College football bowl season is here! So Chris Burke picks out one top NFL draft prospect to watch from each team playing in the first week of the bowls.
The loaded slate of college football bowl games begins this Saturday, with five FBS bowl games plus the FCS's Celebration Bowl, which pits Alcorn State against North Carolina A&T. There are a dozen bowls (not counting the Celebration) before Christmas Day, followed by a whopping 26 more from Dec. 26 through Jan. 2. The national championship will conclude the college football year on Jan. 11.
To get you ready for all the action, and to help you prepare for the 2016 NFL draft, we're offering up one draft prospect to keep an eye on for each bowl team. Here's who to watch over the first week of action:
New Mexico Bowl (Dec. 19)
Arizona vs. New Mexico
Arizona: Scooby Wright, LB—An absolute machine in 2014, Wright finished with a staggering 164 tackles and took home both the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards. He played just twice this season, though, due to a meniscus tear in the Wildcats' opener and then a foot sprain suffered upon his return. The NFL Network's Rand Getlin reported earlier this month that Wright was meeting with prospective agents, but will the 6'1" linebacker go?
This will be interesting to track. Wright likely won't blow any teams away from an athletic standpoint, but he obviously has great instincts for finding the football. His scouting report could look similar to former 49ers LB Chris Borland.
New Mexico: Jhurell Pressley, RB—New Mexico is one of several teams from this early bowl block that could go without a 2016 draft pick. Pressley (5'10", 203 pounds) represents the Lobos' best chance, even though his production dipped this year. He still rushed for 846 yards and 11 touchdowns on 135 carries, a 6.3 yards-per-carry average, but that mark was down from 9.5 a season ago. Back in July, NFL.com named him one of the 15 most explosive athletes in college football. He should test well.
Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 19)
BYU vs. Utah
BYU: Bronson Kaufusi, DE—Former basketball player alert. Listed by the Cougars at 6'8" and 280 pounds, Kaufusi looks the part of an NFL edge player. He also performed like one in spots this season, hanging 3.0 sacks on Cincinnati and another 3.0 (with 4.0 tackles for loss and a blocked FG) against Fresno State. Kaufusi carries appeal at least as a rotational DE for a 4–3 team. One thing to keep in mind: Kaufusi actually was a 2010 recruit but did not start playing for BYU until 2012 because he was serving a mission in New Zealand.
Utah: Jared Norris, LB—Norris (6'2", 240 pounds) is slated to play in the Senior Bowl, off an 86-tackle senior season. He's started a combined 24 games the past two seasons—13 last year as a weak-side LB (‘Rover’ in Utah's terminology), which resulted in 116 tackles, then 11 as a middle linebacker (‘Mac’) this year. Norris does a solid job in coverage, so he could earn time either spot. Odds are, he'll be seen by most as a 3–4 ILB, likely somewhere in the mid-rounds.
Camellia Bowl (Dec. 19)
Ohio vs. Appalachian State
Ohio: Ian Wells, CB—A second-team All-MAC selection, Wells (5'11", 202 pounds) broke up 28 passes during his Ohio career and added a pair of INTs this season. Appalachian State doesn't offer a ton in the way of a passing attack—No. 89 in FBS this season—so this could be a game for Wells to make some plays against the run. He should wind up in a camp; he might even stick as secondary/special-teams depth.
Appalachian State: Ronald Blair, DE—Blair (6'4", 270 pounds) has been a starter since 2011, back before Appalachian State even made the move from the FCS to FBS. He was the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, thanks to 18.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The Mountaineers' standout will play in the Shrine Game, and it wouldn't be a shock to see him also get a Senior Bowl nod. He's a legit NFL defensive end prospect.
Cure Bowl (Dec. 19)
San Jose State vs. Georgia State
San Jose State: Tyler Ervin, RB—Speaking of the Shrine Game-to-Senior Bowl bump, Ervin made it by accepting an invite to the latter earlier this month. While undersized (5'10", 177 pounds), Ervin was an extremely productive all-around back for San Jose State. He rushed for 1,469 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, caught 44 passes and averaged 23.5 yards per kick return during his career.
Georgia State: Nick Arbuckle, QB—Georgia State just started playing football in 2010, and this will mark its first bowl appearance. That the program already has produced two NFL draft picks (Ulrick John and Christo Bilukidi) is rather remarkable. No. 3 probably won't happen this year. Arbuckle, a Juco transfer prior to 2014, carried the offense this season: 4,160 yards passing and 26 TDs.
New Orleans Bowl (Dec. 19)
Arkansas State vs. Louisiana Tech
Arkansas State: Darion Griswold, TE—A high school quarterback, Griswold very much looks the part of an NFL tight end prospect now. At 6'5" and 255 pounds, Griswold has the size and athleticism to be a movable blocker at the next level. There's a chance he will be a more productive pro than college player, too—Arkansas State owns a top-15 rushing attack, so his 13 receptions actually tie him for fourth on the team.
Louisiana Tech: Vernon Butler, DT—Will Butler wind up the highest-drafted player from this first slate of games? He's got company in that competition from the likes of Utah RB Devontae Booker, Boise State S Darian Thompson (see below) and others, but it's possible. The 315-pounder can bring it with power, but he's also agile along the interior. Butler and his teammate, QB Jeff Driskel, will attend the Senior Bowl.
Miami Beach Bowl (Dec. 21)
Western Kentucky vs. South Florida
Western Kentucky: Brandon Doughty, QB—Doughty (6'3", 220) redshirted in 2010 and suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2011, so this marked his sixth year with the Hilltoppers. The extra time helped turned him into one of college football's most productive QBs—he led the country in yards last season (4,830) and in completion percentage this year (71.8%), and in TDs both years. The arm is not big and he isn't a running threat, but as a pocket passer in a West Coast-type system, he could carve out a nice career.
South Florida: Sean Price, TE—Price caught 21 passes in his freshman season and 20 as a senior, so the statistical development never came—blame the Bulls' game plan, mostly. At 6'3", 245 pounds, he will have to find a role as an H-back type, meaning that those lingering questions about his productivity will follow him to the NFL.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Dec. 22)
Akron vs. Utah State
Akron: Jatavis Brown, LB—The Zips last produced an NFL draft pick in 2008 (Reggie Corner), but Brown has a chance to hear his name called following a 108-tackle senior season. The 5'11", 217-pounder told CBS's Dane Brugler that he's willing to "give safety a shot" in the NFL, which probably is his best hope. He has the speed to play there and is small for a linebacker.
Utah State: Hunter Sharp, WR—Senior Bowl invitee Kyler Fackrell highlights the Utah State contingent. Sharp (6'0", 200 pounds) will play in the Shrine Game a week earlier, a trip earned by catching 126 combined passes over his two-year career with the Aggies. He opened his college career playing for Antelope Valley in the J.C. ranks, and he was suspended for the first two games of this season.
Boca Raton Bowl (Dec. 22)
Toledo vs. Temple
Toledo: Kareem Hunt, RB—Hunt (5'11", 215 pounds) still has a year of eligibility left. Should he enter the draft after this game, he could charge up the RB ranks—it's a group that is in flux behind Ezekiel Elliott and possibly Derrick Henry. Hunt is impressive in his own right, as his 3,500 career total yards and 32 TDs indicate. He shows balance and speed in the open field, with the ability to make defenders miss. A two-game suspension plus a hamstring injury limited him early in 2015.
Temple: Matt Ioannidis, DT—Bednarik and Nagurski Awards winner Tyler Matakevich is the more recognizable playmaker on Temple's defense. Ioannidis (6'4", 285 pounds) will join him at the Senior Bowl in Mobile. The Temple defensive lineman has shown he can succeed from multiple spots up front. He's especially impressive when asked to plug gaps, so a 3–4 team could want him as a space-eater.
Poinsettia Bowl (Dec. 23)
Boise State vs. Northern Illinois
Boise State: Darian Thompson, S—Thompson (6'2", 212 pounds) is expected to play here, in a sneaky good matchup, after missing time with a concussion. If he does, it will give him one more chance to tack on to his Mountain West all-time record 19 career interceptions. Thompson also averaged 64.5 tackles the past two season, despite missing time. He's dangerous as a deep safety but capable of helping in the box.
Northern Illinois: Andrew Ness, C—The senior will carry a streak of 54 consecutive starts into the Poinsettia Bowl. If nothing else, his experience and on-field intelligence should get him a camp look, particularly in a draft class shy on many early-impact centers. Northern Illinois has a potent rushing attack, so Ness could be in the spotlight.
GoDaddy Bowl (Dec. 23)
Georgia Southern vs. Bowling Green
Georgia Southern: Matt Dobson, S—The Eagles are bowl eligible in just their second FBS season. They did not have a draft pick last year after landing one in 2013 (J.J. Wilcox) and '14 (Jerick McKinnon). Dobson (6'2", 200 pounds) is one of the better small-school safety prospects, having converted from quarterback between his freshman and sophomore years. He then started 34 of a possible 36 games on defense.
Bowling Green: Roger Lewis, WR—The MAC champs can be a ton of fun to watch on offense—they had a four-game stretch mid-season in which they averaged 57.8 points. Lewis (6'0", 196 pounds) is the most dangerous threat through the air, a receiver who can take the top off a defense. He averaged 18 yards on 82 catches and scored 15 TDs this season. He's just a sophomore, but is draft eligible because he played a year at Jireh Prep before joining the Falcons.
Bahamas Bowl (Dec. 24)
Middle Tennessee vs. Western Michigan
Middle Tennessee: Kevin Byard, S—The 5'11", 217-pound safety will participate in the Senior Bowl, and he could make himself some money if he shows the same nose for the football there that he has throughout his college career. Byard heads to the Bahamas Bowl with 19 career picks and 20 pass break-ups. He's never content just to knock the ball down.
Western Michigan: Willie Beavers, OL—The Broncos' offense features junior WR Corey Davis, a personal under-the-radar favorite of mine who has yet to decide his NFL plans. Beavers has no such decision to make. The 6'5", 309-pounder will join Byard at the Senior Bowl next month. We'll see where he lines up in Mobile—Beavers is a left tackle for Western Michigan, with guard potentially in his future as a prospect.
Aloha Bowl (Dec. 24)
San Diego State vs. Cincinnati
San Diego State: Donnel Pumphrey, RB—A decision awaits here, too. Pumphrey is just a junior, and he's undersized (5'9", 180 pounds), but does he have anything left to prove in college? He's 51 total yards from his second straight 2,000-yard campaign. Pumphrey rushed for 1,554 yards this year—down from 1,867 in 2014—and has 49 career touchdowns. I've mentioned Dion Lewis similarities for Pumphrey before, but I'll do it again. The Aztecs' go-to threat offers a three-down game reminiscent of the injured Patriots back.
Cincinnati: Mekale McKay, WR—McKay's fellow Bearcats receiver, Chris Moore, will attend the Senior Bowl. McKay himself is ticketed for the NFLPA Bowl. A former Arkansas transfer, McKay (6'5", 210 pounds) no doubt will catch some pro attention for that size, even though he produced just 25 catches and two TDs during an injury-plagued 2015. He did average 19.1 yards per catch during his career, proof of his big-play abilities.