NFL Draft Prospects To Watch: Bowl Season, Part Four

Liberty Bowl: Iowa State (6-6) vs. Tulsa (10-3)

Iowa State LB A.J. Klein

This game is a rematch between these two teams, as they played each other in week one, with Iowa State coming out on top 38-23. After that game, however, these two teams went in opposite directions; Tulsa ended up winning their next seven games and only lost two more games all year, while Iowa State’s season was mired in inconsistency, as the Cyclones went 3-6 after a 3-0 start. Offensive struggles haunted the Cyclones, and though the defense played well despite being without LB Jake Knott, LB A.J. Klein leads a defense that will have to shut down a Tulsa offense that scored 35 points per game.

Klein (6’2, 248 lbs.) is big, old school style linebacker who will likely be best served playing inside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive front in the NFL, as his strengths are in stuffing the run and being sound in his keys. This game against Tulsa will allow him to display his strengths against the run, seeing as Tulsa prefers running the ball early and often, especially in the red zone. Tulsa has a nice stable of running backs that they use effectively, each filling a certain roll, and Klein will have to play well and be his usual tackling machine self if Iowa State is to win its first Bowl game since 2009. Klein looks like a third day pick at this point, and could improve his Draft standing with a solid outing in this game.

On the year, Klein has 98 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, one pass broken up, and one interception he took 87 yards for a score.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl: LSU (10-2) vs. Clemson (10-2)

LSU DE Barkevious Mingo

LSU’s season has been defined by two things: dominance on the defensive side of the ball and inconsistent play on the offensive side of the ball. While the offense struggled to move the ball through the air all year, the defense was stout, holding every opponent to 22 points or less in every game except one. They lost two games because the offense couldn’t get going in a 14-6 loss to Florida and a 21-17 loss to Alabama. Clemson is the opposite of LSU; Clemson’s offense is among the best and most explosive in the nation, while their defense has been suspect at times. LSU’s defense will have its hands full in this one, and star players like defensive end Barkevious Mingo will have to make plays for LSU to come out on top.

Mingo (6’5, 240 lbs.) might find his face on a milk carton, as he’s gone missing all year. For a player who last season notched 15.0 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks, he hasn’t shown the playmaking he showed capable of as a sophomore. Against LSU’s four toughest opponents (Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Alabama), Mingo was only able to muster 2.0 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss combined in those four games. He was completely shut down by Texas A&M right tackle Jake Matthews, the best offensive tackle Mingo played against all season, as well as Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker, who has struggled in pass protection all year, but was able to handle Mingo. This was a disappointing season for sure for Mingo, and it’s looking more evident that he might have to be a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. Mingo’s elite speed and quickness off the edge is what will make him a first round pick, but it’s quite a drop from preseason projected top five pick to potentially dropping to the 20’s. A good showing against an elite offense with a scrambling quarterback will be important for Mingo.

This season, Mingo has 33 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks, and three pass deflections.

Gator Bowl: Mississippi State (8-4) vs. Northwestern (9-3)

Mississippi State CB Johnathan Banks

Northwestern has had a good season, getting nine wins for the first time since 1998, and they’ve done it with a good ground game, while not turning the ball over and forcing turnovers on defense. Mississippi State has been one of the better teams in the nation in forcing turnovers, ranking seventh in the country in takeaways. This game will be a good opportunity for Bulldogs cornerback Johnathan Banks to make a case to be the first corner off the board come draft time.

Banks (6’2, 185 lbs.) is a big corner who has shown well in both man and zone coverage at times this season. Banks dealt with a knee injury in the second half of the season, and though he did end up playing through it, the injury clearly affected him negatively. The first half of the season was good for Banks, as he nabbed a few picks and showed he could be a game changer with his coverage. He is a bit of a risk taker, and his aggressiveness did cost him against Alabama on a couple touchdowns he was directly responsible for giving up, but his pros outweigh the cons. His size, hands, athleticism and tackling ability, coupled with the experience of being a full time starter for three years in the SEC is an attractive combo for pro teams. He is a likely mid first round pick, with the possibility of being the first corner of the board.

This season, Banks has 59 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, four interceptions, and seven passes broken up.

Heart of Dallas Bowl: Purdue (6-6) vs. Oklahoma State (7-5)

Purdue DT Kawann Short

Inconsistent is the only word one can use to describe Purdue’s season. The Boilermakers went 6-6 in the regular season, but flirted with disaster after starting 3-1, losing only to Notre Dame by three points in South Bend in that stretch. After the good start, Purdue dropped off the face of the Earth, losing their next five games, including four losses by 16 points or more, and needed three straight wins to close the year to be Bowl eligible. This will be a difficult game for Purdue, as Oklahoma State has one of the best offenses in the country, ranking fourth in the nation in scoring, seventh in passing, and fifth in total offense. Defensive tackle Kawann Short will need to help control the line of scrimmage if Purdue hopes to hang with the Cowboys.

Short (6’3, 315 lbs.) had a very good season, being downright dominant at times, as he showed in games against Eastern Michigan and Iowa. He has prototype size for a defensive tackle, and for a man over 300 pounds, he is very athletic and has shown game changing ability. Short leads the nation in blocked kicks/punts with four. Short started the season on a tear, getting 4.0 sacks and 7.0 tackles for loss in the first four games, before fading along with the rest of his team the next five games, and only notching 2.0 tackles for loss and no sacks during the five game losing streak. He did finish the year on a high note, however, with 5.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks in the final three contests. He is a late first round pick as of now, but if he can play well against a top notch offense, it will help his stock come Draft day.

This year, Short has 42 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks, four pass deflections, one forced fumble, and four blocked kicks/punts.

Outback Bowl: South Carolina (10-2) vs. Michigan (8-4)

Michigan OT Taylor Lewan

This is one of the more interesting games of the Bowl season, as we will get treated to a very exciting matchup; Michigan OT Taylor Lewen vs. South Carolina’s sophomore standout DE Jadeveon Clowney, the pass rushing stud who ranked third in the nation in tackles for loss with 21.5 and led the nation with 13.0 sacks this season. Michigan had a tough schedule, and all their losses came in road games against some great teams: undefeated Notre Dame and Ohio State, one loss Alabama, and Nebraska. It will be a game of strength vs. strength, as Michigan prefers to run the ball and South Carolina was the 16th best team in the country against the run. Michigan’s O-line vs. South Carolina’s D-line will be where this game is won or lost.

Lewen (6’8, 309 lbs.) is one of the better tackle prospects in the nation. Since going through some struggles against Alabama, Lewen has improved each game and become a dominant blocker at the point of attack. He is very good in space, as Michigan has routinely run screens to Lewen’s side and had him pull out into space on sweeps and tosses. He has shown the ability to get to the next level of a defense in the ground game, and has shown the feet and technique to handle the speed and bull rush equally. Lewen has the look of a top 20 pick as of now, and a good performance against a premier pass rusher will only help his stock.

BBVA Compass Bowl: Pitt (6-6) vs. Ole Miss (6-6)

Pitt DL Aaron Donald

Pitt’s season was a tale of two halves: they started 2-4, and they finished the season going 4-2. They were very inconsistent, losing to Youngstown State UConn, but beating Virginia Tech and Rutgers, while losing to undefeated Notre Dame by only three points. Ole Miss, on the other hand, finished poorly, losing three of their last four, though two of those games were road games at Georgia and LSU. Ole Miss’ strength on offense is its burley offensive line, as all but one starter is 300 pounds or more, and this will be a nice chance for Pitt defensive lineman Aaron Donald to show how he can hold up against much larger interior linemen.

Donald (6’0, 275 lbs.) has experience playing both defensive end and defensive tackle, though he is very undersized for a DT. He makes a living with his quickness and makes good use of his hands, preventing larger offensive linemen from getting a good grip on him at the point of attack. Donald had a very good year, leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss and ranking third in tackles, while recording at least 1.0 tackle for loss in every game he played in except one. After a slow start to the season, where he only got 2.0 TFL and no sacks the first three games and missed the game against Gardner-Webb, he picked it up and caught fire the rest of the season. He has shown good versatility in his collegiate career, playing every position on the line in both a 3-4 and 4-3 front, though he might be a better fit as a 3-4 end or in a 4-3 scheme that utilizes smaller defensive fronts. As of now, he looks like a late second day pick, with the potential to move up.

In 11 games played this season, Donald has 63 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and one forced fumble.

GoDaddy.Com Bowl: Kent State (11-2) vs. Arkansas State (9-3)

Kent State RB Dri Archer

Kent State had an all-time season for the program, winning 11 games for the first time in school history, and making its first Bowl game since the Tangerine Bowl in 1972. This season they ran through the MAC, going 8-1 in conference, and their only losses came at Kentucky early in the year and against 12-1 Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship. Arkansas State will look to win its first Bowl game since joining the FBS, and will have to deal with a Golden Flashes team that scored almost 35 points per game, and ranked 16th in the nation in rushing, with two 1,000 yard rushers this season. One of them is do-it-all running back Dri Archer.

Archer (5’8, 175 lbs.) is a bit undersized for a running back, but he has displayed very valuable versatility. He leads his team in rushing, receiving, and is the leading kick returner. He has legitimate 4.3 speed, and has really been one of the biggest reasons for Kent State’s emergence this year. He has the look of a third day selection, as his speed and versatility will intrigue NFL teams, and helping Archer is the way undersized players like Darren Sproles and Dexter McCluster are used in various running/receiving/returning roles. He will have to overcome questions about his small stature at the next level, but his pros outweigh his cons, so he’d be worth a look, and another solid outing in this game will help.

On the season, Archer has 150 carries for 1,352 yards and 15 touchdowns, 35 receptions for 539 yards and 4 touchdowns, and 16 kick returns for 573 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also has a passing touchdown! Talk about versatile…

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