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College Football 2021: Biggest risers midway through the season

Biggest risers midway through the 2021 college football season:
Biggest risers midway through the 2021 college football season:
ANALYST

Since this page and my YouTube channel have been very NFL-centric and it’s still where my main focus lies, I wanted to take a look at the college football landscape and talk about some players that have stood out to me so far this year and how I project their ascent to affect their status for the 2022 NFL Draft. Therefore, I decided only to include players who will be eligible for it next April.

At this point, there is no way I can watch every single college game, of course, and it's not as easy to grab the All-22's anyway. Still, I do spend 13-14 hours every Saturday watching multiple games and take at least one other day per week to study players individually.

So there may be more complete lists and I may not be able to offer as many deep sleepers as I can during the actual draft season. But these are the guys that have moved up my early rankings and put their names on the watch list.

NOTE: The statistics mentioned don't include games that have happened since October 25th.


College Football 2021: Biggest offensive risers by position

QB: Matt Corral, Ole Miss

Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral
Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral

In 2018, Matt Corral was the number seven quarterback in a loaded class with Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and others. However, he did not have the same trajectory as those guys. He backed up Jordan Ta’amu as a freshman and then was benched midway through his second season.

When Lane Kiffin came in ahead of the 2020 season, he made it clear to Corral that he’s his guy under center. He had some explosive moments, particularly lighting up Alabama’s defense for 48 points. With that being said, there were some pretty bad down-moments as well, throwing 11(!) combined interceptions in the Arkansas and LSU games, where he showed that he has to become a more mature decision-maker.

He has played as well as any quarterback in the country this season, completing 66.3 percent of his passes for 288 yards per game and 14 touchdowns. He only just tossed his first interception this past Saturday at Tennessee. He also has 450 rushing yards and another eight touchdowns on 88 carries. The Ole Miss offense was held to seven points through three quarters in their rematch in Tuscaloosa (AL), but they’ve averaged 48.2 points in the other five contests.

There has never been a question about Corral’s arm talent and he’s shown that off on several occasions. He has excelled in that RPO-heavy offense for the Rebels, where he finds leverage advantages and cushions to exploit. Still, the reason there’s so much space underneath is how this guy attacks defenses vertically at the same time, as he leads college football with 45 completions on throws of 20+ (air) yards since the start of the 2020 season.

At the same time, he’s gotten much better at realizing when defenses are flooding those shallow areas and when to hand the ball off or pull it down himself. So there are some wide-open throws in Lane Kiffin’s offense. Still, Corral also delivers some absolute bullets into tight windows and beats defenders that seem to be in a pretty good position, with pin-point accuracy.

Coming into this season, I thought the issue with his game was that he seemingly had no “off button,” meaning he would throw some balls in windows that others wouldn’t even think about. And while I appreciate the way he challenges defenses to defend every blade of grass on the field and some of the incredible plays he can make off-script, he’s gotten much better at understanding when he doesn’t have to force the issue.

He’s also shown a lot of toughness this season, getting up after some big hits, and he impressed as a runner when defenses presented lightboxes as he went for nearly 200 yards on 30 carries against Tennessee.

Also considered: Jake Haener (Fresno State) & Kenny Pickett (Pittsburgh)

RB: Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker
Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker

Right now, Bijan Robinson is arguably the most exciting skill-position player in college football, but we’ll have to wait another year for him to become eligible. So instead, we’ll go with somebody who went from an afterthought as a transfer to potentially a top-five back in the 2022 NFL draft – Kenneth Walker.

The big story for Michigan State has been the culture head coach Mel Tucker has established in East Lansing and how they are now looked at as a place college players want to transfer to.

Walker rushed for precisely 579 yards in each of his two seasons at Wake Forest. However, the touchdown total did increase from four to 13. But he has already blown those numbers out of the water, as he is just three yards short of 1000 through seven games (which leads the nation), averaging 6.6 yards per attempt and finding the end-zone a total of ten times.

The former two-star recruit has seemingly exceeded expectations his entire career. Still, he’s now become the bell-cow for the Spartans, which was apparent right away when he rushed for 264 yards and four(!) touchdowns in a dominant season-opening performance against Northwestern.

Walker didn’t necessarily benefit from Wake Forest’s weird option run game, where the quarterback rides the mesh point forever. Still, now at MSU, he’s been very effective in the zone run game, with just hesitating a little bit and then finding the cutback.

He has impressive short-area quickness, but he can also drop those hips and make cuts at a large radius, often to bounce out to the edge. I thought you saw Walker bounce off some tackles and keep his balance, but now he runs through those and gains yardage after contact. And while he doesn’t look as big, he can make defenders feel it when he finishes his runs by lowering that shoulder when he has momentum built up.

As we project him forward in the NFL, with only six career receptions coming into 2021 and just five so far this year, his value will depend on what he can still show on third downs.

Also considered: Zach Charbonnet (UCLA) & Kennedy Brooks (Oklahoma)

WR: Drake London, USC

USC wide receiver Drake London
USC wide receiver Drake London

There were some excellent choices at the wide receiver position and guys that I’d like to talk about here, but you can argue no other player’s stock has risen more than the one of this 6’5”, a 210-pound junior for USC.

We’ve seen Michael Pittman Jr. and Amon-Ra St. Brown come out of that program the last two years, but I would almost call this London a mixture between the two with higher upside than both of them. Through his first 14 games (two years), he hauled in 72 passes for 1069 yards and eight touchdowns.

London has already crushed his previous career-highs in just six games, catching 64 passes for 832 yards and five touchdowns. However, it’s not all about the numbers and the Trojans certainly haven’t been an imposing team this season – sitting there at 3-3 with fairly mediocre numbers on both sides of the ball – but rather how his role in the offense has changed and the improvement he’s shown in several areas.

After almost exclusively being a big slot receiver up to this point, often taking on the job of a detached tight-end almost, lining up as the number three in trip sets, London is now splitting snaps pretty much evenly between inside and out in 2021. We knew about his ability to gain ground with those long strides, take advantage of those unimpeded releases in the slot and then use his basketball size and skills in contested catch situations.

Yet what has made him a hot name in draft circles is what he has shown in terms of consistently being able to separate into one-on-one cases, on top of being able to hold onto catches through contact. He may not be super-explosive, but he understands how to threaten vertically off the snap, use body language to deceive defenders and then can break off routes without having to slow down a whole lot.

Once the ball is in his hands, he goes north instantly and becomes a tank to bring down, dragging smaller DBs on his back and even stumbling forward when he’s tripped up. Because of that, we see the Trojans throw him a bunch of screen passes since they know he’ll gain good yardage for them.

Against Utah in particular, they threw him about ten different variations of those. What I’ve fallen in love with, however, is the passion he brings as a blocker, where he can stun defenders with his punch, establishes a good position and keeps driving his legs.

Also considered: Treylon Burks (Arkansas) & David Bell (Purdue)

TE: Isaiah Likely, Coastal Carolina

Coastal Carolina tight-end Isaiah Likely
Coastal Carolina tight-end Isaiah Likely

The TE position in college football is always tricky because there are so many H-backs and glorified big slot receivers that put up big numbers. At the same time, those more prototypical in-line guys might be stuck in more traditional run-heavy offenses that don’t feature them much as pass-catchers.

The names I mention here may not become superstars at the next level, but they have impressed with their production and big play to put themselves on the radar, just like the guy I want to discuss here. Unless he gets hurt down the stretch, Likely will most likely have increased his numbers every single season for the Chanticleers.

Last year, he cracked the 600-yard mark on 30 receptions and scored on five of those in ten games. Over six contests this season, he’s almost matched those numbers, still averaging 19 yards per grab on 27 of those and reaching the end-zone eight times. That includes a ridiculous performance against Arkansas State, hauling in eight passes for 232 yards and four (!) touchdowns.

Being part of this option-run heavy Coastal Carolina offense, you see Likely line up at wing or H-back quite a bit and execute insert or wrap-up pulls. Still, he also puts in good work as a stalk-blocker from the slot, cutting off angles for safeties and providing ball-carriers with room to work.

The 6’4”, 245-pound senior is built much more like a move tight-end than your typical Y, but I really like the attitude he brings to the table in that area of his game and how he consistently keeps that leg drive going through contact. But what he has done as a receiver is more intriguing to scouts, where you see him run a lot of slides and crossing routes off those run-fakes to make use of his skills after the catch.

He eats up a lot of ground once he gets going and uses his off-arm exceptionally well to swipe down the reach of defenders and not allow them to grab any part of him. He may not be the most precise route-runner, but he can threaten down the seams with those long strides and he works those intermediate areas of the field with his quarterback Grayson McCall, who trusts him to come through.

Also considered: Trey McBride (Colorado State) & Greg Dulcich (UCLA)

OL: Ikem Ekwonu, N.C. State

N.C. State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu
N.C. State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu

Before we get to this player, I apologize to all the offensive linemen for making this the one group I lumped together, rather than talking about offensive tackles and interior linemen, as I usually would during draft season. It’s much harder to watch guys in the trenches on the broadcast angle and pay attention to them throughout games.

Now, every year there seems to be one substantial offensive tackle prospect from the ACC that emerges as one of the top guys at his position the following April. And with Ekwonu, I’m still not sure where I think he’s fit better because he could probably kick ass at guard as well, but he has undoubtedly helped his draft stock by what he’s shown on the edge this season. After all, he did start at left tackle and guard in 2020 and earned second-team All-ACC honors at BOTH spots, which is why he makes even more sense as the choice here.

There’s no other way to describe this than saying Ekwonu is a menace in the run game. He can widen the B-gap on the front-side of zone run plays by relentlessly driving edge defenders to the sideline. I feel like his short-area agility to work across the face of interior linemen and cut off the back-side has improved.

Still, you want to get him working vertically on combo-blocks and have him bury linebackers as he comes off those. You watch some of the stuff he’s tasked with, leading the way on power plays or peeling off on run-fakes, where they throw a screen back to the single-receiver away from the original action and Ekwonu has to get out to the corner, he’s not just a phonebooth-type guy at all.

Pro Football Focus has the most positively-graded run blocks all season right now among all the offensive linemen. With that being said, his growth in pass-protection is what has impressed me the most. He's always had the length and robust base to force rushers to widen their arc, but he gets more depth in kicks now and has refined his technique significantly, starting with how much more balanced he is and how he is is keeping his weight centered. You see, some high hands and overextension make it difficult for him.

There’s still room upwards, but his awareness of games upfront has taken a step forward and watching him level guys from the side when he’s not tasked with anybody is a blast.

Also considered: Sean Rhyan (UCLA), Alec Lindstrom (Boston College) & Nicholas Petit-Frere (Ohio State)


College Football 2021: Biggest defensive risers by position

EDGE: Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan

Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson
Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson

As much as people want to make about the 2021 edge class lacking top-tier talent, I think all medical concerns aside, Jaelan Phillips is close to being an elite prospect and we’ve seen a few of those gifted athletes like Gregory Rosseau or Odafe Oweh make an impact right away in the NFL.

Yet, I feel pretty good about saying that this upcoming class will be a lot better in terms of the names selected over the first two days. Kayvon Thibodeaux came into the season as the front-runner and there are some other highly athletic guys that we’ll discuss down the road.

Still, I don’t think anybody on the edge has played at as dominant a level as Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson. As a sophomore, he looked poised to become a first-round pick when he recorded 69 tackles, ten of those for loss, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and six passes batted down. The following season, he had a strong showing in the season-opener against Minnesota but suffered an injury that ruled him out for the year.

So far through six games of 2021, he’s put up six tackles for losses and 4.5 sacks already, with one of them including a strip. But to me, the numbers don’t nearly reflect how good he’s been because when you put him on the tape, no other defensive player has been winning his matchups at a higher rate, it feels like.

Hutchinson may not be the kind of dynamic athlete on the edge like Thibs from Oregon, but the one thing you see routinely on tape for him is the balance issues he causes for blockers because of how he sets them up and the power he brings to the table.

That was apparent against Bucs’ first-round pick Tristan Wirfs in their 2019 matchup already and he’s only gotten better from that point on. He plays with heavy hands in the run game and can dislodge guys, especially when matched up against tight-ends, to establish first contact with the ball-carrier. His backside pursuit is so ferocious that he can take plays, where the offenses want to leave him unblocked, entirely out of the play-book, but he also won’t hesitate with taking on pulling guards at the center of the action.

What stands out to me every week when I watch him is his relentless hustle. He chases after the ball until the whistle blows. He displays excellent snap anticipation on passing downs and makes excellent use of his length, with the high-swim being one of his go-to moves. This year, what surprised me is the quick-twitch he has shown to cross-face blockers when he realizes they are overset to the outside and can take the inside lane.

And we’ve showcased some versatility in alignment, moving around on longer downs. If there was one tape to watch in 2021 for Aidan, it would be him routinely beating a potential first-round left tackle in Jaxson Kirkland, who at times runs right through that guy’s face.

Also considered: George Karlaftis (Purdue) & Tre’ Williams (Arkansas)

IDL: Jordan Davis, Georgia

Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis
Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis

One guy from this dominant Georgia defense had to make the list here. I mentioned another one with the next category, but regarding how I looked specifically at that player from 2020 compared to this season, Jordan Davis has stood out the most.

It’s not always easy to understand the impact a nose tackle can have, but even when you watch the broadcast of those UGA games, this monster in the middle for the Bulldogs stands out. At 6’6”, 340 pounds, this is a behemoth of a man. His size and natural strength were always on display, but it didn’t translate to production or splash plays, as more of an immovable object right over the snap, being asked to line up shaded to one side of the center or two-gapping head up on that guy.

His numbers still won’t pop off the screen at any point, combining for 6.5 tackles for loss and five sacks over his first three seasons, missing some time last year. This year, he’s already at three TFLs and 1.5 sacks in six games, but what has me going from thinking he’s more of a pure two-down run-plugger to believing he’s the best pure defensive tackle prospect heading into 2022 is the different level of energy he brings to the table.

It didn’t take long for me to realize who this massive guy was when I saw Davis straight-up bench-press guards and centers into the backfield and swallow double-teams in the run game. Davis can run for a guy his size when he’s in chase-down mode and you see him pursue guys to the sideline a lot. However, his motor has been revving at an entirely different level in 2021, not getting caught on the wrong side of blocks and routinely getting hands on the ball-carrier in the backfield.

I’ve been impressed with the quick hands to work off blocks and swallow running backs as they try to get through the hole. He went from being last quite a bit to now, often first off the snap for Georgia. While he still comes off the field on third downs more often than not, simply due to the depth of that Bulldogs front and how they involve guys in their pressure packages, he’s been in attack mode when going after the quarterback way more.

He’s still a valuable asset with the way he can drive blockers into the depth of the pocket and then pull them off, as they lean too much into him.

Also considered: Logan Hall (Houston) & Calijah Kancey (Pittsburgh)

LB: DeMarvion Overshown, Texas

Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown
Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown

Just looking at the stat sheet, I always thought linebacker was one of those positions that can be the most deceiving because high tackling numbers are rarely any indication of how good a player is.

Filling run fits, matching guys in zone coverage and appropriately executing blitzes are things you can only judge when you dive into the tape. And the guy that has just been flashing to me all season long, whether it’s the broadcast or All-22 angle, has been the Longhorns’ DeMarvion Overshown.

This certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone around the top-50 overall recruits in 2018. While he has only appeared in six total games over his first two years, he has already put his name on the map as a highly productive junior. With that being said, he was more of a projection to me as an undersized run-and-chase player.

As a former safety, I wanted to see him grow to play the linebacker position, especially in-between tackles. Overshown himself noted that he didn’t get a chance to learn it until fall camp last year. He has already recorded 56 total tackles this season, four for loss, 1.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries.

At 6’4”, 220 pounds, Overshown presents a pretty slender frame and that doesn’t allow him to stack big offensive linemen head-on as a run defender in the box. While he gives up around 100 pounds a lot of times to those interior guys, the Texas backer doesn’t hesitate to shoot downhill. You see it mainly on some outside-oriented runs in his direction, where he attacks the edge and forces the ball-carrier to cut inside.

While from the back-side, where he finds himself a lot of times as the WILL for that defense, he’s become more patient at tracking the running back and taking away cutback lanes. Overshown is an effortless mover in the passing game, with loose hips and light feet to cover the ground.

In UT’s 2-4-5 defense, he is often tasked with carrying number three receivers from trips on crossers in their cover-three and with those long arms, quarterbacks have to put the ball a little further out in front or put that extra bit of arc on the ball, for him to not get a hand on it. Overshown’s been flying around the field for a while, but he started turning those into big plays and finds himself around the ball constantly now. He was all over the field in the Red River Showdown against Oklahoma, even if the Longhorns found a way to give up a considerable lead.

Also considered: Nakobe Dean (Georgia) & Devin Lloyd (Utah)

CB: Riley Moss & Matt Hankins, Iowa

Iowa cornerbacks Riley Moss and Matt Hankins
Iowa cornerbacks Riley Moss and Matt Hankins

This is the one position I felt the need to list two names – actually teammates – because both deserve to have their names called here. This may not be as well-received as if Iowa was still the number two team in the country like last week before they got upset by Purdue and lost by 17 as a double-digit favorite.

Still, that defense has played as well as any other unit not named Georgia, and they are still number one in the country with 20(!) total takeaways. The entire group has been impressive, creating negative plays in the run game upfront, those safeties barreling down a lot of their two-high shells and stopping plays for minimal yardage, mainly those two senior corners turning the ball over.

Riley Moss and Matt Hankins have missed one game but have still combined for seven interceptions (four and three respectively) and Moss returned two for pick-6s in the season-opener against Indiana to set the tone. Yet, it’s not been all about the numbers they have put up, but also their engagement in the running game and taking away potential big plays through the air.

From a physique perspective, Moss is the more solidly built among the two, at 6’1”, 195 pounds, while Hankins brings a more skinny frame to the table at six feet, 185 pounds. They both got onto the field right away for the Hawkeyes, particularly Hankins, who came to campus in 2017 already.

While they did receive baptism by fire to some degree early on, that experience is now paying off with their heady play. To me, Iowa has the two best edge-setting corners in the country, who both actively approach or get around and try to disengage from blockers.

Moss is a highly reliable tackler, clutching around the legs of ball-carriers to make sure they get to the ground. At the same time, with Hankins, the thing that stands for me the most is his toughness to bang big running backs out of bounds, even when he’s in a compromised position, as that guy is coming in with some momentum.

In terms of coverage, Moss, to me, is at his best in the off-zone, where he can layer in-between routes and drive on the ball, not wasting any time once he sees the quarterback set his feet. On the other end, Hankins still excels in the zone, staying attached on vertical routes, but he also displays impressive ability to stab guys' chests in press-man and re-routing them. They have both certainly boosted their draft stock this season, even if that Hawkeye scheme protects their corners to some degree.

Also considered: Mykael Wright (Oregon) & Jermaine Waller (Virginia Tech)

Safety: Jaquan Brisker, Penn State

Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker
Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker

I don’t think there’s anybody I’ve enjoyed watching more than this guy all season long. Brisker was the number one safety recruit in the nation back in 2019 and he quickly became a pivotal piece of that Penn State defense.

So his rise as a college player and regarding his potential future in the NFL shouldn’t be surprising to anybody, but he’s played at such a high level that he deserves to be talked about.

Over his first two years (22 games), he recorded 88 total tackles, four for loss, three picks and nine more passes broken up. Through six games this season, he’s collected 25 tackles, 3.5 for loss, two INTs and three more PBUs. However, it’s been his instincts, energy and leadership for that Nittany Lions defense, which has held opponents to just 13.8 points per game (fourth-fewest in college football), that has stood out to me and what’s kind of crazy is that it has done on the broadcast angle already, which is pretty rare for a safety.

This guy constantly plays downhill, steps down and fills up against the run, where he brings a physical style of play into the box that you don’t even see from many linebackers. He’s the first to initiate contact for the most part and plays with extension through blocks.

You can trust him as an edge-setter and he can lower to boom on guys in front of him, but he’s also been highly reliable at bringing ball-carriers to the ground, missing just one of his 60 tackle attempts in 2020. He’s coming in at full speed as a blitzer and doesn’t slow down when he meets offensive tackles either, taking them off balance at times.

Despite being built to play closer to the line of scrimmage, I would say, he’s been deployed as a single-high free safety quite a bit, especially as a sophomore, where he has the range to make plays at the sideline and you see him punish receivers for trying to high-point the ball on several occasions.

But what is apparent in that regard is his outstanding awareness of where everybody is on the field. And he’s been trusted in a lot more man-coverage this season, keeping active feet and dictating route stems a lot of times.

Brisker was all over the field in Penn State’s 2021 season-opener against Wisconsin, coming up with several key plays, including pretty much a game-sealing pick, where he was in man-coverage on the back and, with that guy staying in protection, had the freedom to float underneath a streaking tight-end.

Also considered: Jalen Catalon (Arkansas) & Verone McKinley III (Oregon)


For an in-depth breakdown of the NFL and college football, head over to my page https://www.halilsrealfootballtalk.com and my Youtube channel

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Edited by Jay Lokegaonkar
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