College football is finally back, which gives us an excuse to cast our eye over some of the top prospects ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft.
The storylines are plentiful. DJ Uiagalelei steps in to replace Trevor Lawrence as Clemson’s starter, Jimbo Fisher leads out a talent-rich Texas A&M outfit, Lincoln Riley looks to continue his dynasty under center, the Big 12 faces pressure as it prepares for life without Texas and Oklahoma, COVID disruptions are limited, and players both rightly and finally reap the benefits of the recently-approved NIL legislation.
There are roughly 893 football colleges spread across five division levels and 130 FBS programmes in the nation – we have whittled it down to 10 draft prospects worth monitoring on as the season progresses…
Breece Hall – RB, Iowa State
It was a toss up whether to include Breece Hall or Isaiah Spiller here, but given Texas A&M will earn a couple of mentions later on we thought it best to give Iowa State’s rushing machine some recognition. Hall may not be quite as physically-dominant as Spiller, but his elusiveness and get-off speed amounted to exceptional figures in 2020 as he posted a nation-high 1,572 yards (and 1,606 yards combined yards from scrimmage) while averaging 5.6 yards per carry, running in 21 touchdowns and chalking up the most rushing first downs. The 20-year-old has recorded 13 games with at least 100-yards rushing over the last two seasons.
Derek Stingley Jr. – CB, LSU
The one the NFL has been waiting for. LSU cornerback Derek Stingley and his elite ball skills have the potential to be All-Pro level having led the SEC with six interceptions and 15 passes defended as a freshman during the Tigers’ National Championship-winning 2019 campaign. His production slowed in his sophomore year as he finished with five passes defended and zero interceptions, but he is the kind of shutdown corner quarterbacks will purposely seek to swerve. His trajectory this year will be fascinating.
Kayvon Thibodeaux – DE, Oregon
If the No. 1 overall pick next year isn’t a quarterback, there’s a good chance it will be Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux. The Walter Camp Player of the Year contender is arguably the most accomplished pass rusher in the nation and has 23.5 tackles for loss as well as 12 sacks in 20 games over the last two campaigns. The No. 1 prospect in the 2019 recruiting class, who led Oregon with nine sacks in his freshman year, also recently earned AP preseason All-American honours.
Sam Howell – QB, North Carolina
Those that studied the likes of Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome ahead of the 2021 Draft should be familiar with North Carolina’s Sam Howell, who enters the new season projected to be among the leading quarterback options come next April’s overdue visit to Las Vegas. Howell is heading into his third year as a starter having recorded a 64.24 completion percentage with 7,224 yards, 68 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while averaging 10.3 yards per attempt over the past two seasons. He runs a pro-style offense and has showcased his fine arm strength feeding a talented receiver corps, though the departure of the aforementioned quartet will provide a good insight into his development amid suggestions he could become the No. 1 overall pick.
Spencer Rattler – QB, Oklahoma
From one familiar-faced quarterback to another. Most will have discovered Spencer Rattler while tracking his ascent in high school as one of the stars of Netflix’s ‘QB1’ documentary. Lincoln Riley’s proven knack for unearthing and cultivating No. 1 pick quarterbacks in Baker Mayfield and Kyle Murray leaves good reason to believe in Rattler’s chances of succeeding as an NFL starter, and Caleb Williams after him for that matter. The Heisman Trophy candidate offers excellent mobility in the pocket, the ability to throw off platform and on the run, born playmaking ability and unrivalled confidence. Rattler finished 2020 with a 9-2 record in his first season as starter, going 214 of 317 passing (67.5 percent) for 3,031 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions as well as rushing for 160 yards and six scores.
DeMarvin Leal – DL, Texas A&M
Speaking of Jimbo Fisher’s men, let’s talk about defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal. The 6ft 4, 290-pound junior has the burst to rush off the edge and the size and length to be a disruptor on the interior. Leal closed out his sophomore year with 37 tackles including seven for loss, 2.5 sacks, eight quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, one interception and three passes defended. His versatility is perfectly-suited to the modern NFL.
Evan Neal – OT, Alabama
Evan Neal is poised to make it the third successive year and sixth in the last nine that Nick Saban’s Alabama have produced a first-round offensive lineman. The 6ft 7, 360-pound junior gave up just 1.5 sacks last year while shifting from left guard to right tackle to fill the void left by Jedrick Wills, having made 26 career starts across the two positions. Alex Leatherwood’s departure for the NFL means Neal could now transition to Bryce Young’s blindside. Neal shedded 15 pounds this offseason in a bid to match his size and power with improved quickness and body control.
Chris Olave – WR, Ohio State
As is often the case, NFL teams could again be spoilt for choice when it comes to dynamic receiver options. Ohio State’s Chris Olave gets the nod on this occasion with the polished route-running, lightning speed, refined release patterns and strong hands that make him one of the frontrunners in his position group. Building on his size will help him improve as a blocker at the next level, as well as enhancing his yards-after-catch power. But Olave is a proven playmaker with the numbers to show for it having logged 50 catches for 729 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games last season on the back of 49 catches for 849 yards and 12 scores at 17.3 yards per receptions across 13 outings in 2019. New Buckeyes starting quarterback C.J. Stroud could not wish for a better receiving duo in Olave and Garrett Wilson.
Kyle Hamilton – S, Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish boast the best safety on the board in Kyle Hamilton, who racked up 63 tackles, six pass breakups and an interception to secure first-team All-ACC honours. At 6ft 4 and 219 pounds he is the rangy and athletically-dominant defensive back that meets the NFL’s desire for versatility when it comes to playing across the secondary. He possesses both the instincts and the size to matchup against wide receivers and tight ends as well as the tackling ability to wrap up running backs. He is the kind of player that makes the safety position exciting to watch.
Jalen Wydermyer – TE, Texas A&M
For the purposes of positional diversity, let’s give the tight end department some love. Among the Aggies’ NFL-bound talent is 6ft 5, 255-pound junior Jalen Wydermyer, who has 78 catches for 953 yards and 12 touchdowns in 22 games across 2019 and 2020. The 20-year-old has receiver-like traits with slick route-running and an impressive catch radius, while offering the power to help him contribute as a run-blocker. Given the attention Kyles Pitts and Pat Freiermuth garnered last year, it will be interesting to see how the draft stock of Wydermyer and Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar shapes up by April.
Sticking with Kolar for a moment, he looms as potentially one of the most well-rounded and seasoned prospects in the entire class have recorded 106 catches for 1,425 yards and 17 touchdowns over three seasons with Iowa State. He enters his senior year as a key figure for his Draft-bound quarterback Brock Purdy.
It was a tough ask not mentioning more than two quarterbacks among the 10 names discussed above. Purdy included. Liberty play-caller Malik Willis is your expected small-school riser as one of the most gifted dual-threat options in the class having completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,250 yards, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2020 as well as rushing for 944 yards and 14 scores. Ole Miss’ Matt Corral managed a nation-best 3,843 yards of total offense last season as he threw for 29 touchdowns to 13 interceptions alongside 506 yards on the ground, while Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, USC’s Kedon Slovis, Georgia’s J.T. Daniels and Nevada’s Carson Strong are all names to keep an eye on under center.
Joining Ohio State’s Olave and Garrett Wilson among the primary receiver candidates are Arkansas’ Treylon Burks, Alabama’s John Metchie III, USC’s Drake London, Clemson’s Justyn Ross, Georgia’s George Pickens, Oklahoma’s Marvin Mims and South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert.
Outside linebacker Nik Bonitto is a rising star for Oklahoma, Christian Harris projects as a standout on the Alabama defense and Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis has been garnering first-round chatter.
Texas A&M’s blossoming class meanwhile includes guard Kenyon Green, who accompanies Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum in the upper tier of offensive lineman prospects alongside Neal.