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 8 in college football and previews who to watch in Week 9. 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: Jeremy Cash (SS, Duke):
It was a wild outcome with Duke on the road and coming away with a victory over Virginia Tech that took four overtimes to finally decide a winner. The key defensive leader for the Blue Devils for the past three seasons has been Jeremy Cash, one of the highest rated safety prospects in the country. He currently ranks fourth in the country with 14 tackles for loss and leads the ACC in tackles for loss. The next closest defensive back in the FBS is ranked 73rd. Dating back to 2008, no defensive back has been ranked in the top five for most tackles for loss in a single season.
Cash moves around the field and will line up at every defensive position, from defensive tackle to outside linebacker. While he might lack the hair and maybe a little of the flair, Cash's ability to line up at multiple positions and seemingly always be around the football is reminiscent of a young Troy Polamalu. On any given play Cash can line up anywhere on the football field, coming in on a delayed blitz or shutting down an opponent's top offensive target. Few coaches will trust a young player with the responsibility of making his own calls, but the Duke coaching staff believes in Cash's ability to read opposing offenses and make the right call. A true playmaker, Cash has the highest career number of forced fumbles amongst all active FBS players. For 2015, he has forced three fumbles.
Against Virginia Tech, Cash finished with eleven tackles, 2.5 TFL, one sack, one pass breakup, and two quarterback hits. He was targeted five times, allowing three receptions for 45 yards and one touchdown. It's his ability to play in the box and shut down an opponent's rushing attack that separates Cash from your typical ball-hawking safety prospects.
Cash isn't afraid to mix it up with offensive linemen; his lone sack in the game came on a snap to sack time of 2.79 seconds. He came in on a deep safety delayed blitz and was able to run right past the offensive line and take down the quarterback. On another occasion, Cash eluded the block of the right tackle and drove the tailback into the quarterback, disrupting his throw and forcing an incompletion.
Few college players display the versatility and ability that Jeremy Cash has shown over the past couple of seasons. While he might not have the top end speed like an Earl Thomas or a Tyrann Mathieu but Cash's ability to play in the box and drop into coverage make him one of the most complete safety prospects to come through the ranks in a long time.
Look for Cash to make a few more big plays with upcoming games against Miami and North Carolina. If he keeps up his level of production, there will be a lot of defensive coaches in the NFL that will be pounding the table to take Cash in the first round.
Michael Thomas (WR, Ohio State)
: The experienced wideout who has over 20 career starts to his resume has taken ahold of the number one receiving position for the Buckeyes this season. After redshirting in 2013, Thomas came back with a vengeance in 2014, posting 54 receptions for 799 yards and nine touchdowns. Ohio State lost last year's top wideout Devin Smith, who posted an average of 28.2 yards per catch last season, to the NFL Draft.
At 6'3” and 210 pounds, Thomas is capable of physically punishing defensive backs at the line of scrimmage. He can throw a defender out of the way and he can get a quick release from a defensive back jam and make his way up the field. A long strider, he is a deep play threat on almost every play.
Ohio State has multiple weapons at almost every position on offense and they force defenses to become one-dimensional. Defenses either have to commit a safety to the box to stop the run or at least slow down All-American running back Ezekiel Elliott. This leaves a single high safety over the top, which allows the playmakers on the outside, such as Thomas and Braxton Miller, to be covered in one-on-one situations which both should win each and every time.
Against Rutgers this past weekend, Thomas was targeted nine times, finishing with five receptions for 103 yards, 20.6 YPC, and one touchdown. He had one drop and one intended target resulted in a defensive pass interference penalty. A deep downfield threat, Thomas' average distance of intended target versus Rutgers was 13.3 yards past the line of scrimmage.
He has the ability to make plays in the open field and the agility to slip past would-be tacklers. Thomas improved his strength from last season, as was evident on the powerful stiff arm he used to break free from a tackle which resulted in a touchdown.
Thomas finished with 60 yards-after-the-catch, an average of 12 yards per reception, to go along with four broken tackles in the game. Additionally, he had 42 yards after contact in the game.
The Buckeyes' change in quarterback from Cardale Jones to J.T. Barrett should have a positive impact on Thomas' overall numbers. Below is Thomas' production based on who was throwing him the ball this season.
Cardale Jones: 25 receptions, 346 yards, 13.8 YPC, 2 TD's
J.T. Barrett: 10 receptions, 190 yards, 19 YPC, 4 TD's
Thomas has a higher yards per catch and number of touchdown receptions despite catching less passes from Barrett. Look for Thomas' numbers to improve as the Buckeyes finally settle on who their starting quarterback will be moving forward. Upcoming games against Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan State should give Thomas plenty of opportunities to show scouts that he is capable of being a first round draft pick.
Brandon Facyson (CB, Virginia Tech):
Facyson is a physically imposing defensive back who has played in the shadow of the Hokies First-Team All ACC cornerback, Kendall Fuller. With Fuller out for the season with an ankle injury, Facyson has the opportunity to show scouts that he is more than capable of shutting down an opponent's top target. Despite missing most of last season with a variety of injuries, Facyson was granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA.
He started nine games during the 2013-2014 season, earning several awards and accolades such as third-team All-ACC. Facyson's size and ability to physically outmuscle most college wide receivers allows him to dictate and shut down an opponents' number one target.
Last week against Duke he was targeted 12 times, allowing six receptions for 82 yards and one touchdown. Coming into the game, Facyson had only allowed 15 receptions all season. He surrendered 30 yards after the catch.
Facyson's aggressive style of play can lead to a few open opportunities for wide receivers and he bit on couple of double moves. He took a couple false steps towards the line of scrimmage on a play action fake which resulted in his man coming away with a 45 yard reception.
Facyson was lucky that Duke didn't have an accurate quarterback at the helm. He lacks the agility and lateral skill sets; failing flat footed on double moves getting beat over the top on multiple occasions where luckily two out of the three times the pass was incomplete because the quarterback overthrew his intended target
Facyson is at his best when he is able to come down to the line of scrimmage and jam opposing wide receivers. He is better in man-to-man coverage than in zone. Listed at 6'2” and 196 pounds, Facyson has the long arms to disrupt the wide receiver's route and the ability to get his hand inside and knock out the ball. He has nine pass breakups on the season, ranking him tied for 22nd amongst all defensive backs in the FBS this season.
Watching Facyson's limited agility and ability to quickly get in and out of his breaks makes me believe that he would be better suited as a strong safety. He would need to add a few more pounds of muscle, but he would have the height and size to match up against tight ends. Facyson has been talked about as a possible third round selection, but he is still a raw talent and might be better suited returning to Blacksburg and refining his skill set.
Shaq Lawson (DE, Clemson):
The matchup was billed as a test for the Clemson Tigers after Miami had a couple of close loses against Florida State and Virginia Tech the past couple of weeks. The Hurricanes failed to muster up any effort in this weekend's matchup, which ultimately saw Clemson winning 58-0 over the Hurricanes.
Clemson has seen their defensive unit improve since Brent Venables took over as defensive coordinator in 2012. Last season, the Tigers defense had a pair of first rounders in Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony who were defensive playmakers and leaders. This year's unit is led by Shaq Lawson, who had a total of 7.5 sacks coming into the season.
At 6'3” and 275 pounds, Lawson is playing the traditional defensive end position in a 4-3 scheme. This season Lawson has produced 29 tackles, 12.5 TFL, and 5.5 sacks. Against Miami, he played the entire first half and saw limited action in the second half due to the sizable lead.
He finished with three tackles, two tackles for loss, two sacks, two quarterback hits, and one quarterback pressure. His snap-to-sack time came in at an average of 2.64 seconds. In his first sack, the Miami guard failed to pull over in time and Lawson was able to jet into the backfield and take down the Hurricanes' quarterback. On his second sack, he showed the strength that makes him a legitimate first round caliber prospect, shedding would-be blockers as he collapsed the pocket and came away with the sack.
Power and strength are Lawson's main physical attributes and they are what jump off the film when watching him play. What I think he lacks is the initial speed and quickness. He routinely is one of the last guys off the line of scrimmage and he will rarely get the first step around the corner on an offensive tackle.
His style of play and ability to set the edge and be a factor in shutting down an opponent's rushing attack reminds me of former Arkansas defensive end, Trey Flowers. Flowers was a third round draft pick by the New England Patriots in 2015.
Players to Watch Next Week
Taywan Taylor (WR, Western Kentucky):
Despite not playing in a Power Five conference, Taylor has been one of the most dynamic and productive wide receivers in college football. Last week against LSU, Taylor had ten receptions for 103 yards and one touchdown. A playmaker with the ball in his hands, he is averaging 16.7 YPC this season, which is a slight drop from the 17 YPC average he posted last year. 21 percent of Taylor's receptions this season have gone for 25 or more yards. The Hilltoppers take on Old Dominion, who have the 65th ranked pass defense in college football.
Kyle Fackrell (OLB, Utah State):
Fackrell missed almost all of last season with a torn ACL injury sustained in week one. It typically takes players a few games, or even a season in some cases, to return back to form after an injury. Fackrell has been playing at a high level all season, recording 47 tackles, 10.5 TFL, three sacks and two forced fumbles in 2015. This weekend the Aggies will be taking on Wyoming and their anemic offensive line which has surrendered 22 sacks, an average of 2.8 sacks per game. At 6'5” and 250 pounds, he has the size to hold his own in the run game and attack opposing quarterbacks. His knee will surely be talked about at the NFL Combine, but he might be another quality NFL prospect for Utah State.
Laremy Tunsil (OT, Ole Miss):
Tunsil was forced to sit out the first seven games of the season due to a violation of NCAA rules, but played in his first game of the season last weekend. His first test last week was against future top five pick, Myles Garrett (Texas A&M). Tunsil showed scouts why he is a legitimate top-10 pick and that he is a player who can shut down an opponent's top pass rusher. Mississippi will be taking on Auburn, whose defensive unit has been hit hard with injuries this season. It remains to be seen if Carl Lawson, the Tigers talented pass rusher and emotional leader, is able to play. He has been dealing with a leg injury that has forced him out of action.
William Jackson III (DB, Houston):
The first thing that comes to mind when someone talks about Houston Cougars football is their high-powered offense. They currently have the number five ranked offense in FBS. On the defensive side, they also have one of the top rated defensive back prospects in college football in William Jackson III. Jackson is supremely talented at getting his long arms in between opposing wide receiver's bodies and the ball and knocking it loose. He has a total of two interceptions and 13 pass breakups this season. His 13 PB are the third most pass breakups in FBS this season. With his size and natural ball-hawking ability, scouts are flocking to Houston to see Jackson play. He might be a little rough around the edges in terms of his technique and skill set, but a lot of NFL eyes will be watching him during the last half of the college football season.