With all of the excitement surrounding this week's launch of the 2017 college football season, I thought it would be a good time to reach out to some NFL scouts to find out which players caught their eye during their fall camp travels. A lot of familiar names emerged from these conversations, but there were a handful of players they really liked that we don't hear a ton about in the media.
Prior to the start of the 2016 season, not many folks would've predicted guys like Mitchell Trubisky, Solomon Thomas and Corey Davis would end up being top-five picks in the NFL draft. I'm not making any bold predictions here, but these five players have generated a lot of excitement in NFL circles and I can't wait to follow their progress this season.
Arizona State RB Kalen Ballage
Ballage produced in a big way last fall, racking up 14 rushing touchdowns and collecting 44 receptions. He is a 230-pound back with quick feet and a home-run burst. He can pound out tough yards between the tackles and has plenty of juice to win on the perimeter. The Sun Devils plan on getting him even more involved in the passing game this fall and that has NFL scouts salivating. Ballage reminds some evaluators of former Oregon Ducks running back Jonathan Stewart.
Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald
I haven't spent much time studying Fitzgerald, but his name has come up several times in my conversations with NFL scouts. In fact, every single one of them told me the Mississippi State signal-caller is the best quarterback in the SEC. He posted impressive rushing numbers last fall and has prototypical size/athleticism. He's improving as a passer and scouts believe he has a very high ceiling in that department. I'm anxious to dig in and study his play this fall. Fitzgerald could be the breakout star in the SEC, if not the entire country.
Penn State TE Mike Gesicki
James Franklin has done a marvelous job rebuilding the Penn State program and he has several outstanding NFL prospects on his roster. Running back Saquon Barkley gets most of the attention, and deservedly so, but Gisicki is another player NFL scouts are raving about. He has outstanding size, catch radius and toughness. Also, I've been told he's going to post outstanding workout numbers in the spring. He has all of the tools to emerge as the premier tight end in college football.
Florida State WR Auden Tate
I had the chance to spend a couple days watching Tate practice last week and I came away very impressed. He has Mike Evans-type size and displayed excellent ball skills. He isn't going to run a blistering 40-yard-dash time, but his ability to wall off defenders on third down and in the red zone is very valuable. Scouts are expecting a huge jump in production from Tate this season, and he'll have a big stage when the Seminoles face Alabama in Atlanta for the season opener on Sept. 2.
Alabama DT Da'Ron Payne
Speaking of Alabama, Payne is the Crimson Tide player generating the most excitement with NFL evaluators. Every scout I talked to said Payne was the best interior defensive lineman they've scouted during the Nick Saban era in Tuscaloosa. That is some strong praise. He has the power and quickness to dominate against both the run and pass. I expect his production to shoot way up this fall.