- Buckeyes defensive coordinator and former Bucs head coach Greg Schiano called it the best line he’s ever coached—a look at the NFL prospects that make up Ohio State’s fearsome pass rush. Plus, some NFL coaching candidates in the college ranks, a rising star quarterback out west, and another school that could chase Jon Gruden
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, rightfully, got most of the credit in the aftermath of the Buckeyes’ come-from-behind, 39-38 win over Penn State on Saturday. But if you really want to know what happened, the Nittany Lions’ final four offensive snaps will tell you.
First-and-10, ball at the PSU 41: After a botched squib kick gives Penn State field position, Trace McSorley takes the shotgun snap. Two Lions blockers engage on Nick Bosa, leaving fellow rushers Jalyn Holmes, Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis singled. It turns into a race to the quarterback. McSorley runs right, and throws to a covered Saquon Barkley in the flat. Incomplete.
Second-and-10, PSU 41: Bosa comes looping inside, and McSorley steps up, right into the area where Holmes has flattened PSU guard Brendan Mahon. Holmes cleans up with the sack on McSorley.
Third-and-15, PSU 36: Hubbard and Bosa come flying off the edges, beating the offensive tackles. McSorley clearly feels them coming, defaulting to throw to his security blanket, tight end Mike Gesicki, in double coverage. Incomplete.
Fourth-and-15, PSU 36: Hubbard, Bosa, Lewis and Holmes all get a jump, all get in the backfield, and the spy, linebacker Jerome Baker, closes down, forcing a McSorley prayer in the general vicinity of receiver Juwan Johnson. Incomplete. Game over.
So why are we going through all of that? Because it goes back to something one pretty well-known Ohio State assistant said to the Big Ten Network about the group, when asked if it was the best defensive line he’d ever been around.
“It is, and that’s not a joke,” said Buckeyes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, who was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach in 2012 and ’13. “I know we had a great player in Tampa, Gerald McCoy, tremendous player, but that was one guy. But I go back to my days at Miami in ’99 and 2000, and this is clearly a better group than those guys and that’s saying something.”
It sounded silly then. It might not sound as silly now. And that gives us a good jumping off point to go through a few of college football’s most talent-rich position groups. We’ll start with the best one, Schiano’s guys up front.
Of course, it’s hard to compare any group of 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds with NFL players in their athletic primes. But it’s not crazy to think that this Ohio State group may have more high-end potential—meaning, if we could jump ahead in a time machine and see what they all look like at 25 or 26—than some NFL groups would have. And scouts don’t think it’s crazy either.
“They’re all solid players,” said one AFC exec of the Ohio State group. “Gerald McCoy is Gerald McCoy, and [ex-Buc Adrian] Clayborn is a functional starter. And Bosa has a chance to be special, I don’t think he’s his brother, but he’s really good; Hubbard is solid not rare; and Lewis and Holmes will play in the league.”
Here’s how the group breaks down . . .
Sam Hubbard: A fourth-year junior who considered declaring last year, Hubbard was actually a high school safety who bulked up to play on the line and has turned himself into a potential first-round pick.
Tyquan Lewis: The fifth-year senior might not be a first-round pick, but he is the most polished of the group and was the Big Ten defensive lineman of the year last year. The issue is that he’s a little stiff and limited athletically.
Nick Bosa: The consensus is that he’ll be the highest draft pick of the group. He’s not as tall or as long as his brother, but he’s generally regarded as the best prospect in Columbus.
Jalyn Holmes: His reputation is as a height/weight/speed guy who’s still pretty raw. But that size and athleticism does stand out, and he could test well and go somewhere on Day 2 of the draft.
Dre’Mont Jones: The redshirt sophomore interior lineman has turned heads, and has a chance to be the top Buckeyes defensive lineman taken in April (Bosa is not eligible until 2019).
Others: Defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle has rebounded nicely from last year’s season-ending knee injury, while sophomore Robert Landers is a squattier type with room to grow. But the real guy to watch down the line might be true freshman Chase Young, who might wind up being in Bosa’s class as a prospect.
Put that together, and you can see why, once Ohio State and Barrett started to build momentum on Saturday, it was difficult for Penn State to stem the tide. But lest you think I’m playing up my alma mater, there are other position groups worth watching.
Alabama safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison are probable first-rounders, and corners Levi Wallace and Tony Brown have NFL futures. Likewise, both Georgia running backs, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, should be productive pros; Notre Dame’s offensive line has, potentially, two Top 15 picks in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson; and N.C. State’s defensive line probably has three draftable players outside of just Bradley Chubb.
And the cool thing about all these guys is that they can benefit from being in the groups they’re in. Scouts like the fact that they have to battle for snaps with one another, and might have a little less tread on tires because they rotate more often.
“Competitors never want to be the weak link,” said one AFC college scouting director. “And if they are competitive, it will drive them to be better. It’s a plus. And if they are playing around great players but they’re content with being average, that shows up to. We all want competitive players.”
On Saturday, Ohio State seemed to had a bunch of them.
FIVE FROM SATURDAY
1. There’s so much to like about how where Georgia’s going with Kirby Smart right now, but consider the quarterback situation first. True freshman Jake Fromm has already gotten the attention of scouts, and he beat out last year’s true freshman starter, Jacob Eason, who was another blue-chip recruit. And next year? Smart has the No. 1 high school quarterback in America, Justin Fields, coming to Athens. Oh, and Sony Michel and Nick Chubb combined to run for 214 yards on 19 carries against Florida.
2. Brian Kelly’s interest in giving the NFL a shot hasn’t exactly been a secret over the last few years—he was very involved in the Eagles search after Chip Kelly told Philly no and before Kelly later took the job. Those who work that area believed that it was because of the lingering feeling he’d worn out his welcome in South Bend. Then 4-8 happened last year. And then came this year’s rebound (7-1 so far). And so you wonder how that’s changed Kelly’s outlook on wanting to pursue the NFL, and the school’s outlook on him.
3. While we’re on coaches, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald has another overachieving bunch in Evanston, and NFL teams again have their curiosity piqued about how he might some day fit in the pros. The perception around Fitzgerald has always been similar to that around Stanford’s David Shaw—it would take a lot for him to leave his alma mater and the area he’s from. But what if, at some point, the Bears came calling?
4. While Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen have had mildly disappointing years, Arizona’s Khalil Tate has stepped into a starting role in Tuscon and turned the Wildcats into one of college football’s most watchable teams. Tate is perfect for Rich Rodriguez’s system, and on Saturday he lit up Washington State for 146 rushing yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, and 275 yards and two touchdowns on 10-of-17 passing.
5. The Florida job is one that will likely attract some NFL candidates, and it’s probably only a matter of time until Jon Gruden’s name comes up. Gruden’s name has already come up with the job that isn’t open at Tennessee. What will it take to get him? Well, Gruden’s name, you’ll remember, was connected to Texas in the past. And from what I understand, the numbers in play in those talks would’ve made him college football’s highest paid coach.
1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
2. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, N.C. State
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
4. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
5. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
7. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
8. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
9. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
10. Connor Williams, OT, Texas
Because only four guys on the list actually played this weekend, we have very little movement. Roquan Smith moves up a spot after a terrific SEC title game . . . And I’ll give Sam Darnold a little love, because of the way he’s handled a tough year and come away with a Pac-12 title . . . Connor Williams, by the way, has announced he’ll skip the Texas Bowl against Missouri to prepare for the draft.
Top of the Class:
1. Sam Darnold, USC (17-24, 325 yds, 2 TDs, 0 INTs v. Stanford): The Trojans were hit hard by graduation before the year and injuries during it, and so Darnold deserves a lot of credit for guiding USC to its first conference title since the Pete Carroll era. He, in many ways, became the program’s margin for error as so many young players worked through growing pains. We’ll see whether or not he comes out. This much is for sure: Everything people have said about him as a player and a person showed up this year.
2. Josh Rosen, UCLA (DNP): The true junior still has questions about his personality and durability to answer, but few believed he was ever staying in 2018. The arrival of Chip Kelly probably seals his departure, since Kelly’s offense is a less-than-ideal fit for him. Interim coach Jedd Fisch has said he expects Rosen to play in the Cactus Bowl.
3. Josh Allen, Wyoming (DNP): It’s a foregone conclusion that Allen will declare after this, his redshirt junior season. The only question left there is whether he’ll play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (yes, that’s the name of it) against Central Michigan. Allen gets points, as Darnold does, for getting the Cowboys through a rebuilding season. And if you add his off-the-charts tools to his uneven play, you get one of the 2018 draft’s most polarizing prospects.
Helped Himself: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State (12-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs vs. Wisconsin): Barrett didn’t look great throwing the ball against Wisconsin—he missed on a pair throws that would’ve been long touchdowns that could’ve blown the game open, and his unsightly pick-six in the first half kept the Badgers in it. But he played just six days after having arthroscopic surgery to address a meniscus injury that he’s played through all season, and he carried the ball 19 times. Barrett’s toughness and leadership precede him as the only three-time captain in Buckeyes history. And a night like Saturday night should, at least, pique the curiosity of NFL teams and give him a shot to win a roster spot in training camp.
Hurt Himself: Jarrett Stidham, Auburn (16-32, 145 yards, TD vs. Georgia): The redshirt sophomore picked the wrong week to turn in his worst statistical effort of the season, as the Tigers were held to a single touchdown in their SEC title game loss to Georgia. The good news is that, for most of Auburn’s stretch run, he flashed tools that have caught the eye of evaluators, and now we know that Gus Malzahn is staying, which should help push Stidham’s development forward.
The Heisman Ceremony (Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN): So Baker Mayfield is the winner over Stanford’s Bryce Love and reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville. And as a reference point, Ohio State’s Troy Smith had the largest margin of victory in Heisman history, having taken 91.63% of the vote in 2006, a mark that Mayfield could best. Got it? We’re good? O.K., so here’s the other thing I’m watching in the coming days: Prospects deciding to skip their bowl games to prepare for the draft, like Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette did last year. We’ve seen three(!) Texas players do it already. Two of the three are expected to go on Thursday (OT Connor Williams) or Friday (LB Malik Jefferson) of draft weekend, whereas S DeShon Elliott may have a tougher road.
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