Just like development in the NFL isn’t always linear, the same applies to the college game. In fact, development has even more variance when it comes to football players going from high school to college.
This week’s 6-Pack is all about several draft-eligible prospects that have shifted the narratives surrounding their draft stock by taking the next step or steps in critical components of their respective games. You can call them risers if you want, but each one highlighted below had a specific narrative about them entering the season that has shifted based on the first half of the 2019 season.
I hope that this column has become a staple for you each week, but just in case you are new, 6-Pack Thursday is my weekly brain dump on six football-related things that involve the NFL, College Football or NFL Draft.
Let’s crack this thing open.
Jeffrey Okudah, CB, Ohio State
It wasn’t hard to pop on Okudah’s 2018 tape and find an immensely gifted prospect. His rapid feet, fluid hips, blazing speed and ideal build all stand out. And from that perspective alone, the feel of him blossoming into a top cornerback prospects was achievable based on what he could develop into.
With that said, ball production was missing. Not only was it missing, there were chances he had on tape to make plays on the football and there was inconsistency locating and adjusting to the football in the air.
After not recording an interception in his first 22 games at Ohio State, Okudah has snared three in six games already in 2019. And they aren’t luck plays where the ball finds him, Okudah is confidently breaking on the football, proving his ball skills and showcasing an alpha mentality when tested. With ball skills a concern no more, Okudah is the best cornerback prospect in the rising class.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
First things first - if you are surprised that Taylor is fast then that’s on you. He’s always showcased exceptional breakaway speed for his size. That isn’t a broken narrative, that’s people talking about Taylor before they’ve ever seen him play a snap.
Now, the fair question to be answered regarding Taylor in 2019 was his receiving ability. You may recall similar questions about former Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon coming out. After catching eight passes each in 2017 and 2018, I was hoping to see him more involved as a weapon in the passing game this year and that’s exactly what I have received. In five games, Taylor has 12 receptions for 114 yards and four touchdowns with the bulk of conference play and the postseason still remaining for the Badgers.
I’m hopeful for Taylor to stay healthy, continue his evolution as a receiver and have fun debates about whether or not he is the best running back in the 2020 class.
Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
Burrow and the LSU offense was boring in 2018 and that made the pro prospects of Burrow rather uninspiring. It wasn’t that he didn’t show flashes of an NFL skill set, it was just difficult to get excited about his upside because of the Tigers’ dated style of play. He wasn’t high on my radar as a potential franchise quarterback but now he is.
Completing 78.4 percent of his passes for 1,864 yards with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions in five games, the debate over Burrow is now centered around how high in the first round he is going to get selected in April.
The new offensive scheme has revealed so much more about Burrow’s arm talent, accuracy, decision making and processing skills, and the overall narrative regarding his NFL potential has completely shifted. With big tests on the horizon against Florida, Alabama and Auburn among others, Burrow will have plenty of chances to continue his ascension and impress NFL decision-makers.
Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma
I remember over the summer being asked if Jalen Hurts was even a Day Two quarterback selection and having my doubts. His erratic play at Alabama and how much more effective Tua Tagovailoa was in the same scenario didn’t exactly provide inspiration for his NFL potential. It felt like defenses knew how to make Hurts win from the pocket and it limited the Alabama offense tremendously.
Flash forward to 2019 with Oklahoma and Lincoln Riley and suddenly Hurts feels like a Day Two lock, if not higher. He’s in total command of the Oklahoma offense, showcasing impressive decision making skills, arm talent and of course his mobility.
Looking back, perhaps we needed to give Hurts more credit for how well he played in limited reps last season with Alabama. He played well in relief of Tua, but it was difficult to not consider the inconsistency of 2016 and 2017 in those moments. With that said, as Hurts continues to put out good tape and distance himself from his inconsistency as a freshman and sophomore, it becomes easier to buy into his NFL upside. My perception of Hurts as an NFL prospect is changing rapidly.
JK Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
A highly-regarded recruit, Dobbins became just the sixth true freshman to start a season opener for Ohio State. He enjoyed a tremendous freshman campaign, but he was not nearly the same player in 2018. While there were no reported injuries, Dobbins didn’t appear to have the same juice that made him such a dynamic player in 2017.
There has been speculation that he added some weight as a sophomore and a stylistically different passer going from JT Barrett to Dwayne Haskins played into his decline. Whatever the issue actually was, it’s a concern no more because Dobbins is back on track in 2019.
In six games, Dobbins has 116 carries for 826 yards (7.1 avg) and six touchdowns. And while some of the production has come against non-Power Five opponents his three games against Big Ten foes have yielded his most productive outings. A guy I thought was more of a plodder in 2018, Dobbins has recaptured the sizzle of his freshman season and will be a desired commodity next spring.
Kenny Willekes, EDGE, Michigan State
There are numerous high-effort college defensive linemen that post great numbers but they aren’t always desired NFL prospects. After watching Willekes rack up 78 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 2018, Willekes checked the production and effort boxes but his functional strength and technique were lacking. While he’s a touch off that tackle for loss and sack pace from last season, we are seeing a much improved football player in the first half of 2019.
Willekes came to Michigan State as a walk on 220-pound linebacker and has developed into a 260-pound defensive end. So far this season, Willekes is answering those concerns about him just being an “effort player” that feasted off unblocked situations, but is proving he is someone who can exchange power in the trenches and deconstruct blocks with his hands. He’s taken a major step forward and is legitimizing his claim as a top defensive end prospect in the rising class.