Scouting Notebook: Breakout 2023 NFL Draft prospects from college football Week 1 and more

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) gets ready to pass during the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia Monday, September 5, 2022. Ncaa Fb Clemson At Georgia Tech

• Transfer Jacoby Windmon, who played off-ball linebacker at UNLV, shined off the edge for Michigan State in Week 1, accumulating five sacks and three hurries.

• The arrow is pointing up for Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson as a draft prospect following his showing in a Week 1 win over Utah.

• Don't discount what Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei accomplished in Week 1, putting forth a career performance despite what appears to be a less-than-stellar stat line.

Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins

Welcome to the weekly scouting notebook. Each week, I’ll be diving into my notes from the past weekend of football to discuss the NFL draft prospects (and rookies once the NFL starts) who are standing out in good, and sometimes bad, ways.

This week, I’m focusing on those I truthfully hadn’t watched prior to the season yet caught my eye in a good way in Week 1.

Breakout Prospects

EDGE K.J. Henry, Clemson

The proverbial switch must have flipped at some point over the offseason, because Henry looked like a completely different player against Georgia Tech than he did at any point in his previous four seasons. He racked up a sack, three hits and three other defensive stops. He’s listed at only 255 pounds but plays much bigger than that.

EDGE Jacoby Windmon, Michigan State

This one is a wild breakout. Not only did Windmon change schools this offseason from UNLV to Michigan State, but he also changed positions. The off-ball linebacker we saw a season ago is not a near 250-pound terror off the edge. He ate up Western Michigan’s tackles for five sacks and three hurries in Week 1. I’d say he was miscast for the Rebels.

LB Shane Lee, USC

You don’t see a career arc quite like Lee’s very often. He started at Alabama as a true freshman back in 2019. The list of true freshman defensive starters for the Crimson Tide in the Nick Saban era is almost entirely made up of future top-100 draft picks. Well, Lee dealt with a sports hernia to start his sophomore year and never got his job back. In his first game with the Trojans, he made up for lost time with a 90.0 overall grade. At 6-foot and 245 pounds, Lee comes into blocks and ball carriers like a bowling ball. Oregon’s Noah Sewell is about the only linebacker as close to as stout as Lee.

EDGE Jared Verse, Florida State

Verse was on PFF’s radar after a strong showing at Albany, where flashed absurd speed on tape. You never know how that’s going to look against top competition until you see it. And, boy, did we see it against LSU. He notched two sacks and five hurries on 40 pass-rushing snaps for an 87.1 overall grade.

LT Olumuyiwa Fashanu, Penn State

My first two thoughts when watching Fashanu were: “damn, he’s big” and “damn, he’s smooth.” Fashanu doesn’t jump off the page as a special testing athlete, but watch all 49 of his pressureless pass-blocking snaps and you’ll appreciate how easy he makes the job look. In Fashanu’s first year as a starter, he’s a far cry from former Penn State tackle Rasheed Walker — and that’s probably a good thing.

S Quinn Schulte, Iowa

Schulte looks like too good of an athlete on tape to have been a former walk-on. He must have been getting after it in the weight room the past few years because his four pass-breakups against South Dakota State were not from a “high motor” alone. Schulte can cover some ground with long speed and short-area quicks alike. It’s only one game against FCS competition, but he showed some exciting traits to monitor.

LB Cedric Gray, North Carolina

Gray was a former wide receiver recruit who has taken to the linebacker position with gusto. While still on the smaller side for the position, Gray is more than willing to put his body on the line. This past week, he racked up six defensive stops. That number could have been higher were it not for three missed tackles, though, which was his problem a season ago, as well (21 misses on 124 attempts).

LG Micah Mazzccua, Baylor

Some of Mazzccua's reps against Albany caused my jaw to hit the floor. Guards who weigh 331 pounds simply should not be as light on their feet as Mazzccua is. He finished with an 82.9 overall grade and didn’t allow any pressure. He still needs to use his hands better in pass protection and may not get where he needs to be to declare this year, but he’ll generate buzz when he is ready.

Arrow Up: QB Anthony Richardson, Florida

The single biggest wildcard at the quarterback position in college football showed exactly why that's the case against Utah. I cannot get over how he moves like an NFL wide receiver yet is 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds. 

Whether Richardson is truly ready for the NFL as a passer remains to be seen, as he still has only 104 career dropbacks to his name. Even if he’s not quite perfect in that regard, some general manager is going to draft this guy early because of how high his ceiling could be.

Who’s the most explosive RB in the 2023 class?

The potential 2023 running back class will have no shortage of juice. The touchdown reception below that I saw from Sean Tucker over the weekend got me thinking … which back has the most juice?

To clarify, juice isn’t speed. It’s how quickly a player can get mass moving from a standstill — meaning, if two players accelerate at the same rate and one is 180 pounds while the other is 210 pounds, the latter has more juice.

Texas’ Bijan Robinson is RB1 on the PFF draft board (and won’t be leaving that position anytime soon after breaking 10 tackles on 10 attempts against ULM last weekend), but he’s more known for his balance than raw burst. 

Auburn’s Tank Bigsby put on the best show of any back in Week 1 with 16 carries for 147 yards, two scores and 13 broken tackles against Mercer. He wins with his ability to cut on dimes in the open field, though, and isn’t known for big plays. 

Texas A&M’s Devon Achane has probably the best pure speed with 100-meter track times nearing 10 seconds flat. At only 185 pounds, though, he’s not running through a lot of defenders (and certainly wasn’t this past weekend with 42 yards on 18 carries).

With all that said, I think I have to lean toward Sean Tucker as the most explosive back in the country. I may very well be too low on him as RB5 at the moment.

Go Back to the Tape: QB D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson

The discourse around Uiagalelei’s performance Monday night was … less than positive. A second watch of the All-22 tells a different story. This was better than Uiagalelei looked at any point last season by a comfortable margin. His 19-of-33 for 209 yards stat line doesn’t do him justice, as his receivers dropped six passes that cost him 46 air yards (two of which came on big-time throws). Uiagalelei’s 84.2 passing grade was the highest of his career. He was far from perfect, but there’s still no sense in giving up on him as a prospect at this point with how prodigious his arm can be. 

What’s on Tap

Will Levis vs. Anthony Richardson (Saturday 7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

The two most physically gifted quarterbacks who could be in the 2023 class square off Saturday. Obviously, they aren’t going head-to-head themselves, but I wouldn’t hate it if they tried to one-up each other.

Bijan Robinson vs. Alabama’s Defense (Saturday 12 p.m. ET, FOX)

The real matchup I’m here to watch is every time Alabama slot cornerback Brian Branch is one-on-one with Robinson in the open field. Robinson has been the most elusive running back in the country since the start of last year (89 broken tackles on 205 carries), while Brian Branch has been the best tackling defensive back over that span (61 tackles with no misses). 

First Test for Spencer Rattler vs. Arkansas (Saturday 12 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Rattler was QB1 for many heading into 2021, including PFF, after he posted a 92.5 overall grade in his first season as a starter. His tribulations since then have been well documented. He’s coming off a rough debut against Georgia State where he made three turnover-worthy plays and earned a 51.2 passing grade. If things don’t change quickly, he could play his way out of the draft altogether.

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