The day before the Las Vegas Raiders wrap up the preseason, the college football season will be kicking off with some Week 0 action. That means we’ll get our first look at a few NFL Draft prospects who could be donning the Silver and Black in the near future.
While some may claim it’s too early to talk about the draft, that’s scientifically proven to be false. It’s always draft season.
With only five games and ten teams in action, this week’s slate of games does lack some star power but there are still plenty of draft prospects to keep you engaged. Plus, we get to see some football games that actually count for the first time in a while.
If Week 1 of college football is the appetizer to football season and the first week of the NFL is the main course, then this Saturday is the warm bread that’s waiting for you at the table.
Nebraska at Illinois
It’s been a while since either of these schools has been relevant in the college football landscape. But Illinois has a new coaching staff, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost is on the hot seat and both programs have a handful of mid- to late-round prospects, so there’s plenty of interesting storylines to keep tabs on.
Ben Stille is a defensive tackle for the Cornhuskers that is stout at the point of attack and can get off blocks but is limited athletically. The latter restricts him as a pass rusher and he only accumulated one and a half sacks in eight games last season. Brian Johannes of Corn Nation is projecting Stille to be an undrafted free agent.
The Raiders have emphasized getting more athletic at linebacker recently and Nebraska’s JoJo Domann fits that mold. He’s a versatile defender who can cover and blitz, and Johannes has him pegged as a potential Day Three pick who can contribute on special teams. Domann’s run defense does leave a little to be desired, but he’s shown steady improvement in that department over the last few years.
Sticking with the theme of versatile defenders, Cam Taylor-Britt is a defensive back that has experience playing corner and strong safety. The Cornhusker is physical against the run and can match up against tight ends in coverage. Johannes currently has a third-round grade on Taylor-Britt, citing speed and fluidity issues as the biggest concerns.
Squaring off against the defensive back will be Illinois quarterback, Brandon Peters. At 6’5” and 230 pounds, Peters certainly looks the part and he has some impressive athletic ability to maneuver in the pocket. However, his draft stock took a major hit after completing just 48.8 percent of his passes last season, creating concerns about his accuracy.
Alex Palczewski will be protecting Peters and the offensive tackle has the frame - 6’6” 315 pounds - strength and foot quickness to catch the eyes of NFL scouts. He does need to clean up a few technical flaws in pass protection as he’s currently looking at a late-round to priority free agent projection.
On the other side of Palczewski will be Vederian Lowe. Lowe is another monster in the trenches, measuring in at 6’6” and 320 pounds. He’s shown flashes of brilliance both as a run blocker and pass protector but needs to be more consistent to climb up draft boards. Risendraft.com currently has him listed as a two-star prospect.
Hawaii at UCLA
Between Kolton Miller and Andre James, the Raiders have established a nice pipeline of UCLA offensive lineman, and the Bruins have another notable big man in this year’s draft class.
Sean Rhyan is expected to be one of the top offensive tackles in this year’s class and Ryan Roberts of Risendraft.com currently projects him to be a late first-round pick. Rhyan has the rare combination of size, speed and athleticism that scouts and general managers will covet. But he needs to clean up some lapses in pass protection and his angles when blocking the second level.
While the Raiders have both starting tackles under contract for the foreseeable future, the Bruin can also play on the inside or the team could consider putting Alex Leatherwood at guard depending on how this season goes. Las Vegas will likely be looking for an interior offensive lineman this offseason so they could get creative with how they address the need.
Standing behind Rhyan will be Dorian Thompson-Robinson. As a true dual-threat quarterback, Thompson-Robinson threw 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns in five games last year and tacked on another 305 yards and three scores on the ground. However, he needs to become more careful with the ball as his 5.6 percent turnover worth play rate ranked in the bottom 20 of FBS quarterbacks last season, per Pro Football Focus.
On the other side of the ball, is cornerback Obi Eboh. At 6’2” and 195 pounds, the Stanford transfer has the size that will pique the interest of some NFL decision-makers, but his production needs to dramatically increase. Last year, Eboh allowed a completion percentage of 81.8 percent and a 143.8 quarterback rating when targeted, so he’s more of a “physical tools prospect” than a proven commodity at the moment.
As for Hawaii, Kohl Levao is a very versatile offensive lineman who has started at tackle, guard and center. Standing at 6’6” and 350 pounds, Levao has impressive strength to move people up front, but he lacks some nimbleness to block in space and hold up in pass protection. Injuries have cut his last two seasons short, so the big man needs to have a big year to generate some draft buzz and that starts on national television this Saturday.
Eugene Ford is another Rainbow Warrior coming off a major injury. After tearing his ACL early on in the team’s second game of the season, Ford really only played in one game in 2020, but he put together an impressive performance. The defensive back had five total tackles and two interceptions in that lone contest, so he’ll be hungry and looking to build off that outing heading into the 2021 campaign.
Southern Utah at San Jose State
My goal for this column this season is to give you guys at least one more obscure game to watch every week of the college football season. This week, it’s a matchup between an FCS school and a group of six school where tickets are currently available for as low as $12.
Southern Utah has an impressive linebacker in La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-Davis. As a converted safety, Kaho’ohanohano-Davis is a versatile athlete who can do it all as a linebacker. He led the team in tackles (57) and sacks (seven) last season and was a first-team All-American at the FCS level. Also, bonus points for whoever can tell me how to pronounce his name.
On the other side of the ball for the Thunderbirds is Braxton Jones, a massive offensive tackle who is listed at 6’7” and 310 pounds. Last season, Jones allowed just three total pressures in pass protection, and he hasn’t surrendered a sack since 2018, per PFF. He has some work to do as a run blocker but don’t be surprised if he starts generating some draft buzz between now and late April.
Looking to break Jones’ sack-less streak is San Jose State’s, Cade Hall. The reigning Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the year racked up 10 sacks and 12 tackles for loss in just seven games last season. Hall is ranked as NFLDraftScout.com’s 10th-best defensive end in this year’s draft class, which makes the battle between him and Jones extremely important for both players.
Staying within the trenches, Jack Snyder is a standout offensive tackle for the Spartans. Like Hall, Snyder dominated in the Mountain West Conference last season. He earned elite PFF grades as a run and pass blocker and allowed just four pressures on 311 snaps in pass protection, en route to earning first-team All-Conference honors.
The level of competition is really the biggest question mark Snyder is facing heading into the draft process and NFL Sapient’s John Vogel has him as a fifth- to sixth-round prospect.
Quarterback Nick Starkel will be standing behind Snyder for San Jose State. The Texas A&M and Arkansas transfer threw for 2,174 yards and 17 touchdowns last season and has suitable arm strength for the NFL. However, he has accuracy issues and will have to answer questions about why he changed schools so frequently.