Every NFL team is looking for difference-makers who rise to the occasion at critical moments, inspiring teammates with their talent and timing, alike.
Week Eight of the 2018 college football season featured several such players, some of whom sparked huge upset wins or fared well in a critical conference showdown. All are earning a jump up NFLDraftScout.com’s player rankings.
Consistency throughout the season, of course, is typically required for a player to truly improve one’s grade but at this early point, the goal is just to capture the attention of scouts.
And, with their performances Saturday, these five rising NFL prospects certainly accomplished that.
5. Josh Uche, LB/DE, Michigan, 6-2, 240, Jr, # 6
For just the third time in the past 11 seasons, the Wolverines played like the big brother against rival Michigan State, with the undersized Uche surprisingly playing a critical role with two sacks. Earning more playing time with projected top 10 pick Rashan Gary still sidelined with a shoulder injury, Uche showed that he, too, possesses the upfield burst, lateral agility and coordinated hands to capture the attention of scouts.
4. Johnathan Abram, S, Mississippi State, 5-11, 215, 4.57, Sr, # 38
It isn’t often that players on the losing side of a game get highlighted in this space (especially when an underclassman at the same position for the opponent turns in the bigger plays), but that is precisely the case with Abram, who was all over the field in the Bulldogs’ 19-3 loss at LSU, registering a game-high 10 tackles, including five solos. While unable to come up with the two interceptions which helped toolsy LSU true sophomore Grant Delpit also stand out in this contest, Abraham’s agility and speed in coverage and physicality in run support helped limit LSU to just 239 total yards of offense, 21 less than the visiting Bulldogs. Abram’s squatty, compact frame is well-suited to the next level. This clip from last year shows Abram’s explosiveness, both in terms of speed and stopping power.
3. Stanley Morgan, Jr., WR, Nebraska, 6-0, 200, Sr, 4.52, # 8
It was a long time coming for Big Red fans but Scott Frost can finally celebrate his first win as Nebraska’s head coach with the Huskers outclassing Minnesota from the outset Saturday to win 53-28. As has been the case virtually all year long, Nebraska’s top player was Morgan, Jr. whose soft hands, steady route-running and underrated overall athleticism helped him rack up season-highs in receptions (10), receiving yards (163) and touchdowns (two) in the emotional win. Morgan now has just three touchdowns on what has been a disappointing season for he and the Cornhuskers but scouts are well aware of the New Orleans’ native’s talent with an invitation to a prominent senior all-star game likely in his future.
2. Antonio Blackmon, CB, Purdue, 6-0, 195, 4.55 (est.), rSr, # 14
Starting with head coach Jeff Brohm, there are plenty of Boilermakers who deserve credit for Purdue’s stunning 49-20 thrashing of previously undefeated Ohio State Saturday night, the biggest upset for the program since beating the second ranked Buckeyes back in 1984. Quarterback David Blough outshined Ohio State’s future first round signal-caller Dwayne Haskins by tossing three touchdowns without an interception and the Boilermakers’ duo of running back D.J. Knox (16 carries for 128 yards and three touchdowns) and speedy wideout Rondale Moore (12 catches for 170 yards and two scores) were the most dynamic athletes on the field. The difference in this game, however, was not Purdue’s offense but a stingy defense which bent often (allowing 546 total yards to the Buckeyes) but not in the red zone. A huge part of that was Blackmon, a former walk-on turned NFL prospect who broke up two potential touchdowns in the end zone with perfect hand placement and thwarted another Buckeyes’ scoring opportunity by breaking through a receiver screen for one of his eight tackles on the night. Blackmon’s stellar performance under the bright lights won’t soon be forgotten by scouts. While questions about his straight-line speed will need to be answered, Blackmon possesses the frame to intrigue as a zone corner or potentially convert to safety.
1. Gardner Minshew II, QB, Washington State, 6-1, 220, 5.08, # 16
Minshew may have entered Saturday’s showdown with Oregon playing second fiddle to the Ducks’ junior quarterback Justin Herbert - the nearly consensus top-rated passer potentially available in the 2019 draft - but he certainly performed more consistently than his Pac-12 foe, guiding WSU to a shocking 34-20 upset. It wasn’t just that Minshew () was more impressive than Herbert () statistically, but that he saved some of his best throws for the end when Oregon made a furious second half comeback. Minshew lacks ideal size but he is a natural passer with greater arm strength than most of Mike Leach’s quarterbacks of the past, including Luke Falk, the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer and a Senior Bowl and NFL draft pick last year. Like Falk, Minshew possesses great touch on downfield throws, as the touchdown toss in the second quarter below demonstrates. This year’s QB class is not as top-heavy as last year’s but scouts are encouraged by the development shown by several sleepers, with the much-traveled and mustachioed Minshew ranking high among them.
Check out past Risers columns: