From the “Only in 2020” files comes one of college football’s more intriguing, hastily thrown-together matchups this weekend — a game that features a surprising amount of prospective NFL talent for schools that haven’t sent a lot of players to the pros in recent years.
It’s the first meeting between BYU and Coastal Carolina, and the game was only scheduled late this week after Liberty had to cancel for COVID-related concerns. Two top-20 teams with matching 9-0 records — and ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be on site for the unique pairing.
For NFL talent evaluators, it’s more than just a fun spectacle. It’s a chance to see some intriguing, NFL-caliber prospects go up against very respectable competition. By 2020 standards, this game will be manna from scouting heaven.
One highly touted prospect is trending toward landing in next year’s top 10 overall. About a half dozen others from the game could end up being drafted. More will end up in NFL training camps. It’s a surprising allotment of talent for a game we didn’t even know was happening at the start of the week.
Here are the prospects to watch for each team, starting with one of the fastest-rising QB prospects in the 2021 NFL draft picture.
Zach Wilson could be BYU’s highest-drafted player ever
The unquestioned top talent in the game is BYU QB Zach Wilson.
Wilson came into his junior season considered by scouts to be a talented dual-threat passer but one who needed a bounce-back season to make up for an injury-marred 2019 campaign.
Now he’s playing well enough to at least make some teams think he could challenge Ohio State’s Justin Fields for QB2 honors. Throwing for 2,724 yards on 74.3 percent completions with a 26-2 TD-INT ratio will do that. Wilson has thrown for two or more TDs in all nine games and also has run for eight more scores.
“I was hesitant, too, coming into the year,” a veteran west-coast area scout told Yahoo Sports recently. The scout has seen Wilson now three times in person this season, an unusual byproduct from COVID-19 shutting down most of the college programs in that part of the country until November.
“But you watch him and, shoot, he creates on his own, he has a great deep ball, (he) has good enough arm strength. The size isn’t great, but there are guys (in the NFL) proving that it isn’t as big a deal now. He is a good athlete. He can extend plays. He can throw on the run. I think he sees the field well.
“In a perfect world, it would be great to see him play someone worth a damn.”
That conversation took place prior to the midweek announcement that the Cougars would be headed to Conway, South Carolina to face Coastal Carolina’s 14th-ranked defense among FBS teams. A defense that is, in fact — to use the scout’s words — worth a damn.
BYU’s final regular-season game will be next Saturday against San Diego State, which has the second-ranked defense statistically, has six interceptions in four games and has allowed a mere 5.2 yards per pass attempt.
These next two games, along with the Boise State win, are going to be tapes that NFL evaluators will hone in on during the scouting process. If Wilson can light up these two respected defenses, even if they’re not traditional powerhouse programs, he has a chance to lock in a top-10 spot in the draft and give Fields a run for his money.
The other BYU prospects worth watching
The next-most buzzy Cougars prospect for 2021 appears to be CB Chris Wilcox. He entered the season mostly earning Day 3 grades, but Wilcox fits the mold of what NFL teams are seeking at the position. And he’s played well so far this year, too, despite his zero interceptions in 39 career games and a notable injury history.
Those two elements might be held against Wilcox come draft time, but in a traits-before-production league, NFL scouts love Wilcox’s 6-foot-2, 193-pound frame with nearly 32-inch arms and respectable speed (estimated at a 4.50 40-yard time).
In seven games this season, Wilcox has allowed only nine catches for 106 yards and zero TDs. He hasn’t committed a penalty in his past nine games and hasn’t been credited with a missed tackle since the 2017 season.
“He’s interesting,” the west-coast scout told us. “I’d say he’s trending upward in that box, that Day 3 box. He runs well. He’s got that height-weight-speed profile. That’s the type you’re looking for. He’s played well.
“What will the medicals be on him? That’s a big question.”
Wilcox suffered season-ending ankle and leg injuries, respectively, in 2018 and 2019. But with a clean bill of health — and a big showing against Coastal Carolina’s two talented receivers — Wilcox could jump into the Round 4 discussion.
Other interesting BYU prospects include DT Khyiris Tonga, safeties Zayne Anderson and Troy Warner, LBs Isaiah Kaufusi and Kavika Fonua and OLs Brady Christensen, Chandon Herring and Tristan Hoge.
Christensen has a year of eligibility remaining but has been tremendous and could come out early. Hoge, a Notre Dame transfer who has been good since returning from a non-COVID illness, will take his talents to the Senior Bowl. The nearly 6-foot-7 Herring has played his best ball recently since moving from right guard to right tackle.
BYU has produced 144 NFL draft picks all time, with 111 of them coming since the NFL merger in 1970. But the Cougars’ recent draft-pick output has been surprisingly lean.
Since the start of the 2011 NFL draft, BYU has had only six draft picks. There have been some gems in the group, including linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Fred Warner, but only one of the six was a first-round pick — Ziggy Ansah, back in 2013.
Ansah is tied for the school’s highest pick ever at No. 5 overall, the same spot Jim McMahon was picked by the Chicago Bears back in 1982.
Wilson has a shot to top that, depending on the draft order and any trades that might take place.
Coastal Carolina stacked on the defensive line
The Chanticleers’ top 2021 NFL draft prospect is EDGE Tarron Jackson.
Coming off a 10-sack, 13-TFL, two-forced fumble effort in the 2019 season, Jackson’s expectations were set high coming into 2020. But he’s more than lived up to the hype this season, notching 12.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, 15 QB hits and three forced fumbles.
Jackson is listed at 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, but scouts had him at 273 last year. He has a somewhat unusual build for an NFL edge rusher — sort of in the Trey Flowers-Jabaal Sheard mold, with decent arm length, making him a New England Patriots-type of rusher.
Entering the year with mostly fifth- and sixth-round grades, Jackson only appears to have helped his cause. His tape against Kansas, when he was living in the backfield (five QB hits), was a great effort against a Power-5 team. This test Saturday will be even better.
But the Chanticleers have other rushers up front who will be hunting Wilson this Saturday. DT C.J. Brewer and EDGE Jeffrey Gunter also have decent shots to end up on NFL rosters.
Brewer also had a huge outing at Kansas but has really cranked it up the past month or so. He’s an undersized interior penetrator, a high-school linebacker who has made the transition to playing in the trenches. So far this season, Brewer has a surprising 47 tackles (nine for loss), 6.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a recovery.
Gunter has benefitted from single blocking a lot opposite Jackson and Brewer and has made opponents pay, too. The 6-4, 260-pound end has 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 10 QB hits and three forced fumbles and has worked his way into NFL scouts’ discussions.
BYU will be by far the best offensive line the Chants have faced. Wilson’s performance might be the main attraction, but how this defensive front fares against the Cougars’ blocking is a terrific undercard matchup.
Coastal also has a few offensive players earning scouting notice.
RB CJ Marable isn’t the 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds he’s listed at — closer to 5-foot-7, in fact, and a few pounds lighter — but is a mighty mite of a back who can run inside and scoot to the edge.
WR Kameron Brown, a grad transfer from Charleston Southern, hasn’t taken off the way some expected but has the size (6-foot-2, 225 pounds, 33-inch arms) to get him a shot. Two juniors, TE Isaiah Likely and WR Jaivon Heiligh, have the chops to be 2022 prospects.
The Chanticleers’ draft history is fairly limited. The program has produced six NFL draft picks in school history, all of them since 2007, plus a few more notable undrafted free agents (including Mike Tolbert). Although they’ve had three players picked since the 2014 NFL draft, Coastal’s only active NFL player is 2012 Carolina Panthers fifth-rounder Josh Norman, now with the Buffalo Bills.
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