College Football
Oregon, Iowa, Stanford upsets push breakout stars up NFL draft boards
College Football

Oregon, Iowa, Stanford upsets push breakout stars up NFL draft boards

Updated Sep. 14, 2021 6:36 p.m. ET

By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst

A sore left ankle kept Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux from playing against Ohio State on Saturday, but that didn't stop the Ducks from pulling off a 35-28 upset in Columbus.

While the Ducks soared without the best NFL prospect in the country, scouts were disappointed to miss his anticipated matchup against an Ohio State offensive line teeming with future early draft picks. 

Fortunately for talent evaluators, a similar showdown between Pac-12 and Big Ten rivals took place in the Big House, where Aidan Hutchinson and the Michigan Wolverines smothered the University of Washington and its hyped O-line, including projected first-round offensive tackle Jaxson Kirkland


Frankly, it didn’t matter where Hutchinson lined up in the Wolverines’ 31-10 smackdown. Whether from the left or right side, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Hutchinson proved he was over the ankle fracture that ended his 2020 season prematurely. He showed burst, power and varied techniques — not to mention a relentless motor — to collect a career-high 2.5 sacks, earning the top spot on this week’s rising NFL prospects report. 

Here are nine more NFL prospects trending positively with scouts following successful 2021 debuts.

Note: Only players potentially eligible for the 2022 NFL Draft (three years removed from high school graduating class) were considered for this article. 

Anthony Brown Jr., QB, Oregon, 6-1, 226, rSR

There were plenty of splashy performances from the Ducks on Saturday. Fireplug senior running back CJ Verdell, as well as underclassmen defenders Noah Sewell and Verone McKinley III, all deserve shout-outs for humbling the then-No. 3 Buckeyes. But no Oregon player helped his stock more than Brown, a graduate transfer from Boston College

Scouts will note that Brown was given terrific protection by the offensive line, but the poise one might expect from a quarterback making his 32nd career start also stood out, as did his accuracy on short and intermediate passes and his ability to extend plays with his feet. 

Partially due to drops by his teammates, Brown’s numbers (17-for-35 for 236 yards and two touchdowns) paled in comparison to those of his young Ohio State counterpart, C.J. Stroud (35-for-54 for 484 yards and three touchdowns), so the analytics crowd might not agree with this placement. But against the Buckeyes, Brown showed off the physical traits and the intangibles that project to the next level, including ball distribution. His 17 completions went to 11 receivers, an indication of his command of the Oregon offense.

Isheem Young, SS, Iowa State, 5-10, 210, rSoph

Rivalry games are fun to scout, as they often bring out a higher level of intensity — especially in a top-10 showdown such as this year’s nationally televised "Cy-Hawk." Although Young earned Co-Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors for Iowa State a year ago, he played beyond his experience in the 14th game of his college career. The redshirt sophomore was flat-out the most explosive player on a field full of older NFL prospects. 

The compactly built Young delivered several bone-jarring hits and six overall tackles, earning praise from ABC color commentator Kirk Herbstreit on multiple occasions. Young put the "strong" in strong safety, consistently demonstrating the kind of knockdown power one normally sees at linebacker. A former four-star recruit out of Philadelphia who signed with the Cyclones over the likes of Georgia and Penn State, Young is a player to remember.

Zach VanValkenburg, DE, Iowa, 6-3, 267, rSR

VanValkenburg possesses the blue-collar game and work ethic worthy of attention, gambling on himself in a promotion to the Big Ten after playing for Division II Hillsdale College. After playing in a reserve role his first season with the Hawkeyes, VanValkenburg earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors in 2020, with 30 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks and a nation-leading four fumble recoveries. In the biggest play of this year’s Cy-Hawk showdown, it was VanValkenburg (No. 97) setting a hard edge that created the punch-out opportunity for teammates Jestin Jacobs (No. 5) and Jack Campbell

Nate Landman, ILB, Colorado, 6-2, 235, rSR

Landman is in his fifth season as a starter for the Buffs, taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility provided by the NCAA due to the pandemic. Voted First Team All-Pac-12 by the conference media and coaches after each of the past two seasons, Landman was on his way to the NFL until he tore his Achilles in the regular-season finale against Utah. Landman returned to start Colorado’s opener, beating the typical recovery time for this injury by several weeks. 

His game-high 10 tackles helped Colorado put a scare into No. 5 Texas A&M, with the Buffaloes limiting a powerful Aggies rushing attack to 98 yards on 29 attempts. A vacuum cleaner of a tackler, Landman combines stellar key and diagnosis skills with long arms and good strength for drag-down stops.

Isaiah Spiller, RB, Texas A&M, 6-0, 225, JR

Spiller caught the first touchdown of his stellar career to catapult Texas A&M to a come-from-behind, 10-7 victory over Colorado on Saturday in Denver. He ranks among the better draft-eligible backs in the country, with more than 2,000 rushing yards and 19 career touchdowns. An intimidating rusher due to his size and downhill running style, Spiller showed that he can do the other things critical to getting on the field in the NFL. On Saturday, he provided solid pass protection for backup quarterback Zach Calzada against an aggressive Colorado front, and he showed soft hands and the ability to track the ball over his shoulder. Spiller matched his career high and led all pass-catchers Saturday with six receptions, including the game-winner. 

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Kevin Austin Jr., WR, Notre Dame, 6-2, 215, rJR

The expectations have been sky-high for Austin ever since the four-star recruit out of talent-rich Fort Lauderdale signed with Notre Dame in 2017. He certainly looks the part, boasting a chiseled and athletic frame, long arms and legitimate 4.4 speed. 

Entering this year, however, Austin had yet to live up to hype, catching just six passes in three injury-shortened seasons. While still playing second fiddle to star tight end Michael Mayer (a true sophomore), Austin is emerging, averaging an eye-popping 19.8 yards on eight catches so far this season. 

His critical 32-yard reception to spark Notre Dame’s last-minute, comeback win over Toledo on Saturday impressed scouts, given its timing and the body control and concentration he showed on the play. 

Jelani Woods, TE, Virginia, 6-6, 265, rSR

Bronco Mendenhall used the transfer portal a year ago to nab one former quarterback-turned-tight-end in Tony Poljan from Central Michigan. He might have hit the lottery a second consecutive year with Woods, who signed with UVA after four years at Oklahoma State. Woods didn’t produce much with the Cowboys, registering 31 catches (for 361 yards) and four touchdowns, with a career-high two scores back in 2018, his freshman season. 

On Saturday, however, he set career highs with five grabs for 122 yards and the touchdown below in a 42-14 smackdown of Illinois. While receivers are coming in smaller and speedier packages seemingly every year, the NFL remains a big man’s league, and few offer a more intriguing package of size and strength at tight end than Woods. 

Kyu Blu Kelly, CB, Stanford, 6-1, 186, JR

There were plenty of standouts for Stanford in its upset of USC on Saturday. In terms of the 2022 NFL Draft, the biggest story might have been the breakout performance of Kelly, a long, playmaking cornerback in the mold of former Cardinal star Richard Sherman and the Saints’ third-round pick last spring, Paulson Adebo

Matched up against wideout Drake London, Kelly limited the projected All-American and first-round pick to four catches for 68 yards and a touchdown. The normally sure-handed London dropped a couple of catchable balls from Kedon Slovis, and Kelly was a big part of that. He broke up three passes and provided the game’s biggest play, taking a tipped pass back for a pick-six from which the previously 14th-ranked Trojans never recovered. Two days later, USC fired coach Clay Helton.

Jaren Hall, QB, BYU, 6-1, 205, rJR

Don’t look now, but history could be repeating itself at BYU. In terms of playing style, Hall is more of a dual-threat talent in the Justin Fields mold than his BYU predecessor, Zach Wilson, but the compactly built quarterback could be on the verge of a similar rise up draft boards. Hall has played brilliantly the first two weeks — including sparking a stunning upset over rival and 21st-ranked Utah on Saturday. Hall has thrown five touchdowns and run for another 128 yards (on 13 carries) in wins over the Utes and Arizona without yet turning the ball over. 

Just like Wilson a year ago, Hall is asked to make several challenging, NFL-caliber throws in this scheme, hitting the classic deep-out and posts required at the next level. Plus, look at the jets he shows below. It was ultimately determined that Hall stepped out of bounds, but scouts won’t forget his acceleration. Nor will they forget that while Hall is listed as a sophomore by BYU, he is past the "three years removed from high school" threshold the NFL uses for evaluation, having signed in 2018 and served a two-year LDS mission. 

One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL draft for over 20 years with his work found at FOX, Sports Illustrated,, USA Today, Yahoo, and, among others. 


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