CFT Previews: Top NFL prospects playing in the National Championship Game

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As the excitement builds for the first national championship decided by a playoff system, NFL scouts will be even more giddy about the available talent on the rosters of the Oregon Ducks and the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Both squads are loaded with players that will eventually make the transition from student-athlete to the professional ranks.

Two potential No. 1 overall picks could play in the contest with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota facing off against Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa. However, Bosa is only a true sophomore, therefore he is not eligible for the 2015 NFL draft class.

Here are the Top 10 draft-eligible talents in the contest as they project to the NFL:

1. Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Oregon
The National Championship Game will be Mariota’s next opportunity to make his case to be selected No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April’s NFL draft.

The Oregon quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner has all the physical tools a team searches for in a franchise quarterback. He stands 6-4 and weighs 219 pounds. His arm is above average. And Oregon coaches claim the quarterback is one of the fastest players on the team with a 4.4-second 40-yard dash.

But the most impressive aspect of Mariota’s play is his decision-making. Questions will continue about Oregon’s system and the type of throws Mariota is usually asked to make. However, the quarterback owns an astounding touchdown-to-interception ratio over his career. Entering Monday’s contest, Mariota has thrown 101 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions. It’s an amazing number that isn’t dependent purely on system.

The National Championship Game should be the proper platform to highlight the skills of the best player in college football and arguably the top talent preparing to enter the NFL.

2. Michael Bennett, defensive tackle, Ohio State
The Buckeyes’ late season surge was helped by the resurgence of its veteran leader along the defensive line. Bennett didn’t perform to expectations during the first half of the season even though the defensive tackle was considered a first-round talent.

Ohio State’s coaching staff then decided to only play Bennett as the team’s 3-technique (defensive tackle that lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard). The senior admitted an increased comfort level, and his play reflected as such.

Bennett is an explosive up-field disruptive force that is nearly as adept at taking on double-teams and properly splitting those blocks. The defensive lineman absolutely dominated the Wisconsin Badgers’ offensive line in the Big Ten Championship Game, and he turned up the heat on Alabama quarterback Blake Sims during the second half of the Sugar Bowl.

Due to Bennett’s strong second-half performance, he will once again be considered a top talent as the draft nears.

3. Arik Armstead, defensive end, Oregon
California v OregonVery few players on the field will present Armstead’s combination of raw talent and athleticism.

The 6-8, 290-pound junior chose Oregon, because the Ducks allowed him to play both football and basketball. Armstead wasn’t great on the hardwood, but he can be very difficult to block when he’s on the gridiron.

Due to Armstead’s size and strength in his hands, he projects as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme — it’s an easy projection since the Ducks employ a three-man front. The concerns this year, though, were from a lack of production and nagging injuries that slowed the talented defensive lineman.

4. DeForest Buckner, defensive end, Oregon
These Oregon defensive ends could easily be flipped based on system fit. Buckner is better at penetrating and making plays in the backfield than Armstead, who is more stout at the point of attack.

The 6-7, 290-pound junior led the Ducks with 13 tackles for loss. He also finished fourth on the team with four sacks.

As a tall and angular defensive lineman, though, Buckner’s ability to play with leverage is inconsistent, and he can be driven off the ball by more physical offensive linemen.

5. Hroniss Grasu, center, Oregon
Grasu is arguably the best center in college football. However, he is yet another system fit. Teams that employ a heavy zone-blocking scheme will value Grasu more highly than traditional power blocking systems. His lateral movement is as good as any interior blocker in the nation. As such, Grasu’s value will range from the early to mid rounds.

The Los Angles native already proved to be an iron man in the middle of the Ducks offensive line. He started 40 straight games before finally getting dinged as a senior. Still, Grasu maintained his status as one of the team’s leaders and his toughness was never questioned.

The center’s ability to prevent penetration against Ohio State’s talented defensive front will be a major indicator as to how well the Ducks perform on offense.

6. Jeff Heuerman, tight end, Ohio State

Jeff Heuerman, Antonio Allen
Jeff Heuerman, Antonio Allen

A quick peek at the tight end’s stats doesn’t indicate a top pro prospect. Yet, Heuerman could easily be one of the first players off the board at his position.

Heuerman only caught 17 passes for 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Despite the poor production, the senior presents two key qualities. First, Heuerman is a very good athlete, and he can serve as a vertical threat in any passing game. He may not be used often in Urban Meyer‘s offense, but his potential as a receiver is readily apparent. Also, the tight end is a competent blocker.

As the age of the receiving tight end continues, a prospect that can do well in both areas is extremely valuable.

7. Devin Smith, wide receiver, Ohio State
The best deep threat in college football resides in Columbus, Ohio. Smith leads the NCAA with an average of 27.7 yards per catch. The senior receiver hauled in a catch of over 30 yards in all but two games this season. Smith’s overall route running may be limited, but his ability to take the top off a defense at any time is rare.

8. Taylor Decker, left tackle, Ohio State
The Buckeyes’ rock along their offensive line has a decision to make after this season. The junior may be leaning toward entering the NFL draft, but his value may not be as high as he suspects. After moving to left tackle in 2014, Decker proved he was a competent collegiate blind-side protector. However, he may be better suited at right tackle.

9. Doran Grant, cornerback, Ohio State
The senior cornerback proved to be a physical presence on the edge as Ohio State’s sixth-leading tackler as well as one of the team’s top ball hawks. Grant finished second on the team with five interceptions. When he was challenged by quarterbacks, he continually displayed good ball skills. The cornerback deflected a team high 14 passes, too.

10. Cardale Jones, quarterback, Ohio State
Cardale JonesThe wildcard in both Monday’s game and the NFL draft is Ohio State’s third-string quarterback.

Jones, a redshirt sophomore, is eligible to declare for the draft. It will be an extremely difficult decision after only three career starts, but Jones has played lights out in the biggest games so far. No quarterback in this year’s draft class presents the same size (6-5, 250) nor the arm strength as Jones.

Both teams possesses even more talent, particularly among the underclassmen. Ohio State is absolutely littered with freshmen and sophomores that will one day be in the NFL. One of Oregon’s top players, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, won’t even play in the contest due to a knee injury.

These two programs aren’t simply built for one title run. Both will be legitimate contenders in the foreseeable future due to the NFL-caliber talent found on each roster.

Southern Miss offensive coordinator leaves to join Georgia staff

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How big is the gap between the SEC and Conference USA? So big that Buster Faulkner would evidently rather be an analyst in the SEC than a coordinator in C-USA.

The Southern Miss offensive coordinator is leaving Hattiesburg to join Kirby Smart‘s staff in Athens. Smart has already hired former Todd Monken (ironically, a former Southern Miss head coach) to be his offensive coordinator, and there are no spots open on Georgia’s on-the-field staff. So, according to Dawgs247, Faulkner will join as an analyst.

While nothing has been announced, Faulkner on Monday confirmed his departure out of Hattiesburg.

“Thank you Coach Hop for allowing me to be a part of something special in Hattiesburg,” he tweeted. “I was able to work with some incredible men on this offensive staff! To the players-I love you guys, thanks for everything. I had a blast working with y’all. I wish you guys the best.”

A former Valdosta State quarterback when Smart was on the coaching staff, Faulkner spent just 2019 at Southern Miss after spending the previous three at Arkansas State. He helped the Golden Eagles fly from 109th to 48th in yards per play.

Kerry Coombs set to return to Ohio State

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Ohio State has an opening for a defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach now that Jeff Hafley is Boston College’s head coach. And Ryan Day has found the perfect guy to fill that role — Ohio State’s old defensive backs coach.

Ever-popular assistant coach Kerry Coombs is set to return to Columbus as the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, according to multiple reports on Monday. (Letterman Row first reported the news.)

An original member of Urban Meyer‘s Ohio State staff, Coombs coached the Buckeyes’ defensive backs from 2012-17, a period that saw Ohio State rank among the top 13 nationally in pass efficiency defense four times, including 2017. Ohio State immediately slunk to 42nd in 2018, leading to Day’s hiring of Hafley. Ohio State immediately rocketed to first (they were second until LSU shredded Clemson last Monday), which led to Hafley’s hiring at BC and, now, Coombs’ return.

“I told the [defensive backs] last year at this time: ‘I am going to go get the best guy in the country.’ They didn’t know who Jeff Hafley was,” Day said last month. “Now they love him, they’re going to miss him. Going to do the same thing again next year, go get the best there is. You call around to different people that you respect. But usually the people you bring in are people that you know really well and you trust.”

Day spent the past two seasons as the defensive backs coach for the Tennessee Titans, and he’ll now return to a senior role he never would’ve gotten had he not left in the first place.

Phil Snow officially following Matt Rhule to Carolina

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It shouldn’t come as a surprise given he’s spent the past four years working for the man, but Phil Snow is officially following Matt Rhule to Carolina.

The team made the announcement Monday.

Snow had coordinated Rhule’s defenses at Temple and Baylor, and in 2019 became one of the most highly-regarded coordinators in the sport. A finalist for the Broyles Award and winner of the FootballScoop Defensive Coordinator of the Year, Snow would have had options had he chosen to remain in the college game. (Returning to Baylor likely not an option, with Dave Aranda now installed as the top Bear.)

Baylor was the only Big 12 team to hold opponents under 20 points per game and under five yards per play.

He has spent only four years of his four decade coaching run in the NFL, serving as linebackers coach for the Detroit Lions from 2005-08.

“I’ve coordinated in high school, junior college, I-AA, I-A,” Snow said. “My last challenge is the National Football League.”

“I haven’t won a game as a head coach without him as my defensive coordinator,” Rhule said of Snow.

Snow will pair with another hot college name in Joe Brady to serve as Carolina’s coordinator tandem, and Rhule likely isn’t done pillaging college football, either, as reports indicated Monday that Baylor defensive tackles coach Frank Okam will follow Rhule and Snow from Waco to Charlotte.

Ex-Georgia DB Otis Reese lands at Ole Miss

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Lane Kiffin landed a recruit over the weekend in the form of Georgia transfer Otis Reese.

A 4-star member of Kirby Smart‘s 2018 class, Reese appeared in 25 games in silver britches, including all 14 this season. He collected 16 tackles as a Bulldog, though he played primarily on special teams.

“Even in my darkest times, I have always believed, the light would shine & it’s TIME!!!” he tweeted over the weekend.

The Leesburg, Ga., native will presumably compete for playing time in the defensive backfield at Ole Miss.

Barring a waiver, he will have to sit out a year and will first compete for the Rebels in 2021.