2014 NFL Draft: Opening Night’s Top Prospects To Follow

Jadeveon ClowneyAfter what felt like an lifetime without college football, tonight brings the return of Jadeveon Clowney, Lane Kiffin, and actual college football games to watch. While the slate tonight isn't loaded with NFL talent and possible first rounders, it does feature a handful of inter-state or cross-state rivalries, leading with North Carolina and South Carolina, as Jadeveon Clowney gets his chance to meet Bryn Renner.

North Carolina at South Carolina
While I won’t touch on juniors too much because I haven’t seen many of them close enough across the country to have a great opinion on them, it would be a mistake to not mention that all eyes will be on South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and North Carolina’s TE Eric Ebron. Clowney will likely be a Top 3 pick, while Ebron’s ball grabbing skills, athleticism in space, and a willingness to do everything as a tight end could make him a first round pick if he has the type of season expected of him.

Clowney will be likely going against North Carolina’s best senior prospect in OT James Hurst (#68). Hurst has ample length and has shown an ability to hold the point of attack against power rushers, but if he can limit Clowney to just a handful of pressures and less than 2 sacks, it’ll be considered a win for the day. He may also get work against South Carolina’s other defensive end, senior Chaz Sutton (#90), who may end the season as a Top 100 pick himself.  He’ll be protecting QB Bryn Renner (#2), who I’m expecting to have a major improvement off last season based on what I know of head coach Larry Fedora’s offense. With a quick release, enough velocity downfield, and plus ball placement, Renner has the tools to jump from a potential NFL back-up to the coveted Top 50 overall selections this year. He’ll be going against South Carolina senior cornerback Jimmy LeGree (#15), who could have a productive year with such a talented front four providing pass rush.

Also on the North Carolina offense, keep an eye on feature runner AJ Blue (#15) who has the size, power, and open field break tackle ability to pick up chunks of yards, and OG David Collins (#62).

When South Carolina has the ball, the focus will be on the passing game, starting with QB Connor Shaw (#14). While he’s undersized and likely doesn’t have the NFL skill set based on what he’s done in his career thus far, he should still be productive with Steve Spurrier at the helm. However, the true focus will be on the North Carolina defenders. Starting with DE Kareem Martin (#95), DT Tim Jackson (#93) and ILB Darius Lipford (#23), the young South Carolina offensive line will have their handful against these three potential Top 4 rounders, especially Martin, who was up and down last year. The defensive backfield is the true strength of the North Carolina defense (as usual), with S Tre Boston (#10) and CB Jabari Price (#4) leading the charge as expected Top 100 picks. Boston is a ballhawk who’s able to finish plays in centerfield and plays with controlled steps. Price has the hip turning and body control to run vertically, but finishes plays in the air and as a tackler in the short area as well.

USC at Hawaii
While the true focus on these game will be the USC Trojans and their slew of prospects, the home-team Hawaii does feature three potential late round draft picks: CB John Hardy-Tuliau (#33), ILB Art Laurel (#41), and WR Billy Ray Stutzmann (#5).

As alluded to earlier, I won’t be discussing the juniors much, but I do feel USC’s WR Marqise Lee has the potential to be the next “elite” receiver prospect in the upcoming draft after not having one in the 2013 class. If he has the type of season of improvement I expect, he could be in the AJ Green/Julio Jones/Calvin Johnson class of receiver prospects. Also from the underclassmen for USC, TE Xavier Gamble has the size and athletic upside to potentially get more catches and buzz as the season continues and S Dion Bailey will be moving to safety but tracks the ball very well, is explosive, and is back to his original position. He is coming off shoulder surgery this off-season.

I’ll be focused first and foremost on the outside linebackers in the new USC 3-4 defense. Morgan Breslin (#91), who has the physicality to probably play 5-technique, 7-technique or a power rushing 3-4 OLB like he will be, needs to show he can win from the edge and win with more than just a bull rush. Also, Devon Kennard (#8) returns from a season long injury, though he probably does have the skill set to fit well in the 3-4. Possessing the upside to be a future NFL starter, it’ll be key to see if Kennard has lost a step since his injury and if it’ll be a lingering problem for the future. Also on the defense, I’ll be checking out defensive backs Torin Harris (CB #4) and Demetrius Wright (S #24).

As for the Trojan offense, former Penn State transfer RB Silas Redd (#25) now has fully assumed the carry load, and with a new quarterback Max Wittak likely needing to get his feet wet, it should be a heavy dose of the patient, balanced, and efficient running Redd. Protecting Wittak and leading the way for Redd will be offensive tackle Kevin Graf, who doesn’t have the same upside/appeal that some of the past USC offensive tackles have, but he’s certainly a Top 100 considered tackle who can be a future NFL starter. Also on the offense that I’ll be checking on is WR De’Von Flournoy (#80) and OG John Martinez (#59).

Other Prospects to Watch Tonight:

Indiana State vs. Indiana
INDIANA ST – RB Shakir Bell (#22)

INDIANA – RB Stephen Houston (#12), S Greg Heban (#43), TE Ted Bolser (#83)

Tulsa vs. Bowling Green
TULSA – RB Trey Watts (#22), QB Cody Green (#7), RB Ja’Terian Douglas (#25)

BOWLING GREEN – JR WR Chris Gallon (#6) TE Alex Bayer (#82), OG Chief Kekuewa (#65), S Boo Boo Gates (#24), OG Dominic Flewellyn (#52), QB Matt Schilz (#7), CB Cameron Truss (#8), WR Shaun Joplin (#9)

Utah State vs. Utah
UTAH ST – OC Tyler Larsen (#58), OT Eric Schultz (#66), OG Jamie Markosian (#54)

UTAH –  S Brian Blechen (#4), OLB Trevor Reilly (#9), CB Keith McGill (#1)

Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt
OLE MISS – CB Charles Sawyer (#3), ILB Mike Marry (#52), OT Emmanuel McCray (#70), CB Dehendret Collins (#1), RB Jeff Scott (#3), WR Ja-Mes Logan (#85), OC Evan Swindall (#56), DE Cameron Whigham (#72), OLB D.T. Shackelford (#9)

VANDY – WR Jordan Matthews (#87), CB Andre Hal (#23), S Kenny Ladler (#1), ILB Chase Garnham (#36), DE Walker May (#90), QB Austyn Carta-Samuels (#6), CB Steve Clarke (#12), RB  Wesley Tate (#24)

Rutgers vs. Fresno State
RUTGERS – OLB Jamil Merrell (#92), OG Antwan Lowery (#75), Jamal Merrell (#37), CB Lewis Toler, DE Marcus Thompson (#48), S Jeremy Deering (#18)

FRESNO ST – QB Derek Carr (#4), WR Isaiah Burse (#1), TE Marcel Jensen (#89), OT Austin Wentworth (#72), DE Andy Jennings (#98), CB LJ Jones (#6)

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