The college football season is officially underway, and with it comes the return of our annual college prospect preview.
Much will change between now and the end of the regular season, but there are a handful of college players who have shown that they can be legitimate NFL talents in the near future.
The ACC has been dominated by Clemson, who have been crowned conference champions for each of the last six years. Though the disparity between the top and bottom of the conference is strong, there are a handful of solid teams who should make some noise in bigger bowl games this year.
Cream of the crop
Jacob: Andrew Booth Jr., CB, Clemson (6-foot, 195 pounds)
Sam Howell isn’t my top ACC player? What?
I have a first-round grade on Howell and have him in my top 20, but there’s another prospect who tops him on my board. Andrew Booth Jr. has played largely in a reserve role prior to the 2021 season, but he looks the part of a future NFL impact defender. He attacks the ball like a wide receiver, showcasing impressive ball skills and the ability to square up to the ball and contort himself in the area to high-point deep passes. His coordination as a ball-hawking cornerback translates to his movement in coverage, changing direction easily with loose hips and exploding laterally coming out of his breaks. He showcases temperance and quickness in his footwork, and his downhill quickness allows him to both close in on a ball-carrier as a tackler and to jump a route to make a play.
Booth has solid size with upside as a boundary defender at the next level, and he uses his length well in coverage. He does a very good job of using his hands to get physical, maintaining contact with receivers through their stems and using his strength to knock receivers off their route pattern. He does well at jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage in press coverage. His physicality translates as a tackler, where he plays with a higher motor than most cornerbacks in today’s game.
Considering his inexperience as a starter, Booth can struggle a bit from an instinctual perspective. He can be a split second too late to diagnose route concepts in zone coverage, and he can struggle a bit more when he doesn’t have the ability to engage with a receiver right off the snap. With his high athletic ceiling and his ball skills, though, Booth currently projects as a future first-round pick.
ECD: Sam Howell, QB, UNC (6-foot-1, 225 pounds)
Yeah, I definitely see Sam Howell as the best player in the ACC, and the most likely candidate to become the number one overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft.
First, let’s talk about the impact Sam has delivered to the Tar Heels since his freshman season in 2019. He, along with head coach Mack Brown, have brought Chapel Hill front and center to the national audience. Prior to this year, one would almost never see UNC anywhere near the top ten rankings, preseason or otherwise. They currently sit at #9 per the latest rankings published by USA today. That is truly a historic development for a university known primarily as one of the premier programs in Mens’ Basketball.
Now onto the player himself.
Sam Howell has all the makings to become a long-time starter at QB. He’s also atop of, arguably, the weakest class of QBs in recent memory. His compact body is armed with a strong arm and enough mobility to stretch out plays, if not tuck the ball away and gain a few yards on his own. Perhaps his most dangerous weapon is his combination of a lightning-quick release and a high performance central core processor for a brain. The ball is launched from his hand on a tight trajectory en route to it’s target.
Accuracy isn’t an issue for Sam Howell. Instead, it comes down to his inconsistency with driving the ball downfield for big chunk plays. I appreciate his refusal to be a Captain Checkdown in the passing game; however, you can see he has a tendency to put a little *too much* zip on the ball. That results in the ball flying over his intended targets from time-to-time. Once he transitions into the pros, he’ll need to master scanning the full field. It’s not that he can’t, the style of offense he plays in typically divides his reads in half. Although I have seen him reading the entire field and making good decisions.
This aggressive gunslinger will have an easy path to being the top prospect in this class. If he just tones down on the velocity of his deep shots, I don’t see any major flaws in his game. He’ll be a stud QB for a long time.
Top Bears target
Jacob: Garrett Williams, CB, Syracuse (5-foot-11, 184 pounds)
Remember the name of Garrett Williams. While he hasn’t had significant hype nationally yet, that should change in due time.
Williams led Syracuse with 9 pass deflections in a secondary that had three defensive backs either get drafted or signed by NFL teams this year. Stepping in as a redshirt freshman in 2020, he instantly made an impact for the Orange’s secondary. He is a sticky cornerback with very good route-recognition abilities and a quick mental trigger that allows him to play at a high motor and maximize his athletic tools. He happens to have those tools in spades, too, as he has loose hips and is able to work across his body and change direction seamlessly.
A flexible defender with plenty of lower-body flexion in coverage, Williams is able to drop back with precise footwork and maintain balance when doing so. He accelerates well upfield coming out of his breaks and has the deep speed needed to defend vertical route concepts efficiently. He is also a pretty solid tackler, as he does a good job of wrapping up with good form moving downhill and solid pad level. Plus, I had the chance to interview him over at Draft Wire. Shut up about cheap plugs. You love it!
Williams has a bit of a smaller frame at cornerback, which can see him get boxed out at the catch point and separated from at the top of a route against bigger receivers. His size can also see some inconsistencies take place in run support from a play strength perspective. However, his fluidity, ball skills and high football IQ look the part of a future high-end starter. It seems like only a matter of time before his draft stock starts to soar, and the Bears would be wise to keep tabs on him.
ECD: Andrew Booth Jr., CB, Clemson (6-foot-Even, 195 pounds)
It’s easy to see why Jacob is so in love with Andrew Booth Jr. as a football player. Where I don’t see him as the best player in the ACC, I’m going with this relatively inexperienced corner who might become the fastest riser on most player evaluation boards once the season is halfway over.
During the 2020 season Andrew Booth Jr. saw most of his time at Nickel, which in itself could be his best position when he enters the pros. Now, he’ll assume the mantle as CB1 for Clemson’s still-talented defense.
First thing you’ll notice is his athleticism. He’s big, fast, and possesses smooth hips that glide effortlessly when covering receivers. Booth’s size bodes well when considering his long-term outlook as a corner to line up on the perimeter for any secondary. What’s more important is his length, where he can easily press receivers and fight off blocks with an impressive wingspan. He will box out and win a lot of his single-on battles in coverage.
It’s at this time where his inexperience will be the biggest question mark when assessing his projection into the NFL. To date, he has just four starts heading into his junior year, largely due to how deep Clemson has been at corner in recent years. It’s evident he has relied on his gifted athleticism instead of his IQ to make plays in critical situations.
That dependence of his own athleticism over IQ has netted negative consequences, including a tendency to bite on play action or a quality route. He also has a habit of losing his cool in tough moments, with an example being his ejection for fighting a Louisville player during Booth’s freshman season. He needs to control himself better — and he has — when the play is over. I believe the later issue has been resolved, yet it will still be a mark most scouts record in their personal notes.
Make no mistake - Andrew Booth Jr. has some work to accomplish in his path to the pros. He may even stay for one more year following the 2021 season. Yet, if he declares for the 2021 NFL Draft, he’ll attract enough attention to warrant selection between rounds one through three. Booth’s size and athleticism would pair nicely with Jaylon Johnson in Chicago’s secondary.
Hoping they slide
Jacob: Bubba Bolden, S, Miami (FL) (6-foot-3, 204 pounds)
Bubba Bolden could have been an early-round pick had he declared for the 2021 draft, and it seems likely the same will ring true in 2022.
When you’re a Power 5 safety who’s 6-foot-3 and over 200 pounds, you’re going to attract attention from NFL scouts. Bolden’s size is an incredible boon that he uses well at the catch point and as a tackler. His long arms give him an extensive radius as a ball-hawking defensive back and coming downhill as a tackler. He plays with a brand of physicality that’s fun to watch on tape, as he closes in on ball-carriers with very good closing speed and isn’t afraid to lower the shoulder. Bolden is also a versatile defender who has reps in single-high and two-high shells — covering both underneath and up high in the former — in the box, blitzing off the edge and as a slot defender. His ability to play just about anywhere in the secondary should make him even more intriguing for NFL teams.
Some bigger safeties struggle with athletic ability, but that isn’t an issue with Bolden. He does a very good job of accelerating downhill coming out of his backpedal, and his longitudinal quickness makes him a threat to break on a route covering underneath. He has sufficient agility in coverage and has pretty loose hips, especially for someone as tall as he is. His athletic ability and physicality translate in his game as a blitzing option and on special teams, both of which he has experience in as an effective defender.
Bolden’s primary issues come off the field, although he can improve his composure as a downhill tackler and has just decent range as a safety up high. He suffered a dislocated ankle that saw him miss most of the 2019 season, and while it didn’t prove to be an issue in 2020, teams will likely do their homework on him. He got involved in an underage drinking incident off-campus at USC that saw him suspended from the program for 28 months, so as a result of these situations, he has only started in 10 collegiate games heading into 2021. If he can prove that incident is behind him and come out with clean medicals, though, he’s definitely a player worth considering in the first two rounds, especially for a safety-needy team like the Bears.
ECD: Amaré Barno, EDGE, Virginia Tech (6-foot-6, 245 pounds)
“He’s too small to play edge.” No, no he’s not, but if you want to let him slide in the NFL Draft to a point where he’s available for Chicago in the 3rd or 4th round. Then, go right ahead.
Amaré Barno is a pass rushing menace who resides within a deep and talented defensive front for the Hokies. In 2020 alone he recorded (16) tackles for loss, the most of any player in the ACC, and 3rd in the country. He added (6.5) sacks, a pair of forced fumbles, and three additional QB pressures to his production totals as well. His length, burst, and speed gives him a long range to make plays behind or past the line constantly. Even if he’s not able to land a hit on the QB, he still has the capability to disrupt any play, as he has developed a knack for swatting the ball down at the LOS.
He also has shown a nice variety of power moves to defeat blockers at the next level. There isn’t a lot of finesse in Barno’s inventory of moves, although he does have a decent ice-pick I’ve seen flashing from time-to-time. The base of his game is converting speed into power. He’s got a lot of speed, and a lot of power. This is despite his relatively low playing weight.
Again, people are going to complain about his weight, where I say that isn’t a major issue. He’ll certainly be wise to look into bulking up by an additional (10) pounds on his long frame. What gets him down on the scoresheet is not using his leverage as an advantage on every down. Sometimes, he’ll look to cheat into the merge and play with a high pad level, which will get you thrown out of the trenches in the pros. Once he utilizes his frame to its fullest advantage consistently he’ll be damn hard to block.
Later round hopefuls
Jacob: Joseph Ngata, WR, Clemson (6-foot-3, 220 pounds)
Clemson’s starting offense should look different with several key departures to the NFL, and one of the biggest benefactors of that could be big-bodied receiver Joseph Ngata.
A lengthy weapon with a thick frame and intriguing athletic tools, Ngata offers top-notch physical upside for someone as unproven as he is. He has an extensive catch radius and above-average leaping ability, which gives him upside on the 50-50 ball. He is a natural hands-catcher who does a good job of making grabs away from his frame, and he has the body control needed to square up to the ball and contort himself in a necessary manner to make grabs that some receivers can’t make. The junior is also a physical wideout through his stems who is able to use his hands to break free from press coverage.
For a receiver who’s as big as he is, Ngata is a crafty and refined route runner. He offers an extensive arsenal of releases, utilizing stutter steps and numerous single-move releases to break free from man coverage off the snap. He does a good job of sinking his hips coming into his breaks and explodes well laterally. Though just a solid deep athlete, he plays at full speed often vertically, utilizing subtle movements as a route runner to maintain top speed when he changes direction.
2021 will be a crucial season for Ngata, who has just 24 catches at the collegiate level. He had surgery during the 2020 campaign for an abdominal issue and has dealt with hamstring issues in the offseason, and he doesn’t seem to have elite agility after the catch. Though he’s unproven, his tape is a lot better than his production indicates, and a breakout year could be on the horizon if he can stay healthy. The Bears could be in the market for him on Day 3 to add some high-upside depth to their roster.
ECD: Qwynnterrio Cole, S, Louisville (6-foot-3, 190 pounds)
Louisville had been searching for an answer at Safety during the entire recruiting period leading into the 2021 collegiate season. When Qwynnterrio Cole announced his entry into the transfer portal out of Alcorn State, it was a no-brainer to secure his commitment within a week of Cole’s announcement. It’s a large jump in competition for the extra large safety. A jump I believe Cole is prepared to make rather seamlessly.
Let’s just get the obvious out of the way - there’s a tremendous gap in talent between Alcorn State of the SWAC and Louisiville of the ACC. Therefore, the monstrous and I mean monstrous stats Qwynnterrio Cole piled up with the Braves may not translate into the DI level. That may also be a pointless argument against Cole’s case entirely.
Qwynnterrio is a natural playmaker who attacks the run as well as he sniffs out crossing routes in the secondary. He’s played at both corner and safety, with his best fit as a true strong safety to be featured in 2021 at Louisville. Wherever the ball travels Cole will track it down. He’ll also be used as a pass rusher from time to time, of which he’s displayed some solid rips, and has the size to run through tight ends or backs held up in pass pro. Cole can literally do it all, even without having elite speed.
He could very well be one of the most complete players at safety in this year’s class. Of course, we will see how he holds up against NFL-caliber prospects soon enough. I will not be surprised if he’s picked earlier than the 5th round, which is the grade I currently have assigned for Cole. A safety tandem of Eddie Jackson and Qwynnterrio Cole for the long term in Chicago? Yes please.
Jacob: Clemson vs. Boston College (Oct. 2)
Clemson has long been a powerhouse in the ACC and should be the favorite to win the conference this year, but don’t sleep on Boston College as a team to make some noise this season.
True sophomore D.J. Uiagalelei takes over at quarterback with an intriguing roster of offensive weapons to throw to. Justyn Ross comes back from injury, while Frank Ladson Jr. and the aforementioned Ngata figure to step into bigger roles this year. Keep an eye on left tackle Jordan McFadden, a powerful blocker who projects best along the interior in the NFL. Their defense features a mix of experienced upperclassmen and intriguing young talents. Xavier Thomas, Tyler Davis and K.J. Henry should play solid roles along the Tigers’ defensive line, while sophomores Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy have early-round potential. Booth is the biggest name in the secondary, but remember cornerback Sheridan Jones as a potential riser up boards this year.
Boston College could struggle defensively without a lack of too many pro-ready prospects, but their offense could be one of the best in the ACC. Quarterback Phil Jurkovec is a breakout candidate who has a big frame and a strong arm who should warrant looks from NFL teams. They haven’t had a wide receiver drafted since 1987, but explosive weapon Zay Flowers figures to break that streak either this year or next. Jacksonville State tight end transfer Trae Barry offers a 6-foot-7 red-zone weapon with strong hands. The calling card of the unit, however, is their offensive line. Left tackle Tyler Vrabel, left guard Zion Johnson and center Alec Lindstrom all hold draftable grades heading into the 2021 season.
ECD: Virginia Tech vs. UNC (Sep 3.)
This will be a battle of high tempo and explosive offense vs. tough and rangy defense. We’ll see the top overall QB prospect in Sam Howell lead a Mack Brown-coached attack on offense to kick off their quest to capture the ACC. Meanwhile, the TFL machine Amaré Barno will be there to present a warm welcome and make life hard on the Tar Heels offense.
Virginia Tech has their own assortment of offensive talent at their disposal. Their O-line led by tackle Luke Tenuta and guard Lecitus Smith is athletic and powerful. TE James Mitchell looks to be an even better athlete than his former teammate Dalton Keene, who was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2020 draft by the New England Patriots. It will be worth watching to see if the Hokies open up their passing game in 2021, as WR Tre Turner is a dangerous receiver returning for their senior season.
UNC has plenty of talent emerging aside from Sam Howell. Where none of them are obvious first rounders, they have a beefy O-line between three legit NFL prospects in OT Jordan Tucker, and Guards Marcus McKethan and Joshua Ezeudu. The Fox Brothers — DE Tomari and LB Tomon — headline the Tar Heels defensive front. Don’t sneeze on this game being an entertaining matchup of under-the-radar prospects to be seen these next two seasons.