Prospect Watch: Bo Wallace, Ole Miss tasked with avoiding letdown
The college football season has reached that point where NFL draft hopefuls really start making their cases. Wait any longer to produce and scouts will wonder if a player's success was short-lived, a flash in the pan late in his college career. Those that have been playing well must back their strong start with consistency -- NFL front offices don't want to see one brilliant outing followed by two or three duds.
Friday night features an interesting Washington State-Stanford contest (keep an eye on Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, an interesting late-round quarterback prospect, and on Stanford wide receiver Ty Montgomery, a potential early selection). Then Saturday hits with yet another loaded slate of games, with these five draft hopefuls all taking the field:
1. Bo Wallace, QB, Ole Miss (at Texas A&M, 9 p.m. ET): Anyone left unfamiliar with Wallace (6-foot-4, 217) received quite the introduction last weekend when he helped Mississippi take down Alabama. Wallace finished with 251 yards passing and three touchdowns, two of which came in the fourth quarter as the Rebels turned a 17-10 deficit into a 23-17 victory.
Outside of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston (if one or both leave school early), the quarterback pecking order of the 2015 draft class is extremely unsettled. Wallace started on the outside looking in, at least in part because of his motion -- it's longer than scouts might like, with only average arm strength.
But he can win on the ground, as well, and definitely has improved on his execution in the clutch and with his ability to read defenses. The next step is cutting down on mistakes: Wallace has six interceptions this season and 33 for his career.
No rest for the weary in the SEC. The A&M defense may not pose as many problems on paper as Alabama's, but a road trip to College Station is a tricky follow-up to that huge win. Wallace now has national title hopes riding on his shoulders.
2. Ladarius Gunter, CB, Miami (vs. Cincinnati, noon ET): Based on his size (6-foot-2, 198 pounds) and speed believed to be in the 4.5 range, Gunter is one of those cornerbacks who could earn more hype come the combine and post-draft workouts. He fits the modern NFL corner prototype: tall, quick and with decent strength.
Gunter is in his third season with the Hurricanes after transferring from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College. Saturday will mark his 24th start since then, and it could present a stiff test for Gunter and his teammates -- the Cincinnati offense can sling it, though starting quarterback Gunner Kiel is questionable to play.
Through Miami's first six games, Gunter has 13 tackles, three passes defended and an interception. Those numbers are all on pace to be lower than last season (46 tackles, six passes defended, three interceptions), but Gunter also dealt with a shoulder ailment earlier in the year after his 2013 regular season ended with a scary neck injury.
3. Ramik Wilson, LB, Georgia (at Missouri, noon ET): Without Todd Gurley on the field, you may as well focus your attention elsewhere.
Wilson's not a bad fallback option. A 6-2, 237-pound linebacker, Wilson led the SEC with 137 tackles last season. He has 37 through five games this year, nine of those (plus 2.5 tackles for loss) coming against a South Carolina team featuring future NFL running back Mike Davis and talented quarterback Dylan Thompson.
The general consensus is that Wilson, an inside linebacker within Georgia's defense, is headed for a 4-3 OLB spot at the next level. He is at his best chasing the football, using his speed to close. The technique is not perfect, but Wilson's athleticism serves him well.
He has been especially impressive this season considering head coach Mark Richt had questioned Wilson's readiness in late August after the linebacker suffered a concussion. "It's hard to get game ready when you're not practicing," Richt said. "Unfortunately, he was not able to practice and now he's playing catch-up quite frankly, and, hopefully, he can get to the point where the defensive staff feels like he ought to be in there doing it."
Wilson proved his worth, reclaiming his starting gig before Georgia's opener. He has remained a critical fixture since.
4. Justin Hardy, WR, East Carolina (at South Florida, 7 p.m. ET): The "system quarterback" tag gets tossed around quite a bit. Is Hardy a system receiver?
Perhaps to some extent -- East Carolina's wide-open attack often simplifies Hardy's pre-catch responsibilities. Hardy shows more than enough potential as a future NFL route-runner, though, even if better defenses (like Virginia Tech) have silenced him a bit this season.
His overall numbers at East Carolina are through the roof: 303 career catches and climbing. The 6-0, 188-pound receiver can work over the middle and figures to get a look as a slot receiver first once he arrives in the NFL.
5. David Cobb, RB, Minnesota (vs. Northwestern, 12 p.m. ET): Did anyone have the Northwestern-Minnesota game circled as pivotal to the conference race before the season started? Well, it is, with the winner gaining the inside track on a Big Ten West division title.
Minnesota would not be where it is -- 4-1 and two weeks removed from routing Michigan -- without Cobb, who has racked up 722 yards rushing already this season. The 5-11, 229-pound senior could provide the "thunder" to some NFL team's "lightning" back; he is a stout runner who runs with terrific authority between the tackles.
Cobb's upside is somewhat limited by his lack of explosiveness. Still, with NFL teams constantly seeking out running backs who can move the chains and handle the rigors of a 16-game schedule, it's hard to envision him not landing on a roster.
Northwestern allowed 259 yards to Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon (one of the 2015 draft's top projected prospects) last week, albeit in a Wildcats win. Cobb should have plenty of opportunities on Saturday.