The Cotton Bowl matchup between the USC Trojans and Ohio State Buckeyes is one of the most talent-rich of the season. At least three players scheduled to be on the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, are widely considered the best at their positions, including premium spots like quarterback and cornerback. With that in mind, we take a closer look at five 2018 NFL Draft prospects to watch in the game.
1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
He didn’t live up to the preseason Heisman hype, but Darnold (above, right) can still become the No. 1 overall pick should he decide to leave USC early. The third-year sophomore was turnover-prone in 2017, tossing 12 interceptions during the regular season, but he also showed flashes of brilliance while throwing for 3,787 yards and 26 touchdowns and completing 63.7 percent of his passes.
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Darnold has NFL size as well as a complete set of tools that would make him a face-of-the-franchise player: arm strength, touch, mobility in the pocket, plus two years of experience a starter for a college football blue blood, complete with the stiff competition that comes with facing uber-talented defensive players from Stanford, Texas, Notre Dame, Penn State and Ohio State, among others. As a bonus, Darnold has proven himself more durable than his top-pick competition Josh Rosen - an obvious check in the “pro” column for an NFL team drafting at the top of the first round that is likely to put him behind a less than stellar offensive line as a rookie.
2. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
Like his former teammate Marshon Lattimore last year, Ward could be the first cornerback off the board in 2018, and Athlon Sports' first mock draft pegged him second among corners. Though at 5-foot-10 and 191 pounds he’s undersized for a high first-round corner, Ward plays physical football. The junior made 37 total tackles, including seven solo stops (eight total) in the victory over Michigan in the regular season finale. He also has a nose for the football, having picked off two passes and broken up 15 others during his junior year.
As for his best skill, to borrow a baseball scouting term, Ward has plus-plus speed. He has been reportedly clocked in the low 4.2-second range in the 40-yard dash by the Buckeyes coaching staff during summer workouts — making him the fastest player on one of the most talented rosters in the country.
3. Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
It’s understandable Sam Darnold receives the bulk of the attention from scouts and analysts, but Jones (right) may actually be the best offensive player on the USC roster. He might even be the most talented running back in the Pac-12 — and that includes Heisman runner-up Bryce Love, who like Jones was a first team all-conference selection.
Jones, a 6-foot, 200-pound junior, doesn’t have prototypical size for an every-down NFL running back, but he explodes through the hole and glides into the open field with rare athleticism. His running style worked well enough for the Texas native to gain 1,486 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground during the regular season, giving him a total of 3,555 rushing yards and 38 TDs in three seasons with the Trojans, both of which rank fifth on the school’s star-studded all-time leaderboard. Jones averaged 6.1 yards per carry in 2017, and also showed big-play ability as a receiver out of the backfield with 14 receptions for 187 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown catch.
4. Billy Price, OL, Ohio State
Widely considered the top center prospect available in the 2018 NFL Draft (and rightly so given the fact he won the Rimington Award as the best at his position as a fifth-year senior), Price also has the talent to be one of the top guards as well. Price is scheduled to make his 55th consecutive start for the Buckeyes in the Cotton Bowl, and though centers are rarely selected in the first round, the odds are good he will continue that starting streak into his rookie year. Some, including former scout and current NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah believe Price is the best center prospect to come out of college since 2006 first-rounder Nick Mangold.
5. Rasheem Green, DE, USC
He might not be the best pass-rushing prospect in the game (that would be Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who was recently ranked No. 6 on NFL.com analyst Chad Reuter’s list of the top future NFL stars from this season, putting him on the short list to be the top overall pick when he is eligible in 2019), but Green has big-time talent as well.
The Trojan defense tallied 43.0 sacks during the regular season, which ranked second nationally (just one fewer than Clemson) and Green led the unit with 9.0 (0.5 shy of the Pac-12 lead). The 6-foot-4, 275-pound junior accounted for 39 total tackles, a team-best 11.5 tackles for a loss, and a forced fumble, making him one of the most productive defensive ends in the country. If he leaves school early, Green would likely a second- or third-rounder, but he could sneak into the first round with a solid performance in pre-draft workouts.
Many other draft-eligible prospects will be on display in the Cotton Bowl, including Ohio State tackle Jamarco Jones, defensive linemen Sam Hubbard and Dre’Mont Jones, linebackers Jerome Baker and Chris Worley, and safety Damon Webb. Quarterback J.T. Barrett also is likely to get an opportunity to play professionally given his experience and track record of success. USC linebackers Cameron Smith and Uchenna Nwosu and junior corner Iman Marshall are also 2018 draft candidates, as is playmaking junior receiver Deontay Burnett.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.