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2021 NFL Draft: Prospects to watch in each Week 1 bowl game

College football bowl games kick off this week, so we broke down the top prospects in each game taking place so you don’t have to!

NCAA Football: Texas State at BYU USA TODAY NETWORK

Things are heating up in the world of football.

As the playoff race starts thinning out and the battle for the remaining spots becomes more intense, so, too, does the stretch of bowl games in college football. Some of the toughest teams in the nation will square off these next few weeks, and it will surely result in some entertaining action.

With bowl games kicking off this week, now is as good of a time as any to take a look at what each game has to offer in terms of 2021 NFL Draft prospects. While this week lacks much in the way of big-name, Power 5 schools, they make up for in including some of the best Group of 5 teams in the nation. Given the Bears’ propensity to draft small-school prospects on Day 3, you can bet that their scouts will have their eyes on these handful of games this week.

To give you all a preview of what to expect this week, I broke down each bowl game taking place this week and gave a quick breakdown of some of the top draft prospects on each team. Let’s get started!

Note: An asterisk (the * symbol) indicates that the player has opted out of the remainder of the season and will not participate in the bowl game.

Myrtle Beach Bowl: Appalachian State (8-3) vs. North Texas (4-5)

Mon., Dec. 21 at 2:30 p.m. CT on ESPN

North Texas has underwhelmed this year, and they’ll be tasked with having to win a bowl game with the opting out of star wide receiver Jaelon Darden, who will be in All-American discussion this year. His top-notch explosiveness and technical route-running skills helped him play a massive role for their offense and should see him selected an early Day 3 pick at the latest. Other than him, the Mean Green appear to be lacking in notable draft-eligible prospects.

Appalachian State doesn’t have a big-name draft prospect like Akeem Davis-Gaither this year, but they have a solid roster and have been winning games. With three-year starting quarterback Zac Thomas under center, the Mountaineers have proven themselves to be a threat in just about any game they play. Thomas’ accuracy and athleticism could see him drafted this year, even if he’s smaller and has a weaker arm.

Prospects of note:

  • Appalachian State QB Zac Thomas
  • North Texas WR Jaelon Darden*

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Tulane (6-5) vs. Nevada (6-2)

Tue., Dec. 22 at 3:30 p.m. CT on ESPN

The Bears are quite familiar with Tulane, seeing as though they drafted fifth-round rookie Darnell Mooney out of there, as well as Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte back in 2008. This year, though, their NFL talent comes on the defensive side of the ball. Johnson is an explosive and athletic edge rusher with a high motor, while Sample is a tweener with a nice blend of first-step quickness, refined hands and power in his frame.

With where I’m currently at in my draft studies, Nevada doesn’t seem to have too many prospects likely to enter the draft this year. Keep an eye on redshirt sophomore quarterback Carson Strong, though: he might not declare for this year’s draft, but he has a cannon of an arm, throws with nice touch and has progressed in his ability to read the field this year.

Prospects of note:

  • Tulane EDGE Patrick Johnson
  • Tulane EDGE Cameron Sample
  • Nevada QB Carson Strong

Boca Raton Bowl: UCF (6-3) vs. No. 16 BYU (10-1)

Tue., Dec. 22 at 7:00 p.m. CT on ESPN

Despite neither team being a Power 5 school, this is probably the most loaded bowl game of the week from a draft perspective.

UCF has consistently been one of the best Group of 5 schools in the nation for quite some time. They have a talented sophomore quarterback in Dillon Gabriel, and they have NFL-caliber talent on both sides of the ball. The headliner is Richie Grant, an athletic ball-hawking safety with starting potential. The Knights have two more studs in the secondary: Aaron Robinson is an intelligent cornerback with a lengthy frame, and Tay Gowan is a well-built defensive back who plays corner but may switch to safety.

Gabriel has a handful of talented weapons to throw to on UCF’s offense. Though raw as a route runner, Marlon Williams brings an intriguing blend of agility, deep burst and physicality to the table that should see him drafted early on Day 3 at the latest. He won’t be playing for UCF in the bowl, unfortunately. Otis Anderson may not have the frame to be a full-time starting back, but he’s very athletic and brings plenty of route-running value from his time as a wide receiver early in his collegiate career.

BYU’s offense is led by quarterback Zach Wilson, who has cemented himself as a top-10 pick with his arm talent, mobility, downfield accuracy and quick release. Much discussion has been made about Wilson, but he has two talented offensive linemen up front: Brady Christensen brings great length, mobility and intelligence to the offensive tackle position, while Chandon Herring is another agile blocker who has the versatility to play tackle or guard.

The Cougars’ defense is nothing to sleep on, either. Khyiris Tonga is a talented gap eater who brings great power and a nasty edge at the point of attack. Chris Wilcox doesn’t stand out as elite in a particular area, but he is a well-rounded cornerback with good athleticism for the position. Both should be targeted as Day 3 targets in the draft this year.

Prospects of note:

  • UCF S Richie Grant
  • UCF CB Aaron Robinson
  • UCF WR Marlon Williams*
  • UCF RB Otis Anderson
  • UCF DB Tay Gowan
  • BYU QB Zach Wilson
  • BYU OT Brady Christensen
  • BYU DL Khyiris Tonga
  • BYU OL Chandon Herring
  • BYU CB Chris Wilcox

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Louisiana Tech (5-4) vs. Georgia Southern (7-5)

Wed., Dec. 23 at 3:00 p.m. CT on ESPN

Truth be told, this bowl game projects to be fairly thin on NFL prospects after multiple opt-outs. The wide receiver is a lengthy and quick receiver who brings some solid value as a route runner. His presence, or lack thereof, will be missed by Louisiana Tech’s offense in this matchup. Donavaughn Campbell and Justin Henderson have both declared for the draft already, and it appears unlikely either of them will suit up for the Bulldogs in their bowl game this year.

Georgia Southern doesn’t appear to have too many prospects entering the draft this year after having current Bear Kindle Vildor and Tyler Bass drafted last year. However, keep an eye on Kenderick Duncan, a ball-hawk who has had six collegiate interceptions and 14 pass deflections over the past three seasons at the safety position.

Prospects of note:

  • Louisiana Tech WR Adrian Hardy*
  • Louisiana Tech OL Donavaughn Campbell*
  • Louisiana Tech RB Justin Henderson*
  • Georgia Southern S Kenderick Duncan Jr.

Montgomery Bowl: Memphis (7-3) vs. Florida Atlantic (5-3)

Wed., Dec. 23 at 7:00 p.m. CT on ESPN

Memphis enters the bowl affected by opt-outs from their two most prolific weapons, as neither running back Kenneth Gainwell nor Damonte Coxie will play. Gainwell is an elusive back with high value as a pass-catcher, while Coxie brings strong hands, a big frame and good ball skills as a Day 3 option. The Tigers still have talent in wake of the opt out, though, as they have the scrappy and athletic T.J. Carter at cornerback. Brady White mans the helm for them on offense as an accurate three-year starter.

Florida Atlantic is admittedly pretty thin on NFL prospects thin year. There aren’t too many players who project as opting out of the additional year of eligibility being offered by the NCAA, but Zyon Gilbert and Leighton McCarthy are two standouts on the Owls’ defense.

Prospects of note:

  • Memphis RB Kenneth Gainwell*
  • Memphis WR Damonte Coxie*
  • Memphis CB T.J. Carter
  • Memphis QB Brady White
  • Florida Atlantic CB Zyon Gilbert
  • Florida Atlantic LB Leighton McCarthy

New Mexico Bowl: Hawaii (4-4) vs. Houston (3-4)

Thu., Dec. 24 at 3:30 p.m. CT on ESPN

Hawaii hasn’t been as explosive without Cole McDonald at quarterback, but they did come away with an upset over Nevada last month. Transfer wide receiver Rico Bussey Jr. hasn’t made the statistical impact they probably desired when he came over from North Texas, but he’s still an athletic and lengthy receiver who brings good physical tools to the table.

Houston saw two notable defenders opt out recently in Grant Stuard and Payton Turner. Stuard is a linebacker-safety hybrid whose athleticism, high motor and value in coverage could make him an enticing Day 3 option for NFL teams looking forward some depth at the linebacker position. Turner is an enticing tweener project who has the athleticism and the finesse of an edge rusher and the size of an interior defensive lineman. The Cougars do have a draft option playing on Thursday, as Marquez Stevenson looks to use his top-notch speed and lateral quickness after the catch to help his team come away with the win.

Prospects of note:

  • Hawaii WR Rico Bussey Jr.
  • Houston WR Marquez Stevenson
  • Houston LB Grant Stuard*
  • Houston DL Payton Turner*

Camellia Bowl: Buffalo (5-1) vs. Marshall (7-2)

Fri., Dec. 25 at 2:30 p.m. CT on ESPN

Buffalo and Marshall are two of the more dominant Group of 5 schools in the nation, but neither of them appear to have an abundance of prospects for the upcoming 2021 draft.

The headliner for Buffalo is Jaret Patterson, whose status for Friday’s game could be up in the air with a knee injury. Whether he plays or not, he’s a powerful and determined runner who has an insane 3,884 rushing yards and 52 touchdowns on the ground over the past three seasons. The Bulls also have a potential stud on defense in Malcolm Koonce, who brings flexibility and a high motor off the edge.

Marshall kicked the season off with a 7-0 start before dropping each of their last two games. They don’t seem to have too many prospects likely to declare for the draft at the moment, but they do have a massive, nasty left tackle in Josh Ball, who is surprisingly nimble given his 6-foot-8, 350-pound frame.

Prospects of note:

  • Buffalo RB Jaret Patterson
  • Buffalo EDGE Malcolm Koonce
  • Marshall OT Josh Ball

Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl: South Carolina (2-8) vs. UAB (6-3)

Sat., Dec. 26 at 12:00 p.m. CT on ABC

South Carolina saw their two talented cornerbacks opt out of the season after the firing of head coach Will Muschamp. Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu are both lengthy and physical cornerbacks who have proven over the past two years that they should be Day 2 picks at the absolute latest. Three of the Gamecocks’ other top prospects opted out later on in the year. Shi Smith broke out with 57 catches and 633 yards in 9 games this year, and he brings fluidity, ball skills and a nice release against press coverage. Sadarius Hutcherson is a nasty and versatile Day 3 offensive line prospect, while Ernest Jones is a form tackler who brings a high football IQ to the table. With none of them playing on Saturday, though, South Carolina looks depleted despite being the Power 5 school in the matchup.

UAB has played some solid games this year, including a win over Marshall and nail-biters with Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Lafayette. Austin Watkins is a big-bodied ‘X’ receiver who brings physicality and subtlety as a route runner; he could end up outperforming his eventual draft positioning. The Blazers have a talented NFL-caliber pass-rusher, as well: Jordan Smith has length and athleticism aplenty off the edge.

Prospects of note:

  • South Carolina CB Jaycee Horn*
  • South Carolina CB Israel Mukuamu*
  • South Carolina WR Shi Smith*
  • South Carolina OL Sadarius Hutcherson*
  • South Carolina LB Ernest Jones*
  • UAB WR Austin Watkins
  • UAB EDGE Jordan Smith

FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl: Liberty (9-1) vs. No. 12 Coastal Carolina (11-0)

Sat., Dec. 26 at 12:00 p.m. CT on ESPN

Liberty has been one of the top Group of 5 schools in the nation this year, and quarterback Malik Willis has been a big reason why. While he isn’t being projected to declare for the draft this year, he brings an impressive combination of arm talent, athleticism and pose that will have him on NFL radars if he chooses to declare for the draft.

Coastal Carolina has been unstoppable this season, and their performance against BYU helped bring out arguably the most entertaining college football game of the year. Tarron Jackson is the star of the Chanticleers’ tenacious pass rush, as his polished hand usage and raw power at the point of attack make him a tough defender to stop off the edge. Remember to also keep an eye on C.J. Brewer and Jeffrey Gunter, though: both of them could be on NFL radars should they choose to declare for the draft.

Prospects of note:

  • Liberty QB Malik Willis
  • Coastal Carolina EDGE Tarron Jackson
  • Coastal Carolina DL C.J. Brewer
  • Coastal Carolina EDGE Jeffrey Gunter

SERVPRO First Responder Bowl: UTSA (7-4) vs. No. 19 Louisiana-Lafayette (9-1)

Sat., Dec. 26 at 3:30 p.m. CT on ABC

UTSA has quietly put together a solid season, winning seven games and giving BYU their toughest competition before their eventual loss to Coastal Carolina. They don’t seem to have any prospects likely to enter the draft this year, but Jaylon Haynes and his four sacks in eight games could be a player worth keeping tabs on.

Louisiana-Lafayette doesn’t have the talent on paper that last year’s 11-3 team had, but they’ve actually been better this season. Their most notable draft prospect is running back Elijah Mitchell, a thickly-built, powerful running back who has rushed for 40 touchdowns over the past three seasons.

Prospects of note:

  • UTSA DL Jaylon Haynes
  • Louisiana-Lafayette RB Elijah Mitchell

LendingTree Bowl: Western Kentucky (5-6) vs. Georgia State (5-4)

Sat., Dec. 26 at 3:30 p.m. CT on ESPN

Western Kentucky hasn’t had the sexiest season this year, but they’ve gone up against some tough teams like BYU, Marshall, Liberty and Louisville. They don’t appear to have too many prospects likely to enter the draft this year, but DeAngelo Malone could be their top candidate to do so. A productive pass-rusher who has had 23 sacks and 40 tackles for a loss in the past three seasons, he is an athletic defender who brings impressive burst off the snap and flexibility when turning the corner on the speed rush.

Georgia State has had just three players drafted since its football program founded in 2010, and none of them were selected before the sixth round. It seems unlikely that any player will join them in the 2021 draft, but Shamarious Gilmore is a four-year collegiate starter who brings a well-rounded skill-set along the interior offensive line.

Prospects of note:

  • Western Kentucky EDGE DeAngelo Malone
  • Georgia State OL Shamarious Gilmore