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College Football Bowl Season: Cotton Bowl Classic - USC vs. Ohio State

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Who are the players to watch in this highly anticipated Cotton Bowl?

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Southern California vs Stanford Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If you are watching bowl games for potential insight into the 2018 NFL draft, then the Cotton Bowl Classic has to be on your “Must Watch” list this year.

And you can bet that the New York Giants are absolutely paying attention to the match-up between Ohio State and USC.

Cotton Bowl Classic - USC (8) vs. Ohio State (5)

ESPN - 8:30 p.m.

Looking at the prospects for this game has to start with USC quarterback Sam Darnold. We don’t yet know whether Darnold will declare for the draft, and he has time to make his decision. But should he come out, he will be regarded as one of the top prospects in the entire draft.

Darnold doesn’t have the experience that most highly drafted quarterbacks have coming out of school, but he has the size the NFL loves, the athleticism to extend plays, and plenty of arm strength. He is generally seen as a potential franchise quarterback with the upside to be a star in the NFL. Of course, he isn’t without his warts. Expected to build on his 2016 campaign and contend for the Heisman Trophy, Darnold instead took a step backward this season, with his completion percentage while throwing fewer touchdowns and more interceptions. Scouts also worry about his elongated throwing motion, which is difficult to make repeatable and could provide a visual cue for NFL defensive backs.

Behind Darnold in the USC backfield will be Ronald Jones II, who has emerged as a highly productive weapon in both the running game and passing game. The Giants might be interested in a bigger, more powerful running back, but Jones’ ability pick up chunks of yards as a runner and a receiver will earn him plenty of looks from the NFL.

Moving to the USC defense, the Trojans field a pair of linebackers that could (should) interest the Giants. The first is pass rusher, and defensive captain, Uchenna Nwosu. Nwosu is a twitchy defender who can move well enough to play in space as well (13 passes defensed and an interception this season). He is at his best attacking behind the line of scrimmage, with 71 tackles, 9.5 for a loss, and 7.5 sacks.

Next to Nwosu is ILB Cameron Smith. Smith has a reputation as a smart, instinctive linebacker who can make plays in both the run and pass game. Smith’s Combine will be interesting because despite being listed at 6’2,” 240 pounds, he doesn’t appear that big on the field. His football IQ and instincts might also make him appear to be faster than he will time, which will impact his draft stock. Smith has 102 tackles, 10 for a loss, 3 passes defensed, and an interception on the season.

On the Ohio State side of things, center/guard Billy Price is their best offensive prospect. He is probably the draft’s best center, and could probably be one of its best guards as well. He is a nasty, aggressive, and powerful, blocker with sound technique who is adept at run blocking as well as pass protection.

Left tackle Jamarco Jones bears watching as well. He is a generally sound and reliable blocker, but teams will want to see if he has the athleticism to hang on the outside as a pro. Should he and Nwosu square off, it will could be telling for both players’ draft stock.

But for Ohio State, it is the defense that steals the show — and will provide a phenomenal test for Darnold and Jones.

The Buckeyes’ defensive front is replete with NFL talent, and we’ll start with defensive ends Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, and Jalyn Holmes.

Hubbard is a long (6’5,” 265) and athletic pass rusher who is impressively quick off the ball and plays with solid technique. He is an interesting prospect who was a defensive back when he came to OSU, but he put in the time in the weight room to fill out his frame and build strength and explosiveness. He could find himself a potential first round pick come April’s draft.

Lewis is a similarly built end, and as a fifth-year senior and three-year starter, is both experienced and productive. As with OSU’s other defensive ends, he is a well-rounded player, who can win with technique, speed, or power.

Holmes is a team captain and the first OSU senior to accept his invitation to the Senior Bowl, both of which speak to his competitiveness and character. He is typically thought of as OSU’s “fourth” defensive end, but he is talented in his own right and has the versatility at 6’5,” 270 to play outside at end as well as inside at defensive tackle.

Behind them is linebacker Jerome Baker, an undersized but athletic linebacker. Baker is built more for coverage, pursuit, and blitzing than taking on and shedding blockers, but he is talented and should be a good player in the right system.

Behind all of them is cornerback Denzel Ward, who some believe might be the best corner in this draft class. Ward won’t be for every team, because despite his impressive athleticism, which lets him stick in the hip pocket of most any receiver, he is undersized at 5’10”, 190 pounds. That will fall below some team’s thresholds and might limit him schematically at the next level. However, there is no denying his twitchy athleticism, which some coach will love to get his hands on.

So there we have it, but that is just scratching the surface of the talent in this game. As always happens when teams like these throw down, the best way to watch the game might be to just watch and enjoy it, and take note of which players jump off the screen.