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2022 NFL draft: Top prospects to watch in the conference title games

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  • Kenny Pickett
    American football quarterback
  • Travon Walker
    American football player

The 2021 college football regular season has nearly closed, but conference-title weekend will bring a lot of clarity in how the postseason will shake out. It also will give several 2022 NFL draft prospects excellent stages to prove themselves as we steam headlong toward draft season.

Here are the top prospects we'll be keying in on this weekend from each of the major conference championship games.

ACC

No. 15 Pittsburgh vs. No. 16 Wake Forest
Pitt QB Kenny Pickett

It’s no shock here, as the breakout QB of the 2022 class is facing a Demon Deacons team that can rack up points. Expect a shootout. If you like back-and-forth games, this might be the perfect counter-programming to the simultaneous Big Ten broadcast, which looks more like a Midwest rock fight if you're into that type of thing.

This game also has better NFL QB prospect potential.

Pickett has cooled off since his midseason flourish, throwing six interceptions in his past five games (after one INT in his first seven). But he has shown he can speed up his process, make smarter decisions and throw on the move in his final season.

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett has improved his draft standing more than almost any QB prospect for 2022. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett has improved his draft standing more than almost any QB prospect for 2022. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

This game could propel Pickett into the Heisman Trophy discussion, and it’s Pitt’s first crack at an ACC championship. The pressure will be on the senior quarterback, and the scouting eyes will want to see how he handles the spotlight.

The race for QB1 is now in full throttle. Pickett, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and UNC’s Sam Howell appear to be the three front-runners, with a few dark horses lurking.

Big Ten

No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 13 Iowa
Michigan EDGE David Ojabo

Yes, we know all about Aidan Hutchinson, the possible No. 1 overall pick (over even Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux or any quarterback). But Ojabo's rise has also been a fascinating development, one that could land him in the top-40 picture in 2022 if he doesn’t return to school.

The 6-5, 250-pound rusher boasts a terrific backstory. Born in Nigeria and raised in Scotland, Ojabo is still incredibly new to football. After watching his high school teammate, Odafe Oweh (then Jayson), earn a scholarship to Penn State, Ojabo told his coach: “I’m more athletic and tougher than [Oweh] … You mind if I try football next season?”

We’re glad he did. After playing only 26 snaps for Michigan last season, Ojabo has been one of the breakout players in college football with 11 sacks and five forced fumbles. Certainly playing across from Hutchinson, one of the least blockable players in the country, helps. But Ojabo’s bend, burst and electric athleticism are exactly what the league wants in its pass rushers.

Pac-12

No. 10 Oregon vs. No. 17 Utah
Utah LB Devin Lloyd

We’ve been extolling Lloyd’s virtues since before the start of the season, and he has rewarded our faith with weekly stat stuffing to the tune of 99 tackles (22 for losses!), eight sacks (for minus-60 yards), three interceptions, six pass breakups and a fumble recovery. It’s almost impossible not to notice No. 0 when you watch a Utes game.

Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) is one of the best LB prospects in the 2022 class. (AP Photo/George Frey)
Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd is one of the best LB prospects in the 2022 class. (AP Photo/George Frey)

Lloyd is one of the few linebackers in the first-round picture in 2022. His three-down ability puts him there, as he can blitz, cover backs and tight ends as well as lay the wood in run support. Although he plays out of control at times, Lloyd has excellent diagnostic skills and fits the mold of the modern NFL linebacker.

Two weeks ago when these teams met, Lloyd didn’t have a ton of loud plays but helped contain the Ducks and athletic QB Anthony Brown to 294 yards and seven points.

SEC

No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 3 Alabama
Georgia DL Travon Walker

Not shocking, this game is a prospect hound’s dream, boasting a possible dozen top-100 selections in the 2022 class. 

If there's one player from this game who deserves more shine it is Walker. Although he was hyped coming out of high school as a top-40 Rivals recruit, only this season has he flourished into a fascinating prospect.

Boasting outstanding size, the 6-5, 272-pound Walker also has the athleticism of a player you’d expect out of a much smaller frame. He’s exceptionally versatile, playing up and down the line and standing up on occasion. Walker has been a big weapon against athletic quarterbacks this season, too, able to hem them in the pocket and hunt them down.

He's a freak of nature when it comes to athletic ability for that size,” UGA head coach Kirby Smart said. “I don't know how many years it will be before I coach a guy who's that big, who can run like that and has really good stamina, with great toughness and effort.”

If Georgia wants to keep this dream season alive, Walker and the Bulldogs’ athletic and powerful front must shut down RB Brian Robinson Jr. and keep QB Bryce Young contained. Walker’s battles with OT Evan Neal, a possible top-10 pick, will be appointment viewing.

Big 12

No. 5 Oklahoma State vs. No. 9 Baylor
Baylor DB Jalen Pitre

Pitre is an undersized missile as a hybrid safety who spends a lot of time in the box. He plays with his hair on fire and arrives at the ball with bad intentions. As a blitzer, Pitre is one of the best at his position in college football, able to win with speed and great angles to the ball. He’s also a great run defender.

We’ve also been impressed with his improved coverage ability, able to man the slot and match up with bigger inside receivers, along with backs and tight ends. He has a quick trigger and breaks on the ball instinctively at the catch point.

Baylor's Jalen Pitre is a hybrid defender who fills a lot of roles for the Bears and can lay the wood as a hitter. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Baylor's Jalen Pitre is a hybrid defender who fills a lot of roles for the Bears and can lay the wood as a hitter. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Whether it’s on the edge as a rusher, in the box as a run defender or dropping in coverage, the 5-11, 197-pound Pitre is a hell-on-wheels defender who can wreck the Cowboys’ game plan.

One thing he’ll need to clean up from the first matchup against OSU is missed tackles — he had four of them in the October game. 

He’s an NFL-caliber safety in the mold of the Ravens’ Chuck Clark or the Dolphins’ Brandon Jones. Pitre could be a top-50 selection.

American

No. 4 Cincinnati vs. No. 21 Houston
Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder

Ridder has played his best football of late, making the most of another year in college and gradually moving up the QB-prospect pecking order. In a disappointing class, Ridder could find himself in the first-round picture come April.

He’ll have the Senior Bowl week to help separate himself from the pack, but Ridder first must take care of the business at hand in this game. On the line: A conference title and an undefeated season for the Bearcats, who currently hold a tenuous spot at the CFP’s No. 4 seed.

We’ve been open in our relative ambivalence on Ridder as a prospect, but his improved poise and accuracy have stood out. He has the athletic traits NFL teams are favoring more these days, and his arm is plenty talented to be a starter in the league. 

Can he deliver on another big stage against top-50 prospect Logan Hall and a good Cougars defense? Every big performance helps push Ridder closer to landing in Round 1.

Conference USA

UTSA vs. Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky EDGE-LB DeAngelo Malone

Malone has had a strange arc as a prospect, breaking out with a terrific season in 2019 as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, backsliding with a so-so 2020 campaign before rebounding this season. 

Scouts have been concerned with his ability to keep on mass, weighing in the 220-pound range last winter before coming in at 234 this spring. Yet he continues to find ways to be a disruptive, highly active defender in 2021.

He’s likely a linebacker at the next level, and Malone is still adjusting to playing on his feet and maintaining eye discipline. Still, he offers pass-rush juice and has been coming on of late, with a two-sack, one-FF outing last week at Marshall.

Containing UTSA QB Frank Harris and RB Sincere McCormick will be a four-quarter operation. Western Kentucky QB Bailey Zappe also is one to watch, and we’ve written about the Senior Bowl selection’s rise as a passer recently. But Malone could be the highest-drafted Hilltopper in the spring.

MAC

Northern Illinois vs. Kent State
Kent State QB Dustin Crum

This is not a game overflowing with 2022 draft prospects. There might not be a single player drafted in April from this game. But Crum has some moxie as a passer and gets the job done more often than not, despite a long, funky throwing delivery.

He’ll be appearing at the College Gridiron Showcase after the season. Saturday's game will be another opportunity to impress scouts and convince them he's worth taking a shot on. 

Mountain West

No. 19 San Diego State vs. Utah State
San Diego State EDGE Cameron Thomas

With a stunning 73 pressures in 12 games by Pro Football Focus’ count, Thomas is among the more disruptive pass rushers in college football. He’s a well-built end at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, with a long wingspan and good core strength, and Thomas can line up inside and out.

Thomas’ athletic traits can’t be overlooked, as his quickness allows him to penetrate gaps readily and collapse pockets. He’s also a quality run defender who can handle his own in taking on blockers and stringing out plays laterally.

San Diego State DL Cameron Thomas has been one of the more disruptive defenders in the country this season. (Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images)
San Diego State DL Cameron Thomas has been one of the more disruptive defenders in the country this season. (Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images)

Last week Thomas had a dominant performance in the comeback win over Boise State with a sack, two tackles for loss, a pressure that led to an interception and was in on a fourth-down stop that closed the door on the Broncos late in the game.

Thomas also has two terrific outings against Pac-12 opponents (Arizona and Utah) on his resume this season and could end up in the top 50 overall selections.

Sun Belt

No. 24 Louisiana vs. Appalachian State
Louisiana OT Max Mitchell

Mitchell is a long-levered OT prospect from a school that has been producing some quality blockers in recent years. He’s nearly 6-foot-6, with 34-inch arms and an 81-inch wingspan, and he moves very well for his size. Although Mitchell could stand to add girth, he works blocking angles well and can sink into his opponents.

He might not be an elite athlete at the position compared to other OT prospects with similar dimensions who have cracked the top 100 picks in recent years, Mitchell’s pass-blocking prowess and quality instincts are highly sought traits that should have him on the Day 2 radar next spring.

The Mountaineers have a pair of quality rushers in Demetrius Taylor and Nick Hampton, but Mitchell won his battles against both when they faced in a 41-13 Ragin’ Cajuns win earlier this season.

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