NFL Draft Prospects to Watch in Friday’s First Bowl Games

Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman is the top prospect to watch when the Golden Gophers play Syracuse on Friday. (Photo: Jesse Johnson — USA Today Sports)

BBD Staff Writer: John Maher

Before Brigham Young and Washington take the field Friday night in the Fight Hunger Bowl (more to come), there are two earlier bowl games to watch Friday. The Maryland Terrapins (7-5) and the Marshall Thundering Herd (9-4) will face off in the Military Bowl (2:30 p.m., ESPN), while the Syracuse Orange (6-6) and the Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4) will play in the Texas Bowl (6 p.m., ESPN).

While these bowl games may not be high on fans’ “To Watch List” — The Sports Network ranked both of them in the bottom six of their “most exciting” bowls ranking — there are still some players worth keeping an eye on.

Military Bowl

Marcus Whitfield, OLB, Maryland, Sr. (6’3″, 250 lbs)

Whitfield came into his senior year needing to make an impact after lacking production in his first three seasons at Maryland, and he has delivered. He has been a quality pass-rusher off the edge for the Terrapins, leading his team with 9.5 sacks, ranking him fifth in the ACC, while he is also second in the ACC with 107 tackle-for-loss yards.

Whitfield has had issues as a run defender, accumulating only 50 total tackles on the year, but he has shown enough as a pass-rusher to potentially get picked up as a free agent after the draft.

Besides cornerback Dexter McDougle, who has been out for the season since September due to a shoulder injury, it is unlikely that any Maryland players will be selected in the 2014 NFL draft. One of Maryland’s best prospects for the future, sophomore wide receiver and key playmaker Stefon Diggs, will also miss Friday’s game with a leg injury.

Marshall junior quarterback Rakeem Cato will be looking to build momentum for the 2014 season in the Military Bowl. (Photo: Steve Mitchell — USA Today Sports)

Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall, Jr. (6′, 188 lbs)

Junior quarterback Rakeem Cato could generate some interest when he is in the NFL draft, which will be in 2015 if he returns to Marshall for his senior sesaon.

Cato has not been as statistically impressive as a junior as he was as a sophomore. While he was fifth in the FBS in passing yards, fourth in completion percentage and third in touchdowns in 2012, his completion percentage has dropped from 69.5 to 59.3 percent in his junior year, though he remains tied for third in the FBS with 36 passing touchdowns.

Assuming he returns for his senior year, the 2014 season will be a make-or-break season for Cato, who will try to rise up the board for the 2015 draft. Though he has drawn comparisons to Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, including from Gil Brandt of NFL.com, he will have to prove he can compete on a higher level.

More Players to Watch:

Tommy Shuler, WR, Marshall, Jr. (5’7″, 190 lbs)

Shuler leads Marshall with 97 receptions for 1097 yards this season. He is small, but after tearing apart Virginia Tech’s secondary earlier this year, Shuler could have a field day against a banged-up Maryland secondary.

Gator Hoskins, TE, Marshall, Sr. (6’2″, 244 lbs)

Hoskins has an excellent senior season, catching 44 passes for 717 yards and a team-high 13 touchdowns. He is an undersized tight end whose NFL future would likely be as an H-back, but he could be a decent undrafted free agent signing for an NFL team.

C.J. Brown, QB, Maryland, Sr. (6’3″, 210 lbs)

Brown started off his senior season with four wins and 13 total touchdowns in his first four games, but since suffering a concussion in Maryland’s 63-0 blowout loss to Florida State on Oct. 5, he has not played as well. He missed two games, and in the five games he did play, he only scored 10 total touchdowns, five of which came in Maryland’s last game against North Carolina State.

If Brown plays like he did in leading Maryland to a 41-21 win against NC State, the Military Bowl might end up being a quarterback battle between Brown and Cato. That said, Brown is unlikely to be an NFL draft selection regardless of his performance Friday.

Texas Bowl

Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota, Sr. (6’6″, 311 lbs)

The top prospect to scout in Friday’s first two bowl games will be Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, a potential first-round pick who is hard to miss. A first-team all-Big Ten selection this year, Hageman is likely to battle Notre Dame’s Louis Nix to be the 2014 draft’s top defensive tackle prospect.

Hageman leads Minnesota with 11 tackles for loss this season and is an outstanding athlete with a basketball background. His measurables reportedly included a 36-inch vertical jump and a 1.57-second 10-yard dash, according to CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman. Hageman could fit in both 3-4 and 4-3 defensive schemes in the NFL, and has drawn comparisons to Houston Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt.

If Hageman can get in the backfield, he could wreak havoc on Syracuse’s run-heavy offense and set the tone for the Minnesota defense.

Hageman is also slated to participate in this year’s Senior Bowl.

Having declared for the 2014 NFL Draft, the Texas Bowl will be Syracuse running back Jerome Smith’s final collegiate game. (Photo: Melina Vastola — USA Today Sports)

Jerome Smith, RB, Syracuse, Jr. (6′, 226 lbs)

Smith announced Dec. 20 that he will enter the 2014 NFL Draft, forgoing his final year of eligibility with the Orange, so the Texas Bowl will be his final college football game.

In 2012 when Syracuse was in the Big East, Smith rushed for 1,171 yards but only three touchdowns. Playing in the ACC this year, Smith has only rushed for 840 rushing yards but has totaled 12 touchdowns.

With a relatively weak class of running backs, Smith should be selected in the middle rounds of the NFL draft. He lacks agility, but is a consistent downhill runner who has gained most of his yards on between-the-tackles, nose-to-the-grindstone runs. He has not shown much receiving skill at Syracuse, totaling only 139 receiving yards and one touchdown over the past two seasons, which could cause him to drop in the draft.

More Players to Watch:

Jay Bromley, DT, Syracuse, Sr. (6’4″, 285 lbs)

Bromley, who led the Orange with nine sacks and three forced fumbles this season, is the most likely draft pick among Syracuse’s seniors.

David Cobb, RB, Minnesota, Jr. (5’11″, 225 lbs)

On a Minnesota team with a very weak passing attack, Cobb has been the star of the offense, rushing for 1,111 yards while Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson has just 1,288 passing yards.

Cobb might not be an NFL prospect, but he still has his senior season remaining to prove himself.

The battles between running backs David Cobb and Jerome Smith and defensive tackles Ra’Shede Hageman and Jay Bromley will play a part in dictating the outcome of the Texas Bowl.

Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, Bowl Games, Jay Bromley, Jerome Smith, Marcus Whitfield, Maryland. Marshall, Military Bowl, Minnesota, Prospect Previews, Ra'Shede Hageman, Rakeem Cato, Syracuse, Texas Bowl

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