NFL Draft Bowl Preview: January 2nd

With the biggest bowl games of the season now past us, today is all about teams that failed to live up to expectations, so to speak.

While today’s bowl games might be overlooked on paper because they aren’t the College Football Playoff bowls or the New Years Six, the slate of four games today promise to be highly entertaining.

TaxSlayer Bowl — Penn State (7-5) vs. Georgia (9-3), Noon, ESPN

The biggest name in this game happens to be on the team from the Big Ten, and that is quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Prior to the start of the 2015 season, Hackenberg was expected to be the darling of the QB class, but an up-and-down season filled with promising highs and bust-potential lows, Hackenberg never quite found his footing in year two under James Franklin and his staff.

Now that the Nittany Lions have made a move for a new offensive coordinator for 2016, it will be interesting to see if the rocket-arm quarterback with the ideal build decides to test the waters of the draft, where he’ll likely be an early Day Three pick, or if comes back to Penn State for his senior season to try and improve his draft stock.

Along with Hackenberg on offense, keep an eye on Penn State tight end Kyle Carter.

The Nittany Lions have been loaded at tight end of the last three or four years and Carter never quite lived up to expectations as a dominant pass catcher in the middle of the field.

The senior tight end isn’t a great route runner and has issues with drops, but he’s a guy who fits the mold of what the NFL is looking for in tight ends.

Defensively, Penn State is loaded up front with stud senior defensive linemen Anthony Zettel and junior Austin Johnson.

Zettel received a majority of the hype coming into the season for his off-the-field feats in the weight room and in the outdoors (he tackled a tree out of the ground), but he was inconsistent on the field play-to-play, let alone game-to-game.

Some see him as a 5-tech tackle, but I think he’s more suited for a 4-3 defensive front that can move him around to get him in favorable situations.

The same goes for Johnson, who is impressively agile for a guy his size (6’4”, 323). Due to his size a lot of people are projecting him as a 3-tech tackle in an odd-man front, but again that would be taking him away from his strengths. He’s an above-average pass rusher from the interior and is versatile enough to move around on the defensive line.

Then there is arguably the best defensive end in the nation in senior Carl Nassib (6’7”, 272).

Nassib was a walk-on at Penn State and worked his way into a starting role, which led to a breakout season in 2015 for the West Chester, Pa. product, who racked up 15.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss.

He uses a great first step, powerful hands and a fluid lower body to rush the passer as a 4-3 defensive end. That’s his best role at the next level, where he could turn into a dominant pass rusher.

Safety Jordan Lucas is another intriguing prospect on the Nittany Lion defense that could hear his name called on Day Three of the draft. He’s a project, but one that could contribute right away as a key special teams player.

For the Bulldogs of Georgia, defense once again is the strength of this team.

Edge rushers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins steal the headlines as two intriguing prospects for the next level.

Floyd played off-ball linebacker this year, which isn’t his position at the next level, but he was able to show teams his versatility. The 6’4”, 231-pound defender is one of the lone edge defenders in this class who has shown the ability to dip and bend around the edge without losing balance or speed.

Jenkins is another long, lanky edge defender who could be a valuable asset at the next level for teams in need of a pass rusher or two. Although he’s not the big name like Floyd, Jenkins is just as productive but will have to play on the right side in the NFL. He struggles against powerful tackles that can lock onto him and ride him up the pocket.

Offensively for Georgia, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell is as steady as they come. He’s a homerun threat at times, but he can be counted on to make the big catches.

The senior came back strong one year after tearing his ACL and should be a valuable Day Three selection.

Liberty Bowl — Arkansas (7-5) vs. Kansas State (6-6), 3:20 p.m., ESPN

This game is all about Arkansas as offensive lineman Denver Kirkland (my No. 1 guard), tight end Hunter Henry(my No. 2 TE) and running back Alex Collins (my No. 8 RB) will all be on full display against a struggling Wildcats team under Bill Snyder.

Kirkland currently plays left tackle for the Razorbacks, but he has all the tools to kick inside to guard and dominate at the next level.

Henry is the prototypical move tight end who can also line up next to an offensive tackle and serve as a valuable run blocker for an NFL team that looks for that in tight ends.

Collins is a powerhouse running back who rarely goes down at first contact. He’s not exceptionally fast, but he has quick feet, runs with balance and is a brute.

For Kansas State, offensive lineman Cody Whitehair is the top prospect. He reminds a lot of people of Zack Martin of the Dallas Cowboys, although a lesser version.

That’s not a knock on Whitehair, since Martin is a perennial Pro Bowler. Whitehair has a strong base, powerful hands at the point of attack and is exceptionally strong.

He’s a likely Day One starter in the NFL.

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