Projecting the Pac-12: Week 5
Updated: Oct 21, 2018
With Week 5 of the college football season behind us, we've been able to get a good glimpse of some of the top prospects that are draft-eligible throughout the power conferences. Among those that doesn't get as much love as the others is the Pac-12 conference. The Pac-12 never lacks for intrigue, and there's reason for optimism on the West Coast for these players that have NFL potential.
Since I will be starting a six-game skid in the press box, this new series will highlight three draft-eligible players and one underclassman that is worth talking about among the others. This will drift away from the top dogs like Justin Herbert and Bryce Love, and give you an insight of who might have what it takes.
With that being said, I present to you, "Projecting the Pac-12". Let's begin!
No. 1 | Jordan Kunaszyk | LB | Senior | California
Jordan Kunaszyk is the heart and soul of California's defense. He was named to the preseason watchlist for the Butkus Award, given out to the best linebacker in college football. Kunaszyk led the Bears for the 2017 season with a career-high 74 tackles despite only playing in nine contests. Kunaszyk also tallied 6.0 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions.
Standing at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Kunaszyk is a hell of an athlete. Capable of shooting downhill quickly and making a play in space. Can string out the ball-carrier from the middle of the field to the sideline. Shows good foot speed and flexibility. Flashes man coverage ability in the limited snaps he played there. Can handle fakes and changing direction nicely. At his best in zone where he can drop back, flow with the quarterback and attack if he scrambles. Very physical mindset. Doesn’t have an issue finishing plays. He struggles to shed blocks. His size suggests he can handle being in the box but he engages, then does little to break hands free or establish his outside shoulder to get loose.
No. 2 | Christian Rector | DE | Redshirt Junior | USC
USC DE Christian Rector exploded as one of the conference’s best pass rushers in 2017. He had 11.5 tackles for-loss and 7.5 sacks. He produced those numbers while nursing a broken hand he suffered midway through the season, which forced him to miss two games. Rector hasn't been off to the best start statistically, but he has some intriguing traits to his game.
At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, Rector possesses great height and weight on his long frame, able to play both end and tackle as a money down rusher inside. At his ideal weight, he shows good quickness on a go-to inside counter. Uses his inside hand to create some separation and then can convert some speed to power or cut inside. Hands are strong and effective. He controls the outside shoulder of blockers better than half the edge players in this class. Not a bursty guy or a toolsy, developmental type. He is what he is physically, and that limits his value and upside. Ankle flexion and balance through contact on the edge is poor. Speed rushing is not at all a strength. Pad level is inconsistent and he must dip hips more.
No. 3 | Jalen Thompson | S | Junior | Washington State
Washington State safety Jalen Thompson patrols the back of the Cougar's defense exceptionally well and had a breakout season as a redshirt sophomore with four interceptions. The Downey, California, native started in all 13 games for the Cougars as a sophomore and tied for the Pac-12 lead in fumble recoveries en route to being named to the All-Pac-12 Second Team and the Associated Press All-Pac-12 First Team.
Thompson possesses good speed and smooth with the ball. He is a modern-day versatile safety with slot experience on top of more deep responsibility this year. Good in man coverage, showing fluid hips and ability to discourage deeper routes. Can backpedal and find the ball when he flips his hips to sprint. Doesn’t get too ambitious for the ball, will settle for knockdowns instead of interceptions. Thompson shows great range with the ability to close width, while executing very proper angles and acceleration towards the ball to make plays. Thompson plays better in man coverage in the slot and uses press physicality to effectively alter wide receiver and tight end routes, while studying quarterback's eyes and using his lateral speed to stay in the hip pocket of one-cut routes. In 2017, Thompson was limited in zone coverage, but I've seen more of him as a robber that understands route combinations and uses his eyes to gain an advantage on the QB's decision-making process. Nice ball skills by being aggressive in coverage and positioning himself in an advantageous situation to undercut routes in man and knock passes down, while showing the ability to high point balls and use his athletic nature to secure diving picks. In run support, he plays better when he is deep, where he takes the right angles on inside and outside zone, power runs and utilizes his lateral quickness, endurance, and sideline-to-sideline speed to locate the ball carrier.
Underclassman To Watch Out For:
Merlin Robertson | LB | Freshman | Arizona State
It only took two games for the freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson to show the nation why he was one of the most sought-after members of Arizona State's 2018 recruiting class.
Robertson burst onto the scene in Week 2 after racking up nine tackles, 1 ½ sacks and one forced fumble when the Sun Devils upset Michigan State. For the performance, Robertson was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week. The California native is playing with a veteran mentality for defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales and has filled the shoes for former Sun Devil and current New England Patriot, Christian Sam.
At 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, Robertson is a smooth mover with the versatility to play a variety of roles for a defense. Made an impact as an off-ball linebacker, and as an outside pass-rusher. Fluid in coverage and in a straight-line. Top speed is good enough for him to get where he’s needed without being a liability. Good play strength to set the edge in the run game and beat smaller defenders one-on-one. Diagnoses plays early and effectively. Wastes little time dropping back in coverage or attacking the line of scrimmage and possesses a high football IQ. Areas that the 18-year old LB will need to improve as he grows is using less of his shoulder and more inside hands to gain leverage. Robertson can get driven downfield on power run plays because he allows blockers to dictate the physicality of the encounter instead of avoiding contact or delivering the hit first. This causes him to make contact with the ball-carrier too far downfield.