Who helped themselves?
Zach Cunningham , OLB, Vanderbilt Commodores , rJR. (6-3, 230, 4.74)
Vanderbilt isn’t a program known for churning out multiple draft picks every year, but they have one of the best prospects in the SEC on their roster with Cunningham. And he reminded evaluators once again of that fact with his performance in the season-opening loss to South Carolina Gamecocks . Cunningham finished with a team-best 12 tackles, including three for loss, and added a fumble recovery from his inside linebacker position, although he lines up everywhere for the Commodores, including on special teams.
On several occasions vs. the Gamecocks, Cunningham put on a clinic of how to play the linebacker position. He goes from A-to-B quickly in pursuit with excellent play speed and fluid movements to redirect without gearing down in his transition. Cunningham has above average arm length and the take-on strength to engage, shed and quickly find the ball carrier, coming to balance on the move to keep himself clean in space. He is quick to diagnose with a strong understanding of offensive indicators, but he will also react before reading at times, biting on a few fakes by the Gamecocks’ offense. But there are far more positives than negatives with Cunningham’s game and he has a chance to be Vanderbilt’s first defensive player drafted in the first round since 1984.
DeShone Kizer , QB, Notre Dame Fighting Irish , rSO. (6-4, 230, 4.75)
After Malik Zaire was injured early last season, Kizer took control of the Notre Dame offense and helped lead the Irish to a double-digit win season. With Zaire back healthy, there was somewhat of a quarterback controversy in South Bend this summer, but after the season opener Sunday night, there is little doubt that Kizer should be the starter. Although it came in a double-overtime loss, Kizer was outstanding against Texas Longhorns with six total touchdowns, five passing and one rushing, including several impressive throws that forced evaluators to take notice.
With his combination of size, athleticism and arm talent, Kizer has the physical skill-set that makes scouts gush. But more than just the physical tools, he also has the poise, intelligence and vision at the quarterback position that favorably compares to Jameis Winston , who left Florida State Seminoles after his redshirt sophomore season to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Winston obviously had a much more experienced collegiate résumé, but if Kizer continues his growth in 2016 and decides to go pro, he will be highly sought after by NFL teams.
Gerald Everett, TE, South Alabama Jaguars , rSR. (6-3, 240, 4.68)
The 2017 draft class has an impressive senior tight end group led by Michigan Wolverines ‘s Jake Butt , Alabama Crimson Tide ‘s O.J. Howard and Mississippi’s Evan Engram . But Everett is a tight end prospect who isn’t far behind that top tier and he showed why in South Alabama’s season-opening upset at Mississippi State Bulldogs . The UAB Blazers transfer finished with eight catches for 95 yards, including the game-winning touchdown with less than a minute left in the game, giving the Jagsits first road victory over a power-five opponent in school history.
As a NFL prospect, Everett is an above average athlete for the position with effortless acceleration off the line and in/out of his route breaks. He uses functional lean in his patterns to burst off his plant foot and square off routes, giving his quarterback a clean target. With his slender, athletic body type, Everett doesn’t have ideal size for the position, but he isn’t intimidated by contested situations and shows off fierce, aggressive hands as a blocker. Although he will have the occasional focus drop, he has acrobatic ball skills to make tough grabs look easy – Everett had a costly drop on an out route late in the game on Saturday, but he made up for it, securing the game-winner in a crowded end zone later on the drive.
Curtis Samuel, RB/WR, Ohio State Buckeyes , JR. (5-11, 200, 4.52)
An on offensive that returns only three starters from last season, Ohio State is looking for young playmakers to step up as reliable weapons around veteran quarterback J.T. Barrett . Several of those youngsters did just that in the Buckeyes’ 77-10 blowout against Bowling Green Falcons , but none more than Samuel, who is the “first true hybrid” Urban Meyer has had in a while, according to the coach’s postgame comments. Samuel finished Saturday’s game with 13 carries for 84 yards (6.5 average) and one touchdown on the ground, but impressed even more as a receiver, leading the Bucks with nine catches for 177 yards (19.7 average) and two scores.
Aside from his versatility, the first aspects of Samuel’s game that stand out are his vision and understanding of weak spots in the defense. As a ball carrier, he is quick to feel openings and clear holes. As a receiver, he runs his routes to proper depth to attack soft zones and give his quarterback a clear target. Samuel mixes his gears with controlled movements to deceive defenders and has the finishing speed to create big plays. With redshirt freshman Mike Weber (19/136/0 on Saturday) as the primary running back and Samuel as a hybrid receiver/runner, the Ohio State offensive attack has plenty of ways to attack defenses.
Justin Evans, SS, Texas A&M, SR. (6-0, 195, 4.52)
Over the summer, Evans was a player who jumped off the screen when I studied Texas A&M and I graded him as one of the top-five senior safety prospects to enter the season. And in the season-opening win against UCLA Bruins , Evans lived up to that lofty grade with eight tackles and intercepting Bruins’ quarterback Josh Rosen twice. He was far from perfect as Evans struggled with spacing issues in coverage and attacked the ball carrier with the occasional poor angle in pursuit. But without his positive plays, the Aggies might not win on Saturday.
Whether he plays near the line of scrimmage or as the last line of defense, Evans has the athletic range and play speed to always be near the ball. He has some break down issues vs. the run at times, but he is a normally reliable high-to-low tackler and attacks behind his pads to lay the wood on his target. Evans, who showed his body control and ball skills on Saturday with his two pick-offs, is still very much a work-in-progress with his awareness and recognition, but his read/react reflexes and athleticism are very appealing to NFL scouts.
Who hurt themselves?
Josh Dobbs, QB, Tennessee Volunteers , SR. (6-3, 208, 4.67)
It took overtime, but Tennessee was able to escape last Thursday’s game against Appalachian State Mountaineers with a win. However, the Volunteers struggled in several areas, including at quarterback as Dobbs looked like the same inconsistent player we’ve seen the past few seasons. He finished the game 16-for-29 (55%) for 192 yards, one touchdown and one interception, adding a few nice runs on the ground.
Neither the coaching staff or Dobbs himself appears comfortable with his ability to be a consistent downfield passer. Most of his attempts were within 10-yards of the line of scrimmage with streaky ball placement on those throws. Dobbs has the bad habit of predetermining where he is going with this throws and that allowed App State defenders to simply follow his eyes and break on passes. His interception was an inexcusable decision as he was attempting to run away from pressure and simply lofted a gift to the defense in the middle of the field. Dobbs also made a critical mistake in overtime when he lunged to get the ball across the goal line, but fumbled before reaching the end zone. On one hand, it was a gutsy move, but if Tennessee doesn’t recover ( Jalen Hurd did and it proved to be the winning touchdown), then all Appalachian State needed on the following possession was a field goal to win. On the flip side, his best pass of the night accounted for a large chunk of his passing yards, which was a 67-yard touchdown to Josh Malone in the fourth quarter. But he will need to show more of that if the Vols have any chance of winning the SEC East – and if Dobbs has any chance of a pro future.
Other NFL Draft notes
- Texas A&M junior pass rusher Myles Garrett (6-5, 262, 4.57) was outstanding for the Aggies on Saturday and only reinforced my opinion that he is the best player (and NFL prospect) in college football. Lining up across from UCLA senior left tackle Conor McDermott (6-8, 310, 5.27) most of the game, Garrett had his way and showed he is more than just a speed rusher. He used power, leverage and a variety of arm and body moves to get the offensive tackle off balance. Garrett’s final stat line was only three tackles and one sack, but it was a dominant performance as the Bruins obviously (and wisely) game-planned against him, using chips, doubles and play calls away from his side of the field.
- College football’s opening weekend marked the return of several big-time NFL prospects from season-ending injuries a year ago. Georgia Bulldogs junior running back Nick Chubb (5-10, 220, 4.54) shredded his knee last October, but worked his tail off to return this season and shredded the North Carolina Tar Heels defense on Saturday. He rushed 32 times for 222 yards and two touchdowns in what was a spectacular first step to regaining his status as one of the best running backs in next year’s draft class. After missing almost all of last year with a neck injury, Clemson Tigers junior wide receiver Mike Williams (6-3, 220, 4.50) looked at full healthy against Auburn Tigers with nine receptions for 174 yards as Tigers’ quarterback Deshaun Watson frequently relied on his No. 1 target to move the chains. Like Watson, Williams has legitimate first round talent.
- Another NFL prospect who had a triumphant return to the field, Pittsburgh Panthers junior running back James Conner (6-2, 240, 4.67) touched the ball 20 times on offense and scored twice as the Carolina Panthers defeated Villanova. He suffered a serious tear in his right knee in the season opener last season and was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma a few months later. Conner was declared cancer-free in May and rehabbed from his knee surgery, showing outstanding resiliency to even get on the field. But knowing the resolve of Conner, getting on the field won’t be good enough as he has plans to play on Sundays next fall.
- Arguably the top FCS prospect in the 2017 class, Eastern Washington senior wide receiver Cooper Kupp (6-2, 215, 4.54) set the FCS record for career touchdown catches (59) in the EWU upset over Washington State Cougars . Over the last four seasons, Eastern Washington has gone on the road to face a Pac-12 opponent and Kupp dominated in each of those contests. In 2013 it was Oregon State Beavers (5/11/2), in 2014 against Washington Huskies (8/145/3), last season at Oregon Ducks (15/246/3) and then on Saturday against the Cougars (12/206/3). Kupp, who would have been drafted on day two of the NFL Draft last year if he left school early, is the reigning FCS Offensive Player of the Year. Washington State is known for their offense under Mike Leach , but even with the entire off-season to prepare for Kupp, they couldn’t stop him.
- The Big 12 is in danger of not producing a first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. But that shouldn’t be a problem in the 2018 NFL Draft with several young talents, maybe none more promising than true sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson (6-2, 238, 4.57). A player who is always hunting, Jefferson is a textbook tackler with his ability to explode and drive through his target.
- With the weekend trade that sent Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Minnesota Vikings , the Cleveland Browns might end up as one of the winners of the deal. The Eagles were already thought to be a team in transition with a first-year head coach and plenty of question marks and now with rookie Carson Wentz as the team’s starting quarterback, it is not a stretch to think Philadelphia could have one of the ten worst records in the NFL this season. If that happens, the corresponding top-10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft belongs to Cleveland, which could give the Browns a pair of selections in the first ten picks – and more ammo to trade up to the top spot, if needed, to land the quarterback on their radar. The last time a team picked twice in the top-10? The 2000 NFL Draft when two teams did so – the Washington Redskins selected second (LaVar Arrington) and third (Chris Samuels) and the Baltimore Ravens drafted fifth (Jamal Lewis) and tenth (Travis Taylor).
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / NFL Draft Stock Report: Vandy LB Zach Cunningham is among SEC’s best