NFL draft prospects to watch in the pre-New Year’s Eve bowl games
To get you ready for all of college football's postseason action, and to help you prepare for the 2016 NFL draft, we’re offering up one player to keep an eye on for each bowl team. Here’s who to watch during the games of Dec. 29–30:
Armed Forces Bowl (Dec. 29)
California vs. Air Force
Cal: Daniel Lasco, RB. When a string of junior running backs declare for the draft this season despite mediocre numbers, keep Lasco in mind. He totaled nearly 1,500 yards last year and scored 15 touchdowns, then came back to Cal and endured a rash of injuries in 2015. Cal coach Sonny Dykes said Lasco (6'0", 210 pounds) still is not 100%, so his actual playing time could be limited. He is expected to participate in the Shrine Game next month, though.
Obviously, Cal quarterback Jared Goff is the big draw here. This figures to be his last college game.
Air Force: Alex Hansen, DE. The last Air Force draft pick was Bryce Fisher in 1999 (Buffalo, round 7). The drought figures to keep rolling through this season, but Hansen (6'3", 260) at least has an outside shot to snap it. Hansen notched 10 tackles for loss last season and then earned All-MWC first-team honors this year with 15.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks.
Russell Athletic Bowl (Dec. 29)
North Carolina vs. Baylor
North Carolina: Landon Turner, G. Always a little tougher to get a feel for the draft stock of interior offensive linemen than, say, wide receivers, but Turner (6'4", 325) seems to be flying under the radar right now—and that’s despite being first-team All-America. He could be a plug-and-play option, particularly for a team that leans on man-blocking run concepts. Great matchup here against Baylor’s strong, explosive defensive front.
Baylor: Jay Lee, WR. There are a handful of potential draft picks on the Bears’ roster, including more well-known names like Andrew Billings, Corey Coleman and Shawn Oakman. Don’t sleep on Lee, a 6'3", 220-pounder with terrific field-stretching abilities. He averaged 20.2 yards per catch this season, taking eight of his 36 receptions to the house.
Arizona Bowl (Dec. 29)
Nevada vs. Colorado State
Nevada: Ian Seau, OLB. The name should be familiar—he is the nephew of the late Junior Seau, a 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee. Ian (6'3", 250) was an All-MWC first-teamer at defensive end this season, notching 9.0 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss. He will participate in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, and the week of practice before that showcase will provide him an opportunity to show that he can handle some duties as a pass-rushing outside linebacker.
Colorado State: Rashard Higgins, WR. Higgins blew up in 2014 to the tune of 1,750 yards receiving and 17 touchdowns, both FBS bests. Injuries plus the loss of quarterback Garrett Grayson to the NFL led to a massive drop in his numbers this year: 932 yards receiving and eight TDs. When healthy, though, Higgins (6'2", 190) has shown to be a sharp route-runner and a threat at all areas of the field. He still has a year of eligibility left.
Texas Bowl (Dec. 29)
LSU vs. Texas Tech
LSU: Deion Jones, OLB. The 6'1", 220-pound weakside linebacker flies around to the football, as evidenced by his 80 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks this season. Jones also picked off two passes and broke up three more, providing further proof of his rangy game. He is ticketed for the Senior Bowl.
Texas Tech: DeAndre Washington, RB. We don’t normally think of the running back position when talking about Texas Tech, but Washington’s 1,759 total yards (1,455 rushing) and 17 TDs changed the focus. Washington is undersized (5'8", 200) but can be extremely tough to handle in the open field. He has been an ideal match for the Red Raiders’ attack. Will an NFL team find him a role?
Birmingham Bowl (Dec. 30)
Auburn vs. Memphis
Auburn: Montravius Adams, DT. A big body (6'3", 306), Adams can command a lot of attention up front. At his best he can be quick and disruptive off the snap, causing problems through gaps or standing up blockers. This was year three, though, of waiting for Adams to produce on a consistent basis. The junior could opt to go back and make a run a round 1 next year.
Memphis: Paxton Lynch, QB. Opted to talk about someone other than Jared Goff for that Cal-Air Force matchup. There’s no one near Lynch’s caliber on the Memphis roster, from a draft perspective. The 6'7", 245-pound redshirt junior could land in the No. 1 pick discussion should he turn pro, as is expected. The recent hype may exceed the current product, but there is little question that Lynch has enticing NFL potential. He has the size, arm and athleticism to make a smooth transition.
Belk Bowl (Dec. 30)
NC State vs. Mississippi State
NC State: Jacoby Brissett, QB. A bit further down the QB list than Lynch (though the gap depends on whom you ask), we find Brissett (6'4", 235). The Florida transfer threw for 5,000-plus yards and rushed for another 800 in his two seasons at N.C. State, while accounting for 50 touchdowns. He often produced despite lackluster O-line play, throwing his receivers open and avoiding trouble. Brissett could take even better advantage of his running ability than he does. Next stop after this: the Senior Bowl.
Mississippi State: Chris Jones, DT. Jones (6'6", 308) remains a bit raw, but the flashes of upside are immense. Despite his size, Jones can slide around on the defensive line, helping to set the edge wide or penetrating from the interior. He has recorded 17.0 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks during his three-year Mississippi State career. Jones has not yet announced his intentions regarding the draft—he has a season of eligibility remaining.
Music City Bowl (Dec. 30)
Texas A&M vs. Louisville
Texas A&M: Germain Ifedi, OT. The redshirt junior announced earlier this month that he would enter the draft, ending any speculation well in advance of the Aggies’ bowl game. Ifedi (6'5", 320) uses his long arms to gain an advantage on the edge, adding the size and foot quickness to finish plays. The latest in an impressive string of Texas A&M tackles (Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Matthews, Luke Joeckel), Ifedi currently carries less buzz than that trio. He also seems far less likely to project as a left tackle and may instead stick on the right or move back inside where he played some in college.
Louisville: Devonte Fields, DE. Rocky trip for the redshirt junior. Fields (6'4", 245) was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year for TCU back in 2012, was kicked off the team following a domestic violence incident, landed in the Juco ranks, then turned in a strong season for Louisville. He has 19.0 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 2015, rivaling his '12 numbers (18.5 and 10.0, respectively). The potential off-field red flags loom large for a prospect—be it in 2016 or '17—with obvious talent off the edge.
Holiday Bowl (Dec. 30)
USC vs. Wisconsin
USC: Soma Vainuku, FB. While not every NFL team utilizes a fullback much, Vainuku (6'0", 255) will appeal to those that do. He’s a very reliable blocker, but he also thrives on special teams (12 tackles this season) and earlier in his career showed potential as a short-yardage pass catcher. Vainuku will put his full game on display at the Senior Bowl.
Wisconsin: Joe Schobert, OLB. Another slightly unheralded Senior Bowl invitee, Schobert (6'2", 239) piled up 19.0 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks this season; he had 11.0 TFLs as a junior. He consistently caused problems off the edge, putting up big games against Alabama and Iowa early in 2015. Does he have enough of an all-around game to be a three-down guy at the next level, or will NFL teams view him as a “tweener” talent?