With Thanksgiving on the horizon, perhaps it is appropriate that many of this week’s top matchups in college football involve the big men along the line of scrimmage.
In many cases, they are the relatively unheralded blockers protecting the so-called skill position stars that fans and media clamor about. NFL scouts evaluating this weekend’s games, however, will certainly be paying plenty of attention up front, especially at the center position, where some of this year’s top prospects are in a position to star.
But others who play with power, including tight ends and running backs, will also take center stage. Below is a breakdown of this week’s top individual matchups, with an eye toward their futures in the NFL.
Preview: No. 4 TCU at Baylor
Joel Klatt breaks down TCU-Baylor, breaking down why the Frogs will avenge a 61-58 loss back in 2014.
The action kicks off right away with a critical matchup for an undefeated Horned Frogs squad seeking to crash the playoff party. TCU features one of this year’s top centers in Steve Avila, who will go up against Baylor’s talented nose guard Siaki Ika, an LSU transfer who flashes the athleticism and power NFL scouts crave.
At a burly 6-foot-4, 330 pounds, Avila possesses NFL-caliber size and surprising initial quickness to control most defenders. He’s both broad-shouldered and balanced, showing good lateral agility and core strength to hold up in pass protection, as well as creating consistent movement at the point of attack. Ika, as mentioned in this breakdown is an unusual athlete in his own right, but he has registered just 21 tackles this season, including just two for loss and zero sacks. He possesses the quickness and raw power to collapse the pocket, but has shown more potential than production, making scouts more frustrated than opponents, thus far this season.
While on the subject of athletic blockers, Baylor left tackle Connor Galvin deserves mentioning. The lanky 6-foot-7, 302-pounder is also surprisingly quick off the snap, showing good lateral agility and acceleration to block on the move. He eases off the snap in pass protection, showing range and understanding of the arc to keep edge rushers at bay. His mobility really stands out when zipping out to the second level as a run blocker. TCU has the athletes and physicality to challenge him — and Galvin needs to show more grip strength to latch and sustain — but this is the kind of matchup that he can help boost his own stock, as well as help the Bears put a scare into the favored Horned Frogs.
Head coach Bret Bielema deserves a Coach of the Year consideration for leading Illinois to a 7-3 record and first place in the Big Ten West, but after dropping back-to-back home games against Michigan State and Purdue, it seems unlikely that this team is going to walk into the Big House and push around the undefeated and defending conference champion Wolverines.
If they are to do so, star running back Chase Brown is almost certainly going to pad his Heisman candidacy. With an FBS-leading 1,442 rushing yards so far this season, he certainly is capable of doing so. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Ontario, Canada native began his career at Western Michigan but has starred since making the jump up to the Big Ten, showing an exciting combination of vision, burst and wiggle to prove one of the most difficult runners to square up in college football. Brown darts to and through the hole, accelerating in a flash and consistently surprising defenders. He has a short, compact frame similar to his even stubbier counterpart at Michigan, Blake Corum, who has the benefit of playing behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines.
“Big Blue” starts in the middle with the proverbial bowling ball of butcher knives in center Olusegun Oluwatimi, a two-time transfer who began his career at Air Force and earned All-American accolades at Virginia prior to joining renowned offensive line aficionado Jim Harbaugh. Round and robust, Oluwatimi possesses almost-unfair initial quickness for his stubby 6-foot-3, 300-pound frame, stunning defenders with both his agility and power and consistently creating movement at the point of attack.
Oluwatimi would easily rank as the best blocker for most teams, but the Wolverines have stars all over the line, with left tackle Ryan Hayes perhaps the best of the bunch. Like his teammate, Hayes offers a prototypical combination of quickness, power and aggression at the point of attack. The 6-foot-7, 305-pounder moves every bit like the former tight end he is, sprinting out of his stance to beat would-be tacklers at the point of attack and bulldozing defenders in much the same way that Michigan’s center does inside.
Highlight: Chase Brown goes 49 yards to the house
Watch as Illinois’ star running back burns Wisconsin for a long touchdown earlier this season.
If Harbaugh deserves credit for the pipeline of offensive linemen during his time at Michigan (and previously at Stanford), longtime Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz could offer a graduate course in developing tight ends — former Hawkeyes George Kittle, TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant are among the most dynamic tight ends at the pro level.
In 6-foot-4, 249-pound Sam LaPorta, Ferentz and the Hawkeyes appear to have their next star at the position. LaPorta only has one touchdown reception on the season (and five for his career) but he’s well on his way towards setting a career-high with 49 grabs so far this season. He is quick off the ball and accelerates smoothly, changing directions efficiently and showing good balance to shake off tacklers. He possesses soft hands to pluck the ball outside his frame, as well as good body control to twirl and adjust, making him a real threat in the passing game.
A far different type of athlete is Minnesota center John Michael Schmitz, a classic Big Ten brawler, whose punch would make Mike Tyson envious.
Schmitz possesses initial quickness similar to the other top centers in this article, but he complements his light feet with equally active and aggressive hands and hips, trading blows with opponents and sliding well laterally to take the fight to later rounds. He attacks defenders and looks to bury them when possible, with plenty of highlight-reel-worthy pancakes on film.
Spencer Petras connects with Sam LaPorta
Iowa took a lead vs. Purdue earlier this season when Spencer Petras found Sam LaPorta for a 16-yard touchdown.
There are plenty of stars to highlight for the 9-1 USC Trojans, not the least of which is head coach Lincoln Riley (Oklahoma), sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams (Oklahoma), reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison (Pittsburgh), and linebacker Shane Lee (Alabama) — each of whom starred elsewhere last season.
For all the transfers now flourishing under the bright lights of L.A., perhaps the biggest star is Tuli Tuipulotu, a natural talent who currently leads the country with an eye-popping 11.5 sacks.
The term “natural” is especially appropriate with Tuipulotu not only because he’s spent all three of his years at the collegiate level with the Trojans, but the fact because wherever they’ve lined him up, he’s enjoyed success. Officially listed by USC at 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, Tuipulotu has earned snaps at both defensive end spots, as well as at defensive tackle and inside linebacker, showing uncanny instincts in locating and making plays on the football.
While still growing into his frame, he appears best suited as an edge rusher, timing the snap beautifully and pairing his lower and upper body to swim through would-be blockers to consistently make plays behind the line of scrimmage. He is averaging more than a tackle-for-loss per game in his career, with 27.5 TFL in 27 contests, with 19 career sacks, five passes broken up and four forced fumbles. He isn’t just quick, Tuipuloto also uses his long arms and good core strength to pin and spin off blockers into ball carriers to slap away passes when quarterbacks attempt to throw over or around him.
Tuipuloto isn’t just one of the more underrated prospects in the country, this week’s rivalry game against UCLA gives him the big stage on which to seize the first-round buzz his production and potential warrant.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is precisely the type of dynamic dual-threat who should be able to mitigate a dominating defender like Tuipuloto. Affectionately known by his abbreviation DTR, UCLA’s quarterback has excelled under Bruins’ head coach Chip Kelly, completing a career-high 71% of his passes for 20 touchdowns against just four interceptions this season, while rushing for another 462 yards and seven scores on the ground. The gaudy numbers are nothing new for DTR — he enters the game with a career 81/30 TD/INT ratio — which is why NFL scouts should be overlooking his relatively slight 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame and instead focusing on his proven accuracy in and out of the pocket. He also has elite competitiveness, which has helped him star against elite opponents dating back to 2017, when faced Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Matt Corral and Tanner McKee, among others at the Elite 11 QB Camp.
While USC and UCLA are battling for current supremacy of the Pac-12, last year’s champion, Utah, and its title game foe, Oregon, are a suitable late-night dessert for those willing to stay up.
The perennially underrated Utes boast two players — tight end Dalton Kincaid and left tackle Braeden Daniels — who recently accepted invitations to the prestigious Senior Bowl. Kincaid was brilliant in Utah’s thrilling 43-42 win over USC a month ago, hauling in a jaw-dropping 16 receptions for 234 yards and a touchdown. He has struggled with an undisclosed injury since, however, and while expected to play, may not be his normal dynamic self.
That could make the showdown between the 6-foot-4, 297-pound Daniels and Oregon’s top edge rusher, DJ Johnson — a former tight end, himself — that much more fascinating.
Utah has consistently produced Morris Trophy winners (awarded annually to the Pac-12’s top offensive and defensive linemen) in large part because Kyle Whittingham and his staff recruit and develop size and strength up front. Daniels is different from the norm at Utah in that regard, winning more with quickness, pad level and balance than with girth and power. While slightly undersized for the position, his experience stands out. Saturday night’s clash will be Daniels’ 39th career start, with time spent inside at left guard and at both tackle positions.
That is in direct contrast to Johnson, who began his career at Miami and spent last year splitting duty between outside linebacker, tight end and on special teams. With former head coach Mario Cristobal reversing Johnson’s travels and heading to the Hurricanes, and the Ducks losing Kayvon Thibodeaux to the New York Giants, Johnson has emerged as Oregon’s top pass rusher this season, checking in with a team-high six sacks and a career-high 29 tackles, including eight tackles for loss.
Given his inexperience at the position, no one should be surprised that Johnson remains a bit raw as a pass rusher. His burst and bend off the ball are enough to intrigue NFL scouts, however, and the 6-foot-4, 259-pounder has shown encouraging development in his awareness and strength at the point of attack.
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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