1. Connor Cook, Sr., QB: Connor Cook came in and immediately zipped a 15-yard out to Aaron Burbridge on Michigan State’s first possession against Penn State, which alleviated some of the concerns about the extent of his right shoulder injury. Cook went on to play one of his best games of the year, reading and exploiting the blitz better than he had all season long. One slight cause for concern was the way he was shaking his right hand/arm in the 4th quarter, indicating perhaps some residual numbness or ulnar nerve type problems. Even if that’s the case, an ulnar nerve injury is much easier to rehabilitate than a structural shoulder problem like a rotator cuff or labrum injury, so scouts and Spartan fans alike should feel confident in Cook going forward.
Current Draft Projection: Early to mid 1st round. Up from 1st round.
2. Jack Conklin, Jr., LT: Despite an early and uncharacteristic false start penalty, Jack Conklin was dominant against Penn State. Unfortunately, Penn State defensive end Carl Nassib was limited due to injury, so we did not get to see the All-American vs. All-American match-up many scouts had hoped for. In any event, Conklin did have a devastating block to seal off the Penn State defensive end on Gerald Holmes’ touchdown run, and was solid on his blocking assignments throughout the game.
Current Draft Projection: Mid 1st round. Status unchanged.
3. Malik McDowell, So, DT (not draft eligible until after the 2016 season): Malik McDowell continued to draw double teams against Penn State, but was rewarded when he penetrated the PSU backfield and grabbed a pass that was deflected by Shilique Calhoun that he took to the house for a pick six. Given his age, McDowell may or may not be a 1st round pick if he was eligible to enter the draft this year, but I’m finding it harder and harder to see him not going in the 1st round by the time he is draft eligible after next season, even if he was overlooked as a first team all-Big Ten selection.
Current Draft Projection: 1st or 2nd round. Status unchanged.
4. Shilique Calhoun, Sr., DE: Shilique Calhoun was once again shut out in the sack department against Penn State, but he did come up with a huge pass deflection that turned into a pick-six for fellow defensive lineman Malik McDowell. With 8.5 sacks on the season, Calhoun has not developed into the elite pass rusher that he was expected to become after his breakout sophomore season, but he is still a solid speed rush prospect that will help on situational downs in the NFL. I hate to set arbitrary numbers, but reaching 10 sacks before the end of the season is pretty much a must if Calhoun wants to re-establish himself as a 1st round draft candidate.
Current Draft Projection: 2nd round. Down from late 1st or early 2nd round.
5. Jack Allen, Sr., C/G/T: Jack Allen held his own on all of his blocking assignments against Penn State. Better yet, he took the MSU tradition of giving an offensive lineman a rushing carry on Senior Day to a new level when he ran 9 yards off tackle for a touchdown. With Allen back at center and Jack Conklin healthy at left tackle, MSU’s offensive line has excelled as a whole in recent weeks, which should only enhance Allen’s draft status going forward.
Current Draft Projection: 2nd to 4th round. Status unchanged.
6. Aaron Burbridge, Sr., WR: Aaron Burbridge answered a lot of questions with his spin-o-rama, human pinball inspired touchdown catch against Penn State. First, he went up and nabbed a contested ball in traffic. He then not only withstood a solid hit, but he spun off of it and put himself into the open field as a runner. Then, after yet another spin move to elude a would be tackler, he shifted gears and eluded the remaining Nittany Lion defense on his way to the end zone for one of the best touchdowns college football has seen all season. That play showed Burbridge’s ball skills, strength, elusiveness, and acceleration all in the matter of about 3 seconds.
Current Draft Projection: 2nd to 4th round. Status up from 3rd to 4th round.
7. Riley Bullough, Jr., MLB: Not only has Riley Bullough been an impact player all season long, making interceptions in coverage as well as sacks on the blitz, but he seems to be more technically sound in recent weeks as the signal caller for the Spartan defense. Bullough seems to be filling the right gaps on opponent’s running plays more and more often, which has helped elevate the MSU defense closer to recent year levels. Given one more year of experience, I can see Bullough emerging as an elite middle linebacker prospect.
Current Draft Projection: 5th to 7th round. Up from 6th or 7th round.
8. Demetrious Cox, Jr., CB/S: Demetrious Cox had an up and down game against Penn State. Aside from a fumble recovery and brilliant return for a touchdown, Cox took poor angles and missed several tackles from his free safety position. Cox has NFL potential at both corner and free safety, but could use another year of seasoning where he plays just one of those positions before he is ready to excel at the next level.
Current Draft Projection: 6h round. Status unchanged.
9. Lawrence Thomas, Sr., DE/DT: Lawrence Thomas stepped up his game with a sack against Penn State, but it may be too little too late for the once highly regarded high school recruit. Thomas lacks the length and speed to play defensive end in the NFL, and is not thick enough to play defensive tackle on a regular basis. He may ultimately project as a defensive end in a 3-4 system, but adapting to a new system is anything but a given.
Current Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round. Status unchanged.
10. Joel Heath, Sr., DT: Joel Heath played limited minutes against Penn State, and appears to be losing time to Craig Evans. Whether it’s due to performance or injury, Heath is still a solid contributor in the MSU defensive line rotation, but is looking more and more like a depth or situational player if he makes it in the NFL.
Current Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round. Down from 5th to 7th round.
11. Josiah Price, Jr., TE: Josiah Price re-emerged against Penn State as Connor Cook’s favorite red zone target. Price even made some catches in the open field, but remains a liability in blocking situations. Price should excel this week against Iowa’s zone defense, but needs another year to bulk up and improve his overall game, as he’s not yet big enough to be effective in the NFL blocking game, nor is he quick enough to be an elite receiver at the tight end position.
Current Draft Projection: 7th round. Up from 7th round or undrafted free agent.
12. Darien Harris, Sr., OLB: Darien Harris has been strong along the line of scrimmage all season. He could stand to upgrade his coverage skills, but with a good 40-time could find his way into the late rounds of the NFL Draft.
Current Draft Projection: 7th round or undrafted free agent. Previously unranked.
Next up on the draft board:
L.J. Scott, Fr., RB: While L.J. Scott hasn’t taken over as Michigan State’s bell cow running back as some had predicted, he and Gerald Holmes have narrowed the competition down from four to two. Scott seems to be regaining the trust of the coaching staff after some late season ball security issues, and as a true freshman, he should benefit in terms of freshness from a time sharing situation.
Arjen Colquhoun, Sr., CB: There may not be a more improved player on Michigan State’s roster over the course of this season than Arjen Colquhoun at cornerback. A liability at the beginning of the year, Colquhoun has locked down opposing receivers in recent weeks. Known as perhaps MSU’s fastest player, Colquhoun could get some looks from NFL scouts with a strong finish to this season and a solid performance at his Pro Day.