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 Five 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. Jace Sternberger, TE, Texas A&M, 6-4, 250, 4.75 (est.), rJr, # 81
One could make an argument that if highlighting an Aggie in this space, it must be talented junior running back Trayveon Williams, who burst through for the game-winning score in overtime to help A&M beat previously undefeated Kentucky, giving him 210 all-purpose yards in Jimbo Fisher’s first big win at College Station. Williams, though, entered the season already well on the scouting radar unlike the intriguing Sternberger, who originally signed with Kansas out of high school and had a stop at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Community College before emerging as the one of this year’s real breakout stories. Sternberger appears fortunate in the clip below, collecting a pass that initially went through the hands of a teammate but finding the end zone is nothing new for him this season. He now has five touchdowns on the season, tying with two others for the most ever from a tight end in Texas A&M’s storied history. Sternberger possesses just average size for the position but he accelerates smoothly, shows savvy as a route-runner and hands-catcher and is not afraid to get physical as a blocker.
4. Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis, 5-09, 200, 4.50, # 8
NFL teams were delighted with consecutive extraordinary running back classes the past two years but early declarations (and injuries) have left the position much cloudier for the 2019 draft. Scouts will not have to look too hard to find Henderson, however, whose 174 yards and three rushing touchdowns Saturday night against Connecticut has him leading the nation with 934 yards – almost 200 more than the afore mentioned Williams and 85 more than Wisconsin’s true sophomore Jonathan Taylor, widely viewed as this year’s leading Heisman contender among running backs. While perhaps lacking an elite package of size and breakaway speed, Henderson is a fun back to watch, using excellent vision, subtle shifts and an effective stiff-arm to weave his way through defenses. The Tigers have not featured a running back this talented since the Pittsburgh Steelers made DeAngelo Williams the 27th overall pick back in 2006.
3. Clayton Thorson, QB, Northwestern, 6-3, 225, 4.76, # 18
Sometimes it isn’t just the prettiest stat-lines that deserve praise but an ability to respond to pressure. That was precisely the case for Thorson, who guided Northwestern to an impressive 29-19 win over Michigan State (ranked 20th in the AP Poll) in East Lansing Saturday just nine months after suffering a torn ACL in his right knee (December 29) of last year. Thorson’s quick recovery is remarkable in its own right but so too was his play Saturday. Thorson threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another late in the fourth quarter, sealing the win. What was perhaps most impressive is that the Spartans’ top-ranked run defense lived up to its reputation, dominating Northwestern at the point of attack and allowing just eight rushing yards total in this game, leaving it up to Thorson (and a gritty defense) to save the day. Thorson, already Northwestern’s all-time leader in QB wins and second in most passing categories, explored leaving early for the NFL a year ago and likely would have earned Day Two consideration. He currently checks in at fourth on NFLDraftScout.com’s senior QB board, showing a better combination of size, arm strength and athleticism than predecessors Trevor Siemian and Mike Kafka, both of whom were also drafted. Assuming his knee checks out, Thorson is thought likely to be the highest drafted player out of Northwestern since the then-San Diego Chargers made defensive lineman Luis Castillo the 28th overall pick in 2005.
2. Qadree Ollison, RB, Pittsburgh, 6-1, 230, 4.63, rSr, # 30
In much the same way that Thorson willed his team to victory despite the lack of a running game, Ollison and fellow senior Darrin Hall helped Pitt upset visiting Syracuse with quarterback Kenny Pickett completing just 11 passes (for 137 yards) in a game that went to overtime. While Hall scored two touchdowns, including the game-winner from three yards out, the bigger Ollison was the more productive and explosive, rushing for 192 yards, including a 69-yard sprint in the first quarter to get Pitt back on track after falling behind 14-0 to a Syracuse squad that previously bullied Florida State and gave Clemson all it could handle a week ago. Built similarly to Pitt predecessor (and current Pittsburgh Steelers’ starter) James Conner, Ollison sports a powerful frame, bulldozing through would-be tacklers with impressive leg drive and strong stiff-arms, while also showing enough wiggle and speed to gain yardage in chunks. Ollison’s career has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. He earned ACC Freshman of the Year honors after rushing for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015 when Conner went down with a knee injury, but barely half that the past two seasons, requiring a special senior campaign to get back on the NFL radar. Saturday’s performance – which now gives him 596 yards and five touchdowns on the year – will go a long way in accomplishing that.
1. Jachai Polite, DE/OLB, Florida, 6-2, 242, 4.65 (est.), Jr, # 99
With a tip of the cap to fellow Gators’ linebacker Vosean Joseph, the most impressive player I saw Saturday was Polite, an explosive edge rusher whose six tackles, including two for loss (both sacks) and a forced fumble helped Florida shake up the SEC and the national polls Saturday with a 27-19 win over previously undefeated LSU. While lacking elite size, Polite makes up for it with an explosive burst upfield and terrific agility, allowing him to scrape the edge in a flash to close on unsuspecting quarterbacks, using his disproportionately long arms and strong hands to consistently rip at the ball. Polite’s forced fumble was his fourth over the first six games of the season. He now has 24 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and a team-leading six sacks on the year, a huge jump from last season in which he recorded just 22 stops, including 5.5 for loss and two sacks (along with one forced fumble) before a shoulder injury ended his year early. To be clear, Polite had help in Saturday’s big win. The Gators controlled the line of scrimmage in this game, collecting 11 tackles for loss and five sacks overall compared to just two stops behind the line by LSU (neither of them quarterback takedowns). But make no mistake, Polite was decidedly rude in this contest, instigating big plays with a classic speed to power conversion that has helped similarly-built edge rushers like the Bears’ Khalil Mack (6-3, 247), Broncos’ Von Miller (6-3, 249) and Falcons’ Takk McKinley (6-3, 250) rank among the NFL’s leading sack artists so far this season.
Check out past Risers columns: