If you’re an NFL fan just now shifting your attention to college football ahead of Monday’s national championship game between undefeated teams Washington and Michigan, it’s OK. I won’t catch you up on Washington’s second-year head coach Kalen DeBoer’s rapid rise or the rapid decline of the Pac 12 or [gestures wildly] Connor Stalions. What I will do is provide a snapshot of the best NFL-caliber talent playing in the big game. These are the players NFL fans will want to know to start getting ready for the draft and that you might want to have playing for your favorite team on Sundays next fall.
The Quarterbacks: Michael Penix Jr., Washington, and J.J. McCarthy, Michigan
This is a potential showcase game for both quarterbacks, Penix and McCarthy. Both players could be first-round picks if they have impressive performances in the national title game; both players could fall as far as day two if they crumble underneath the pressure. It’ll be exciting to watch either way.
Penix is a big-armed lefty coming off the best game of his career in the Huskies’ semifinal win against Texas. He threw for more than 400 yards and two scores and had people raving about his accuracy on deep throws. He has thrown 11 more passes of 20-plus air yards than any quarterback in college football; more than 21 percent of his pass attempts were throws of longer than 20 yards. The deep ball is his bread and butter. He has more than enough arm strength to put the ball wherever he wants downfield, and his ability to perfectly place throws to striding receivers on vertical routes is uncanny. USC’s Caleb Williams and UNC’s Drake Maye, the two best quarterback prospects in the 2024 class, are more consistently accurate at all three levels of the field, but Penix throws the sexiest vertical lead ball on go routes and post routes in the class.
Even better than his deep ball, however, is Penix’s ability to avoid sacks and turnovers. Per PFF, his turnover-worthy play rate in 2023 is tied for fourth lowest in the FBS. He’s had only one game this season with two or more turnover-worthy plays, and he had none in Washington’s playoff win over Texas. Penix, Oregon’s Bo Nix, and Heisman winner Jayden Daniels of LSU—all high-profile draft prospects in 2024—are the only quarterbacks in the FBS with turnover-worthy play rates below 2 percent in each of the past two seasons. And Penix and Nix are the only two Power Five quarterbacks who took sacks on fewer than 10 percent of their pressured dropbacks in 2022 and 2023.
McCarthy isn’t as mistake-free. He takes more sacks and more often puts the ball in harm’s way. He also has about 900 fewer college dropbacks and is three years younger than Penix. There’s still a chance McCarthy won’t declare for the 2024 NFL draft because of that youth and inexperience, and it’s not hard to imagine how much more his pocket management and decision-making could improve with another season at the college level.
Where McCarthy already has the edge over Penix is his down-to-down accuracy. Penix has McCarthy beat with his bucket drops on vertical throws, but McCarthy is simply more consistent. His game film reveals fewer missed throws; he also tied for the third-highest adjusted completion percentage among starters in the FBS this season, per PFF.
The Wide Receivers: Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk, and Jalen McMillan, Washington
Penix wouldn’t have back-to-back 4,500-yard passing seasons and all of the subsequent hype without his top three receivers, each of whom have legit NFL talent.
Odunze is the star. He checks all the boxes at the wide receiver position: size, speed, route running, hands, production. There isn’t anything missing from his profile. He’s most known for his ability to win vertically and bully defensive backs for contested catches, but he really can do it all. Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. is the best wide receiver in the class, but Odunze and LSU’s Malik Nabers should compete for WR2 in April. This might be my favorite stat that works in Odunze’s favor: He had the highest contested catch rate, at 74.1 percent, of any FBS player with more than 20 of those targets.
Polk is just slightly weaker than Odunze in most areas—just a tad shorter, thinner, slightly slower, and less explosive. Where the two receivers are nearly equal is their route-running ability, ball skills, and contested catch prowess. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds, Polk is a dangerous vertical option who reliably gets open and can make catches both through and away from contact. He has caught more than 50 percent of his contested targets, per PFF, in each of the past two seasons, and he’s registered just eight drops in his college career.
McMillan has spent four years at Washington, but he is far from a guarantee to declare for the 2024 draft; he’s a player to watch nonetheless. He has been the primary slot receiver for the Huskies in each of the past two seasons, but his production dropped off quite a bit in 2023 because of a knee injury he suffered against Michigan State in Week 3. He could take advantage of his one remaining year of eligibility to return to Washington as the clear top wideout. McMillan caught 79 of 118 targets for 1,098 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games in 2022.
The Running Backs: Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, Michigan
Corum is small. He also might be the best running back in the 2024 class.
Listed at 5-foot-8 and 213 pounds, Corum is built like a small boulder but moves like he weighs nothing at all. His unique combination of quick, decisive feet and a physical running style is rare. Some have compared him to the king of muscle-hamster backs, Maurice Jones-Drew, but a better comparison is current Steelers running back Jaylen Warren, who went undrafted out of Oklahoma State in 2022.
Corum has proved time and time again, on the biggest of stages, that he can thrive as a feature back. He set the career rushing touchdowns record for Michigan when he found pay dirt in overtime against Alabama. He has rushed for more than 1,100 yards in back-to-back seasons now. He, like Warren, will have to earn a full-time role as an undersized back in the NFL, but it’s hard to argue he could have done anything more to prove himself in his college career.
Edwards still has more to prove, however. With Corum finally leaving for the NFL, the 20-year-old true junior could easily return to school in 2024 to assume the lead back role. In the three career games in which Edwards had 20 or more carries, he averaged 7.4 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. He got those opportunities, though, only because Corum was hurt.
Edwards, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound former four-star recruit, is a bit taller and faster than Corum. He’s also a better pass catcher. If he does declare for the draft, Edwards will be a coveted scat back with big-play ability and a lot of tread still left on the tires. If he doesn’t, he could rocket up 2025 draft boards with a monster year as Michigan’s primary back.
In the Trenches: Defensive End Bralen Trice and Offensive Tackle Troy Fautanu, Washington; Defensive Tackle Kris Jenkins, Michigan
Washington boasts two top-50 players in the trenches in Trice and Fautanu. Both players had high-impact games in the win over Texas, and each will be a key factor in how successful Washington is against Michigan on Monday.
Trice is a big-bodied, heavy-handed pass rusher who has recorded 70-plus pressures in each of the past two seasons. The fifth-year senior rushes with a plan on every snap and can win quickly at the line of scrimmage with a variety of moves.
Fautanu is a two-year starter at left tackle and probably a better pro prospect than Trice at this point. His foot speed is rare for a 6-foot-4 317-pounder. He also has the requisite arm length (34 3/4 inches) to stay at tackle at the next level, but he’s also more than capable of playing any of the five positions along the offensive line because of his movement skills and balance. He made his presence felt against Texas with key blocks in the run game while allowing one pressure in pass protection.
Jenkins is Michigan’s best healthy draft prospect on either line—guard Zak Zinter is a future NFL player, but he’ll miss the title game after breaking his leg in November—but he’s still a limited, one-dimensional defensive lineman. The son of the three-time NFL All-Pro with the same name, Jenkins is a smart player who plays the run at an extremely high level. However, his role has diminished from 2022 to 2023 because he has yet to develop as a pass rusher. He’ll need a big game Monday night and a strong combine to avoid a fall out of the first two rounds, if not further.
The Defensive Backs: Rod Moore and Mike Sainristil, Michigan
Moore is a 6-foot, 198-pound former four-star recruit, a true junior with three years of starter-level experience who plays multiple positions in the Michigan secondary.
Rod Moore Defensive Snaps by Position
Moore’s coverage skills and open-field tackling ability were both on display in the Wolverines’ playoff win against Alabama, just as they have been throughout his career. His strength is his consistency. He’s also no stranger to the big play; earlier this season, he sealed Michigan’s third consecutive win over Ohio State with an interception in the final minute of the game. Penix will have to be wary of Moore’s presence.
I don’t care that Sainristil is small by NFL cornerback standards. I would want him on my football team. He’s a 5-foot-9, 182-pound former slot receiver who made the move to slot corner in 2022, and the transition couldn’t have been smoother. He is an aggressive playmaker, a physical, willing tackler with heady coverage skills. He has six interceptions and 12 pass breakups over the past two seasons.
Sainristil’s performance against Alabama, however, was up and down. PFF charted him with four missed tackles, including a painful whiff on a 34-yard Jase McClellan touchdown run. But Sainristil excelled in coverage, playing 32 coverage snaps without a single target. If he has a strong performance on Monday against Washington slot receiver McMillan, along with good testing numbers at the NFL combine next month, Sainristil could wind up as a high day three selection in the draft.
Honorable Mention: The Linebackers
There are no elite NFL linebacker prospects in this game, but Michigan’s Junior Colson and Michael Barrett and Washington’s Edefuan Ulofoshio all fit the profile of future NFL players.
Colson is my favorite of the bunch. He’s a former four-star recruit and has played more than 500 snaps in each of his first three seasons at Michigan. He is a smart player who moves well for his size. Oh, and he’s tough as nails. He broke his hand against Purdue and didn’t miss a drive; in fact, he played the fourth-most snaps of any player on the Michigan defense that game.
Barrett is your prototypical run-stuffing linebacker with blitzing skills that NFL teams look for with late-round picks. He isn’t fast or tall or long, but he’s a hard-nosed football player. Ulofoshio was one of the five finalists for the Butkus Award in 2023 and very well could be the highest-drafted player of this group, but he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He and Barrett are both older prospects in their sixth years of playing college football; expect both of them to leave it all on the field on Monday.