This week’s college slate features 23 of the Top 25 teams in action, and there are some fantastic matchups involving NFL draft prospects, including two quarterbacks in statement games.
Here are five of the prospects we’ll be especially dialed in on this weekend.
Liberty QB Malik Willis
Liberty at Syracuse
Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ACC Network
Willis is off to a great start this season (albeit against lesser competition) in his bid to climb the QB prospect rankings in a deep but wide-open field of prospects. There’s no Trevor Lawrence-type prospect in this year’s crop, but Willis’ style and traits give him a chance to crack Round 1 with continued growth.
Friday’s game at Syracuse will be one of WIllis’ and the Flames’ better tests of the season. Although this is a Syracuse offense that’s still finding its way, the Orange has played good defense despite replacing three key members of a talented secondary.
Willis will be heading into a tough environment at the Carrier Dome against his first Power-5 opponent of the 2021 season, but BetMGM has the Flames as 6.5-point favorites, with Willis a big reason why.
In last year’s matchup at Syracuse, Willis was solid in Liberty’s 38-21 victory. He completed an impressive 16 of 20 passes (80%) for 182 yards and a touchdown, also running 12 times for 58 yards and another score, although he took two sacks and lost a fumble.
Willis has a running back’s build and a cannon for an arm. He also can scramble and buy time with his legs as well as any quarterback in college football and provides a style of play that is extremely tough to defend. He has been remarkably better this season in terms of ball security (zero fumbles) a year after putting 17 balls on the ground.
With improved mechanics (especially throwing from better platforms), Willis is off to a scorching start to the season. He’ll have every opportunity to solidify himself as one of the best two or three quarterback prospects in the 2022 class. Willis currently is listed at BetMGM with the seventh-best odds (fifth among QBs) to be the first overall pick next spring.
If you’ve not had the pleasure to watch Willis, he’ll remind you a bit of Lamar Jackson, but also with dashes of Trey Lance and Jalen Hurts. He’s a tricky prospect to put into a box, comparison-wise, but that’s not at all a bad thing.
Friday night college games are often popular stops for NFL scouts, so we expect a fair number of evaluators to be on hand for this one.
— Liberty Football (@LibertyFootball) September 23, 2021
Notre Dame QB Jack Coan
No. 12 Notre Dame vs. No. 18 Wisconsin (Soldier Field)
Saturday, noon ET, Fox
Coan will be facing one of the best defenses in the country this weekend, but it’s one he knows pretty well. The former Wisconsin quarterback started 18 games for the Badgers before suffering a foot injury prior to the 2020 season and losing his starting spot to Graham Mertz.
That prompted Coan to join the Irish as Ian Book’s replacement, and he has been impressive. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Coan entered the season receiving mostly Day 3 or undrafted grades. He has since flashed more arm talent and big-play ability in the first three games than we saw regularly in Madison.
His accuracy has dipped in the two games since the opener when he hit on 73 percent of his passes in the win over Florida State. Coan can partially blame his 15-for-30 passing performance against Purdue last week on four drops. Still, he’s taking too many sacks (15 on 118 dropbacks) and has been a mixed bag on deeper throws.
If Coan can turn in a strong performance against his old program this weekend in Chicago, it will go a long way toward kick-starting his NFL draft stock to a higher gear. Even with his familiarity with the Badgers, they also know Coan’s strengths and weaknesses intimately — and Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is one of the best game planners in the country.
Texas A&M DL DeMarvin Leal
No. 7 Texas A&M at No. 16 Arkansas
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Leal is one of the best defensive prospects in the country. The 6-4, 290-pounder isn’t just an interior plugger; he often lines up outside and can be seen rushing the passer from a two-point stance. The Aggies’ coaches have done a good job of moving him around on defense, actually playing him inside more than they asked him to last season.
Arkansas’ offensive line has been more effective as a run-blocking unit than in pass protection, but it’s a group that features multiple NFL prospects. Leal gave the Razorbacks trouble last season, although he didn’t make many game-changing plays.
Still, he’s a rare blend of strength, length and quickness with multiple-technique potential at the next level, and he has shown more pass rush production through three games this season, tying his career high with 2.5 sacks so far.
Leal has a chance to be a top-20 overall prospect. The Aggies are relying on him and a top-shelf defense to carry the team while their starting quarterback is out with an injury. This game is an excellent test for his draft status.
Clemson WR Justyn Ross
No. 9 at North Carolina State
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
It has been a slow start for Ross coming back from a serious neck injury that wiped out his 2020 campaign, catching 14 passes for 139 yards (46.3 yards per game) and one touchdown in three games this year. Ross is second on the team in receiving yards behind Joseph Ngata’s 186, but it appears that Ross has made tangible strides and grown more comfortable with each game.
We’d love nothing more than to see Ross step up with a big showing in what should be a good environment at Carter-Finley Stadium. The 6-4, 209-pound Ross would be some team’s WR1 for next spring if he’s medically cleared. Although his deep speed is not his strongest trait, he can body defenders for the ball, time up catches well and move effectively after the catch. His length and strength are difficult traits for most DBs to handle.
He’s had two very good games in his career against the Wolfpack, although the Clemson offense hasn’t produced at its typically nuclear level so far this season. This stands as a good test for the Tigers and Ross, who have plenty more to prove to doubters.
Colorado State TE Trey McBride
Colorado State at No. 5 Iowa
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, FS1
The 1-2 Rams have had limited success throwing this season. When they do, McBride has been by far their best option.
The 6-4, 254-pound tight end caught nine of the 11 passes Colorado State completed in the 22-6 win over Toledo last week, and he accounted for a stunning 109 of the 110 pass yards the team totaled in the game. For the season, McBride has 21 catches (more than double the next-closest receiver) for 230 yards and one TD.
He had 14 targets in each of the three games, so there’s little question he’ll have a giant target on his back against an Iowa defense that has made a ton of big plays this season. The Hawkeyes have allowed only 10 receptions to tight ends in three games, doing a good job of containing Indiana’s Peyton Hendershot, and Iowa State’s Chase Allen and Charlie Kolar.
McBride has a thick build and solid length, along with respectable seam speed. He has displayed excellent hands in his four seasons (despite a pair of drops this season) and plays with an edge, both as a blocker and after the catch.
Entering the season, McBride was viewed as a possible top-100 pick. It’s a deeper class for tight ends than in years past, and he might not test through the roof, but this game could serve as a big one for McBride’s final evaluation.