Prospect Preview: Michigan State vs. Arizona State

Oct 29, 2016; Eugene, OR, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils wide receiver N'Keal Harry (1) carries the ball as Oregon Ducks defensive lineman Gary Baker (51) defends during second quarter at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

As college football generally does, week one brought some great games. While some of the top matchups were lopsided, namely FSU vs. Virginia Tech, LSU vs. Miami and even Michigan vs. Notre Dame which didn’t feel like a one-score game, there were some upset scares. Penn State needed overtime to beat Appalachian State after an unforeseeable fourth-quarter comeback by the underdog Mountaineers. Michigan State also drove down the field in the last five minutes to score a go-ahead touchdown against Utah State. This week Penn State plays state rival Pitt, and last time they played at Pitt, they were upset, ultimately preventing a playoff birth for the Nittany Lions. Michigan State travels down to the desert to take on Herm Edwards’ Arizona State. They best be more prepared or else they’ll be entering the treacherous Big 10 East schedule with a blemish.

Michigan State, following a 3-9 season in 2016, came back with a young fiery team in 2017. After an early-season blowout at the hands of Notre Dame, the expectations were solidified at 6-6 with a possible bowl win. After a conference win against Michigan though, they were deemed a real threat in the East. They were upset by Northwestern in 2OT and bounced back with a win in a 7-hour affair with Penn State. The next week they went into a conference-deciding game with the Buckeyes where they were obliterated from start to finish. They finished the season at 10-3, including a bowl win against Washington State. They opened the season with Utah State where, generously, they looked out of sorts. They have struggled in the past with blowing out weak teams in week one, so I wouldn’t worry too much about this team’s potential.

Arizona State, much to the enjoyment of social media, hired Herm Edwards as their head coach over the offseason. They finished as a 7-6 team, entailing some bad losses and some great wins. They lost to unranked San Diego State and Texas Tech early in the season before beating ranked Oregon. They fell to Stanford a week before stealing a game from Washington. After that things settled down, they had losses to USC and UCLA but they beat the teams that they should have against Colorado, Oregon State, and Arizona, who cracked the rankings for a week last year. They drew NC State in their bowl game where their defense was made to look like a peewee team. While UTSA isn’t exactly tough competition, Arizona State did keep the game uninteresting by beating up on them in week one.

This weekend’s game between the two teams should boast some high-end draft prospects.

QB Manny Wilkins, Arizona State

Manny Wilkins was a four-star prospect in 2013, and now in his third year as a starter at Arizona State, look for Wilkins to make a push for the NFL. Wilkins was classified as a dual-threat quarterback by 247sports, and since then he’s refined his passing game to make him more of a traditional passer but the athleticism is still visible on tape. Wilkins isn’t as well-rounded as lots of other passers in this draft class, but the potential to carve out an NFL role is there.

Strengths
Wilkins’ mechanics are impressive and, tying into that, his accuracy is good for all areas of the field. He gets the ball out quickly when targeting short or intermediate routes and he throws a great deep ball. He has a powerful arm at 6’3 and he gets the ball downfield with nice touch and velocity. For how often he pushes the ball downfield, he also does a nice job of avoiding interceptions. As a junior in 2017, Wilkins threw 8 interceptions, and while that isn’t an astronomically low number, for as often as he throws deep, it’s a good number for an underclassman. Also, as mentioned prior, Wilkins has the ability to get it done with his legs. Fearless with his legs and with his arm, I’d put the ball in Wilkins’ hands on a big third down.

Weaknesses
His arm strength is undoubtedly above average, but he knows so and as a result, he forces the ball into some tight windows. As we know from elite quarterbacks in the NFL, this doesn’t necessarily need to be an issue. The problem though is Wilkins’ pinpoint passing isn’t quite on par with Aaron Rodgers. If he can continue to improve upon his touch and pinpoint passing, then he can be a really dangerous quarterback because he already possesses the traits and IQ to be effective.

Current Projection: Day 3-UDFA

QB Brian Lewerke, Michigan State 

As a three-star quarterback from Phoenix, Lewerke came in as a backup for Connor Cook. Lewerke’s path to starting has been eerily similar to Cook. Kirk Cousins was the starter at Michigan State until 2011. After graduating, Andrew Maxwell took over at quarterback as the most experienced on the roster while Cook sat on the bench. Cook got snaps here and there, and he started the next year and wowed Michigan State fans. Once Cook graduated, Lewerke sat on the bench while O’Connor started. In 2017 Lewerke finally got his shot and he’s done a great job leading the offense since. The development is visible with every game Lewerke plays and he can make a push to be an early underclassman draft pick.

Strengths
Lewerke has good footwork in the pocket and is often very active because he has the ability to create with broken plays. His accuracy is really impressive and he can drop passes, short or deep, into small windows for receivers. He goes through progressions quickly and surveys the field for open receivers. Generally, Lewerke does a solid job of keeping on the outside of defenders, allowing the receiver to have the best chance on the ball. His over the top throws looked magnificent against Utah State, hitting Felton Davis III multiple times along the sideline.

Weaknesses
Lewerke struggles to see linebacker and safety coverage at times. While his reads are good with cornerback matchups, he needs to work on deceiving those in coverage reading his eyes. His first interception of the season against Utah State came on a similar play with a safety jumping an underneath throw for a pick-six. He could also benefit from becoming a little more comfortable in the pocket, but it’s difficult to do so when your legs can be as effective as they are for him.

Current Projection: Round 2

WR N’Keal Harry, Arizona State

N’Keal Harry signed onto Arizona State as a four-star prospect. He only received 10 offers, very few of them off the west coast. Now, as a junior at Arizona State, Harry has a real chance to be special. As a sophomore last year he was incredibly productive, catching 82 passes in 13 games, good for just outside the top 10 in the Pac-12, although six of the top 10 players are now getting their shot in the NFL, while Harry wasn’t even draft eligible last season. Harry is already making waves within the school, being prematurely, but probably correctly labeled as the best receiver ever at Arizona State.

Strengths
Harry’s most noticeable attribute on tape is his body control. His catch radius is large and he’ll likely come down with just about any ball if you give him a chance on it. He uses his body exceptionally well to box out defenders and his control along the sideline is unbelievable. He runs routes well and he uses his shoulders exceptionally to bait defenders to the inside of the field while the play is coming to the sideline. One thing that seemed to improve over the offseason from good to outstanding is his ability to move in space. As seen with his insane second touchdown against UTSA, Harry is lethal in open space and could be a problem for defenses this season if he can do that regularly. Harry currently looks the part of a top receiver for the upcoming draft class.

Weaknesses
Harry is a really well-rounded receiver with very few flaws. One thing he can do better is making himself available on broken plays. Especially with Wilkins’ arm strength, if Harry can get open downfield when Wilkins escapes the pocket, his production would be through the roof.

Current Projection: Round 1

ILB Joe Bachie, Michigan State

Joe Bachie was a three-star recruit coming to Michigan State. After playing limited snaps as a freshman, he played a huge role in the resurrection of Michigan State football in 2017 as a sophomore. Bachie really made a name for himself against rival Michigan, finishing the game with a sack, a pass defended, an interception and a forced fumble. He added another big interception against Penn State, and at the season’s end, he had 100 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3 interceptions. Against Utah State where the defense looked terrible, he had a game-icing interception where climbed an offensive lineman for the tip and then turned around and picked it off.

Strengths
Joe Bachie has really good range to get from sideline to sideline. He’s quick and takes good angles to tackles, and when he gets to the play, he has active hands, always looking for forced fumbles. He also releases off blockers pretty well and gets his hands on whoever is coming his way. Bachie also has prototypical height and weight for an inside linebacker, and he already has an NFL ready body to step in and play right away.

Weaknesses
Joe Bachie is a playmaker in just about every aspect of the game, although he can work on making more plays before the line of scrimmage. 7.5 tackles for loss in 2017 isn’t a bad figure, but if he can begin to hit the holes in the line for some run stuffing plays for losses, it would likely shoot his draft stock even further up. He also had a couple missed tackles against Utah State, and he should work on running through players rather than making arm tackles.

Current Projection: Round 3

Conclusion

After struggling with Utah State, Michigan State is in for a tough game in the desert against Arizona State. They’ll face heat that they don’t generally have to deal with in the Big 10 and due to the time change, they’ll play late into the night. Both these teams are really talented and have the ability to win some big games for the rest of the season, but keep an eye on these prospects as they will likely decide the winner of this game.

Twitter: @NFLDraftProSite

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