Scouting Notebook: Top plays to watch and prospects to scout (Week 3)

Each week leading up to Saturday’s college football slate, we’ll be highlighting a few high-profile matchups as well as a few college football prospects in each game that the draft will be looking for in the 2023 NFL Draft and specifically how they might be seen by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

#1 Georgia at South Carolina 11:00 AM CST ESPN

The Georgia Bulldogs passed the Alabama Crimson Tide for the #1 ranking in the polls and look to prove themselves worthy of that ranking as they travel to Columbia to battle the Gamecocks in SEC Conference play.

The Bulldogs have a lot of talent on the defensive end of the football, but watch out LB #4 Nolan Smith. Smith is a bit thin at 6’3, 235lb and lacks impressive production, but he is a physical specimen as a former five-star recruit who is strong at the point of attack against the run while also having speed and explosiveness to rush the passer. He has decided to return for his senior season in 2022 and is primed to raise his draft stock in a game that should start early and often as an edge rusher.

For South Carolina, the headliner draft prospect is CB #9 Cam Smith. The 6’0, 188lb redshirt junior has been touted as one of the top CB prospects in the 2023 draft class, possessing the length, ball skills and athleticism to project well in the NFL as a prototypical defensive corner on the border. He picked off three passes and deflected 11 more last season while also showing a willingness to get in on the action at quarterback. He will be tested against a Georgia offense that has plenty of pass-catching weapons, making Saturday’s game critical to his lineup if he performs well.

#22 Penn State at Auburn 2:30pm CST CBS

The Nittnay Lions travel to Jordan-Hare Stadium for the second leg of a home series against the Auburn Tigers after a thriller last year in Happy Valley.

Penn State has several names to watch on the defensive end of the football including S #16 Ji’air Brown. The 5’11, 208lb senior was a great compliment to Jaquan Brisker last season on the back end, playing the ballhawk role while tallying six passes, including one for a home run. He has great instinct and range to play touchline to touchline as a deep center back, while also having the size and desire to emerge as a helper. Look for him to keep the backfield locked down and take advantage if his offense takes a hit.

for the tigers EDGE #29 Derrick Hall is a name that flashed last season with 12 ½ tackles for loss and nine sacks. He’s an explosive athlete off the edge who can be a handful for most OTs he’ll face thanks to his good release, speed around the edge and relentless pursuit of the passer. Auburn will line him up both on the rim and off the ball and in the gap to give him advantageous matchups against guards and centers he can easily beat with speed. He’ll need to show he can handle the run with Penn State setting the tone on the field in the first few games to show scouts he’s more than just a pass rusher.

#12 BYU at #25 Oregon 2:30pm CST FOX

The BYU Cougars are coming off of a thrilling 26-20 win against #9 Baylor last week and now travel to Eugene to face the Ducks, who are still looking to rebound after being defeated by Georgia in week one.

For Oregon, most game watchers will be looking LB #1 Noah Sewell on the defensive side of the football. Sewell is a shaky off-ball LB prospect who stands 6’3, 250lb and plays like an old-school drop-back against the run. He’s a good athlete on his own with the speed and drive to chase down ball carriers, but can struggle at times when moving laterally or when tasked with covering. He will have to do his best playing both down against the run and in space against QB Jaren Hall and BYU’s passing attack to help the Ducks secure the win at home.

For BYU, the name to watch is OT #71 Blake Freeland. The 6’8, 305lb junior has the height and length you’re looking for at the NFL level. He may need to add some extra mass to fill out his long frame to better match up with NFL power rushers at the next level, but he has good technique in pass protection as well as good feet and athleticism in space as run blocker. He has no problem getting to the second level or finding work in the screen game, getting a defender’s body in a hurry. He played well in the Cougar blowout against Baylor last week and will look to put together another good performance in addition to that against another ranked Power Five team.

#11 Michigan State at Washington 6:30pm CST ABC

The Spartans are off to a 2-0 start after sweeping Group of Five competition over the past two weeks and now travel to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies in a Power Five clash.

All eyes should be on Michigan State OLB #4 Jacoby Windmon to see if he can keep his hot streak going against an upgrade in the competition. At 6’2, 250lb, Windmon is the most disruptive player in college football so far with 5.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL and four forced fumbles in two games against Western Michigan and Akron. The UNLV transfer flashes as a pass rusher, getting to the QB in a variety of ways while also having a knack for forcing turnovers. He will face the best competition he has seen yet on Saturday and will have a chance to prove that his first two games were no fluke against a more respected Husky OL.

This game will be focused on the passing game, as Washington has its own remarkable herd DE #58 Zion grows up. Tupuola-Fetui showed impressive passing talent in 2020, racking up seven sacks in three games. However, he suffered a torn Achilles, ending the season abruptly. He returned in 2021 and played in seven games, making less of an impact than the previous season, but appeared to be on the right track after the injury. Now he enters 2022 as a 6’4, 260lb fifth-year senior and looks to regain his form as an intriguing pass rusher in the 2023 class with a strong showing against Michigan State, where his power and explosiveness could shine if he’s right after the terrible trauma.

#13 Miami at #25 Texas A&M 8pm CST ESPN

The Miami Hurricanes are off to a strong start to the 2022 season and look to continue that as they travel to College Station to face the Aggies of Texas A&M, who are coming off a big upset at home against Appalachian State.

For hurricanes, OT #60 Zion Nelson is a name that should be held under a microscope against an SEC-caliber defense. The 6’5, 316lb redshirt junior was draft eligible last year but decided to return to Miami after falling through in 2021 based on the buzz he received as one of the top OT prospects prior to this season. He was playing catch-up in terms of his physical development, weighing in at just 240 pounds in 2019 when he reported for spring training and is still looking to maximize his new body mass. He has started 32 games before 2022 and has the athleticism you look for in OT, but needs to show more seasoning in technique and power play.

For the Aggies, S #27 Antonio Johnson needs to step up in this game to prevent A&M from dropping two in a row at home. Widely considered the #1 safety prospect in this year’s draft class before the start of the 2022 season, the 6’3, 195lb junior is a versatile linebacker who mimics the roll of a pumped-up defensive back or a thin, explosive submarine package linebacker. A player I compared to Derwin James in summer scouting, Johnson packs a punch as a pass rusher, coming downfield with bad intent as well as a blitzer. He also breaks the ball well in coverage, possessing the length and instincts to defend passes and make rushing plays that the defense will need to create on Saturday night.

What do you think of the games and prospects listed above? How do you think they will do on Saturday? Will you be getting into any of these games specifically? Who else will you be watching this weekend as a potential draft pick for Pittsburgh? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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