By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
Watch Week 4 of the college football season like a professional scout with this handy viewing guide.
While last week’s action certainly featured some heart-pounding moments — especially for the home crowds at Washington, Notre Dame and Appalachian State — it was barely an appetizer in comparison to Week 4, which boasts a slate flush with Top-25 showdowns and bitter conference rivalries.
Like most college football fans, NFL scouts appreciate tightly contested games between blue-blood programs.
And while scouts are obviously focusing on draft-eligible players, make no mistake, they are just as likely to get swept up in the excitement over a young superstar as the rest of us — with Michigan’s dual-threat quarterback J.J. McCarthy already generating plenty of buzz.
McCarthy and the fourth-ranked Wolverines lead off this Saturday’s must-see scouting opportunities.
In hindsight, the decision seems obvious, but when Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney decided that then-true freshman Trevor Lawrence would give his team its best chance at winning a national championship over incumbent starter Kelly Bryant, there were plenty of critics.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh hopes to have a similar situation brewing with McCarthy, who certainly looked the part of a young superstar since taking over for Cade McNamara, the passer who helped the Wolverines win the Big Ten a year ago. Needless to say, McCarthy has a long, long way to go before warranting comparison to the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft, but the combination of speed, arm strength and accuracy he’s shown thus far is exciting.
J.J. McCarthy to Roman Wilson!
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy found Roman Wilson on a 42-yard TD pass against Hawaii this season.
And Harbaugh isn’t shielding his young protégé. McCarthy was asked to make a variety of NFL-caliber throws in the Wolverines’ dismantling of Hawaii and Connecticut the past two weeks, and he showed ideal touch and trajectory on deep balls, as well as timing and precision on slants, posts and deep outs to the sideline.
Better yet, while agile and explosive as a runner, McCarthy has shown good vision and patience to threaten as a scrambler and force defenders to creep toward the line of scrimmage, only to layer passes over the top in the spaces they’ve vacated. Of course, playing quarterback is much easier with dynamic weapons on the outside like Ronnie Bell and Roman Wilson, both of whom likely will be on NFL rosters at this time next year.
The visiting and undefeated Terrapins are a steep upgrade from the competition McCarthy and the Wolverines have faced, thus far, boasting a star quarterback of their own in Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of the Miami Dolphins’ standout signal-caller. The Terps boast a quality secondary to go along with their talented passing attack. Junior safety Beau Brade has nearly twice as many tackles (27) as anyone else on Maryland’s roster, with an interception and forced fumble, as well. Cornerback Jakorian Bennett is currently tied for second in the country with five pass breakups and entered the campaign already on the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Bowl’s respective Watch Lists.
Like many of the other contests in Week 4, this key Pac-12 showdown between the Ducks and Cougars will likely be “billed” as a battle between transfer quarterbacks Bo Nix (previously at Auburn) and WSU’s Cameron Ward (Incarnate Wood), despite the fact that the two quarterbacks obviously won’t really be facing each other.
Many college football fans (and scouts) are already quite familiar with Nix, but Ward has actually proved the more consistent player this season and over their respective careers, showing the mobility, vision and a quick release to be quite effective as the leader of WSU’s offense.
Cameron Ward tosses TD vs. Wisconsin
Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward findsNakia Watson for the 31-yard TD pass against Wisconsin earlier this season.
While he has struggled with consistency — especially as a pocket passer — Nix possesses the physical traits every NFL team is looking to develop, including plenty of arm strength and athleticism. He played quite well in Oregon’s thumping of a talented BYU squad last week but has a tougher challenge against WSU’s athletic defense, which is led by linebacker Daiyan Henley. A senior, Henley not only possesses the speed to meet Nix on the perimeter, but he’s also physical and quick to diagnose plays, attacking downhill in a flash. Henley led the Cougars with nine tackles (including 1.5 for loss) in their upset win at Wisconsin two weeks ago and he should be similarly effective against an Oregon team looking to run the ball just as often as the Badgers.
When the 2022 schedule was released, few likely anticipated that it would be the Scarlet Knights entering this contest undefeated rather than the visiting Hawkeyes. But head coach Greg Schiano has Rutgers playing with confidence, helping the program pull out tight victories over Boston College (22-21) and Temple (16-14) on the road. Few are better in close games than Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, which should make this the kind of defensive brawl the Big Ten used to hang its collective hat on.
For much of Ferentz’s tenure, Iowa has produced good, blue-collar, tough-guy football players that scouts and draftniks have lauded — only to watch them struggle in pre-draft workouts. That, however, is not likely to be the case with cornerback Riley Moss, one of the “freakiest” athletes in college football, according to longtime analyst Bruce Feldman.
The 6-foot-1, 193-pound Moss is not related to the Hall of Fame wide receiver, but one might think it when he works out, as he is expected to post eye-popping numbers in the vertical jump and shuttle drills — tests which demonstrate explosiveness and change of direction. Those talents are critical to playing cornerback, and Moss has already shown his namesake’s ball skills, intercepting 10 passes over his career with three of them returned for touchdowns.
Moss is likely to be matched up one-on-one with Rutgers’ most-gifted athlete, Aron Cruickshank, who leads the Scarlet Knights in receptions and receiving yards, has scored as both a receiver and runner, and also serves as the team’s top kick and punt returner. At 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, Cruickshank possesses the lithe frame and game to give the lanky Moss a real challenge. In a game that likely doesn’t produce many points, this matchup could be very interesting.
This game is being played in September, but it feels like eating dessert after a hearty Thanksgiving meal. That’s because one of the tastiest matchups of a fantastic Saturday of college football doesn’t come until late when Felix Anudike-Uzomah — the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year — gets a chance to shock Dillon Gabriel and the hosting sixth-ranked Sooners.
The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Anudike-Uzomah was unbelievable a year ago, finishing second only to Alabama superstar Will Anderson Jr. among sophomores across the country, collecting an eye-popping 14.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and six forced fumbles. He is proving that last year was no fluke, too, registering nine tackles, including 3.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, and another forced fumble in three games so far this year.
Anudike-Uzomah is a fun player to evaluate because he flashes all sorts of exciting traits, which suggest that he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. When he times the snap right, his quick-twitch explosiveness can leave tackles sucking vapor trails. He’s lightning-quick and coordinates his hands and feet well, dipping and ripping his way past would-be blockers. He’s also surprisingly powerful at the point of attack and plays hard, coming out of nowhere to “steal” big tackles behind the line of scrimmage when he’s seemingly been contained for most of the play.
By now, scouts are quite familiar with the Wildcats’ pass rusher, and they should also know the Sooners’ right tackle, Wanya Morris, who originally signed as a five-star recruit at Tennessee. Scouts have some background to work on with Morris — including why he was suspended earlier this season — but his talent is undeniable. The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder is quick off the snap and shows good lateral agility, balance and length to keep edge rushers corralled. He’s expected to line up at right tackle against Kansas State, but most of his experience is on the left side. With Anudike-Uzomah likely to be moved all over the line for the visiting Wildcats (a 12.5-point underdog per FOX Bet), there should be plenty of battles for scouts to watch these two future NFL players compete.
Stanford’s Tanner McKee was one of the more highly touted quarterbacks throughout the offseason, but his junior campaign has not started off as well as hoped, with him tossing an interception in a season-opening win over Colgate and two more in a loss to USC. Still, scouts are enamored with his prototypical frame (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), arm and experience in a pro-style offense, and both of his picks against the Trojans were catchable passes deflected into the air by his intended targets.
Whereas McKee has underwhelmed thus far this season — at least statistically — Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. has arguably boosted his stock as much as any quarterback in the country so far, owning an impressive 10-1 touchdown to interception ratio and performing brilliantly in last week’s home victory over then-11th ranked Michigan State.
The quarterbacks will understandably receive the bulk of the pregame focus, but Stanford and Washington are well known for producing quality NFL prospects along the line of scrimmage, and this year is no different. Scouts are circling the matchup between Stanford’s steady senior left tackle Walter Rouse and Washington’s toolsy redshirt sophomore edge rusher Bralen Trice, whose frame and game are reminiscent of his former teammate Joe Tryon, a 2021 first-round pick by Tampa Bay.
Like the quarterback he’s protecting, Rouse looks like he came out of central casting for his position, boasting a powerful 6-foot-5, 318-pound frame with excellent weight distribution, good initial quickness and lateral agility, and a powerful pop to stun and stall defenders. Trice (as well as teammate Zion Tupuola-Fetui) have enough burst and bend off the snap to challenge Rouse, but the Huskies are not likely to control the line of scrimmage the way they did most of the night against Michigan State, making this a contest worth staying up for.
Scouts watching this key ACC matchup will certainly be focusing on the quarterbacks, as Clemson junior DJ Uiagalelei (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) is one of the more physically imposing prospects at the position in years, and fourth-year Wake Forest star Sam Hartman — while certainly smaller at a listed 6-foot-1, 210 pounds — is currently the better, savvier passer.
If the 21st-ranked Demon Deacons are to pull off the home upset over No. 5 Clemson, Hartman will have to be more than just good, however. The Tigers boast one of the most gifted defenses in college football and might be emotionally charged given the expected return of junior defensive tackle Bryan Bresee. While just a redshirt sophomore, the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Bresee is already a projected first-round pick, demonstrating an exceptional combination of size, power and athleticism. He missed last week’s game grieving for his sister, Ella, who died at just 15 due to an aggressive form of brain cancer. Several teammates, including all of Clemson’s defensive tackles and Uiagalelei, joined Bresee in attending Ella’s funeral this week.
One certainly couldn’t blame Bresee if he were distracted, but this game pits him and the rest of a talented Clemson front against one of the more underrated interior offensive lines in the country. Bresee is an athletic marvel, demonstrating rare burst and flexibility for a man of his size, but the Deacons’ center Michael Jurgens and left guard Sean Maginn are NFL hopefuls, as well. Neither possesses the lateral agility to handle a focused Bresee one-on-one for long, but both possess enough size and strength to anchor nicely and work well in tandem.
While Florida’s toolsy young quarterback Anthony Richardson was touted by some throughout the offseason as the next big thing at quarterback in the SEC, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker has staked his claim as the legitimate owner of this moniker, leading the undefeated Vols’ to their highest ranking in years with six passing touchdowns (and two more as a rusher) without an interception. While rarely mentioned among the top passing prospects, Hooker has a career TD-INT rate of 59-10 and possesses all the traits needed for success in the NFL.
Hooker, who began his career at Virginia Tech, has developed beautifully under Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel’s tutelage, demonstrating greatly improved awareness, vision, touch and poise. Hooker is one of the better deep ball passers in this draft class, dropping the ball into the bucket with consistency. He and the Vols are facing their stiffest test of the year, however, with a talented Florida defense coming to Knoxville. Given Hooker’s deep-ball proficiency, perhaps the most intriguing “one-on-one” matchup of this game might be with Florida safety Trey Dean III, who, like Hooker, entered the year on the Senior Bowl’s watch list.
Dean was terrific in last year’s 38-14 drubbing of Tennessee, collecting 11 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, both season-highs. He is a rangy, alert defender quick to trigger downhill to support the run. His value to the NFL, however, lies with his agility, speed and awareness in coverage. He not only can handle deep coverage responsibilities, Dean possesses the man-to-man cover skills to drop down and handle slot duties — as he often did a year ago against the Vols in Gainesville.
Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.
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