Entering Week 9 of the college football season, this week’s games have plenty of notable matchups. After failing to have any battles between ranked opponents a week ago, this week’s slate of games doesn’t lack storylines at all. Here are my red dot players for the week and other factors to pay attention to on Saturday.
Sam Howell vs. Notre Dame
Even though star safety Kyle Hamilton has already been ruled out due to a knee injury, the Fighting Irish defense is still a tough unit that plays hard. Playing a very pedestrian game against this group a season ago, Howell finished 17-of-27 for 211 passing yards and two total touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) in a 31-17 home loss. Facing challenges to generate any type of offense in that one, Howell displayed some cracks in his armor that still have plagued him through his junior season.
Accuracy was Howell’s calling card coming into the season, but his numbers in that department are down across the board from last season. After losing his top four targets from last season, the Tar Heels’ signal-caller has been forced to shoulder the load of the offense. With opportunities to prove that he can be the catalyst, his expected ascension has been met with lots of roadblocks. There are times where Howell flashes the quick trigger, accuracy, and decisiveness necessary, but the compounding of mistakes and bad plays has been happening more than expected.
A big game against the Irish awaits Howell as he’s still trying to prove that he can be the prospect that some evaluators thought he could be coming into the season.
Brandon Smith vs. Ohio State
In what’s considered one of the marquee matchups of the week, the Buckeyes travel to Penn State to take on the Nittany Lions. A player that will have lots of eyes on him is linebacker Brandon Smith. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Smith is an athletic marvel that’s beginning to live up to the five-star sticker that he entered Happy Valley with.
Scouting Smith over the summer, my initial thoughts were that he’s an athlete still learning to play the position. Possessing a long and linear frame, he carries it very well and has lots of capacity to pack on more good weight. Smith has plenty of athleticism and he uses it well to read, react, and trigger downhill as a run defender. Still finding his way in coverage, his eyes tend to stay locked on the quarterback instead of keeping his head on a swivel to get a feel for the route combinations being performed in his coverage areas.
Smith has monstrous upside and the name that I wrote down that he reminded me of is Tremaine Edmunds. Similar to Edmunds, he’s built straight up and down, but his base and strength in that area need work. Because of his high pad level and lack of lower-body strength, he tends to turn into a bit of an arm tackler that also allows blockers to too easily square up and surround his body on contact.
Saturday will be a stiff test for him because the Buckeyes offense is hitting their stride at the right time and because of the plethora of weapons that they have in both the passing and running game. Keep an eye on No. 12 in the middle of the Penn State defense in this one.
Kenneth Walker III vs. Michigan
Taking full advantage of the transfer portal, one of college football’s biggest breakout stars so far this season has been the Spartans rusher. After spending two seasons at Wake Forest (20 games), Walker III has reaped the benefits of changing scenery. A highlight reel on a week-to-week basis, Walker III's best trait has been his ability to naturally break tackles in any type of environment.
Michigan’s defense ranks as the 11th-best unit in the country and the best that the Spartans have faced this season. Head coach Mel Tucker has the program at one of its best points in history and the ascension of Walker III is a large reason why. The Spartans rusher reminds quite a bit of Kareem Hunt coming out of Toledo. While he isn’t necessarily fast in a straight line, he has unique contact balance and short-area quickness in order to make defenders miss.
Jordan Davis vs. Florida
A strong argument can be made that Davis has gained the most of any senior that returned for their final season. A clear difference-maker, the 6-foot-6, 360-pound interior defender completely transforms what is already a highly-talented defense. Already being an immovable anchor in the middle, the area that Davis has shown the most growth is against the pass. While he likely will never be a high-volume sacks type of defensive tackle, he’s a consistent pocket-collapser that enables defensive coordinators to utilize their creativity with other moving parts.
A lot of his impact isn’t seen in the box score, but when watching film of what’s on pace to be a historically great defense, Davis’s impact is easily seen. On the next level, he has the potential to be a Vita Vea-type player on the inside.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs are matched up against Florida, which assuredly will put the program’s run defense to the test. The Gators are currently averaging 254.6 rushing yards per game, which is the third-best mark in the country. Davis's value in the area will be something to watch during the SEC showdown.
Underrated Player of the Week: John Michael Schmitz, IOL, Minnesota
Coming into the season, all of the talk surrounding the Minnesota offensive line centered around offensive tackle Daniel Faalele. A little over the halfway point of the season, the narrative has shifted and multiple evaluators have had eyes on center John Michael Schmitz. At 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds, Schmitz is a bit of a taller center, but he plays the game with bend, a low pad level, and has the determination to finish blocks.
The first game that caught my eye came against Ohio State on a reach block against Haskell Garrett, an interior defender that has also received high praise. Throughout that game, he continued to impress—so much that I wrote his name down as a prospect that I wanted to continue to track as the season progressed. To this point, he hasn’t disappointed and is on track to be one of the better options at the position.