It’s not a marquee bowl for this time of year, but this game features some young up-and-coming programs in Houston and Vanderbilt.
Unfortunately for the Commodores, they will be without their starting QB as Austyn Carta-Samuels blew out his knee in the win over Georgia. This was already a defensive-oriented matchup, and Carta-Samuel’s injury makes it even more of one.
The top NFL prospect for Houston in this game isn’t draft-eligible in 2014, but keep an eye on wideout Deontay Greenberry. No. 3 is pretty easy to spot at 6’3” and with a purported 42” vertical. True freshman QB John O’Korn played well beyond his years too.
In the here and now, the Cougars don’t have much to offer this NFL draft season; they only start two seniors on defense.
CB Thomas Bates (#13) is smallish is 5’10” and 185 pounds, but he is one of the more improved players in the nation this fall. He’s a natural ballhawk. Don’t let the meager INT stats (just 2) fool you, Bates is very good at making plays on the ball in the air. The entire Cougars D is very aggressive in attacking the football, and Bates got his hands on 24 balls over the last 16 games. He’s also quite stout in run support despite not being a big guy. He showed some Tim Jennings to his game with two forced fumbles and consistently playing bigger than his size. Bates is a solid under-the-radar sleeper who could sneak into the 7th round.
Fellow corner Zachary McMillian (#10) had four interceptions, including two against SMU. I watched that game and he was the best player on the field. He’s slightly built, however, and doesn’t have great long speed. The Cougars frequently use him as a de facto safety, especially when they deploy shallow quarters coverage, and that might be his best chance to stick in the NFL. But that would require bulking up.
Left tackle DeAnthony Sims (#79) is not a NFL prospect at his current position, but he has some potential as a left guard. He’s got powerful hands and keeps his feet moving while engaged quite well. Sims is naturally strong in his lower body, and he has some defensive tackle in his background.
Vanderbilt has the most prominent prospect in the game in WR Jordan Matthews. The first Commodore WR to earn All-SEC first-team honors in multiple seasons, he’s a legit second round prospect. He’s got good length and very strong hands, which makes his catching radius wider than his 6’3” frame would suggest. They move him all over the formation to create mismatches, which is smart coaching…but also a bit of a flag in terms of draft stock.
The biggest issue with Matthews is that he is neither quick nor overly fast. That’s not to say he’s a stiff, but most NFL receivers either have great agility or blazing long speed. Matthews is average in both attributes (his 40 is guesstimated by scouts at 4.55), and that limits his upside. Think Marvin Jones instead of A.J. Green. There’s still absolutely a market for players with Matthews’ ability, and his ability to shag the ball with one hand while planting both toes just inbounds will impress NFL evaluators.
Left tackle Wesley Johnson has all the makings of a 6th lineman at the next level. He’s played center, guard and left tackle in Nashville. Technically proficient across the board but not overly stout, he brings versatility and durability to the table. Johnson was notable for only being called for two holding penalties in four years in the SEC. He’s a late-round/priority free agent prospect who will almost certainly stick initially because of his flexibility. If he bulks up (Johnson plays at 290) he could sneak into the 5th round.
Vandy has a pair of defensive backs who will be drafted early on the draft’s third day in corner Andre Hal and safety Kenny Ladler.
Hal has decent size and just enough speed to handle press-bail coverage. He’s got a natural stickiness in coverage that cannot be taught. His hips are fluid and his feet are quick, though others will be better in both attributes. Hal can hold up against the run quite capably, and he run blitzes surprisingly well. He’ll have his hands full with Greenberry, a good measuring stick for both players.
Ladler (#1) is the consummate centerfielder as a safety. He’s a playmaker, picking off five passes and also forcing that many fumbles. He has excellent timing with his hits and can lay the lumber. Ladler can get caught jumping double moves and overpursuing plays, but he will remind Lions fans of Louis Delmas in how he attacks plays and flies into his hits. He will join Hal in St. Petersburg for the Shrine Game.
Others to watch: Vandy S Javon Marshall, Houston P Richie Leone, Houston WR Xavier Maxwell, Vandy LB Chase Garnham