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2024 NFL Draft watch: Michigan vs. Washington - College Football National Championship

What players to watch in the National Championship game

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Texas v Washington Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The final game of the 2023 college football season is here, as the Michigan Wolverines take on the Washington Huskies in the College Football Playoff National Championship game. There weren’t any truly dominant teams in college football this year, but there isn’t much argument that these are the best two teams in the country.

These are also two of the most talented teams in the country and there will be a bevy of NFL prospects on the field. The New York Giants currently have the sixth overall pick and have five of the first 110 picks. It’s entirely possible that a future Giant (or several future Giants) will be playing in this game.

TV - ESPN
Game time - 7:30pm

Michigan

J.J. McCarthy (QB)
McCarthy has yet to officially declare for the 2024 NFL draft, and he might even be best served by staying in college for another year — if only because next year’s draft might not be as stacked at the QB position. That said, McCarthy got a boost when head coach Jim Harbaugh declared him (McCarthy) the best QB in Michigan football history. There have also been rumors that if Harbaugh leaves Michigan for the NFL, he would want to select McCarthy in the upcoming draft.

The Michigan QB reportedly has a sky-high football IQ to go with a strong arm and quick-twitch athleticism. Michigan’s offensive scheme depends heavily on the run, and evaluators will need to reconcile McCarthy’s physical traits with his stats. It’s possible that Michigan’s scheme is obscuring his upside.

Blake Corum (RB)
Corum has emerged as the engine that powers the Michigan offense. He’s compact, powerful back at 5-foot-8, 215 pounds, and has fantastic competitive toughness. He also has uncommon quickness, agility, and speed given his frame.

Corum won’t be a homerun threat at the NFL level, and he isn’t the kind of natural pass catcher that are most highly valued in the modern NFL. However, his traits suggest that he can be a major piece for a pro offense.

Donovan Edwards (RB)
Edwards is the other half of Michigan’s backfield duo, and while he pairs nicely with Corum. Where Corum is the more dynamic runner, Edwards is a better receiver who relies on great vision and contact balance as a runner. He’s a taller running back at 6-foot-1, but isn’t quite as dense at 210 pounds.

Edwards could be the preferred option for a more pass-centric offense and he should fit as a third down back for most offenses.

Roman Wilson (WR)
Wilson provides the explosive element to balance the rushing attack in Michigan’s offense. He has a similar athletic profile to Jalin Hyatt at 6-foot, 190 pounds with 4.3 speed and explosive leaping ability. Wilson has a well-developed route tree and is a smooth technician as well as a reliable catcher of the ball.

Giants fans are focused on adding a bigger receiver to pair with Hyatt and Wan’Dale Robinson. However, they could also take a page from the Miami Dolphins’ book and double down on explosively athletic receivers to stress defenses with speed.

A.J. Barner (TE)
Barner started his college career at Indiana, where he was a teammate of Washington QB Michael Penix QB, before transferring to Michigan prior to he 2023 season. Barner has the look of a “Michigan” tight end at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds and the skill set to be a true “Y” tight end in a Pro Style offense.

He’s a reliable run blocker and pass protector, as well as a solid pass catcher. Barner doesn’t quite have the athleticism or play strength to be dominant as either, but he can be a weapon in a variety of situations. He’ll be overshadowed by the more dynamic tight ends like Brock Bowers, but Barner could be a good value pick for an offense that wants a traditional Y tight end.

Kris Jenkins (iDL)
Jenkins is an explosively athletic interior defender who holds the sixth spot on the 2023 edition of Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List”. He reportedly has a 7.16s 3-coon and 34-inch vertical leap, which is impressive for a 305 pound defensive tackle. Jenkins is still learning how to use his physical tools, but he could be a disruptive one-gap defender once he becomes a true technician.

Rod Moore (S)
Moore is an undersized DB who weighs in at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, and that could hurt him in the eyes of NFL evaluators. However, he’s a great athlete with a high football IQ who can man the slot or safety positions. Moore’s athleticism, football IQ, and instincts make him a threat in space with impressive ball skills. The Giants’ defense has thrived on turnovers, and adding another ballhawk could be worthwhile.

Moore’s versatility to play both man and zone coverage can also make him useful for disguising coverages and enabling blitz packages.

The Giants have decisions to make with Xavier McKinney and Adoree Jackson which could put them in need of a versatile DB who can provide depth at safety or corner.

Mike Sainristil (CB)
Speaking of Adoree Jackson, the Wolverines have their own version of the former USC standout in Mike Sainristil. Sainristil is a fifth year senior who came to Michigan as an athletic three-star recruit with experience at both corner and wide receiver. Michigan used him at receiver for his first three years there, using his speed to create sparks on offense.

In 2022, however, they transitioned him back to the defensive side of the ball, and were rewarded with a truly dynamic playmaker. Over the last two year’s he’s amassed 94 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, 3.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 13 passes defensed, and 6 interceptions (two of which he returned for touchdowns this year).

Sainristil is undersized at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, but his upside as a playmaking ballhawk is undeniable — and he might only get better with continued development.

Washington

Michael Penix Jr. (QB)
Penix might be THE player to watch in this game, at least from a draft perspective. He’s been one of the best quarterbacks in the country all season long and generated quite a bit of draft buzz for himself with his play down the stretch.

Penix’s ability to throw the ball is unquestionable. He’s accurate, has a strong arm, is a good decision maker, and has a microscopic sack rate. Penix might not have the athleticism boasted by some of the other prospects in this draft, but the lefty is one of the very best pure passers in the nation. The question with him will always come down to his injury history. Penix has had four season-ending injuries since 2018, including a dislocated throwing shoulder and two torn ACLs on the same knee. He doesn’t currently appear to be impacted by the injuries, but his medical reports and future prognosis will be vital to his draft stock. Teams could fear a higher chance for re-injury or an early onset of arthritis — though it’s important to note that those of us on the outside just don’t know one way or the other.

Rome Odunze (WR)
Odunze might be the best prospect on the field today, and he’s in the conversation with Marvin Harrison Jr. and Malik Nabers for the best receiver in the 2024 draft class. Odunze has a prototypical build for an X receiver at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, and has been remarkably productive with Penix throwing him the ball. He backed up a 75-catch, 1,145 yard, 7 TD season in 2022 with 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns on 87 catches this past season.

He’s big, athletic, and is effective down the field and in run-after-catch situations. He also has great ball skills and a solid foundation as a route runner with which an NFL receivers coach can work. Odunze could have been the first receiver off the board last year, and will almost certainly be a Top 10 pick in this year’s draft.

Ja’Lynn Polk (WR)
Polk is the second of three very talented receivers on Washington’s offense and would likely be the top receiver for most other teams in the country. He doesn’t quite have Odunze’s size (he’s only 6-foot-2, 205 pounds), but he manages to be both explosive and fluid in his movements. Polk already shows savvy and nuance in his route running as well as some superb ball skills.

It’s no sure thing to declare for the draft as a 21-year old red-shirt sophomore. This is a stacked receiver class and Polk could be top dog (pun only intended in hindsight) in 2025. However, he should be on the Giants’ radar if he decides to come out with Penix and Odunze.

Jalen McMillan (WR)
The third member of Washington’s three-headed receiving monster, McMillan is the one who makes defenses pay for trying to take away Odunze and Polk. He has 1,000-yard upside himself, racking up 1,098 yards and 9 touchdowns last year as the number two across from Odunze.

McMillan is a smaller, shiftier receiver at 6-foot, 190 pounds, and can line up both out wide and in the slot. Teams could view him as more of a possession receiver and more of a slot receiver at the NFL level. However, QB-friendly receivers with advanced route running skills can be an offense’s best friend — just ask the Rams (Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua) or the Lions (Amon-Ra St. Brown). McMillan might get overshadowed by bigger or more explosive receivers and lost in the shuffle, however that could make him a tremendous value for the right team.

Troy Fautanu (OT)
Fautanu has been a rock at offensive tackle for the Huskies. He’s played 1,800 snaps at left tackle and had 1,185 pass blocking snaps over the last two years. In that time he’s given up all of 2 sacks and 4 QB hits (and 30 hurries).

However, the 6-foot-4, 315 pound lineman could be in for a move to guard at the NFL level. He isn’t unfamiliar with the offensive interior, having taken snaps at left guard in each of the last three seasons. Teams will need to decide whether he has the requisite length and athleticism to be a tackle at the NFL level — some teams have strict thresholds for certain positions. However, a borderline athlete at tackle can be an elite athlete at the guard position. Justin Pugh, Zack Martin, and Joel Bitonio all benefitted greatly from a move inside.

Bralen Trice (DE)
Washington’s star defender won’t be a fit for every team. At 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, teams will likely look at him as strictly a defensive lineman and a more natural fit as a defensive end in a 4-man front. Trice is a good linear athlete with an explosive first step and the length to compete with NFL offensive tackles.

One of the biggest questions for Trice will be whether he has the flexibility and bend to win with speed around the edge. Trice has been a consistent presence in opponents’ backfields, however whether or not he is able to turn pressure into sacks will depend on whether or not he can carry speed into the backfield. Likewise, teams that run multiple or 3-man fronts will be interested to see if he can rush from a 2-point stance as well as with his hand in the dirt.

The Giants certainly need added depth on the defensive edges, and we don’t know whether their defense will call for players like Trice or more modern “edge” defenders who blur the lines between defensive end and linebacker.

Jabbar Muhammed (CB)
Muhammed is in an undersized (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) cornerback, and there are some questions regarding his athleticism and whether he’ll be able to hold up against bigger receivers at the NFL level.

That said, there aren’t questions regarding his football IQ, instincts, ball skills, and competitiveness. The transfer from Oklahoma State (2023) has been all over the field for the Huskies, with 44 tackles, 5.0 for a loss, 2.0 sacks, 15 passes defensed, 3 interceptions, and a fumble recovery. Much of his impact comes from his instinctive play and sheer competitiveness, though that can get him in trouble at times. Muhammed’s size could make him a “slot only” at the NFL level, and he could slip down draft boards because of it. However, he could also be tough to keep off the field if he lands in the right situation.