around the Bulldogs prior to their matchup with nick-namesake Georgia. That extends to the draft projections of their hugely productive and well-built 6’5”, 230lb quarterback Fitzgerald. He’s someone not to take at face-value right now, but to keep in mind how much development there really is still to go and what the final product may look like. Of course, that’s the case to some extent for every draft prospect, but with someone of Fitzgerald’s experience, primarily in terms of as a passer, there’s some way to go. That's why it would seem likely that he be best served coming back for his senior season in 2018.
His performance against Georgia was not pretty. The junior QB finished just 14 of 29 (48.3% completion rate) for only 83 pass yards, no TDs and two interceptions. A hugely productive runner of the ball as a duel-threat playmaker, that area was limited as well, as he carried the ball 10 times for 47 yards. Georgia have a good secondary and defense as a whole, but even so, Fitzgerald’s ball placement was off in this contest, and his lack of some of the subtle nuances of playing the position were not there to find plays.
Overall, there’s a need for Fitzgerald’s entire process to quicken up, from his drops and general footwork in the pocket, to his fairly lengthy motion and release as a thrower, to the mental process in making reads and working through his progressions. His accuracy which can be inconsistent regardless, shows a lot of issues when under pressure, when unable to set his feet and step into his throws, and at times when throwing on the move. We’ll see how the rest of the season plays out, but there does seem to be significant progress from year one as a starter in 2016, to this year so far. That hopefully encourages that he will continue to develop, and given his compelling upside and size, has a lot to like whenever he does head to the draft.
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