After last weekend’s soft opening, college football starts in earnest for the majority of the nation. All the biggest teams and best talents will be on display from Thursday through Monday. One of the big early games will be Ohio State-Indiana on Thursday night, where the field will be loaded with NFL talent.
There is a reason Ohio State is a 20.5-point favorite in the game, and in terms of total NFL talent Ohio State dwarfs Indiana as it would most schools. Big-time players such as Mike Weber, Dre’Mont Jones, Parris Campbell, and many more didn’t get a chance to make this list but could hear their names called in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Here are three Buckeyes and two Hoosiers to keep a close eye on for the opener of Big Ten action.
Jerome Baker, LB, Ohio State
An athletic, do-it-all linebacker follows in the footsteps of Darron Lee and Raekwon McMillan at the heart of the Buckeyes’ defense. If Lee was the super athlete and McMillan was the more traditional inside linebacker, Baker could eclipse both as the perfect balance between the two skill sets.
He was all over the field in 2016, and without McMillan, Baker will take the lead for the linebacking crew. At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, the junior has the speed and athleticism to make plays all over the field. He has the strength to challenge blockers in the trenches and make plays in the backfield (9.5 tackles for a loss last season).
Baker also has the traits to excel in coverage and be a complete linebacker with a chance to enter the first round and potentially become the first traditional linebacker off the board.
Tegray Scales, LB, Indiana
Indiana might not have the overall talent of the Buckeyes, and Baker might be getting more press as a top-flight prospect at linebacker, but Scales is every bit the same player. As a junior in 2016, he led the nation in solo tackles and tackles for a loss. He has great instincts and underrated athleticism when scouring the field.
Scales had seven sacks last season, with 11 for his career. He is a threat against the run or rushing the passer. He has six interceptions over his three years. The level of production is tremendous, especially considering the caliber of prospects behind him on the tackles-for-loss charts, which included Ejaun Price, Haason Reddick, Ed Oliver, Harold Landry, Bradley Chubb, and Dorance Armstrong.
He would likely still have to blow away the NFL Combine in order to get into round one, but Scales could be coveted as a Day 2 selection based on his production and ability.
Billy Price, OL, Ohio State
The talent at quarterback and running back has a chance to turn heads in the Heisman race, but Price is the better bet to be a top-50 pick. He was one of the better guards in the country a year ago, and with Pat Elflein on the Vikings, Price will get a chance to play center for the Buckeyes.
Elflein was a solid player touted as a potential round-one player heading into the 2016 season, but Price enters the picture with superior strength and athleticism that make him a potential impact player at a position where game changers don’t stand out.
In a class that will feature Mason Cole of Michigan (playing left tackle this year but likely a center prospect) and Frank Ragnow of Arkansas, Price has a great chance at finishing the season as the top center available in the draft with a shot at round one.
Simmie Cobbs Jr., WR, Indiana
Leading up to the 2016 season, the top receiver prospects in the nation were Mike Williams, Corey Davis, John Ross, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The first three fulfilled the hype and were top-10 picks, while Smith-Schuster dropped to round two. During the preview to the season, Courtland Sutton and Cobbs were the two off-the-radar names who had the potential to disrupt that top four.
Sutton had a dominant year and decided to stay in school, where he is probably the consensus WR1 heading into the 2017 season. Cobbs missed the 2016 season with an injury, and has largely been forgotten about.
As a sophomore in 2015, Cobbs caught 60 passes for over 1,000 yards, scoring four touchdowns. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound wideout had limitless potential. He was robbed of the chance to distinguish himself as a top-flight receiver. He was arrested at a concert this offseason, and some thought he might be suspended for the opener, but if he plays he will get a great chance to show that he is back and deserving of the same attention of other top receivers in this class.
Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
If Cobbs plays, not only will he get a chance to vault into the NFL Draft conversation, but he will do it against a potential round-one cornerback. Ward will get the same chance in return.
After seeing Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley go in round one this past draft and Eli Apple go at No. 10 the year before, Ward — despite limited experience — is set up for success.
That can be filed under the old “scout the player not the helmet” cliche. The good thing for Ward is that he has the talent to back it up. With Lattimore and Conley on the outside, logically Ward would be attacked by opposing offenses. At 5-foot-10 he didn’t have the size of his counterparts. He was less proven than two guys who were locked in as round-one talents.
Ward has superb mirroring skills and the ability to stop and start as well as any corner in the country. Even if he doesn’t have Lattimore’s pure speed or Conley’s physicality, he outpaces them both in the ability to make sudden movements, shift his body weight, and accelerate late. For those who question his ball skills — he doesn’t have an interception yet in his career — he did knock away nine passes in 2016 and has some great highlights when making plays on the ball. Maybe he can’t catch, and he did have at least one play last year when he probably should have taken the ball and run with it.
Although he doesn’t have the physical profile of recent round-one corners, Ward has tremendous talent and is already getting hype as the continuation of the line of great Ohio State defensive backs. In his first game as the stud in that secondary, he has a chance to build his own reputation to match his predecessors.