Saturday Spotlight: Five Prospects To Watch Week 2
Stages don’t come much bigger than Saturday night at the Big House, especially when Michigan and Notre Dame are involved. Most of the talk this week has focused on the fading rivalry, which will cease indefinitely after the 2014 season. But Taylor Lewan isn’t thinking that far down the road.
Rather, Saturday presents for Lewan a chance to remind NFL scouts what they liked so much about him last year after his convincing showing against Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl (even if it was through Lewan's vacated spot that Clowney passed on his way to his delivering his now legendary hit on Vincent Smith). Lewan is one of five draft prospects scouts will be keeping close tabs on this weekend.
Taylor Lewan, LT, Michigan vs. Notre Dame
No disrespect to Sheldon Day, but people aren’t interested in watching Lewan – who was widely considered a top-10 talent in last year’s draft (even in such a tackle-heavy crop) – take on Notre Dame’s sophomore defensive end. Instead, they are interested in seeing how Lewan does against Stephon Tuitt, primarily the left defensive end in Notre Dame’s 3-4 front, who will line up on both sides over the course of the game. Tuitt is a potential top-10 talent himself, and at 6-foot-6, 322 pounds, he is a rare opponent not totally overmatched by Lewan's size (6-8, 315). It will be interesting to watch who wins the hands battle between these two. Lewan usually has a decisive reach advantage, and he does such a great job of getting his hands on his target and keeping his target squarely in front of him. But Tuitt has terrifically quick hands, and he’s able to strike first, keep blockers off him and disengage.
Every so often, Lewan will allow his opponent to get his hands inside positioning. We saw it in last year’s Notre Dame game. Lewan was setting up for outside pressure against Prince Shembo, who struck Lewan first, right in the numbers, and crossed his face, driving Lewan backward and getting to Denard Robinson for the sack. Shembo will line up as the weakside linebacker and rush the passer from Lewan’s side, which means Lewan is likely to see more of Shembo – whose 14 career sacks are second only to Tuitt’s 15 -- than Tuitt. Either way, he'll have ample opportunity to prove himself against future pro pass rushers.
Stephen Morris, QB, Miami vs. Florida’s cornerbacks
It’s no secret. I’m higher on Morris than most people eight months out from the 2014 NFL Draft. He’s the No. 35 prospect on my preseason Big Board and my No. 4 quarterback, after Teddy Bridgewater, Aaron Murray and Tajh Boyd. We’ll learn a lot about him this week as he faces the nation’s top tandem of cornerbacks, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson – both of whom are also preseason top-40 prospects.
Roberson is probably the better cover corner of the two at this point. Purifoy undeniably is the more dynamic defender with tremendous upside. They are both good enough to lock up any of Miami’s receivers one-on-one, which will make Saturday an interesting challenge for Morris. Both corners will try to bait him into throwing their way. If Morris is patient (one of the knocks on him is that sometimes he’ll hold the ball too long and take too many sacks because of it) and starts looking for slot receiver Herb Waters or checking down to running back Duke Johnson, the lingering questions about his decision-making will start to be answered.
Morris threw for only 160 yards in the season-opening win over Florida Atlantic. If he throws for 200 yards against the Gators, he’ll tie Jim Kelly for 10th on Miami’s all-time passing list. Career stats demonstrate a certain level of production, which scouts want to see. But they look more at game film than record books, and Saturday's will be one every NFL team uses to evaluate Morris.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo vs. Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor
Last week, we urged you to keep an eye on Mack to see if he could take advantage of his rare opportunity against a high-profile opponent like No. 2 Ohio State. Mission accomplished. All Mack did against the Buckeyes was lead the Bulls with nine tackles, tie a career high with 2.5 sacks and return an interception 45 yards for the first touchdown of his career.
And did we mention that was against Ohio State?
This week, Mack gets one more shot at the big boys as the Bulls head down to Baylor. There, Mack will face Seastrunk – the self-proclaimed Heisman inevitability and, more reasonably, perhaps the top running back prospect in the country. Seastrunk is riding a string of five 100-yard performances and benefits from playing behind an offensive line that features Cyril Richardson (6-5, 340), an enormous and talented run blocker and one of the top two guard prospects in the country.
Seastrunk is fast. He’s Oregon fast. You don’t get recruited by Chip Kelly to play running back unless you’re flat-out electrifying in the open field (is it any wonder that the Ducks and Usain Bolt wear the same colors?).
Granted, Ohio State was without Carlos Hyde in Week One, but Jordan Hall had a huge day (159 yards, 2 TDs) against Mack and the Bulls. It’s conceivable that Seastrunk has another monster outing on Saturday.
Still, the final stats likely won’t be a fair indicator of Mack’s performance. He is relentless, whether pressuring the quarterback or chasing down a ball carrier, even on plays designed to run away from him. And you’ll see him chasing Seastrunk all over Waco on Saturday. Mack will make his share of plays and prove, once again, that he can play with the big boys.
Cody Hoffman, WR, BYU vs. Texas’ cornerbacks
For the past several season, Carrington Byndom has drawn the top receiver Texas’ opponent has on its roster. Justin Blackmon, Donte Moncrief . . . Byndom has gotten the toughest assignments and has earned his reputation as a reliable shutdown corner.
But then Quandre Diggs is probably the Longhorns’ most dynamic corner. He’s listed on the depth chart as a nickel corner, but he’ll be around the ball whether he’s covering the slot receiver, the Z receiver or an opponent’s top target.
Byndom likely will get first dibs at Hoffman, who will make his 2013 debut after missing the loss at Virginia with a hamstring strain. Any lingering effects of that injury will hamper Hoffman against either Texas corner. But if he’s healthy, he poses a challenging matchup.
For starters, Hoffman catches everything thrown his way. If his hamstring is healthy enough for him to get separation from Byndom (who does get tangled up in his backpedal from time to time and has also been vulnerable on deep routes), he’ll make his share of plays. And, at 6-4, 210, he should win a lot of battles around the ball against Diggs (5-10, 200).
David Fales, QB, San Jose State vs. Stanford
No prospect’s stock soared during the offseason higher than Fales’. In the wake of an 11-win season (no small feat at San Jose State) in which he threw for 4,100-plus yards and led the nation in completion percentage (72.5%), the attention paid to Fales was shocking. He became Everybody's Wiseguy Prospect, and there was no shortage of way-too-early lists of quarterback prospects atop of which sat Fales.
In truth, he is a highly efficient college quarterback. So was Colt McCoy. Fales throws high-percentage passes almost exclusively. He completes a ton of short and intermediate throws. But he hasn’t shown the arm or the willingness to stretch the field.
I don’t expect that to change on Saturday when Fales faces a Stanford defense loaded with returning starters and future NFLers. The Cardinal led the nation with 57 sacks last year and returns its best pass rusher, Trent Murphy.
With the kind of pressure Stanford should be able to bring, it would stand to reason that Fales, again, won’t be looking much further downfield than the first down marker. And who could blame him? Not only does he want to get rid of the ball quickly to avoid taking a sack, he’s not going to want to challenge Stanford’s playmaking secondary, led by free safety Ed Reynolds, who returned three of his team-high six interceptions for touchdowns last year. Cornerback Alex Carter is back after leading the team in forced fumbles last year as a true freshman, as are strong safety Jordan Richards and nickelback Usua Amana, the defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl.
Look for Fales to avoid turning the ball over against the Cardinal secondary. Instead, he’ll make quick decisions and throw underneath routes – fittingly, as the Stanford-San Jose State game is known as the Bill Walsh Legacy Game. Walsh would enjoy watching Fales throw slants and curls all day long. But NFL scouts are still waiting to see whether he has the skills to run a more vertical offense.