By: Alex Brown
In the opening week of Saturday games, the scouting focus should be on how these teams adjust with new starters at quarterback. With the SEC’s all time leading passer Aaron Murray graduated, how will Georgia’s offense look in 2014? The same can be said with Alabama losing A.J. McCarron and Clemson moving past Tajh Boyd.
With all that being said, the talent at the skill positions, particularly running back, and in the trenches will be focal points to watch. Each of the following games feature potential first round talents and many other draftable prospects, so familiarize yourself with these names and enjoy the return of college football.
West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2, 4:00 PM EST
Considering the lack of a clear-cut starting QB for Alabama at the moment with junior Florida State transfer Jacob Coker and last year’s backup in senior Blake Sims named as co-starters, I would expect Alabama will lean heavily on the ground game with star junior RB T.J. Yeldon. Although ball security was a concern last season, Yeldon impresses with elite balance and control after making a cut through the hole. His combination of plus size, speed and maneuverability could lead to an early day two grade for the talented underclassman.
As far as matchups are concerned, it will be important to see how Alabama OG Arie Kouandjio executes on the zone blocking concepts, as West Virginia employs a 3-3-5 stack defense that can make locating second level blocks difficult. Kouandjio is better in tight quarters where he can use his wide body and heavy hands to create movement up front, but he’ll have plenty of space in this game and will need to be sharp with his cutoff angles. Upfront for West Virginia, FCS transfer Shaquille Riddick fits the mold as a one-gapping, upfield attacker off the edge. Coming over to the Mountaineers from Gardner-Webb, Riddick brings plus length and coordination as a pass rusher, but needs to improve his initial hand placement and continue to fill out his frame .
On the offensive side for West Virginia, WR Kevin White is a day three draftable talent, who has the plus length to dominate at the catch point while also showcasing balance and fluidity as a vertical route runner. Alabama’s junior SAF Landon Collins will likely shade White’s side of the field and provide a vertical blanket to force the ball elsewhere in the passing game. Look for White’s biggest impact to come in the redzone area, as he holds a decisive size advantage at 6’3 over both of Alabama’s sub 6’0 starting corners. The Tide will be without their top returning ILB in Trey DePriest, who received a suspension for a “minor NCAA infraction” according to head coach Nick Saban. Considering that loss, it’ll be interesting to see if West Virginia can get things started on the ground with senior RB Dreamius Smith, who takes over for last year’s star RB Charles Sims. Dreamius is a far more effective runner when he works vertically with his cuts and runs behind his pads, but he developed a habit of bouncing early to the outside last season and got away with missed reads by simply outrunning the pursuit.
No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN, 5:30 PM EST
Fourth-year senior QB Cole Stoudt makes his first career start for Clemson, but won’t be eased into his new role with Georgia’s edge duo of junior Jordan Jenkins and redshirt sophomore Leonard Floyd. Jenkins showcases plus strength at the point of attack with violent hands and explosive hips, while Floyd looks similar to 2013 top five draft selection Dion Jordan in terms of length, movement skills to finish in open field tackles and speed as a pass rusher. Going back to Cole Stoudt, although he lacks a plus arm, he works through progressions quickly and shows a willingness to take what the defense gives him.
Similarly to Clemson, Georgia breaks in a first year starter with fifth-year senior Hutson Mason. And while Stoudt faces a formidable duo of edge rushers, Mason has top senior pass rusher Vic Beasley and a senior laden front four to deal with. Beasley’s elite speed rush component and ability to bend the arc gave the Bulldogs fits in last year’s contest. Starting junior OT John Theus switches from RT to LT this year and will have the difficult task of blocking Beasley. Theus isn’t an elite athlete and must improve his base setup on pass sets, but he does display excellent grip strength to latch on and steer opponents out of the way. So while he may struggle to cutoff Beasley’s speed rush, the running game should be an advantage for Georgia’s offensive attack with the big, explosive and powerful junior Todd Gurley at RB. Whether he was beating pursuit angles with deep speed, cutting across the grain to expose over pursuit or building momentum to deliver punishing contact to tacklers, Gurley was the most difficult RB to tackle in the SEC last season.
Fresno State at No. 15 USC, Fox, 7:30 PM EST
Despite Fresno State losing Davante Adams to the NFL, returning senior WR Josh Harper is an excellent prospect in his own right and capable of winning vertically with his raw talent. Having the body control to finish difficult receptions and athleticism to create yards for himself after the catch, USC will have a tough time matching up with him. The onus will be on the USC front four to generate pressure and that starts with junior DE Leonard Williams. Possessing not only a 6’5, 300 pound frame with explosive, controlling hands at the point of attack but also the rare movement skills to drop into coverage or chase the ball carrier down in pursuit, Williams can beat you in so many ways. He’s not dissimilar from former Missouri 2013 first rounder Sheldon Richardson and very capable of landing in the first round of the upcoming draft class.
On offense, USC’s junior WR Nelson Agholor faces off against a Fresno secondary that’s led by senior Derron Smith. Receiving feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Board that projected him as a day three prospect, Smith returned to school to build on his stock. He’s not afraid to mix it up and get physical, and more importantly displays a high football IQ with his ability to anticipate, diagnose and react to the play. According to our Head West scout Mark Dulgerian, Smith is a rangy, hard hitting safety that showcases plus man coverage skills. Along with the deep threat of Agholor, Smith will have to worry about USC senior TE Randall Telfer down the seams and over the middle third of the field.
No. 14 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 LSU, ESPN, 9:00 PM EST
The storyline to watch in this contest will be Wisconsin’s running game versus LSU’s talented front seven. Entering year two as a starter, senior LSU DE Jermauria Rasco showcases an elite first step and will draw Wisconsin’s mammoth-sized RT Robby Havenstein. Rasco flashes an inside spin move when unable to win to the outside with speed, so it’ll be interesting to see if Havenstein can mirror patiently in pass protection and time up his punches. On the other hand, Rasco isn’t the strongest DE versus the run and Wisconsin should do everything to run at Rasco with their highly talented junior RB Melvin Gordon. Gordon is primarily utilized on inside runs that allow him to find and access creases in the defense’s pursuit, but is also given opportunities to win on the perimeter with his long speed on jet sweep handoffs.
Likewise, LSU has a strong running game with two senior runners in Kenny Hilliard as the power back and Terrence Magee as the scat back. It would be a discredit to Kenny Hilliard’s ability to label him as only a short yardage specialist, as he’s particularly effective in the outside zone game where he can press the hole and cut off the lead blocker’s assigned defender. On the other hand, Magee has a square profile and explosive element in his cuts to finish runs with deceptive power. Both backs will follow the blocking of LT La’el Collins, who dominates in the zone running game by staying on his tracks, using his heavy hands to latch on and running his feet through the whistle.