After months of football uncertainty, Austin Peay freshman running back C.J. Evans opened the 2020 college football season in style with a 75-yard rushing touchdown on the first play of the game. The rest of the game might not have been pretty, it might not have been glamorous, and it wasn’t filled with big-name players, but it was football, and boy did we need football back. After the FCS kickoff last weekend, the next few days mark the official first week of the college football season, and what better way to dive into FBS action than to look at the 2021 NFL Draft prospects playing college football in Week 1?
Central Arkansas @ University of Alabama at Birmingham
Robert Rochell, CB Central Arkansas
Robert Rochell had the opportunity to impress with all eyes on him in the FCS kickoff matchup with Austin Peay but was somewhat underwhelming. He drew two pass interference penalties, albeit with one being a little soft in a game where more obvious calls were let go.
It is perhaps a little unfair to draw any conclusions from a season opener where the disrupted preseason process was evident with some sloppy football on the field. Rochell has the size, athleticism, and production to help him sit atop the list of 2021 NFL Draft prospects from the FCS and will get another opportunity in the national spotlight against UAB.
Austin Watkins, WR UAB
Austin Watkins led the UAB Blazers with 1092 receiving yards at 19.2 yards per reception on a less than prolific offense in 2019. 159 of those yards game against an Appalachian State team that ranked 21st out of the 130 FBS teams in points allowed last season.
At 6’3″ and 210 pounds, Watkins has good size at the wide receiver position, and he uses that well to be a physical presence in contested catch situations. Watkins has quick feet, which enable him to create separation and make plays after the catch.
Watkins will be one of the most exciting 2021 NFL Draft prospects to watch in Week 1 of the college football season, especially if he goes up against Rochell in what would be an extremely physical matchup.
Jordan Smith, EDGE UAB
The former Florida edge rusher made a productive return to the FBS last season after spending time at the JUCO level. Jordan Smith tied the team lead for sacks in 2019 (eight) and forced fumbles (three) while finishing second on the team in tackles for loss with 14.5.
At 6’7″ and 255 pounds, Smith continues the theme of physical athletes amongst the 2021 NFL Draft prospects to watch in Week 1 of college football. Smith puts his size to good use as a run blocker but has shown he can also get after the quarterback. An ability to impact both phases of the game from the edge position will increase his NFL Draft stock with positional versatility being highly valued at the next level.
South Alabama @ Southern Mississippi
Riley Cole, LB South Alabama
A multitude of preseason awards and watch-list appearances makes Riley Cole one of the most high profile 2021 NFL Drafts prospects to watch in this Week 1 matchup. After an All-Sun Belt Conference honorable mention in 2019, Cole finds himself on Phil Steele’s All-Sun Belt Pre-Season second-team, but perhaps more importantly, he is one of two South Alabama Jaguars on the 2021 Senior Bowl Top 250 list.
A 6’3″, 225-pound linebacker, Cole has flashed tackling ability and a propensity for getting into the backfield, evidenced by his nine tackles for loss in 2019, which ranked second on the team. Staying healthy will be Cole’s most significant challenge after season-ending injuries in 2016 and 2018.
Ka’Waan Baker, WR South Alabama
A versatile offensive weapon who can feature as a pass-catcher, runner, and kick returner for the Jaguars. Ka’Waan Baker led a sluggish South Alabama offense in receiving yards last season while finishing second on the team in all-purpose yards.
Speed is Baker’s best weapon, although he has flashed his ability to go up and get the ball, most notably with a leaping one-handed grab against Troy last season. Although he averaged 4.6 yards per carry on the ground in 2018, one of the most significant areas for improvement in 2020 will be in his ability to break a tackle.
Jack Abraham, QB Southern Mississippi
In throwing 3,496 yards in 2019, Jack Abraham became just the third Southern Mississippi quarterback to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season. If he’d have made as many pass attempts in 2018 as last year, it’s not unrealistic to assume that he would have had consecutive 3,000-yard seasons.
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Abraham has a big arm, and in 2018 showed he could be accurate with a 73.1% completion percentage. However, with a regression in his completion percentage in 2019 and 25 interceptions thrown in two seasons, he needs to work on his decision making.
Nevertheless, he will be one of the top 2021 NFL Draft quarterback prospects on show in college football Week 1.
Eastern Kentucky @ Marshall
Brenden Knox, RB Marshall
Brendan Knox led Conference-USA in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, and finished third with 11 rushing touchdowns on his way to being voted the Conference USA Most Valuable Player. It was a true breakout season for the 6’0″ 220-pound redshirt sophomore.
A physical runner who isn’t afraid to initiate contact, Knox also knows when to avoid contact and find a gap to run through. He won’t blow you away with his speed but can still shift when he needs to with a reported 40 yard dash time in the mid-4.5-second range.
Josh Ball, OT Marshall
Josh Ball is the only 2021 NFL Draft prospect in this college football Week 1 matchup to appear on the 2021 Senior Bowl Top 250 watch list. A 6’8″, 309 pound monster of a man, Ball was a heavily recruited four-star prospect who committed to Florida State before spending a season at Butler Community College and impressing in his first season at Marshall in 2019.
Ball has surprising athleticism for a man of his size, and he puts that to good use, helping pave the way for Knox. Strength is his primary asset, as you’d expect from a man of his size, and he combines that with a nasty streak on the football field.
Middle Tennessee @ Army
Reed Blankenship, S Middle Tennessee
Blankenship is already drawing attention with a place on the 2021 Senior Bowl Top 250 watch list and PFN’s own Nick Farabaugh describing him as an “intriguing small school sleeper for the NFL.”
Blankenship has demonstrated his playmaking ability as a safety with eight career interceptions, including his first career pick-six in 2018. He is also a tackling machine, leading Middle Tennessee in solo tackles in 2018 and finishing in the top five for the team in 2019 despite missing five games.
The Army game will be a good test of his ability against the run, with Army averaging just 9.7 pass attempts per game in 2019.
Robert Jones, OG Middle Tennessee
An athletic offensive lineman who didn’t begin playing football until his junior year of high school, Robert Jones made an immediate impact on the Middle Tennessee offensive line as a JUCO transfer last season.
Due to his relatively limited experience, there are obviously areas of improvement in his game, but at 6’5″ and 330 pounds, he has the natural size for an interior offensive lineman to go with his obvious ability. In 11 starts last season, Jones didn’t allow one sack, and his performances have earned him the attention of the Senior Bowl staff.
Kwabena Bonsu, DL Army
Just two NFL Draft prospects from the Army Black Knights have made it to the NFL since the 1960s. Due to recent changes around service academies’ eligibility requirements, there is every chance that that trend changes in the coming years.
Defensive lineman Kwabena Bonsu could be the first one to buck that trend. Bonsu had a productive sophomore campaign that saw him log six tackles for loss and two sacks. With the majority of Army’s defensive production departing at the end of the 2019 season, Bonsu has the opportunity to lead from the front alongside senior defensive lineman Edriece Patterson.
Continue for the remainder of the Week 1 slate.