The Big Ten is all set to return to action this weekend, bringing with it the return of the second-biggest hotbed of NFL draft talent in recent years. And while not every prominent prospect eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft will indeed be suiting up as the conference kicks off their eight-game schedule this weekend, there will be no shortage of storylines to watch.
Can Justin Fields make enough noise to push Trevor Lawrence off the top spot at quarterback? How will Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth respond to a dominant first month from Kyle Pitts as they look to position themselves as TE1? And can a slew of Big Ten prospects who were initially set to leave this fall, such as Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman and Michigan offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield, live up to their potential and drive their stock up this fall?
But the biggest of storylines in the Big Ten's return to action, at least for this weekend, will be the showdown between hopeful top-50 prospects in next April's NFL draft. It comes courtesy of the only clash between ranked teams in the first week of the Big Ten's return between #18 Michigan and #21 Minnesota.
Keep an eye on the right side of the Minnesota offensive line when the Gophers have the football—the first contender in this clash will be hard to miss. Minnesota offensive tackle Daniel Faalele is listed at 6-foot-9 and 400 pounds. If you're expecting a lump on a log, you'll be sorely disappointed; Faalele is stunningly mobile for his stature. But how is his conditioning? Can he flip the switch and become a dominating presence not dissimilar to what we saw New York Jets rookie Mekhi Becton produce when he entered the 2019 college football season? If he can, Faalele's natural power and athleticism feels like a first-class ticket to lofty draft stock.
But there's a catch.
Of all of Minnesota's scheduled contests this fall, his best opportunity to make a statement comes this weekend in the first game. That's because Faalele will clash with two potential first-round defenders from Michigan in defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson and EDGE Kwity Paye.
This has the makings of a clash of the titans: Paye is listed at 6-foot-4 and 272 pounds, and was one of Bruce Feldman's top "freaks" in college football this summer courtesy of a reported 6.37s 3-cone. That level of burst, agility, and lean at 272 pounds? That's special. Hutchinson, on the other hand, is more of an inside/outside threat who appears to have the room on his frame to stack on some weight and play hybrid end. He's got the length and motor to be a persistent pain if he's given the chance to rush in the B-gap on passing downs and he appears to have lovely hand usage to get through gaps clean. He's a versatile threat to either control or shoot gaps.
Whichever side comes out on top in this clash of 2021 NFL Draft prospects will make quite the statement exiting the Big Ten's opening weekend. This is the clash of clashes to watch on Saturday if you're looking for premier prospects locking horns head-to-head. Here are the key points for each, for those scoring at home.
- Don't get beat outside
- Create movement beyond first contact
- Secondary rush counters
- Finish pass rushes
- Hold the point of attack versus down blocks
- Claim wins with first step
- Reduce surface area off the edge
- Inside counters
Whichever of these three prospects can check the most boxes will be the biggest winner. Faalele will look to show the versatility to accomplish his tasks against two very different athletes, whereas Michigan has the luxury of changing speeds by rotating his matchup. Game on, Big Ten!