With another draft season wrapping up, a look ahead to what’s on tap in college football next fall. And who could headline the draft next spring
With the 2017 draft in the books, The College Column is going on hiatus (or vacation?) until August. Before we go, here’s a beginner’s guide to everything we’re monitoring for the 2017 college football season and, yes, 2018 draft.
National Championship Favorite
Yes. Recruit, condition, win, repeat. When autumn dawns in Tuscaloosa it’s fruitless to harp on how many starters Nick Saban must replace (for the record, it’s seven on defense and three on offense this year. Nine Crimson Tide players were top-80 draft picks last weekend). Tony Brown and Minkah Fitzpatrick are the names you need to know in Saban’s defensive-back factory, and defensive linemen Da’Shawn Hand and Da’Ron Payne will see enhanced roles. On offense, Alabama has a top-tier wideout in Calvin Ridley, a star running back Bo Scarbrough (plus two capable understudies) and Jalen Hurts at quarterback after starting as a true freshman. Brian Daboll, who spent 2016 as the Patriots tight end coach, is the new offensive coordinator and, according to colleague Andy Staples, he is taking a much more hands-on approach with his QB than Lane Kiffin did in 2016.
Similar to Alabama, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has a remarkable ability to replenish his roster. The Buckeyes should have the best front seven in the country, though a secondary that lost Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker to the first round will have to be replaced by high-profile recruits. Look for quarterback J.T. Barrett to throw downfield more often with new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson on board. Dalvin Cook is a big loss for Florida State, but if the spring game is any indication the Seminoles could be grooming their next star in early enrollee Cam Akers. Derwin James might be the most talented safety in the country and returns after missing the final 11 games of 2016 with a torn meniscus. And fresh off an epic Rose Bowl matchup, both USC and Penn State are playoff contenders. The Trojans have big expectations for quarterback Sam Darnold (so do draftniks). Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions could return as many as 17 starters from their Big Ten title-winning squad, led by running back Saquon Barkley.
Darnold is the early favorite, but 2016 winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville will get some love too. Two running back/quarterback tandems to watch: Barkley and Trace McSorley of Penn State and Hurts and Scarborough of Alabama.
I’m really into Derrius Guice, the LSU running back. The past two years Guice was behind Leonard Fournette on the depth chart, but still found ways to shine when given a chance. He has already recorded two 250-yard games—in the span of 13 days—and has a career rushing average of 7.8 yards per carry. That’s awfully close to Bo Jackson’s SEC career record (6.62, minimum of 400 rushes). Washington State quarterback Luke Falk will once again put up big numbers in Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense. Florida State’s quarterback Deondre Francois showed a ton of moxie last year as a freshman starter.
Top of the 2018 Draft
I want to begin this section with a disclaimer. At this time last year, I might have written: “Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Miami’s Brad Kaaya will vie to be the No.1 pick of the 2017 draft.” O.K., with that out of the way, get ready for plenty of hype about the big three QBs: Darnold, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and UCLA’s Josh Rosen. Falk will generate buzz; many scouts thought he would declare in 2017. NFL teams will be monitoring James, the safety from Florida State, to see if he can regain his explosiveness after meniscus surgery. Penn State’s Barkley is the top running back. Fitzpatrick (the defensive back) and Ridley (wide receiver) top the always draft-rich Alabama roster. Scouts like defensive lineman Christian Wilkins and wide receiver Deon Cain at Clemson. The top edge rusher is Arden Key of LSU. One scout told me: “He reminds me of Aldon Smith. He has bulked up a little this spring, which is good. Great speed and even better potential.” In February, LSU coach Ed Orgeron announced Key was taking a leave of absence from the team for “personal reasons,” but Key has since clarified he will play in 2017. If Ohio State defensive end Sam Hubbard can pick up his sack total again—he registering 3.5 last year after 6.5 as a freshman—he should be a top early-entry candidate. Here are two names you might not know yet, but will: Pittsburgh safety Jordan Whitehead and Boston College edge rusher Harold Landry.
• ROUNDING UP THE DRAFT: Among Albert Breer’s draft wrapup, including everything falling into place for the Bucs, the lack of fallout for those who skipped bowl games, a potential QB steal for the Bills and a Patriots pick that has opposing scouts groaning.
Early-Season Games to Watch
Sept. 2., Alabama vs. Florida State (in Atlanta): Two of the most talented teams in football face each other in Week 1? This has the potential to be epic. A matchup I’ll be watching: Can James, the Seminoles stud safety playing for the first time in nearly a year contain Alabama’s speedy receiving tandem of Ridley and Robert Foster? (Both Foster and Ridley have reportedly clocked 40 times of 4.35 or better).
Sept. 9., Auburn at Clemson: Last year this was a defensive battle, with Clemson eking out a 19-13 win. Auburn returns at least seven starters on each side of the ball, and this is an early test to see if they’re legit.
Sept. 16, Texas at USC: How is it that these teams haven’t met since the 2006 Rose Bowl? Get ready for the Reggie Bush/Vince Young montages. Texas’s splashy new hire, Tom Herman, can make a statement in the first big game of his tenure. Last year, USC finished as perhaps the hottest team in college football, winning its final nine games.
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@cindayluckydawg: Have the Browns sent a message that all is well in Berea? The draft was outstanding and appeared cohesive. #ImConfused
What I loved most about the Browns’ draft is they didn’t overthink it at No. 1. (How funny is it, by the way, that Myles Garrett was the draft’s top pick and it felt like nobody talked about him for the rest of the weekend?) Sashi Brown is starting to show returns for all of that draft capita. What has Cleveland recouped from the Eagles trade last year? Nine players (including two quarterbacks) plus a first-round pick and a second-round pick in 2018 that have yet to be spent. I’ll be honest, I love the idea of Jabrill Peppers in Gregg Williams’ defense; I hate the idea of Hue Jackson trying to use Peppers on offense as well. But at least it sounds like everyone in that building is on the same page about it. There is a sense of cohesion, and if the young talent pans out—and DeShone Kizer molds into a franchise quarterback—that message will only get stronger.
@rayhollings: Will the Bears be picking in the Top 3 again next draft with all their developmental draft picks and 3rd tier Free Agents?
Assuming Chicago doesn’t have the same rotten injury luck as they did in 2016, this likely comes down to one thing: What will the Bears get out of the quarterback position? Although Ryan Pace felt comfortable paying Mike Glennon $18.5 million to be the starter next year, he’s still an unknown. And can the front office and coaching staff exercise patience and keep Mitchell Trubisky off the field until he’s truly ready? If Trubisky is thrust into action too early, I’d feel comfortable saying the Bears are picking high in the draft again, and Pace might not be there to make the decision. However, when I look at the roster, I see a team that’s decent in 2017, but really built to win in 2018. Pace signed more free agents (12) than any other team, but you’re right that many of them are middle-class players. The thinking: Let’s throw as many darts at the board as we can and see what sticks. Meanwhile, after Trubisky, the Bears spent three of the next four picks on players from below the FBS level. They might take time to adjust to NFL competition. For example, I expect second-round tight end Adam Shaheen to spend a year learning under Zach Miller (in a contract year) before taking reigns in 2018. The only other draftee from a big-time program (Alabama safety Eddie Jackson) is coming off a year in which he missed 11 games with a broken left leg. I actually rank the Bears’ front seven as one of the 10 best units in the league—when they’re all healthy—and should Jordan Howard build on his strong rookie year, there’s no reason the Bears can’t win at least half of their games. But, this is a lot of ifs…
@cleggy96: Was Adoree’ Jackson overvalued at 18 because of ST? Would Tre white not have been a better pick?
There’s no question Jackson has tremendous value as a return man—he is, after all, a world-class sprinter and long jumper. I have a hard time addressing if this is an “overvalue” because every team prioritizes something different. In this case, it appears Tennessee does covet a potential game-changing return man who can also play meaningful snaps on defense. I also think it’s a good scheme fit for Tennessee. Jackson may be a smaller corner, but he has tremendous playmaking skills, athleticism and, of course, speed. Tre’Davious White may have been higher on many team’s boards—and is more proven at cornerback—but I do know Jackson was flying under the radar a bit. Another thing about Jackson: He has tremendous upside. He really didn’t played corner full-time at USC as the coaches also used him on offense, and he spent offseason time away with the track team.
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