NFL Draft Prospects To Watch: Bowl Season – Part One

It’s the most wonderful time, of the year…and I’m not talking about the holidays; I’m talking about the Bowl Season. This is what every team in the nation plays towards: a chance to play in a Bowl game. Some teams are happy just to get a Bowl invite, while others expect nothing less than a BCS Bowl appearance. This is an exciting time of year for 70 schools, as Bowl appearances mean extra revenue that your school wouldn’t otherwise get, national exposure on CBS, FOX, ABC, and ESPN, and one more game to show the country what you’re made of against a quality opponent you normally wouldn’t play.

Bowl games also give potential NFL draftees an opportunity to shine on the national stage, which has helped guys like Chris Johnson and Nick Fairley boost their Draft stock due to a huge Bowl game performance, or show some holes in a player’s game like Matt Leinart and Brady Quinn. Over the next few weeks, in a five part piece, we will take a look at every bowl game, and spotlight the players with the most to gain or lose with their Bowl game performances. Who will stand out? Who will disappoint? Some will rise and some will fall, so let’s take a look a few of those players.

New Mexico Bowl: Nevada (7-5) vs Arizona (7-5)

Nevada RB Stefphon Jefferson

Nevada’s season was a frustrating one, as they suffered two one point losses and played Boise State close in the last week of the season. Those three losses came by a combined 8 points, and proved to be costly, as Nevada could very well be 10-2 and playing in a better Bowl game. The defense was the big reason for the letdowns, as they couldn’t force turnovers, and were terrible in the red zone, allowing opponents to score an average of 32.5 points per game. The offense, especially the rushing attack, was consistent all year ranking seventh in the nation, and the key cog was running back  Stefphon Jefferson.

Jefferson (5’11, 210 lbs.) has been mentioned in this space before, and he has had a very good year, ranking second in the nation in rushing touchdowns and rushing yards per game. He has very good size, vision, and doesn’t often come off the field in passing downs, showing well in pass protection and as an outlet option. If he has a good Bowl game performance he can give his Draft stock a nice boost due to the lack of projected high round talent at his position.

On the season, Jefferson has 341 carries for 1,703 yards and 22 touchdowns with 22 receptions for 170 yards 1 touchdown.

Idaho Potato Bowl: Toledo (9-3) vs Utah State (10-2)

Utah State CB Will Davis

Utah State had a very good year, having their best season since the 1960’s. The Aggies’ only losses came out of conference, at Wisconsin and at BYU, and both games were decided by three points or less. In those games, the offense failed to carry their weight, as they scored only 17 points combined in those two contests, and that wasted amazing efforts by the defense as they allowed 22 points. While the offense was good the rest of the season, the defense’s great play was what made this a 10 win team. They held opponents to an average of 15.4 points per game, and are led by senior CB Will Davis.

Davis (6’0, 186 lbs.) has seen his stock go way up with his great play this season. He is tied for third in the nation in pass breakups, leads the nation in passes defended, and is tied for fourth in interceptions. He has shown to be a physical man to man cover corner and has shown solid tackling ability. After being a relative unknown coming into the season, Davis has improved his stock to the point where he could be a second day pick, and he will have an opportunity to show what he’s got against top competition in the Senior Bowl. A good game against Toledo and a solid pre-Draft showing could send his Draft stock soaring even higher than it is already.

For the season, Davis has 56 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions with one touchdown, and 16 passes broken up.

Poinsettia Bowl: BYU (7-5) vs San Diego State (9-3)

BYU OLB/DE Ezekiel Ansah

There are several prospects worth mentioning here, including San Diego State CB Leon McFadden and BYU OLB Kyle Van Noy, but OLB Ezekiel Ansah is the prospect who has the most to gain in this game. McFadden is considered a second day pick, and his stock is steady as of now, and while Van Noy has had an amazing statistical season and is also a likely early second day pick, he may opt to return to school. Ansah is one of the Draft’s risers with his solid play this year playing in space as a rush linebacker in BYU’s 3-4 defense.

Ansah (6’6, 270 lbs.) is one of the most intriuging prospects in this year’s Draft class. He has excellent size for the defensive end position, and may very well end up there in the pro’s, but having played outside linebacker in a 3-4 front, he has shown the athletic ability to play as a stand up rusher. With so many teams in the NFL using 3-4/4-3 hybrid looks, Ansah’s versatility will be a hot commodity come Draft day. In addition to his great size, length, and athletic ability, he has a motor that teams will love and the ability to play passing lanes well. While he is a bit raw as a pass rusher, the physical skills are there, and if he can show well in this game and in pre-Draft events, he could very well see his stock push him into the first round.

This year, Ansah has 57 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and eight passes broken up.

Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl: UCF (9-4) vs Ball State (9-3)

 UCF WR Quincy McDuffie

These two teams are pretty evenly matched, with both offenses averaging 35 points per game, but the difference lies on the defensive side of the ball and special teams, with UCF holding the slight advantage statistically in both. While this may not be the most glamorous matchup in terms of NFL Draft prospects, this game does have an intriguing prospect in do-it-all senior WR Quincy McDuffie.

McDuffie (5’10, 178 lbs.) isn’t the biggest receiver, but he is one of the fastest players in the country, and has shown throughout his career how dangerous he can be with the ball in his hands. The ultimate “Jack-of-all-trades”, McDuffie has turned out to be a very versatile weapon both on offense and on special teams. He doesn’t lead the team offensively in any category, but he has six total touchdowns on that side of the ball and is a very good kick returner, scoring a touchdown once every five returns this season. A good game against Ball State, coupled with him showing off his blazing speed in the pre-Draft process can help raise his stock if a team thinks he can be a Darren Sproles-esqe weapon.

This season, McDuffie has 28 receptions for 350 yards and three touchdowns, 162 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and 582 return yards with three touchdowns.

New Orleans Bowl: ECU (8-4) vs Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4)

Louisiana-Lafayette Safety Rodney Gillis

After years of being a national whipping boy, Louisiana-Lafayette has put together back to back eight or better win seasons, and have momentum after winning four of their last five games of the season, with their lone loss coming on a last minute blocked punt against Florida. Though the defense’s averages aren’t pretty, they held all but two of their opponents to 30 points or less, including Florida. There is a lack of star power on the defense, but senior safety Rodney Gillis is the leader and is having a good year.

Gillis (5’11, 186 lbs.) is the second leading tackler on the team, second in pass break ups, and not only sits among the national leaders in picks, but also leads the team in interceptions. He isn’t a speed demon or a big hitter, but he is sound in his assignments and could be a nice special team’s contributor or backup safety on the next level. A good post season would definitely help his Draft stock, and as of now he has the look of a late third day pick or undrafted free agent.

On the year, Gillis has 69 tackles, five interceptions, five pass break ups, and one fumble recovery.

MAACO Bowl: Washington (7-5) vs Boise State (10-2)

 Boise State RB D.J. Harper

Boise State’s season can be seen as a successful one, considering they lost their top QB, RB, WR, LT, LB, DB, and top three defensive linemen from last year’s 12-1 squad…all those losses would have crippled another team, but Boise State just keeps winning. They could’ve even gone undefeated this year, but close losses to Michigan State and San Diego State by a combined six points prevented that. No one player had an amazing standout year statistically on either side of the ball, but running back D.J. Harper’s success on the ground was a huge piece to the Broncos’ offensive success this season.

Harper (5’9, 205 lbs.) is a short and stocky sixth year senior who has had lots of issues with injuries throughout his collegiate career. He missed all but the first three games in both 2009 and 2010, came back last year to be Doug Martin’s backup, and finally was given a chance to be the full time starter this year. Harper has always showed a nose for the end zone, scoring 15 touchdowns in limited action in 25 games from 2007-2010, before getting nine touchdowns as Martin’s primary backup last season. Harper doesn’t have blazing speed and hasn’t been used as a receiver much, but he doesn’t have the mileage of other backs and his main value comes in the red zone. It’s possible a RB won’t be selected in the first round for the first time since 1963, and while it’s still really early for that kind of talk, it helps raise the Draft day stock of guys like Harper. As of now, Harper has the look of a potentially undrafted free agent.

In his first full season as the number one back, Harper has 212 carries for 1,065 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also has 20 receptions for 149 yards and one touchdown.

Hawaii Bowl: Fresno State (9-3) vs SMU (6-6)

SMU DE Margus Hunt

SMU has been very inconsistent this season on defense; they have forced 33 turnovers, scored eight defensive touchdowns, and held opponents to 3.91 rushing yards per carry, but allowed over 3,200 yards passing and 26 touchdowns and allowing over 400 total offensive yards per game. This was a tough game to pick just one ‘Prospect To Watch’, as there are a couple of players I really like in this game, including Fresno State safety Phillip Thomas, who was a beast this year and should be a first or early second round pick. SMU defensive end Margus Hunt gets the nod, as he has the most to gain or lose in this contest.

Hunt (6’8, 280 lbs.) came into the year viewed by many as a potential first round pick. He has great size and arm length, is experienced in a 3-4 front, has shown improvement each year, and is arguably the best kick/punt blocker in the nation (17 blocked kicks in his career!). But something was missing this year, as he disappeared in a few games, failing to notch any meaningful stats and his presence not being felt despite starting every game this season for the Mustangs. Hunt has seen his stock fall a bit this year, but he has improved statistically as he has each season, notching career highs in sacks and tackles for loss this year. He is a prototypical 3-4 defensive end, and is stock appears steady as a second day pick as of now. A good game could solidify his place as a second round pick or better, while a bad showing could really damage his stock going into the pre-Draft process.

Hunt has 28 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks, one interception, two pass break ups, and has blocked three kicks/punts this season.

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