A pair of SEC defenders headline this week’s players who made a positive impression on their NFL Draft stock:
Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
It was no surprise to see the Crimson Tide completely dominate an outmatched Tennessee team, who were shut out by the Tide defense in the 45-7 thumping (the Vols only score being a defensive pick six touchdown). The Vols offense were on the field so little (46 plays) that there may not have been a significant amount of opportunities for an individual defender to stand out, especially given that the score once again dictated the starters leave the game early.
Evans succeeded though in another superb performance from the senior as he had enough opportunities to total six tackles, two tackles for loss (TFLs) with one sack and two further quarterback pressures. His role is quite different to that of Reuben Foster last season, with a lot of work outside as an off-ball linebacker and frequently rushing the passer off the edge, but has none-the-less shined since the departure of his former teammate. In his last two games, Evans now has 5.5 TFLs, three sacks, four QB hurries and a forced fumble versus Arkansas and Tennessee.
His first TFL came early in the first quarter, on the Vols second drive, delivering a thumping hit on star running back John Kelly that saw him stopped dead on contact, stood up and driven back for the loss of yardage. His sack total for the day should have been double what it was, but after a fantastic inside spin move that left the right tackle cemented to his spot and beaten, he failed to bring down Vols QB Jarrett Guarantano when in position as the second quarter got underway.
Evans’ impact was felt again shortly after though, taking down Guarantano with a fair but forceful hit on a deep throw to end the half. The young Tennessee quarterback again hit the deck late in the third quarter as a blitz from Evans through the middle was unaccounted for, leading to another heavy hit by the aggressive linebacker. Guarantano’s late interception that kept the offense out of the end zone came as a result of pressure from Evans, who again executed his spin move, this time to beat the left tackle and provide the pressure that forced the errant throw.
Evans was not perfect, showing issues breaking down in space and a couple of poor angles in pursuit, something that does creep into his game at times. He’s an enthusiastic, high energy, hard-working player, but still with some rawness in his reads and efficiency of movement.
That only further highlights the upside potential though if he can continue to develop, as his playmaking ability is clearly evident already, to go with his next-level frame at 6’3”, 234lbs and with his quickness at that size, in particular his devastating closing speed. He has injuries in his recent history that require consideration, but is playing to a first round level when healthy.
Jeff Holland, LB/EDGE, Auburn
Another SEC front seven player who impressed last weekend, Holland was a constant threat as the Tigers pulled away in the second half to defeat Arkansas 52-20. The Auburn defense, in particular up front, have been superb all season, proving particularly difficult to run against in 2017.
Holland is having a breakout year on that unit, after backing up the now-departed Carl Lawson previously, and has been one of the key backfield threats that has seen him total 10 TFLs and eight sacks so far, in addition to 10 further QB hurries and forcing four fumbles along the way. Those numbers were boosted by his Saturday total that included three tackles, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
The 6’1”, 250lb Holland doesn’t have ideal length, but is powerful and relentless as well as versatile, regularly switching sides, off the edge, and moving inside on some third down passing situations. That was a feature of his play versus the Razorbacks, working from inside out during the third quarter and nearly forcing a fumble which a teammate succeeded in doing following his initial pressure.
Later in Q3, Holland stood up off the edge this time on third down, and his hustle saw him work his way to young QB Cole Kelley for a sack and fumble, no mean feat, with the freshman standing at 6’7″, 268lbs. The Tigers recovered then immediately scored a touchdown on the following play. Holland’s strong third quarter continued by beating a full back block attempt off the edge for another sack and fumble, this time recovering the ball himself.
Holland isn’t the most explosive pass rusher, in addition to his lack of length, but gets his wins through his imposing style, second efforts and hustling to the end of every play. Effective use of his hands also factors into his play, including violently swiping down with his arms to prevent the O-lineman from impeding his path off the edge. His secondary rush attempts yielded success in the first half against the Razorbacks, forcing a pressure and resulting incompletion of Kelley.
His play against the run cannot be left unmentioned either, with good eyes and positional discipline in setting the edge. Tough to move from his spot, he holds his ground well when being attacked by run blocking offensive linemen to minimize running lanes and direct play toward waiting teammates. The junior probably doesn’t have the highest ceiling for the NFL, but is built to hold up in the pros, and could be a solid role player in the right situation.
DaeSean Hamilton, WR, Penn State
Featuring in the stock down section of this article earlier in the season, with continued issues with drops being a key reason, that was certainly not the case for Hamilton this weekend. Penn State’s star offensive names Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley again received much of the praise for the Nittany Lions’ excellent 42-13 win over Big Ten rivals Michigan, but their senior receiver came up big at key points in the game.
He finished with just the six receptions and didn’t reach the end zone at any stage, but took those catches for 115 total yards at an average of over 19 yards per catch. His two biggest performances have now come in two of Penn State’s last three games, having put up 122 yards with three TDs in the win over Indiana to end September.
Hamilton only saw one target during the first quarter, but stood out several times for his work as a blocker for teammates over the opening period. His opportunities increased into quarter number two, beginning in impressive style by bringing in a high, looping ball from McSorley while under tight coverage, leaping for the catch and a 27-yard gain.
He couldn’t bring in a near-identical target a few plays later, but made up for it with another highlight grab before the half, showing superb concentration and timing to corral a deep ball over his shoulder cleanly to the sidelines for 36 yards, helping set up a crucial touchdown score before the half-time break.
The variety in the plays he made continued in the second half, this time running a well-executed slant for a 26-yard catch and run. An impressive athlete with quickness, that was on show in his route running and work after the catch against one of the best defenses in the nation that were torn apart by Penn State. There’s no doubt the 6’1", 206lb receiver has NFL skills, and has proven he can win under contested coverage. If he can finish the season strong without further consistency issues, he can make for a solid day three pickup on draft weekend.
Holton Hill, CB/S, Texas
It's been an up and down start to the tenure of new Longhorns head coach Tom Herman, who now sit at 3-4 overall and 2-2 in Big 12 play just past the halfway point of the season. It’s certainly not been without its drama though, after a third overtime game this season, which saw them narrowly lose 13-10 to Oklahoma State last weekend.
One of the biggest issues for this team last season was not just the defense as a whole, but the secondary and defending the pass particularly. Todd Orlando has the group playing much better in 2017 though, and really limited one of the most explosive passing attacks in the country to just 282 pass yards, no TDs through the air, and only 13 total points surrendered. Junior corner Holton Hill was a key part of that relative success and is the second Longhorns defensive back to feature in this article series this season after safety DeShon Elliott earlier.
Hill totalled nine tackles (including eight solo stops) and one registered pass breakup, though he appeared to have at least two in watching the film. Those numbers reflect some outstanding run support from the big physical 6’3”, 200lb cornerback, who is highly aggressive and committed in the tackle. That is backed up by some impressive play reading and reactions that sees him quickly take off toward targets in the short passing game after diagnosing the action.
In coverage during the third quarter against Texas, Hill again reacted well to the receiver's break at the top of his route to stay in contact and make the deflection on the ball for a PBU. In the fourth quarter on a third and goal play, Hill prevented the touchdown with a second breakup. He appeared to be beaten inside initially but recovered well to get back in position and attacked the ball to stop the potential score.
Hill’s combination of size and physical play makes him an intriguing draft prospect. As well as being physical against the run, he challenges aggressively at the catch point in coverage as well in a manner that few receivers will enjoy dealing with. While his build and ability to tackle might result in some safety consideration, or simply as a versatile defensive back, he moves well in his backpedal and can cover ground, helped by his ability to take long strides as he traverses the field.
He likes to keep the action in front of him, sometimes to the point of playing overly conservative and giving up plenty cushion underneath, but has also shown impact playmaking ability, highlighted by a pair of pick sixes in back-to-back games earlier this season against Maryland and San Jose State. It might be too early to head to the NFL after this season, but his strong play makes it a possibility, enough in order to keep him in mind when watching Texas through the rest of the year. An early round selection is in his near future.
Small School Watch: Brandon Parker, OT, North Carolina A&T
The 7-0 Aggies of A&T endured a tougher time than expected against 3-3 Bethune Cookman, moving on to eight wins on the year after a hard-fought 24-20 win. Their offense struggled throughout the game, including a stretch of seven consecutive three and outs across the second and third quarters.
Hardly the recipe for a great showcase of an NFL prospect, and indeed, it was not the most stand out of performances from NC A&T’s talented left tackle Brandon Parker, including looking vulnerable on a couple inside rush moves in pass protection and a false start penalty, while laboring through a first half in which the normally dominant ground game generated only 18 total rush yards.
Still, Parker again showed many of the traits that should lead to a mid-round selection in the 2018 draft, and while not his greatest outing, he kept his quarterback clean, and came up big at one of the key points late in the game to seal the victory. With under three minutes to go in a four-point ball game and attempting to convert a 4th and 1, A&T wisely chose to run behind Parker and the left side of the line, with the senior four-year starter directing his man inside to create the space on a 15-yard gain.
At around 6’6”, 305lbs with long arms, Parker not only has ideal size, but looks the part immediately on film, standing out from those around him from the first snap. Entering his senior year with 36 consecutive starts over his first three years, Parker is very much on scouts’ radars this year after being a big factor in the production of eventual fourth round draft pick Tarik Cohen, being clearly noticeable on film while viewing the electric running back he blocked for.
Parker is not just big, but moves well for his build, with good feet and quickly out of his stance and onto the second level as required. His forceful, imposing run blocking style is highly enjoyable to watch as he dominates at this level. That said, there’s signs he could do with adding more strength and developing more power over the early part of his pro career. His attacking style and the competition level slightly masks the actual strength he offers and reportedly puts up a reasonable but unspectacular 20 reps of 225lbs on the bench press according to the team website.
An effective pass protector, Parker did not give up a single sack over his first three seasons with the Aggies, and shows decent reactions and mirror technique, even if the aforementioned occasional issue with counters to his inside is to be kept in mind. The small school O-lineman has NFL size and upside, with the potential to develop into a starter at a position of great need right now in the pros.
Perhaps more a case of missed opportunity as much as anything else for one of the better corner prospects in college football.
Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado
Facing the pass-heavy attack deployed by Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars could have provided a great opportunity for a defensive back that is quickly rising up draft boards. Oliver has been playing very well through the first half of 2017, that began with four pass breakups against Colorado State in the Buffaloes opener to the season, and has seen him total 10 PBUs and two interceptions so far.
Overall, Oliver is taking advantage of finally being given a full opportunity after having to wait for the most part for his turn behind two eventual high draft picks in Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon, despite impressing in the snaps he did get over the last two seasons (13 pass breakups combined as a freshman and sophomore).
Against the Cougars, Oliver made an early play on a pass over the middle of the field for an incompletion, but followed that up by getting beat on a deep route by freshman receiver Tay Martin, trailing by a step or two, seeming to panic a little bit as a result and clumsily clattering into him for an obvious pass interference penalty.
Shortly after in the second quarter, though partly due to an overall defensive mix up that saw the safety out of position in the box, Oliver was left trailing again on a 50-yard touchdown catch and run for the opening score of the game. Oliver went down injured on the play, having to be helped off the field, with the leg issue suffered possibly contributing to failing to keep in touch with Martin on the route.
He was unable to return and therefore could not take the chance fully against one of the better opponents and passing offenses he will see this season. With a couple disappointing plays prior to his exit as well, and consistency being a question mark over his early play between the highlight moments, it wasn’t the best of days for a player who should at least be a day two pick, but has first round aspirations for the draft, be it this year or in 2019.
The upside is certainly appealing with Oliver. An excellent athlete with a 6’1”, 190lb frame and a reported 37” vertical, he has the ball skills and production to match the physical traits on offer. His stock is very much up in terms of where it was entering his junior season, even if this wasn’t a memorable game versus Washington State. More immediately though, is whether he can return to play against Cal after the right leg injury suffered.
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