College football is back!
As the 2022 season kicks off, so will our weekly previews of games and NFL prospects to watch. This will come in addition to our sporadic NFL Draft coverage over the course of the fall and winter. Whether you’re a fan of the draft or just a college football fan, this series looks to give you an idea of what to watch each week.
Windy City Gridiron’s own Peter Borkowski and Lead Draft Analyst Jacob Infante will be taking a look at what to expect in “Week 0” of this year’s college football campaign.
Game of the Week
Jacob: Northwestern vs. Nebraska, Saturday Aug. 27, 11:30 a.m. CST
Irish eyes will be smiling on this Big Ten matchup in Dublin, as will the eyes of numerous self-professed draftniks like myself.
The headliner for Northwestern is offensive tackle Peter Skoronski. He is a technically-sound, athletic and powerful blocker with a high floor, a high ceiling, and the potential to go in the first round in the 2023 draft. He’s not the only draft prospect the Wildcats have this year, either. Cornerback A.J. Hampton is a fluid athlete with very good raw athletic tools, and edge rusher Adetomiwa Adebawore has very good short-area burst, a high motor, and inside-outside versatility.
Ochaun Mathis had a productive career at TCU, but as he enters his fifth year transferring to Nebraska, the edge rusher steps in as a potential impact defender for their defense. He plays with a high motor, has good length and offers a nice combination of raw quickness off the ball and power in his upper half. Fellow edge rusher Caleb Tannor is undersized for his position at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, but he’s very explosive off the snap and brings very good flexibility turning the corner. The extent to which he’s involved in the Cornhuskers’ defense is unknown, but Ohio State transfer cornerback Tyreke Johnson has caught my eye in spurts.
Peter: Wyoming @ Illinois, Saturday Aug. 27, 3:00 p.m. CST
Both of these two trended upwards last year and will look to do the same this year. However, the path to doing that is looking very different for each squad.
Wyoming bounced back from a 2-4 2020 to finish 7-6 last season, taking home the win in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Kent State. Craig Bohl is back in charge for his ninth season, but the transfer portal isn’t making things any easier for him. Sean Chambers, the team’s leading passer from last year, is now at Montana State. QB Levi Williams, the Potato Bowl MVP, packed his bags for Utah State. Xazavian Valladay (leading rusher) and Isaiah Neyor (leading receiver) are both gone as well. Utah State transfer Andrew Peasley, the only rostered QB with game experience, will have his work cut out for him to put it lightly. Look for some of Wyoming’s big defenders returning (Isaac White, Easton Gibbs) to help ease the pain of losing so much talent. DL Cole Godbout should be a standout; he finished second among Mountain West interior d-linemen with 70 tackles.
The Illini finished a game short of a bowl appearance last year, and Bret Bielema is gonna try and get his team there in his second year at the helm. Finishing 5-7 in 2021, the team was able to rattle off some decent wins against Northwestern, Minnesota, Nebraska, and an overtime shocker against No. 7 Penn State. Barry Lunney Jr. is taking over as offensive coordinator, and he’s entrusting his offense to Syracuse transfer QB Tommy DeVito. DeVito likes hurling it from the pocket, never doing anything too fancy, but being able to hit most receivers wherever on the field. When his line opens up a hole for him, he’ll gladly use the space and take off, but rarely ever does he scramble around the backfield like a mad man before booking it upfield. Looks like he’d much rather pass it than run with it, even though he’s perfectly capable of both. The real offensive power for the Illini however, will come from their feature back, Chase Brown. More on him coming up. The Illinois defense is positioned well against an inexperienced Wyoming QB room; the Illini finished sixth in the Big Ten in points allowed per game at a clip of 22.0.
Big Name to Watch
Jacob: North Carolina WR Josh Downs vs. Florida A&M, Saturday Aug. 27, 7:00 p.m. CST
Josh Downs is probably the best draft-eligible wide receiver playing on Week 0, so naturally, plenty of eyes will be on him this week.
Downs broke out in 2021 with 101 receptions, 1,335 yards and 8 touchdowns. He is an explosive athlete with the deep speed needed to stretch the field and the agility needed to separate and make defenders miss in space. PFF had him in the 97th percentile in terms of separation last year, and he does a good job of disguising route concepts through his stems.
What I’m most looking forward to is seeing how Downs does with a new quarterback. Sam Howell was drafted into the NFL, and while new starter Drake Maye enters with some fanfare, he’s still unproven at the collegiate level. His athleticism will likely still be on display, but can the undersized Downs serve as a reliable target despite having struggles in tight windows?
Peter: Illinois RB Chase Brown vs. Wyoming, Saturday Aug. 27, 3:00 p.m. CST
Brown’s list of accolades from last year is way too long to put here, so here are some highlights:
- All-Big Ten Third Team
- Third in Big Ten in rushing yards/game (100.5)
- Fifth in Big Ten and 27th in nation in yards/carry (5.9)
- Seventh in Big Ten in rushing yards (1,005)
- 13th in Big Ten in rushing TDs (5)
On top of all this, Brown is also the only returning player this season with two of the nation’s top 17 rushing games from 2021. The point is that Brown was good last year. Really good. And most of that comes from his footwork.
Brown’s ability to quickly change his direction and make defenders look flat out silly is uncanny. Stopping on a dime, jutting to his left or right, all while not losing a lick of speed is how most of his big gains come. The junior also does a good job staying on his feet, or at least falling forward for a couple more yards; all this despite his compact stature at 5’11, 205lbs. His speed is good, but by no means is he gonna leave someone in the dust.
Reports say blocking is his biggest weakness; but if you’re picking up Brown, it’s not for his blocking. It’s for his vision, footwork, and ability to stay up. The Illini’s new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. relies heavily on the ground game, so look for Brown to get plenty of chances to shine in 2022.
Jacob: Florida A&M EDGE Isaiah Land vs. North Carolina, Saturday Aug. 27, 7:00 p.m. CST
It feels weird to call the Division I leader in sacks a sleeper, but that’s exactly the case with Florida A&M’s Isaiah Land.
Land exploded with 19 sacks and 25.5 tackles for a loss for the Rattlers in 2021. He plays with a red-hot motor on a consistent basis, as made evident by his hand activity and his high playing speed in space. His explosiveness off the snap is tremendous, and he has top-notch closing speed as a tackler. Though he’s skinny at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he has above-average gap awareness setting the edge against the run, too.
The Tar Heels are the only FBS team that Land will face this season. As an FCS prospect, this will be a huge measuring stick for him that many evaluators will use when projecting his value at the next level (think Braxton Jones against Arizona State last year). It will also be interesting to see how Land’s slight frame fares against a Power 5 offensive line. It’s obvious he’s a good football player, but struggles with power on Saturday could have some draft analysts projecting Land as an off-ball linebacker in the NFL.
Peter: UConn LB Jackson Mitchell @ Utah State, Saturday Aug. 27, 3:00 p.m. CST
Is there a better sleeper pick than a UConn Husky?
Mitchell, a 6’2 native of Ridgefield, Conn., was named to the watch list for the 2022 Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top college linebacker, and it’s not too hard to see why. Before even diving into the film (which, granted, is hard to find), Mitchell’s stats from 2021 immediately pop off the page. Unfortunately, three different sites will give you three different stats for Mitchell, but it’s safe to say he had about 120 total tackles (around top 15 in the nation), about 70 assisted tackles (top four in the nation), and around 10.0 tackles/game (top 15). The now junior also added on 1.5 sacks, an interception, three forced fumbles, two pass breakups, and five tackles for loss.
In terms of the eye test, Mitchell looks methodical and patient. He’ll often hangout after the snap and just kinda float, waiting for the play to develop a little before he makes his move. A couple of his tackles behind the line of scrimmage were achieved by doing just that; sitting back as the defensive and offensive line collided and then springing when a hole to the QB or RB opened up. To be fair, Mitchell is often relying on his teammates to do the dirty work before he pounces, meaning that if the right surrounding talent isn’t present, Mitchell might not be as effective as his numbers suggest. Just watching his tape, it’s easy to see how much he benefits from having another body in the area.
Tackle wise, he’s very fundamental, often going for big wraps around the legs or chest to bring his opponents down; big hit-stick trucks weren’t really present in his film. Mitchell also has a knack for using all of his length to get a piece of his target, often throwing his arm(s) around them before using the rest of his body weight to bring them down. In interviews, Mitchell has often expressed his love for watching NFL film and studying it, particularly naming Tampa Bay’s Devin White as one of his major influences. To sum it up, Mitchell comes off as an incredibly cerebral player who’s able to rack up his stats thanks to his IQ and solid fundamentals.