By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
If one didn’t notice the leaves turning colors to signify fall, it would be easy to think that March Madness was around the corner, especially with two blue blood basketball programs in Indiana and Kansas hosting a couple of the most interesting games in Week 6 of the college football season.
While sporting “just” a 3-2 record, the Hoosiers could give undefeated and No. 4-ranked Michigan a stiff test Saturday, with their pair of playmaking senior cornerbacks matching up nicely with the Wolverines’ flashy but still inexperienced second-year quarterback J.J. McCarthy.
Speaking of quarterbacks, the undefeated Jayhawks have emerged as one of the most surprising and exciting stories in college football, in large part due to their draft-eligible dual-threat quarterback Jalon Daniels, who has 11 touchdown tosses against just one interception, with another five scores on the ground. Daniels and the No. 19 Jayhawks host No. 17 TCU in a matchup that pro scouts will certainly be keeping a close eye on — as should you.
Here is a handy list of “other” top matchups to watch.
No. 4 Michigan at Indiana (noon ET; FOX and the FOX Sports app)
I have previously highlighted Michigan’s dynamic passing, including this breakdown of the young signal-caller McCarthy, and the Wolverines’ two-headed receiving monster of Ronnie Bell and Roman Wilson, both of whom have NFL scouts salivating.
Williams has shown a knack for playing well in big games in the past, collecting an interception against Michigan in 2020 when he earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors. He was blanked in the interception department last season but led the Hoosiers with 11 passes defended, giving him impressive career totals of 21 PBUs and six interceptions.
Indiana lists him at just 188 pounds, but he has a solid frame and shows agility, acceleration and awareness in coverage, as well as surprising physicality for a player of his listed size, providing some quality hits on film.
His running mate, Mullen, has put up similar PBU (22) and interception (four) numbers during his career but, frankly, does not possess the same caliber of coverage and ball skills. Where he does stand out, however, is as an open-field tackler, demonstrating the physicality and closing speed to attack as a blitzer and stop ball carriers in their tracks — and often without the ball — forcing a very un-DB-like four fumbles over his career.
While a receiver-cornerback showdown in the Big Ten is well worth your attention, one does not have to be an NFL scout to acknowledge the supremacy of quarterbacks in the SEC in general, or in this game specifically. As such, the matchup between Tennessee’s shockingly underrated quarterback Hendon Hooker and the quietly 4-1 Tigers in Death Valley is one of the weekend’s more heavily anticipated showdowns.
By now, college football fans should be quite familiar with Hooker, who through his career — first at Virginia Tech and since at Tennessee — has posted a sparkling 61-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio that earned him a spot among the top-20 prospects on my initial Big Board posted back in June.
At 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, Hooker has the size NFL teams covet, and he is both a talented, poised passer and an effective runner. He shows the ability to feather the ball with great touch, lofting it over the top of defenders, as well as zip strikes on the in- and out-cutting intermediate routes that are the staples of every pro-style passing attack. He is consistently accurate, a testament to his ability to read defenses, his arm talent and “quiet feet” that allow him to set up and deliver consistently. Better yet, when he needs to move and reset, Hooker can deliver accurate passes while doing so, making him an awfully difficult quarterback to defend.
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The hosting Tigers, however, boast the hostile crowd, the pass rush (primarily BJ Ojulari) and secondary to give Hooker his greatest challenge of the young season. LSU has a staggering five different defensive backs who entered the season on the Senior Bowl’s Watch List, not the least of whom is do-everything senior Jay Ward, who has started outside at cornerback, inside in the dime and deep at safety). LSU also has two toolsy transfers in Mekhi Garner (Lousiana-Lafayette) and Sevyn Banks (Ohio State). Fans may already be familiar with Ward and Banks, but it is the 6-foot-2, 217-pound Garner who currently leads this year’s class at “DBU” with five pass breakups.
Perhaps not even Nostradamus could have predicted that the Jayhawks would be undefeated heading into Week 6.
The Cinderella storyline is enough to tune in to the game itself, but make no mistake: There are plenty of legitimate NFL prospects in this contest as well. Perhaps the most intriguing “matchup” is between the Jayhawks’ star quarterback Daniels and TCU cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, a two-time first team All-Big 12 performer.
As you might have guessed, Hodges-Tomlinson is related to former TCU superstar and Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who is his uncle. It is clear that athleticism runs in the family, with the former boasting terrific quickness and acceleration to shadow receivers all over the field. He is also surprisingly physical despite a 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame, punching above his weight class as a tackler.
Still, given Hodges-Tomlinson’s height, it would not be surprising to see Daniels throw a few passes in his direction. Daniels has shown a willingness to test cornerbacks, lofting passes high for his receivers to win jump-balls. While dynamic with the ball in his hands — showing great vision, acceleration and surprising power — Daniels is far from just a run-first quarterback. He possesses a quick release, as well as both touch and accuracy to attack in the passing game, making this quite the entertaining matchup.
Big 12 Week 6 Preview: TCU-Kansas, Texas-Oklahoma
Joel Klatt previews the Big 12 matchups for Week 6, including No. 17 TCU at No. 19 Kansas, and Texas vs. Oklahoma.
For an old-school college football fan like myself, it seems almost sacrilegious to list the Red River Showdown this far down in the Week 6 preview, but with neither team currently ranked in the AP Top 25, times have clearly changed.
That said, both still boast plenty of NFL talent, perhaps the most exciting of which happens to play the same position — running back — in Longhorns star Bijan Robinson and the Sooners’ Eric Gray, a Tennessee transfer.
Robinson, viewed by many as the top running back prospect in the country and a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate despite his team’s 3-2 record, has been highlighted in this space before. He boasts an all-around game that likely will earn him a rare first-round selection in the 2023 NFL draft.
The Sooners’ Gray is not as hyped but is an extremely talented runner (and receiver) in his own right, boasting exceptional stop-start quickness and the kind of vision to take advantage of the cutback lanes a highly aggressive Longhorns’ defense may leave available to him.
While scouts would be wise to focus on the skill-position players in many of the aforementioned matchups, the behemoths at the line of scrimmage in this SEC battle are themselves worth the price of admission.
If the visiting Tigers are to put a scare into the defending national champs, edge rusher Derick Hall will need to make a big impact, especially given the news this week that his running mate Eku Leota will miss the remainder of the season due to a pec injury from last week’s game against LSU.
Fortunately for Auburn, Hall (6-foot-2, 256 pounds) has a track record of playing well in big games, including against rival Alabama a year ago. There is a bit of Frank Clark (Kansas City Chiefs) in his game, as he is more about using power and quick, slippery hands to separate in close quarters than employing elite initial burst.
Hall will have his hands full against the Bulldogs, however, who have future NFL draft picks in former five-star recruit Broderick Jones (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) at left tackle and three-year reigning starter Warren McClendon (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) at right tackle, both of whom play bigger and longer than their listed size due to their arm length, agility and balance.
Before the Seattle Seahawks made linebacker Jordyn Brooks the 27th overall selection of the 2020 NFL draft, Texas Tech had not produced a first-round defender since 1983, when the Pittsburgh Steelers nabbed defensive tackle Gabriel Rivera with the 21st pick.
All indications are that the Red Raiders won’t have to wait nearly as long for the next first-round defender, at least if Tyree Wilson continues his torrid start to the season.
Interview with Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy
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In reality, Wilson emerged as a standout a year ago, leading the Red Raiders with 13.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks over 13 games. He already has eight tackles for loss and five sacks in a handful of contests this year, including two sacks on the road in losses at North Carolina State and Kansas State.
At 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, Wilson possesses the prototypical frame NFL scouts are looking for, complementing his size with eye-popping initial quickness, surprising flexibility to turn the corner and a developing arsenal of pass rush moves. Wilson originally signed with Texas A&M, a program with a much greater track record for producing quality defensive linemen. Wilson is not the second coming of former Aggie Myles Garrett, but comparisons to former UTEP (and current New Orleans Saints standout) Marcus Davenport aren’t far off. Like Davenport (who has 33 5/8-inch arms), Wilson has the length, strength and hand-eye coordination to lasso ball carriers out of the reach of most edge rushers. The ability to corral the dual-threat passers of today’s college (and pro game) — like Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders — could have NFL teams lining up to gamble on his upside.
It is appropriate that this Pac-12 showdown between the reigning conference champion Utes and the undefeated Bruins is taking place in Los Angeles, as there is plenty of star-power, not the least of which are last week’s Offensive and Defensive Players of the Week — UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III.
While much of the buzz for UCLA’s game last week vs. then-undefeated Washington focused on the Huskies’ quarterback Michael Penix Jr., it was DTR who stole the spotlight, completing 72% of his passes for a season-high 315 yards and three scores (and no interceptions) with another 53 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Phillips was every bit as dynamic for the Utes, tormenting the visiting Oregon State Beavers with three interceptions, one of which he returned 38 yards for a score.
At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, and 5-foot-10, 191 pounds, respectively, neither DTR nor Phillips has elite size. Each, however, possesses dynamic athleticism and the playmaking mentality to match.
Like many dual-threat quarterbacks who have excelled for Chip Kelly in the past, Thompson-Robinson is a fluid runner. He is also a savvy passer with a career 72-27 TD-INT ratio, boasting an effortless release and good accuracy to all levels of the field.
Phillips, meanwhile, is at his best in man coverage, showing the loose hips and greasy knees to change direction on a dime, and quick, active hands to slap passes away (15 career PBUs). But he’s pesky and productive as a tackler as well, looking like a strong bet to join former Utah defensive backs Jaylon Johnson, Marquise Blair, Marcus Williams and Eric Rowe as top 50 NFL draft picks since 2015.
Pac-12 Preview: Utah-UCLA, Washington State-USC | Joel Klatt Show
Joel Klatt previews the Pac 12 matchups for Week 6, including No. 11 Utah Utes at No. 19 UCLA, and Washington State at No. 6 USC.
It would be easy to keep the focus on the quarterbacks in yet another interesting Pac-12 showdown in Southern California, but if the visiting Cougars are going to keep up with Caleb Williams, reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison and the dynamic USC offense, Washington State is going to not only need a strong performance from signal-caller Cameron Ward but also from its defense — one of the best in recent WSU history.
Washington State’s defense is led by playmaking linebacker Daiyan Henley, who was highlighted in a previous version of this article, but the more intriguing matchup in this contest pits WSU’s versatile senior defensive lineman Brennan Jackson against USC’s rotating left tackles — redshirt sophomore Courtland Ford and redshirt senior Bobby Haskins, a transfer from Virginia.
At 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, the Cougars’ Jackson has the frame of a classic defensive end, but he’s often slipped inside to defensive tackle in WSU’s scheme. He is quick off the ball and pairs his upper and lower body well, slithering around would-be blockers nicely. Through five games this season Jackson has already matched his previous career high with 6.5 tackles for loss, and he was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Lineman of the Week twice last season.
Both of the Trojans’ tackles could ultimately be drafted into the NFL, but Ford is the young talent scouts are already drooling over. The 6-foot-6, 305-pounder from Cedar Hill, Texas is still just growing into his body, but he moves exceptionally well, showing the light feet, long arms and balance to project as a future blindside blocker at the next level. Ford suffered a right ankle injury against Stanford a few weeks ago, however, allowing Haskins more playing time. Haskins is not the same caliber of athlete as his younger teammate, but he has a stout 6-foot-7, 300-pound frame with good grip strength and enough lateral quickness to hold up, possibly projecting inside at the next level.
Texas A&M at Alabama (8 p.m. ET)
Even with the Aggies stumbling into this matchup with a disappointing 3-2 record, one cannot preview Week 6 without mentioning this SEC showdown, especially with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young ailing with sprained AC joint that has Nick Saban listing him as “day-to-day.”
Rather than attempt to project what Alabama may or may not due with Young, let’s focus on other prospects in this game, like the “one-on-one” brewing between Aggies’ running back Devon Achane and Alabama inside linebacker Henry To’oTo’o.
The Aggies and Crimson Tide have produced more than their share of dynamic runners and thumping linebackers over the years, and it is quickness, agility and big play ability — rather than prototypical bulk — that characterize their latest stars.
Achane runs like he’s on roller skates, gliding easily to and exploding through the line of scrimmage. What makes him special, though are the lateral cuts and vision. Whoever is playing quarterback for the Crimson Tide will need to produce points, as Achane is a legitimate threat to score every time he has the ball.
Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.
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