Like we did last year last year, we will take an in-depth look at some of the most talked-about NFL draft prospects from each week. Below, NFL Draft expert Matt Richner covers Week 9 in college football and previews who to watch in Week 10. As the season progresses, we will highlight prospects who are rising up the draft boards along with others who are starting to fall off the radar due to their poor performances.
Player of the Week: Kentrell Brothers (ILB, Missouri):
In what can only amount to a major oversight that should probably include some sort of government oversight committee, Kentrell Brothers was left off the Butkus Award list for the nation's top linebacker. He is the nation's leading tackler, in addition to being the captain of a defensive unit that currently ranks 6th in the country. It should also be noted that the Missouri offense ranks 126th in the country, only Boston College and Central Florida have worse offensive production than Missouri.
Through nine games, Brothers has 117 total tackles, which averages out to 13 tackles per game. Last season Brothers finished with a total of 122 tackles, an average of 8.7 tackles a game. He has been one of the most dominant and productive players regardless of his position in college football this season. To go along with the incredible tackles total, Brothers has posted 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, two INT, one PB, and three blocked kicks.
Brothers isn't the most physically imposing linebacker. At 6'0” and 238 pounds, he utilizes his speed and instincts to diagnose and shut down an opponent's playmakers. He is one of the most sure-handed open-field tacklers in college football. Once he gets his hands on you, he doesn't let go.
Some players on defense look to make the tackle and go onto the next play while Brothers looks to make the highlight play and cause a turnover. Against Mississippi State this past weekend, he had 14 tackles, one forced fumble and one blocked kick. His forced fumble was a result of Brothers punching the ball out of the running back's grasp as he hit the inside gap. Most linebackers just bury their heads and look to lay their shoulder on the ball carrier.
Not only is he a playmaker on defense, but Brothers' ability and desire to play on special teams is something you don't see very often from top tier NFL Draft prospects. He was able use his speed to break through the line and almost grab the football off the Mississippi State punter's foot. Brothers plays with a relentless enthusiasm and is a player who is capable of carrying his team on his back.
Some scouts believe that Brothers is too undersized to be a three down linebacker in the NFL. He might lack the top-end speed of a Lavonte David, but he makes up for it with his instincts. Brothers has proven over the past couple of seasons that he always makes plays and he is typically in the right spot at the right time. Brothers' NFL Draft stock might drop a little after the NFL Combine due to his lack of measurables. He should just tell scouts to put on the game film because it won't take long before you start seeing him dominate almost every opponent he goes up against.
Andrew Billings (DT, Baylor):
Baylor might just have the most interesting and diverse set of defensive linemen in college football. They have the physical freak in Shawn Oakman at the edge and on the inside, they have the stocky, bulldog in Andrew Billings, who is a one-man wrecking crew when shutting down an opponent's interior rushing attack.
At 6'2” and 310 pounds, Billings is a beast and one of the main reasons why Baylor has dominated opponents on the defensive side of the ball. We all know the Baylor offense is going to score points yet it's the defense this season that has stepped up their game and really responded to the challenge of making this team a national contender. Billings is truly a central figure for the Bears defense.
He has the power and strength to occupy double teams and he is the unsung hero occupying blockers while allowing his linebackers the freedom to fly around the field making plays. This season Billings has stepped up his game in terms of getting into the backfield. He has eight tackles for loss on the year and had 11.5 in 2014.
Kansas State was pretty much a one-dimensional team this past weekend. They finished with 48 rushing attempts to 23 pass attempts. Kansas State had a total of 258 rushing yards, an average of 5.4 yards per carry, which is close to two per carry higher than Baylor was allowing throughout the season. Billings didn't record a tackle against Kansas State, but did record two quarterback pressures.
While he has good technique with his hands and swiping away at opponents' hands in the trenches, don't expect Billings to be called into action on offense. A tipped ball landed right between Billings' hands and smacked him in the facemask. He might have set the internet on fire if he had would have intercepted the pass and returned it for a score.
Billings missed some action due to an ankle injury he sustained against Kansas in the early part of October. With a few more games against top quality opponents in Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and TCU, Billings will have plenty of opportunities to prove to scouts why he is a first round caliber player. He isn't a box score type of prospect, Billings is the guy who does all the dirty work and puts his team in the position to succeed.
Cody Whitehair (OT, Kansas State):
Playing at almost every position along the offensive line, Whitehair has been one of the Wildcats' most consistent players over the past three years. He has started 47 of the last 48 games that he has played in for Kansas State.
At 6'4” and 304 pounds, Whitehair has the size to play at the tackle spot in the NFL and most NFL scouts believe he is best suited to slide inside and play the guard position. The versatility to play at almost every spot and be a competitive player will make Whitehair a possible second round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Against Baylor this past week, Whitehair was primarily matched up against Shawn Oakman, a top edge rusher for Baylor who stands at 6'9” and 275 pounds. Whitehair was able to dominate against Oakman showing good technique and had a solid base to defend against a strong bull rush. He didn't surrender any sacks or quarterback hits in the game.
It is Whitehair's abilities and talents in run blocking that elevate him in this year's crop of offensive line prospects. He is as strong as an ox and has the initial punch and push to drive his man off the line of scrimmage. The versatility to play inside and/or outside makes him a very valuable prospect. Against Baylor, Kansas State had 16 designed runs to Whitehair's gap responsibility resulting in a yards per carry average of 5.7 yards per carry average.
The one area of weakness that scouts have noticed is Whitehair's ability to handle outside speed rushers. He can handle the speed just fine, but it's when he overcommits to stopping the outside move that he can get beat on the double move inside. This won't be as much of an issue if he moves inside once he reaches the NFL.
Kareem Hunt (RB, Toledo):
Some running backs would rather run around a would-be tackler and some backs would rather run over a defender. Toledo's all-conference tailback would rather leave his footprint on a defender's chest; he is the epitome of a physically punishing type of runner.
At 5'11” and 220 pounds, Hunt made himself known to the scouting world last season when he recorded 1,631 yards on 205 carries, an 8.0 YPC average, and 16 rushing touchdowns. Hunt is finally healthy after dealing with a hamstring injury the past couple of weeks which limited his opportunities to only nine carries against Eastern Michigan. Scouts will be watching Hunt these next couple of weeks, especially since he missed some time this season due to a suspension and injuries.
This past week against Northern Illinois, Hunt had 25 carries for 140 yards, 5.6 YPC, and two rushing touchdowns. He finished with a total of 33 yards after contact, but more impressive were Hunt's six broken tackles throughout the game. He is a runner who prefers to run between the tackles versus bouncing it outside. Of his 25 designed runs, 23 of them came in between the tackle box.
Hunt plays with a punishing running style that can wear down defenses. His career split between first half and second are below:
1st Half: 263 carries, 1,787 yards, 6.8 YPC, 16 TD
2nd Half: 173 carries, 1,199 yards, 6.9 YPC, 11 TD
Hunt did have a few mistakes in the game this past week, most notably he had a ball go right through his hands which resulted in an interception. This was during a critical two minute drill and sealed the victory for Northern Illinois. He only has 24 career receptions and scouts will want to see him improve on his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Hunt might not be a three down back in the NFL, but could be a change of pace back, someone who could be paired up with a runner such as Devonta Freeman to give the Falcons a speed and power combo in the backfield. Look for Hunt to be a third or fourth round selection if he declares for the 2016 NFL Draft.
Players to Watch Next Week
Joshua Garnett (OG, Stanford):
Stanford has a solid reputation for their ability to develop quality NFL caliber offensive linemen and Garnett is the next in line to carry the Stanford torch to the NFL. At 6'5” and 325 pounds, he is a massive interior offensive lineman who is capable of dominating at the point of attack. Most defenders have a hard time getting any push or driving Garnett back into the pocket. He has improved his speed and agility this season. You can typically spot Garnett in the second level springing superstar tailback, Christian McCaffrey, for a big gain. Watch for Garnett to take on Oregon's DeForest Buckner in this week's matchup of two titans.
Jarran Reed (DT, Alabama):
A JUCO transfer, Reed has spent the past two seasons making up ground and drawing attention from scouts for his disruptive level of play for the Crimson Tide. Reed has been an anchor for the Alabama defensive front. Teamed up with A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama has run stuffing clogs that are capable of stopping an opponent's rushing attack. Last season, Reed had averaged 3.9 tackles per game, but has improved to 4.9 tackles per game this season. Reed will be going against a Mississippi State team that has a few NFL prospects along their offensive line. Reed's NFL Draft stock is starting to climb. Look for Reed's NFL Draft stock to continue his climb up the draft boards in the weeks to come.
Connor Cook (QB, Michigan State):
Michigan State has a big game in a couple of weeks when it goes into Columbus, OH to take on Ohio State. They will need to be firing on all cylinders for that game as it will likely decide who represents the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff. Michigan State will need to score early and often against Maryland this weekend so they can rest their starters. Cook will need to be efficient in his play and a leader by making sure his teammates don't look too far ahead. Cook has been consistent with his ball security, not turning it over and keeping his offense on the field. Maryland has a quality group of pass rushers who should test Cook's ability to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball accurately while under duress.