Now that the 2018 NFL Draft is nearly a month old, I'm beginning to turn my attention to the next wave of top prospects in college football. We took a look at the post-draft subplots for NFL teams earlier this week. Here are seven questions that I'll be stewing on over the next few months leading up to the start of the college season. Only 337 days until the 2019 NFL Draft in Nashville!
1) Is Houston's Ed Oliver the best of the bunch in the "Year of the D-lineman"?
Oliver is a two-time All-American with rare foot quickness and agility. The Cougars DT racked up 38.5 tackles for loss, including 10.5 sacks, over his first two seasons, and he's already announced his intention to enter the 2019 NFL Draft. My colleague Bucky Brooks highlighted the strengths and potential weaknesses of the star junior earlier this week. In many years, Oliver would be the clear-cut top defensive lineman, but this year he has competition from the likes of Alabama's Raekwon Davis, Clemson's Dexter Lawrence, Ohio State's Nick Bosa and Michigan's Rashan Gary, just to name a few. The high-end depth on the defensive line in the college ranks means the position could indeed be the hallmark of the 2019 class. I don't see all those players as the same type of game changer that Oliver could be, though.
2) Is QB Shea Patterson set to break out under Jim Harbaugh's tutelage and help UM get past Ohio State?
Harbaugh is 0-3 against Ohio State since taking over at Michigan and his quarterback play in those games has been mediocre, at best. Is Patterson, an Ole Miss transfer and former five-star recruit, talented enough to help U of M turn the tide? Michigan is returning a lot of top-end talent, but has to go on the road against the Buckeyes in the regular season finale (Nov. 24) -- Patterson had his two worst games last season on the road against Alabama and LSU (zero touchdowns, five interceptions). Now, Patterson has just 10 career games under his belt, and Harbaugh might be able to tap into Patterson's talent in a way that allows him to fully realize his potential.
3) Can Stanford's Bryce Love make it back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons?
Any lingering concerns for Stanford about replacing Christian McCaffrey were quickly alleviated once Love ran for 1,088 yards last season ... in the first five games! Love hung 145 yards on TCU in the Alamo Bowl to finish the 2017 campaign with 2,118 rushing yards, the most of any Power Five RB. Can he hit the magic 2,000-yard mark in consecutive seasons? Of course, the odds are against him. Teams will be gearing their entire defensive attack to slow him and he'll need to avoid nagging injuries that are associated with the high number of carries needed to hit the 2,000-yard mark, although he did it last year despite a nagging ankle injury. Love has the talent to do it, but things will have to break perfectly for him this year.
4) Will Nick Bosa be able to match or surpass big brother Joey's most productive college season?
Nick Bosa had a terrific sophomore season, recording 16 tackles for loss (8.5 sacks), but Joey Bosa posted his career-best numbers as a sophomore with 21.5 tackles for loss (13.5 sacks), when he won the first of his two Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year awards. Can Nick match those numbers in his junior campaign? Joey played in 86 percent of the snaps his sophomore season, while Nick played in 54 percent last year. With Nick's snap count expected to increase in 2018, there is no reason to believe that he can't approach Joey's lofty totals.
5) Can QB Jarrett Stidham beat Alabama in back-to-back years?
Stidham helped lead Auburn over Alabama, 26-14, in the Iron Bowl last year with accuracy, poise and mobility. It's why I, and many others, view him as one of the top QB prospects in college football. Some point to Stidham's struggles in the two games after the win over Alabama (2 TDs, 4 turnovers in losses to Georgia in the SEC title game and UCF in the Peach Bowl) as reasons not to buy into him, but I'm not part of that group. Stidham has the intelligence, physical tools and the mental toughness to beat Alabama again, even though the Tide defense is still loaded with NFL talent. The big "if" centers around whether Auburn's offensive line can give him the protection he needs, with four new starters moving into the lineup.
6) Will Washington's Trey Adams come back from injury and emerge as the top offensive tackle in college football?
When studying Adams' tape last summer, I came away extremely impressed with his combination of length, athletic ability and pass-protection talent. However, Adams suffered a torn ACL in mid-October last year, so we will have to see if he makes it back with the same level of athleticism he possessed before his injury. Adams still needs to prove he can sustain and finish blocks more consistently, but working his way to the top of the tackle rankings is well within his grasp if healthy.
7) Who will emerge as the dominant young runner in the ACC?
Do you want a strawberry milkshake or a chocolate milkshake? Honestly, I'll take either one you give me and be happy. I feel the same way about Clemson's Travis Etienne and Florida State's Cam Akers. Etienne rushed for 13 touchdowns as a freshman, showing the power to break tackles and the speed to pull away from opponents. Akers runs with outstanding vision and feel for when to make his cuts. He's elusive, but also hard to bring down. I haven't even mentioned Boston College's A.J. Dillon, the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2017, but he certainly belongs in this conversation after rushing for 1,589 yards (seventh in the FBS) last season. It will be a treat to watch these guys develop with their respective teams for at least the next couple seasons (they won't be eligible to apply for draft entry until 2020).