- 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. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
3. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
4. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
5. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
6. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, N.C. State
7. Derwin James, S, Florida State
8. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
9. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
10. Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama
Wyoming QB Josh Allen was solid against New Mexico, and based on the Cowboys’ youth, scouts are clearly grading him on a curve. He continues to be one to watch . . . Here’s a name that could crack the Top 10 shortly: Georgia LB Roquan Smith. He’s undersized, but violent and projects to play on all three downs at the NFL level . . . You’ll notice Bradley Chubb moved up again. There are teams that believe he could wind up being the best player in next year’s draft.
Top of the Class:
1. Sam Darnold, USC (19-35, 266 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT vs. Arizona State): A good, clean rebound for Darnold coming out of a loss to Notre Dame (that wasn’t really on him). Here’s the key: Darnold has thrown just one pick in his last three games, after being picked in each of the Trojans’ first six games and throwing nine of them over that stretch. This week, he plays late night, and is pitted against Heisman race newcomer, and Arizona quarterback, Khalil Tate.
2. Josh Rosen, UCLA (12-21, 93 yards, TD, 0 INT vs. Washington): The headline here, of course, is that Rosen was hurt early on, suffering a hand injury that took him out of the game and effectively killed the Bruins’ chances of pulling the upset. We didn’t see much of him, and according to our colleague Bruce Feldman, the injury doesn’t seem to be serious.
3. Josh Allen, Wyoming (16-28, 234 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INT vs. New Mexico): The Cowboys have won four of five, and Allen won his first conference player of the week award for the season after the New Mexico win. All the physical ability is still there. The production is coming along.
Helped Himself: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State. The easy answer her. Barrett threw for 328 yards and four touchdowns on 33-of-39 passing. It was also his sixth straight game without an interception, and he rushed for 95 yards on 17 carries. Is he going early in April? Absolutely not. But because he’s won a lot, and his coaches call him a Russell Wilson-level leader, he may be in the process of becoming a draft pick now, which was unlikely six weeks ago. His accuracy issues aren’t totally solved, and his mechanics are a little funky, but you know you’ll get someone who will work at it if you take him.
Helped Himself: Luke Falk, Washington State. We ran our scouts poll on the best draft-eligible QB prospects a couple weeks back, and Falk came in fourth, right after the Big 3. Maybe some of the voters would like reevaluate? For the second time this year, Falk was benched after a slow start—he was just 13-of-23 for 93 yards and a touchdown when he was pulled with the Cougars down 20-7 late in the second quarter at Arizona. Mike Leach announced Falk will start Saturday against Stanford, but clearly his hold on the job is tenuous.
Arizona at USC (ESPN, Saturday, 10:45 p.m. ET): A 10:45 p.m. kickoff is a tough ask, but I promise I’ll try. USC-Arizona should be fantastic, and a great opportunity to watch Sam Darnold in a shootout. The Khalil Tate-led Wildcats have ripped off four straight wins, scoring at least 45 points in each of those games. So you can bet the pressure will be on the young Trojans and their quarterback to keep pace. Can he? We should have a heck of a show.
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