Khalil Mack and More Prospects to Watch on Bowl Season’s Opening Saturday

Khalil Mack will be in the spotlight when Buffalo plays San Diego State on the bowl season’s opening day. (Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig — USA Today Sports)

BBD Editor: Dan Hope

The opening Saturday of bowl season may not feature college football’s marquee teams, but it certainly does include some of the nation’s marquee talent.

The prime game on the schedule is the Las Vegas Bowl, which kicks off between two ranked teams, No. 20 Fresno State and No. 25 USC, at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC. To find out more about the top NFL draft prospects playing in the game, including arguably the nation’s top senior quarterback prospect in Fresno State’s Derek Carr and two of college football’s best wide receivers in Fresno State redshirt sophomore Davante Adams and USC junior Marqise Lee, check out Joe Marino’s Prospect Preview of the game.

Saturday’s other three bowl games also each include players whose names should be called in the 2014 NFL draft.

The best prospect among them is Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack, an athletic, well-rounded hybrid defender who has been projected to be selected as early as the top 10 picks this May. Mack will be among the players to watch in Saturday’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, in which Buffalo and San Diego State will kick off in Boise, Idaho at 5:30 p.m. ET and be televised on ESPN.

The New Mexico Bowl (Colorado State vs. Washington State, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN) and New Orleans Bowl (Tulane vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, 9 p.m ET, ESPN) also have players who NFL scouts will be keeping a close eye on in their final college football games.

Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo, Sr. (6’3”, 248 lbs)

The University at Buffalo has never had a player selected in the first three rounds of an NFL draft, but it could have as high as a top-10 draft pick in 2014 in outside linebacker Khalil Mack. Mack is one of the most well-rounded players in college football, while his prototype measurables and skill set make him a potential NFL star.

A versatile player in both run defense and pass defense, Mack has the potential to be an every-down starter in any scheme. While he is ideally suited to be a 3-4 outside linebacker, the position he plays at Buffalo, he could also project as a hybrid strongside linebacker/defensive end for a 4-3 scheme or even play as an inside or weakside linebacker in either scheme.

A fluid athlete with great instincts, Mack is consistently around the football, can make plays from sideline to sideline and is a strong tackler in space. He can track down runners with pursuit speed and also excels when used as an edge-setter in run defense.

Mack has the ability to make plays in the NFL both as a pass-rusher and in pass coverage. He does not have a tremendous get-off or pass-rushing skill, but he has made plenty of plays beating defenders both with his speed around the edge and with his power as a bull rusher. Mack also does a good job dropping back into coverage and making plays on the ball, giving him the ability to play a variety of linebacker spots even on passing downs.

Though he may garner attention for the plays he makes, Mack is a disciplined player who excels within his assignments. His experience, discipline and overall skill set should enable him to be an immediate contributor on the defense of the NFL team that drafts him.

A full breakdown of Khalil Mack and why he could be a very high draft pick

Branden Oliver could parlay his productive senior season into an NFL draft selection. (Photo: Raj Mehta — USA Today Sports)

Branden Oliver, RB, Buffalo, Sr. (5’8”, 208 lbs)

Unlike his teammate Mack, Buffalo senior running back Branden Oliver does not have prototypical NFL measurables for his position, but though he is unlikely to be one of Buffalo’s first Day 1 or 2 picks, he is an intriguing prospect who draw interest on Day 3.

Oliver’s lack of height stands out, but so does his production. He has run for 1,421 yards and 15 touchdowns in his senior season, and 3,935 yards and 33 touchdowns for his career.

He is unlikely to have that same level of production at the next level, but has a game reminiscent of another back who plays in Buffalo, that being Bills veteran Fred Jackson. While he is significantly shorter than Jackson (6’1”, 216 lbs), he is a similarly tough runner who runs behind his pads, consistently fights for extra yardage and lunges forward when taken down to the ground.

Oliver may be limited by his physical attributes: he is not going to run away from many NFL defenders or run them over, and he does not have great burst out of the backfield. That said, he does a great job of using his vision to find running lanes and making sound cuts to bounce into them. In the open field, he does a great job of maintaining his speed even when he cuts away from defenders or bounces off of hits.

Though what he lacks in explosiveness may knock him down to the late rounds of the draft or further, his combination of toughness, vision, balance and open-field running skill give him a chance to succeed as an NFL runner.

Shaquil Barrett, OLB, Colorado State, Sr. (6’2”, 250 lbs)

While teams looking for an edge defender in the first round will likely be focused on Mack on Saturday, teams looking for one in the later rounds of the draft should keep an eye on Colorado State’s Shaquil Barrett.

When he properly times his jump off the snap, Barrett has a great burst and can explode into the backfield, as evidenced by his 20.5 tackles for loss this season. He does a great job collapsing in from the edge to make run stops, while he can also shoot gaps to the backfield as an inside rusher and effectively use the dip-and-rip technique as an outside rusher.

That said, he is overly reliant on his timing and acceleration as an edge rusher. He is not a natural bender, and he will not be able to frequently beat NFL offensive linemen with his athleticism and singular technique as he does against collegiate opponents.

He is a solid overall run defender who tackles soundly and with authority. Though he does not have terrific range for a linebacker, he is a high-effort player who hustles to track down plays in pursuit.

That said, if he is going to be impactful as an NFL pass defender, he needs to become a more complete pass-rusher. Though he may be able to handle coverage assignments near the line of scrimmage, he lacks the fluidity as a downfield athlete to consistently cover tight ends and/or slot receivers.

Though Barrett has played everywhere from middle linebacker to defensive tackle in his collegiate career, he is best suited for a 3-4 defensive scheme as an outside linebacker in the NFL. He might not be a fit for every defense, but he has talent worth taking a chance on as a mid-round selection.

See page 2 to read about more NFL draft prospects who are playing in Saturday’s bowl games.

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Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, Alex Neutz, Bowl Previews, Branden Oliver, Bryce Quigley, Buffalo, Cairo Santos, Colorado State, Darryl Surgent, Deone Bucannon, Game Previews, Khalil Mack, Louisiana-Lafayette, New Mexico Bowl, New Orleans Bowl, Potato Bowl, Prospect Previews, Ryan Grant, San Diego State, Shaquil Barrett, Tulane, Washington State, Weston Richburg

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