NFL Draft Daily: Takeaways from Alabama and Georgia in the national championship game

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. After all, there are only 106 days until the 2022 NFL draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

Georgia and Alabama put a bow on the 2021 college football season with Monday’s national championship game. The Bulldogs snapped a 41-year title drought as Kirby Smart finally beat his former boss and mentor Nick Saban.

If you’ve been paying attention to college football or tracking draft prospects this year, you know there were a ton of future NFL players on the field in Indianapolis. Some won’t be eligible for this season, but my goodness, Saban and Smart continue to prove that they are among the elites when it comes to attracting and developing NFL-caliber talent. Saban has a better history than Smart on both sides of the ball, but there is no denying Smart’s prowess on defense.

Having had a chance to watch the game and work back through the film again, there was a lot to like when it comes to spotting future NFL players. Here are my biggest takeaways from Monday night.

Smart has landed a top-five recruiting class each of the past four seasons. (Wikimedia Commons)

Georgia’s defense is on another level

The Dawgs were led by their incredible defense all year long, not allowing more than 14 points against any opponent the entire regular season. They allowed 9.5 points per game, including the SEC Championship game where Alabama dropped 41 on them. That is 6.5 points per game less than Clemson, who allowed 15 points and finished with the second-best scoring defense.

As I mentioned above, Smart is the best recruiter and developer of defensive talent in the country right now. Georgia has future top-50 picks at every level of their defense and a handful of guys who will go in the mid to late rounds backing them up. By now, you likely know names like Nakobe Dean, Jordan Davis, Travon Walker and Derion Kendrick. However, guys like Devonte Wyatt, Nolan Smith and Lewis Cine (more on him later) are all potential top-50 selections as well. Then there are Quay Walker and Channing Tindall. Neither one was a featured player or even really a full-time starter for Georgia, and yet, it would not be a surprise to see both of them go later on Day 2. Robert Beal Jr., who had 6.5 sacks this season, doesn’t even get mentioned when talking about this defense most of the time.

The next wave of talent is exciting as well. Jalen Carter could be a future first-rounder. Kelee Ringo, who had the game-sealing pick-six, will be eligible next season and will certainly have opportunities to work his way into the top 50. He had a really strong performance that makes me excited to watch more of him in the future. Smael Mondon Jr., Nazir Stackhouse and MJ Sherman should all see more action next year as this next wave of talent heads to the NFL. The pipeline from Athens to the NFL is only growing stronger.

I was wrong about Stetson Bennett

I told coworkers, friends and my very patient wife who probably tuned me out because she was not quite as invested in Georgia’s starting quarterback situation as I was, that I really thought the Bulldogs needed to turn their offense over to J.T. Daniels for the College Football Playoff. Georgia was finally tested in the SEC title game and forced to play from behind. It seemed like Bennett was not cut out to keep up with Alabama if the Tide built an early lead again. He attempted just 287 passes across 13 games. That ranked 79th among quarterbacks in FBS this season. Bennett was never asked to be the guy, and I assumed that it meant he couldn’t fill that role.

Turns out, he was more than ready to lead the team when they desperately needed someone to step up, this time on an even bigger stage. Bennett went over 300 yards passing and had three touchdowns against a good Michigan defense in the Orange Bowl, securing a rematch with ‘Bama.

With Georgia’s run game looking incredibly sluggish in the first half. Then, Bennett was strip-sacked and Alabama took an 18-13 lead, and the pressure was really on. Over the final 10 minutes of the game, the former walk-on quarterback was flawless. He tossed two touchdowns to build a lead and the defense closed it out with a pick-six. Bennett had plenty of help, but he also showed that he was capable of leading this team at a time when it needed leading.

I don’t think this makes him an elite quarterback prospect or anything, but maybe this puts him on the radar as a seventh-round pick or preferred free agent, if he is even interested in going pro. He has the makings of a player who could succeed as a backup quarterback in the NFL. Teams like the Bengals, Chargers or Bills, who could all be in the market for a backup quarterback this year, make sense as potential landing spots for the championship-winning quarterback.

Harris had 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2021. (Wikimedia Commons)

Christian Harris and Lewis Cine made themselves some money

Every year, there are a few players that cement their status or really capitalize on the increased attention on them to shoot up draft boards. If there are two players that I think did that better than anyone else on Monday, I would pick Alabama’s Christian Harris and Georgia’s Lewis Cine.

Let’s start with Harris. He started the year as a player many thought could go in the first round and possibly even be the first linebacker off the board. While far from an exact science and not at all indicative of how the league views him, the website NFL Mock Draft Database shows Harris dropping from the 20th ranked player overall in early October to 55th in the middle of December. He had an up and down season, struggling to sort through traffic and failing to read his keys. It was unfortunate to watch for such an instinctive and dynamic defensive playmaker.

Against Georgia, Harris showcased the incredible upside that makes him such an eye-catching prospect. He racked up three sacks and four tackles for loss and looked downright explosive. He still has a long way to go when it comes to gap discipline, but he should be in the mix in the late first round or early second round.

On the other side, Cine was seemingly everywhere for Georgia’s defense. He had seven tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass break up. Those counting stats are far from outstanding, but his play went well beyond the numbers. He made a number of key stops for the Bulldogs, which was something they could not do against the Tide in the SEC championship game. It was the type of game that I think will propel him into the top 50 conversation. With a number of teams picking at the backend of the first round or early in the second round, Cine could be in the running to be the second safety selected, following Kyle Hamilton.

Will Anderson Jr. will start the 2023 draft cycle as the No. 1 player on my big board

This guy is incredible. He showcased his full range of skills on Monday night. He batted a pass at the line, made opposing offensive linemen look silly in pass protection and set the edge against the run with authority. In my estimation, he should have won the Heisman this year. He had 34 tackles for loss in 15 games this season. That is 2.3 tackles for loss per game. Leo Chenal and Devin Lloyd tied for the second best average at 1.6. That came on top of 17.5 sacks, which was tops in the country, and trailed only Andre Carter II in terms of sacks per game. Reminder: this was playing in the SEC against some of the best college offensive linemen in the country.

His length, physicality and athleticism at one of the most coveted positions in college football make him one of the most exciting prospects in recent years. Put him in the same air as Chase Young and Myles Garrett. I am so excited to break down his film this summer.

Jameson Williams and John Metchie III should consider returning to school

This was the worst part of the game by far. Williams emerged as a legitimate contender to be the first receiver taken in the 2022 draft with his electric playmaking and field-stretching ability. The Ohio State transfer stepped into the void left by Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith and flourished. Unfortunately, he suffered a torn ACL in the second quarter and will now miss the entire pre-draft process and potentially the beginning of the 2022 season.

While I don’t think any team will look at him as damaged goods or take him off their board because of the injury, it will almost definitely hurt his stock. He was someone who likely would have ran well at the combine and boosted his stock even further. Williams could very reasonably still go in the first round. There is something to be said for getting paid while you rehab your surgically repaired knee.

However, he will likely be losing out on some money in the process. I could realistically have seen him coming off the board as early as No. 10 to the Jets (hard to see any receivers going before that point, barring trades) before the injury. He will likely slide some. Even falling 11 spots to the Patriots (projected) at No. 21 would cost him $7.3 million over the course of his rookie deal. If he potentially drops further to the Chiefs (projected) at No. 29, it would be about $9.3 million less.

In the end, Williams will have to do whatever works best for him and his family. If he, God forbid, got hurt again after returning to school, he could cost himself a lot more money than that. There is certainly still a good amount of risk. That being said, there are worse situations than returning to Alabama to play with Bryce Young and potentially John Metchie III again. Metchie also suffered a torn ACL playing in the SEC title game. He was not projected to go quite as high as Williams and his injury could set up a return to Tuscaloosa. Those two back at school would only bolster a team that is already the favorite to win the national title in 2022. Williams could erase any doubt about the injury and find himself in the mix to go in the top 10 in 2023. Injuries are one of the harsh realities of football and will set up one of the most interesting decisions to watch when the deadline comes up Monday, January 17th.

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NFL Draft Daily: Does Bo Nix have a future in the NFL?

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

In a somewhat surprising move, Auburn quarterback Bo Nix announced he is going to enter the transfer portal after graduating from the university. Nix had been a three-year starter and won SEC Freshman of the Year back in 2019.

After arriving in Auburn with a ton of fanfare, Nix is the son of former Auburn quarterback Pat Nix, it seemed like Bo was set to deliver on the hype. He helped take down No. 11 Oregon in his first collegiate game and capped off the regular season with a win over No. 5 Alabama in the Iron Bowl. NFL scouts were certainly paying attention, waiting to see if Nix could take the next step in his sophomore season.

Unfortunately, injuries, inconsistent play and questionable decision making all side tracked Nix over the past two seasons to the point where the NFL does not even seem to be an option at this point. There is zero draft buzz around him despite being a former five-star recruit who just started for three years in the SEC.

His level of play has not really merited much draft consideration, Nix has yet to top 16 passing touchdowns in a season and often struggles with accuracy, but he checks pretty much all of the physical boxes to be an NFL quarterback. At 6’3″ with a strong arm and plus athleticism, he has many of the things quarterbacks coaches crave. Don’t get me wrong, he needs a ton of work on his footwork, processing and decision making, but those are aspects of the game that often improve with repetition and good coaching.

However, Nix was already working with one of the best quarterbacks coaches in the country. Jordan Palmer works with a number of the top college and pro quarterbacks to help them improve their fundamentals and reach their potential. He’s worked with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and more in his role at EXOS. Palmer is a huge believer in Nix, saying he thought Nix would be the No. 1 overall pick in this upcoming draft back in March. That obviously won’t come true, but could a change of scenery and continued tutelage from Palmer finally lead Nix to realize his potential?

The NFL seems to have this fascination with the unknown. It’s what makes prospects like Trey Lance and Davis Mills so enticing. It’s why Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold can still net a second-round pick in a trade despite horrible play on the field. The idea of potential is addictive to NFL general managers, scouts and owners. The potential to hit on a prospect no one else saw, or to see a player finally reach their full potential makes them look like the smartest person in the room. They love that sensation.

With that in mind, Nix still has potential. He is only 21 years old and has rare physical gifts that you cannot teach. If he can find a new team and show some development in 2022, he will be worth a draft pick come the 2023 NFL draft. Maybe not in the first round, depending on just how much improvement we see in this hypothetical, but in the second or third round.

The question then becomes where could Nix go to take that next step and get himself on NFL draft boards. Notre Dame immediately comes to mind as Jack Coan will not be back next year. UCF also makes some sense with Nix’s former coach Gus Malzahn calling the shots down in Orlando. I don’t love this one because of Nix’s previous struggles in Malzahn’s system. Cincinnati could also make sense with Desmond Ridder in his final year with the program.

I would love to see Nix land somewhere with a good quarterback coach who can help simplify the game for him and help him grow as a passer. Pairing him with Lincoln Riley at USC feels like a dream, but I have a feeling Riley will stick with one of the young quarterbacks he already has in house. I like UNC as a potential fit with Mack Brown and Phil Longo turning Sam Howell into a solid draft prospect. Perhaps Pittsburgh could be a good fit as well given Kenny Pickett’s development this season. Mark Whipple definitely made a huge difference in his game. Maybe a move to LSU could work, but Brian Kelly does not have his full coaching staff in place yet, so it is hard to tell if that would really be a great fit for Nix.

Ultimately, the chances Nix ends up being a high draft pick or NFL starter look pretty bleak right now. Every year though, we see a quarterback rise up the ranks that just hasn’t put it together yet. This year it looks like Pickett. The year before it was Zach Wilson and the year before that was Joe Burrow. The point is, the door is not closed on Nix’s NFL future. He just needs to get this next move right if he has hopes of playing pro football.

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NFL Draft Daily: Where can Spencer Rattler rebuild his draft stock?

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. Check back in Monday for another entry.

Things have changed quite dramatically for Spencer Rattler over the past four months. The soon-to-be former Oklahoma quarterback entered the season as the Heisman favorite and a fixture in the top five of NFL mock drafts. He seemed poised for a big year and almost assuredly would find himself playing pro football in 2022.

Instead, his season went a bit sideways. For the second year in a row, he was benched against rival Texas. This time though, he stayed on the bench as Caleb Williams engineered a dramatic comeback victory over the Longhorns in the Red River Showdown. Rattler did not start again the rest of the season and entered the transfer portal.

So how is it that this Heisman favorite and blue-chip prospect is suddenly off draft boards and looking for a new home? Consider it the fallacy of media hype and the assumption that players will only ever get better. Rattler had not earned that level of trust and confidence yet. Lincoln Riley had though, so we were all willing to bet on Rattler becoming the latest quarterback to flourish in his offense. He flashed high-end potential in his first season as the starter at OU, but there were also plenty of warning signs of what was to come.

In short, chalk it up to the Lincoln Riley effect finally failing. We expected Rattler to make a jump into elite quarterback territory. He didn’t. If anything, he regressed from his 2020 performance. This time, Riley just so happened to have a very capable replacement. However, this is not the end of the line for Rattler as a draft prospect. If he was capable of generating this much buzz once, he could assuredly draw the attention of NFL scouts again.

But where will he do it? Arizona State was the easy prediction early on for the Phoenix, Arizona native, but with Jayden Daniels returning to school, that rules out a move to Tempe. The list is still long. Let’s take a look at some schools where Rattler could be in line for immediate play on a big enough stage for him to reclaim the national spotlight.

Notre Dame
Let’s start with a big-name program with legitimate title aspirations. Notre Dame’s only loss of 2021 came against Cincinnati and the Irish finished one spot out of a playoff spot. Jack Coan was a serviceable starter as a grad transfer from Wisconsin, but his eligibility is up and Notre Dame will certainly be looking for a new starter next year. Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner are both four-star recruits that could be in line to start, but Rattler would be a better option than either of them for 2022. Pyne played the second half of the Cincinnati game and struggled. He finished 9-of-22 throwing, with a touchdown pass.

Buchner is seen as the future at the position, but could new head coach Marcus Freeman be interested in bringing in a veteran option with a lot more experience? This could be a bit of a risk for Rattler given that much of the coaching staff that recruited Buchner is still intact, but if he could win the job and perform well in South Bend, he would certainly have the clout necessary to generate positive draft buzz again. Notre Dame is known for having strong offensive lines and reliable run games as well. Both of those elements would likely make Rattler’s transition easier and would bode well for future success.

UNC
This is operating under the assumption that Sam Howell declares for the NFL draft. Mack Brown has put UNC back in the national spotlight very quickly. The Tar Heels did not have the kind of season they had hoped for after opening the year at No. 10 in the AP poll, but the potential for offensive success is still incredibly high. Sam Howell put up some big numbers in his second year under Brown despite having his top two receivers and top two running backs playing in the NFL this season.

The potential is there for Rattler to do the same. Jacolby Criswell would be his main competition for the starting job. However, Rattler was a much higher-rated recruit coming out of high school. Playing in a pro-style offense in the ACC should give him the stage to flourish and rebuild his draft stock. Howell was generating buzz alongside Rattler as the potential first overall pick prior to the season. There is no doubt he could rebound in Chapel Hill.

Georgia
This is an interesting and perhaps unlikely destination, but I think it could work well. Stetson Bennett is a redshirt senior, so he will not be back next season. J.T. Daniels still has one more year of eligibility remaining, but he has struggled to stay healthy and I’m not totally convinced the coaching staff believes in him at this stage. Brock Vandagriff could be in the mix as well. The former five-star recruit only appeared in two games this season though, so he will have four more years to work with.

Georgia is undoubtedly going to lose talent to the NFL, but Kirby Smart is arguably the best recruiter in the country. They will reload quickly on both sides of the ball. Putting Rattler in an offense that features Brock Bowers, a dominant running back room and maybe even George Pickens if he returns to Athens sets him up nicely to have success. If he can mature as a decision maker under Todd Monken and perform well against SEC defenses, the NFL will be lining up to watch Rattler play again.

LSU
Brian Kelly could use a quarterback. The former Notre Dame coach inherits a roster with a lot of talent, but a huge hole at quarterback following transfers by Max Johnson and Myles Brennan. Garrett Nussmeier is still enrolled at the school and could be the future at the position, but it might take another year for him to be fully ready to start. There is also the tough spot he finds himself with regards to LSU’s bowl game. With Johnson and Brennan gone, he would be in line to start, but that would officially burn a year of eligibility.

It will be interesting to track how Kelly handles that situation. I don’t think it will impact how he approaches the quarterback situation for next year. LSU has five-star quarterback Walker Howard committed for 2022, but I think Kelly could pursue Rattler to give himself a veteran option to start his first season while he turns over the program. Most of LSU’s skill players will return for next year as well, led by Kayshon Boutte. Especially if Joe Brady happens to return to Death Valley, this feels like a dream scenario for Rattler.

UCLA/Oregon
Some of this will hinge on what happens next with Chip Kelly. It looks like he is headed back to Oregon after four seasons with UCLA. However, the Bruins will still need a quarterback no matter who the coach is next year. Dorian Thompson-Robinson is graduating after a solid career and the only other quarterback in the mix right now is freshman Ethan Garbers, who transferred in from Washington this year. If Kelly leaves though, this becomes a much less appealing landing spot for Rattler.

Maybe Rattler could follow Kelly to Oregon though. Anthony Brown is done after spending five years with Boston College and Oregon. The Ducks have three freshmen that could all contend for the starting job, but the coach who recruited them there, Mario Cristobal, is now at Miami. It would not be a surprise to see at least one of them enter the transfer portal.

The bottom line is that Kelly’s offense probably bodes well for Rattler’s skillset. He is not quite as mobile as Thompson-Robinson or Marcus Mariota, who thrived under Kelly at Oregon back in the day. That is why this feels like such a good fit. Kelly has a decent track record of developing quarterbacks. Mariota went on to be the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. With Lincoln Riley headed to USC, there is also an opportunity for Rattler to stick it to his former coach. There is a lot to like about Rattler landing in the Pac-12, especially growing up in the Southwest.

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NFL Draft Daily: What happens when O-line U meets DBU?

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

Kelly broke the record for most wins in Notre Dame program history in 2021. (Wikimedia Commons)

Brian Kelly became the first coach to ever leave Notre Dame for a different college job when he decided to head to the SEC and join LSU. He brings with him an impressive track record of recruiting and developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen, turning South Bend into a pipeline to the next level.

I should admit now that I am a big proponent of building a strong offensive line. If you gave me control of an NFL roster or asked me to build an expansion team, I would focus on building up a rock solid offensive line before doing anything else. I definitely subscribe to the idea of building in the trenches. I would even argue that having an elite offensive line is more important to team success than an elite quarterback. That quarterback cannot do much if he does not have time to throw. Anyway, I digress.

Yesterday, I talked about the impact of a coach moving programs and the long-term implications when a coach is known for developing a specific position group. Lincoln Riley’s move to USC bodes well for future Trojan quarterbacks finding success at the next level. He has a strong track record for developing quarterbacks and preparing them for the pros. It is fair to wonder if Kelly could do the same thing with the Tigers.

It is important to separate school history from future success. We saw this year how harmful that can be when D.J. Uiagalelei attempted to replace Trevor Lawrence at Clemson. In short, just because Ohio State has a long history of producing successful NFL defensive backs, that does not mean that every Buckeye corner will be a Pro Bowler. It is important to individually evaluate each player independent of where they went to school, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at history to guide where we start looking.

With all that in mind, Kelly developed a ton of high-end NFL starters across the offensive line in his time at Notre Dame. Quenton Nelson and Zack Martin are arguably the two best guards in the league. Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey, when healthy, are both quality starting tackles. Time will tell when it comes to the three offensive linemen drafted from Notre Dame in 2021. There could be another lineman or two selected in 2022, namely Jarrett Patterson.

Martin is a four-time First-Team All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler. (Wikimedia Commons)

This begs the question: Can Kelly replicate this success at LSU?

Fans will obviously hope so. The Tigers have produced some talented linemen, though not at the same level as the Irish. Lloyd Cushenberry and Damien Lewis are both young starters in the league. Ethan Pocic actually starts next to Lewis in Seattle. The most successful LSU alum on the offensive line in recent years has to be Trai Turner, who went to five straight Pro Bowls from 2015 to 2019. Some success, but far from Nelson and Martin caliber.

Kelly will look to bring that success recruiting and developing linemen for the pros while not jeopardizing LSU’s already existing moniker of DBU. I know there are challenges by Ohio State, Alabama, Florida and strangely Texas to that title, but I firmly believe the true defensive back U is located in Baton Rouge. Tre’Davious White, Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson are among the best in the league. Kristian Fulton might not be far behind. Derek Stingley Jr. will likely be the latest top-10 defensive back in 2022. Alabama has a legitimate case with Patrick Surtain II, Trevon Diggs and Marlon Humphrey, but I still give LSU the edge.

Kelly has deep recruiting ties in the midwest from his time spent at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame. As it turns out, there are a lot of talented offensive linemen that hail from that region. Ryan Ramcyzk, Terron Armstead, Tristan Wirfs, Taylor Moton, Jack Conklin, Taylor Decker, Joe Thuney, Brandon Scherff, Corey Linsley and Zack Martin hail from either Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana or Michigan.

On top of that, Louisiana actually had the most active NFL players per capita at the start of the 2021 season. There will be talent for Kelly to work with. He needs to find a way to meld his midwest background with the recruiting hotbed in the Bayou. That is obviously easier said than done, but I think Kelly should be in position to accomplish it. He will need to fill out his staff with coaches who know the territory. While talent is important, having people who can help Kelly create inroads in a state that Kelly himself admitted he had never even been to prior to accepting the job will be vital in upping the program’s offensive linemen production while sustaining their success with developing elite defensive backs.

Much like Lincoln Riley’s move to USC, it will take several years to see the full impact on draft prospects. That being said, I will definitely be tracking LSU linemen a little more closely in the coming years, especially if Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn does in fact follow Kelly to Louisiana.

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NFL Draft Daily: Can Lincoln Riley fix USC’s NFL QB problem?

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

Lincoln Riley rocked the college football world when he left Oklahoma to become the new head coach at USC. With rumors swirling that Riley could be headed for Baton Rouge, his move to SoCal came as a shock. Before too long though, I began to wonder how this will impact the NFL draft.

I am fascinated by the draft and I always like to explore the ripple effects of moves like this. There is the obvious that Oklahoma is likely going to suffer a short-term setback while USC’s ceiling is raised substantially. How about the implications for USC’s quarterback production at the next level?

Riley is known as a quarterback guru, and for good reason. In a three-year span, Oklahoma produced two Heisman winners, a Heisman runner up, two No. 1 overall picks and a second-round pick. Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts are all starting quarterbacks in the NFL. It is very early in all of their careers, but it is safe to say Riley turned a lot of heads with his ability to make OU a quarterback factory.

Riley went 55-10 in five seasons at Oklahoma. (Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, there is a lot of chatter about USC’s inability to produce NFL-caliber quarterbacks. Not in the draft process, several USC quarterbacks have been first-round selections over the past decade, but when it comes to actually achieving success in the pros, the Trojans are surprisingly lacking.

Since 2000, USC has produced a long list of quarterbacks that played in the NFL. Most have failed to live up to high expectations. Carson Palmer remains the most successful of the group, and he graduated in 2002. Mark Sanchez is still the last USC quarterback to win a playoff game, and that was in 2010.

A closer look sees a list that includes Matt Leinart, who only started 18 games in his pro career. He was a top-10 selection. So was Sanchez, who won a ton of games early in his career behind an incredible offensive line, an elite defense and a reliable run game. He hung around a while and managed to finish his career with a winning record as a starter. However, he also threw three more interceptions than he did touchdowns coupled with a career completion percentage of 56.6.

Matt Barkley followed Sanchez. He seemed poised to be a top-15 pick in 2012, but chose to return to school, had a horrible senior year and fell into the fourth round. He started seven games in six seasons in the NFL. Cody Kessler was next and never wowed scouts. A third-round selection, no one expected him to be a Hall of Famer, but three years split between the Browns and Jaguars ensured that his NFL career never got going. He appeared in nine games during Cleveland’s winless 2016 season as a rookie.

Darnold struggled with turnovers, committing 76 in 47 games. (Wikimedia Commons)

After that was Sam Darnold. The No. 3 pick in 2018, he went two picks after Mayfield, which was a bit of surprise at the time. Darnold has shown flashes in his four-year career, but the Jets cut bait after three seasons and shipped him to Carolina. After a strong start with the Panthers, his production fell off a cliff as he reverted to his interception-happy ways, tossing 11 in nine games. He was eventually benched a few times before suffering a season-ending injury. Carolina will be searching for a new starter in 2022 despite having Darnold under contract for another season for about $19 million.

Needless to say, USC quarterbacks have earned a reputation among draft evaluators. The old adage insists we scout the player, not the helmet. However, I am starting to believe in scouting the coach, if that makes sense. Certain schools have a good reputation for producing good players at certain positions. LSU, Ohio State and Alabama all excel at producing defensive backs that succeed in the NFL. Penn State was known for a long time for producing excellent linebackers. Most of the Big Ten is synonymous with elite offensive line play.

It does not mean that other schools are incapable of producing elite prospects at that position or that any players who goes through these programs are immediately going to be better in the NFL, but we can usually point to certain coaches for being able to recruit and develop well at different positions. There is a reason Alabama dominates the early rounds of every draft. Nick Saban knows how to recruit and develop. Same can be said for Kirby Smart on the defensive side of the ball. Kirk Ferentz has a penchant for producing NFL-caliber tight ends at Iowa.

Bottom line, something has to give. USC has struggled to produce quality NFL quarterbacks, but Riley is known for doing just that. It might be a bit premature to truly award him that recognition given that his three notable quarterbacks are still just getting started in the NFL. Riley’s most recent project was also a failure. Spencer Rattler lost his starting job in October despite entering the year as the Heisman favorite. He will be looking to transfer.

However, there is no doubt that Mayfield, Murray and maybe even Hurts are better NFL quarterbacks than anyone USC has produced this side of Palmer. Caleb Williams also flashed some incredible physical traits and won a lot of games for Oklahoma as a true freshman in relief of Rattler. Early returns indicate that Riley is in fact the real deal.

Slovis is rumored to be considering declaring for the NFL draft. (Wikimedia Commons)

So how soon could Riley snap this streak? Kedon Slovis entered the season as a potential first-round pick. By the end of the year, he went the way of Rattler and lost his job to a talented freshman. That freshman, Jaxson Dart, could be Riley’s first protégé in L.A. If not, Miller Moss, who stepped in for an injured Dart to finish the season against Cal, could be in line for that role. Dart and Moss were four-star recruits, ranking 10th and 12th respectively, in the 2021 recruiting class, according to 24/7 Sports.

What is more likely is that it will take a few seasons before we really see the Lincoln Riley effect take hold at USC. The Trojans do not have any quarterbacks currently committed for 2022. However, 2023 five-star recruit Malachi Nelson has already flipped his commitment from Oklahoma to USC to follow Riley. Nelson feels like the first quarterback that will truly be Riley’s handpicked option. He won’t be draft eligible until 2026 though.

So, it might take a while, but keep in mind that Mayfield, Murray and Hurts were all transfers to Oklahoma. It is very possible that Riley goes that route again. Former five-star Quinn Ewers announced he is transferring from Ohio State. Texas is believed to be the favorite to land Ewers, bringing him back to the Lone Star state, but could Riley lure him to USC? This is not to say Riley will bail on Dart and Moss, but he also did not recruit them.

My guess is that Riley will ride with either Dart or Moss for 2022 before giving Nelson a real chance to compete for the starting job when he arrives in 2023. It might not be immediate, but it feels like USC is finally in line to change the narrative around their quarterback prospects at the NFL level.

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