Throughout the 2021-2022 college football bowl season, we’ll be highlighting each game and the key 2022 NFL Draft prospects Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans should be keeping an eye on.
Birmingham Bowl #20 Houston vs. Auburn – 11:00AM CST ESPN
College Bowl Season hits the ground running this week in lead up to the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six Bowl Games with a five-game slate this Thursday starting with a matchup between the Houston Cougars and Auburn Tigers. For the Cougars, the names to know are EDGE #92 Logan Hall and CB/KR #8 Marcus Jones. Both players expected to hear their names called somewhere in the middle rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft but have both decided to forgo their final college game to prepare for the draft. Hall specifically underwent elbow surgery in early December and plans to rehab to be ready to go for rookie minicamp.
For the Tigers, the headliner name is CB #23 Roger McCreary. The 6’0″, 190 lb. senior was elected as an All-American this season and is a Senior Bowl invite. However, much like Hall and Jones from Houston, McCreary has also opted out of the bowl game along with teammate LB #9 Zakoby McClain. Still, two names to pay attention to during draft season this spring.
One player that has committed to playing in the bowl game for the Tigers is DE #29 Derick Hall. The 6’3″, 251 lb. junior has had a great season for War Eagle, racking up 51 total stops (33 solo) along with nine sacks and two forced fumbles. Hall is explosive off the edge as a pass rusher, winning with speed as well as with power against opposing OTs. He also is a quality run defender, having the ability to line up in the box and blitz the A-Gap as well as play on the edge. He hasn’t decided if he wants to declare or come back for 2022, but a strong performance could sway him to enroll early.
Along with Hall, another Auburn defender that has committed to play in the bowl game is S #21 Smoke Monday. The 6’3″, 199 lb. senior has the size and range you love to see in a safety prospect, having the length to impact the passing game as well as the demeanor and play style to fill downhill against the run. He has contributed for the Tigers defense ever since he arrived on campus as a true freshman, playing both deep as a centerfield/split zone safety as well as a box defender. He appears a little tight hipped and lacks elite speed, making him a likely box safety/sub package LB at the next level that can play split zone if needed.
First Responder Bowl Air Force vs. Louisville – 2:15PM CST ESPN
The Louisville Cardinals square off against the Air Force Academy Tuesday afternoon in Dallas. For Louisville, the name to watch is S #27 Kenderick Duncan Jr. The 6’3″, 225 lb. redshirt junior is a bit of a tweener, having the size of a smaller LB but is a massive safety when comparing other body types at the position. The Georgia Southern transfer has had a solid season for Louisville, tallying 76 total stops, a sack, an INT, and four PBUs. Duncan profiles more as a box safety/sub package LB and special teamer in the league as a late round draft pick/UDFA.
For Air Force, keep an eye on DT #94 Jordan Jackson. The 6’5″, 285 lb. senior has been productive on the defensive side of the ball, racking up seven sacks this season and 15 for his career from the interior. Jackson would need a waiver to keep his NFL dreams alive were he to pursue football, but either way, Jackson profiles to be a likely UDFA should he continue playing.
Liberty Bowl Texas Tech vs. Mississippi State – 5:45PM CST ESPN
The Red Raiders will take on the Bulldogs in Memphis, Tennessee Tuesday, but will be short-handed their respective NFL draft prospects. QB #12 Tyler Shough is out with a collarbone injury that has sidelined him since September and may come back to rebuild his draft stock for next season whereas WR #13 Erik Ezukanma has decided to opt out of the bowl game to start preparing for the 2022 NFL Draft.
For the Bulldogs, the big name to know is OT #67 Charles Cross. The 6’5″, 310 lb. redshirt sophomore has everything you want for a prototypical LT at the next level, possessing the length, size, athleticism, and upside to develop into a premier pass protector in the league. However, Cross fully knows this and has since opted out of the bowl game to play it safe and start preparing for the NFL Draft.
Teammate CB #!1 Martin Emerson has also opted out of the Liberty Bowl, expecting to be a middle-round draft selection this spring. One play that is expected to play for Mississippi State is DB #0 Jalen Green. The 6’1″, 200 lb. senior has played well during his tie in Starkville, recording three INTs and six PBUs the last two seasons. Green figures to be a late round pick or a UDFA.
Holiday Bowl #18 N.C. State vs. UCLA – 7:00PM CST FOX
The battle between the Bruins and the Wolfpack Tuesday night in San Diego is going to feature some notable talent in the trenches. For UCLA, the headliner is OT #74 Sean Rhyan. The 6’5″, 320 lb. junior is thickly built to be a force in the run game but also displays subtle feet and good hand placement in pass protection. The OT class is pretty stacked at the top in 2022, and Rhyan projected as an early Day 2 pick that could vault himself into Round 1 consideration should he finish out his college career with a strong performance Tuesday as well as good testing this spring.
Rhyan will be responsible for creating running lanes for fellow teammate and likely draft hopeful RB #24 Zach Charbonnet. The 6’1″, 220 lb. junior transferred from Michigan this season and had a great first year on the West Coast, running the rock 202 times for 1,137 yards (5.6 YPC) with 13 TDs while throwing in another 24 receptions for 197 yards. Charbonnet has the size and strength to be a bruiser in-between the tackles but also possess that sneaky burst to accelerate when he gets to the second level. He could decide to go back for a senior season, but as a mid-round draft prospect, Charbonnet may decide to declare now to get into the league as a likely contributor in a committee.
Other names to watch for UCLA include TE #85 Greg Dulcich and S #37 Quentin Lake who figure to be Day 3 prospects who will come in as depth/special teams options initially with the upside to become regular contributors at their respective positions as well as QB #1 Dorian Thompson-Robinson is also a late round prospect to keep an eye on that doesn’t have eye-popping college production, but has the traits of a dual-threat QB teams are become enamored with in the league.
For the Wolfpack, the man you must watch is OT #79 Ikem Ekwonu. The 6’4″, 320 lb. junior is a mauler in the run game, absolutely decimating his opponents with his strength, power, and aggressiveness. Ekwonu has experience at both tackle and guard and is a weapon either when running the ball in-between the tackles or when he gets out in space, having the mobility and athleticism to pick up blocks 15+ yards down field. He also has improved greatly in pass production this season compared to 2020, but still tends to struggle when facing athletic speed rushers on the edge. Ekwonu figures to go early Day 1 this spring either as a starting tackle or kick inside to be an All-Pro caliber guard.
Ekwonu has also greatly benefitted his RB #7 Zonovan Knight, helping clear the way for the 5’11″, 220 lb. redshirt sophomore to be a bi piece of the Wolfpack run game. Knight had to split the backfield at N.C. State, thus never posting over 788 rushing yards in three seasons, but he has proven to be an effective runner since stepping on campus and also provide return value, making him an intriguing draft option in the later rounds of the draft bring fresh legs with him to the league.
Other names to keep tabs on for N.C. State from a draft perspective include LB #11 Payton Wilson and WR #86 Emeka Emezie who both could be late-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Guaranteed Rate Bowl Minnesota vs. West Virginia – 9:15PM CST ESPN
The Golden Gophers will take on the Mountaineers Tuesday night in Phoenix, Arizona to close out the slate. For Minnesota, the latest is that there will not be any player opt outs, meaning we will be able to watch Senior Bowl invite OT #78 Daniel Faalele. The 6’9″, 380 lb. senior has been highly touted for his enormous size and frame since stepping foot in the Twin Cities, having the ability to completely engulf defenders on blocks when he gets his hands on them. Faalele has struggled at times adjusting to speed and counter moves inside, but his play has steadily increased. He will have to continue to improve his mobility and pass set, but the ceiling is the roof for a player with his measurables.
Another name to watch for the Gophers is DL #34 Boye Mafe. The 6’4″, 265 lb. senior has been a productive player for Minnesota during his tenure, posting 83 tackles, 18.5 TFLs, and 14 sacks in his career. Mafe plays with great pursuit of the football both against the run as well as a pass rusher, and as a Senior Bowl invitee himself, he will look to boost his drafts stock this spring following this bowl game in lead up to the draft. Other names to keep an eye on as late draft hopefuls include DL #9 Esezi Otomewo, OL #60 John Michael Schmitz, and TE #42 Ko Kieft.
For the Mountaineers, a name to watch is DL #55 Dante Stills. The 6’4″, 280 lb. senior has been productive in his time at Morgantown, totaling 107 tackles, 42 TFLs, and 19 sacks in his career. Stills has been particularly active in the pass rush department, getting penetration from the interior with his speed and quickness. Stills lacks the necessary anchor to hold up consistently against the run and will have to add size and strength to be more than a sub package pass rusher and likely Day 3 pick this spring.
Another name to watch for West Virginia is OL #72 Doug Nester. The 6’7″, 321 lb. junior has played mainly guard during his time both with West Virginia and Virginia Tech, and profiles to be a late Day 3 selection or UDFA if he declares for the 2022 NFL Draft.
Which of the names listed above will you be specifically watching this weekend? Do you think any of the prospects would be a good fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!