'Tis the season for prospect declarations, falalalala, lala, la, la.
As bowl season begins and ends, we should expect to hear a ton more underclassmen who make their final NFL Draft decision. It's an exciting time: gives us clarity on the class, helps us figure out which positions are strong and weak, and makes our mock drafts that much more accurate (from 1% to 2%, whoop whoop!).
But not every underclassman who should come out, will -- and not every underclassman who should return will do that, either. With only the bowls left, I went through my conference -- the Pac-12 -- and highlighted five players I hope to be re-evaluating next winter, as they return to school to round out those last few edges that would keep them from a high draft slot.
Each of these players could easily be Day 2 picks -- or better -- in 2020. Let's talk about how to get 'em there.
1. Utah CB Julian Blackmon
Blackmon came into the season with a fair bit of hype -- he was listed among the Top 10 DBs to watch from Lance Zierlein for the 2019 Draft. A favorite of the coaches, Blackmon took serious steps forward into 2017, maximizing his length and cashing on solid ball skills -- and a similar step forward in 2018 was expected.
But it didn't really happen. He had some buzzy, stand-out plays -- but too often he failed to stay connected to wide-receivers through their breaks, playing an over-aggressive style without great instincts or risk managements. Outshined by true sophomore Jaylen Johnson on the other side, Blackmon's hype has generally fallen to the wayside.
That said: you can't teach length and you can't teach ball skills, and the ex-WR recruit has the opportunity to turn in a more productive and higher-floor season with add experience on the outside. His PBUs actually went up this year -- six to ten -- but his INTs dropped from four to one. If INT luck strikes him next season, he could turn out more eye-popping numbers to trade on in the 2020 Draft.
2. Oregon LB Troy Dye
Don't know if you've heard, but Oregon has a highly-touted prospect who may return to school next season.
I think teams would still draft Dye decently high this season -- again, like Blackmon, he's got some physical skills you just can't teach. Dye is super long and super speedy for the linebacker position; he's built like a WR at 6-foot-3, 224 pounds. But the issue that you'd imagine come with that size are clear on tape: Dye struggles to exchange power in the trenches with players over 100 pounds his superior, and at his height, can't get his pads underneath contact.
But Dye's problems go beyond his physical profile, as a couple of trips to the weight room could add some thickness to his build and help him anchor against power. With a quicker trigger to close against the run and better technical understanding of his fits, Dye could mask some of the physical concerns and improve his stats. Dye is tentative downhill, only attacking into space when he has a clear runway. Smaller linebackers must be able to pick their spots to initiate contact, and I don't see that aggressiveness from Dye.
And hey, you know how Justin Herbert might stay because his brother's coming to town? Dye's younger brother, Travis, is a rising sophomore running back.
3. Washington DT Levi Onwuzurike
Onwuzurike delivered in a big way for the Huskies this season. The team needed him to step into a starting role after the departure of Vita Vea last season, and he greatly elevated his play from the limited redshirt freshman snaps we saw in his 2017 season.
Firstly: Onwuzurike is clearly a bit stronger and thicker from last year -- I'd imagine he's now north of 300 pounds. But with great length and off-ball quickness, Onwuzurike can play pretty much any spot on the Huskies' three-man front, offering pass-rush upside as strong-side defensive end and staunch run defense as the 0-technique.
I don't expect Onwuzurike to want to declare -- he's only a redshirt sophomore and Washington has always done well retaining their defensive talent during their eligible years -- but if he does, he'll have a case. He's taken a clear step forward and has great physical tools. That being said, when Onwuzurike returns to school, he'll look to continue to add thickness in his lower half, and translate hand speed and explosiveness into more predictable interior penetration. Teach this dude a snatch/trap, and we're gonna have some problems.
4. USC WR Tyler Vaughns
USC is in an interesting spot -- as is Vaughns. Obviously, with new OC Kliff Kingsbury in the building, recruiting is going to take on a totally different light on the offensive side of the football. That said, the key components of the passing attack are currently in place: QB J.T. Daniels, WR Michael Pittman Jr., and WR Amon-Ra St. Brown will all be heading back to school.
Vaughns, only a redshirt sophomore, is likely to return as well. And he would benefit hugely from the Kingsbury system -- wide receivers typically do. That said, Vaughns is the most pro-ready of the USC WRs currently on the roster, and probably the lowest ceiling of the three. He was already outproduced in terms of targets and catches by St. Brown, and in yards by Pittman -- are things going to change with the new system, or will he continue to lose momentum?
I'd guess that Vaughns returns back to school, and I think that's the right call. Kingsbury is the rising tide that will lift all boats, even if Vaughns' market share drops comparatively. Vaughns could use some added strength and improved route work, especially against physical corners -- that's his best route to earning the lion's share of attention next season.
5. Stanford iOL Nate Herbig
While "Big Island" is one of the best offensive line nicknames I've heard in a while, I'm not yet ready to see Herbig in the league. A first-teamer in 2017, Herbig was one of the most ballyhooed Pac-12 prospects coming into the season, but the tape illustrated some hand strength and balance issues that left him susceptible in pass protection. Those didn't go away in 2018, and Herbig hit the second-team Pac-12 list on name recognition only.
When you're Herbig's size (almost 340 pounds) you represent a tough figure to get around regardless. But without improved patience in his hands and better foot speed, Herbig will continue to lose to the smarter rushers he faces that can draw out his paws and win a half-man relationship. I'd honestly like to see Big Island become Slightly Smaller, But Still Big Island, so as to improve his functional athleticism and pass-protecting ability.
Herbig will continue to benefit from playing in a Stanford system that lets him maul in the running game (and has the added boost of being known for good OL play). But I don't think he's anywhere near a Top-10 interior offensive lineman in this class, and more time at school could get him there.