6 college football stars primed to boost their NFL Draft stock in 2023


It seems obvious that every college football player is hoping to enjoy a healthy and productive 2023 season and boost his stock prior to next spring’s NFL Draft. But for some players, this year is even more important than others. 

A year ago, future Top 5 picks Anthony Richardson and Devon Witherspoon might very well have highlighted this list. A year earlier, it could have been No. 1 overall selection Travon Walker or Kenny Pickett.

Like them, each of the prospects listed below has already made a good impression on scouts. All enter the year as legitimate draft prospects. But the opportunity is there for so much more. 

Whether it be due to previous injuries, a crowded depth chart or the spotlight simply shining elsewhere, these prospects are entering this season with much to gain, including a chance to catapult their way into early-round consideration. 

Cam Rising, QB, Utah: As we’ve seen in recent years with the sudden ascent of Joe Burrow, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance (among others), one dominant season can set the pulses racing of NFL scouts and lead to a dramatic draft-day rise for that player. Rising suffered a torn ACL in Utah’s Rose Bowl loss to Penn State on New Year’s Day, threatening his readiness for the start of the 2023 college football season. While optimism is high that he will make a full recovery — and perhaps even play in the Utes’ season-opener against Florida — Rising was purposely left off my recent article identifying this year’s top quarterback prospects due to the uncertainty regarding his availability.

However, should he be able to reassure scouts of his health, the gritty signal-caller could live up to his last name by steadily rising up draft boards. He will turn 25 before he takes his first NFL snap, and he’s now undergone major surgeries to both his knee and shoulder. But Rising has also demonstrated rare toughness for the position, as well as plenty of arm, mobility, and moxie in guiding Utah to back-to-back Pac-12 titles. After initially signing with the Texas Longhorns as a celebrated four-star recruit out of Ventura, California, Rising has started 25 games since his transfer to Utah. He enters the 2023 campaign with a 64.1% completion rate, with 46 touchdowns against just 14 interceptions in a pro-style attack. 

Though they have very different playing styles, Rising could follow a similar path to the pros as last year’s breakout star Hendon Hooker, who, after a transfer from Virginia Tech and significant injuries of his own, emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate for Tennessee this past season. Hooker ended up going to the Detroit Lions at No. 68 overall in the 2023 draft. 

Zion Tupuola-Fetui, DE, Washington: Like the aforementioned Rising, Tupuola-Fetui is already well-known in the scouting community after he registered a Pac-12-leading seven sacks and three forced fumbles in just three games during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. However, after missing virtually all of 2021 due to surgery to repair a torn Achilles and posting relatively ho-hum numbers last year (28 tackles, including 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble), the senior could be poised for a massive campaign.

Aiding ZTF’s cause is the fact that he is no longer the primary objective for opposing offensive blocking schemes. That honor is held by junior Bralen Trice, whose blend of size, speed and power generated nine sacks in his own breakout campaign a year ago. Trice is earning plenty of comparisons to former Husky Joe Tryon Shoyinka, a first-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2021. The two-headed monster at pass rusher could post video-game-like numbers as opponents are forced to pass early and often in the hopes of keeping up with Michael Penix Jr. and the high-flying Washington offense.

Fadil Diggs, DE, Texas A&M: It isn’t often that players enjoy career-best performances on the road in Tuscaloosa, but Diggs did just that in a close loss to Alabama a year ago. Diggs notched six tackles — including three for loss — two sacks and two forced fumbles to firmly entrench himself in the minds of NFL scouts. Unfortunately, nagging injuries grounded him soon after, sapping the Aggies of their best pass rusher and team captain after eight games. Jimbo Fisher’s team appears ready for a bounce-back campaign in 2023, however, with Diggs and one of the nation’s most talented defensive lines leading the way.

At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, the former four-star recruit out of New Jersey certainly looks the part of a future early-round draft pick. The broad-shouldered, long-armed edge rusher has the bulk to hold up at the point of attack and rip down ball carriers who would be out of reach of most defenders. It is the burst, bend and lateral agility that he possesses, however, that intrigues scouts the most. Diggs has just four sacks over his first three years at College Station. Don’t be surprised when he doubles that total this fall and becomes one of the hottest names among edge rushers leading up to the 2024 NFL draft.

Tim Smith, DT, Alabama: Speaking of Alabama and prospects who look the part, you had to know that the same program that fielded the most talented roster in college football history would reload despite seeing Bryce Young, Will Anderson and Jahmyr Gibbs joined 10 other former Crimson Tide teammates as Top 12 NFL draft picks since 2019.

Smith may have an ordinary-sounding name, and in this era of gargantuan linemen, his 6-foot-4, 302-pound frame may even seem relatively pedestrian. And with just 20 tackles, including two for loss and a single sack, Smith lacks the production on the field to generate much media attention.

But Smith has a uniquely sculpted frame for a 300-pounder and even as a spot starter a year ago, he’s already established himself as more valuable to the Tide defense than his statistics would appear. He is a virtual block of granite at the point of attack, offering a similar style as former Alabama run-stuffer Daron Payne, who despite leaving early for the NFL with just three career sacks, wound up being selected 13th overall by Washington in 2018 and earning his first Pro Bowl last year. 

KeAndre Lambert-Smith, WR, Penn State: Lambert-Smith is a pure speedster who could be the biggest beneficiary of a Penn State offense seeking to attack downfield more in 2023. Lambert-Smith flashed a year ago — scoring a career-high four touchdowns, including a Rose Bowl record 88-yarder. But that could be just a preview of much bigger things to come if former five-star quarterback Drew Allar is the guy head coach James Franklin and the Nittany Lions faithful think he is. 

Lambert-Smith signed with Penn State as a highly touted four-star recruit out of Norfolk, Virginia, and appeared well on his way to stardom when he started all 13 games a year later, catching 34 passes for 521 yards and three scores opposite future first-round pick Jahan Dotson. Rather than ascend to the top spot after Dotson left for the Washington Commanders, however, Lambert-Smith dropped to eight starts in 2022 and made “just” 24 grabs for 389 yards. 

The 6-foot-1, 188-pounder boasts legitimate 4.4 speed, and, like a true Nittany Lion is cat-quick out of his breaks, showing much more route-running proficiency than his reputation as just a deep threat suggests. He also comes with NFL bloodlines, as his uncle, Kam Chancellor, starred at strong safety and was a key member of Seattle’s famed Legion of Boom. 

Can Penn State make noise in the Big Ten East?

Can Penn State make noise in the Big Ten East?

T.J. Tampa, CB, Iowa State: While on the topic of dominant defensive backs, scouts are eager to see what Tampa can do in 2023 now that he’ll be covering without the help of Will McDonald IV, who is now harassing quarterbacks for the New York Jets. Last year, the prototypically built Tampa excelled in his first full season as a starting cornerback, earning Second Team All-Big 12 honors by compiling nine pass breakups and registering a career-high 40 tackles, as well as an interception and key forced fumble at the 1-yard line against rival Iowa. Covering downfield is much more difficult, of course, without a dominant pass rush, which McDonald provided a year ago.

Like recent top picks Sauce Gardner and Joey Porter, Jr., the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Tampa — appropriately enough a Florida native — uses his length to corral receivers at the line of scrimmage, while also boasting the agility and acceleration required to run with them downfield. His long arms and active hands work like windshield wipers against his opponent, except they cloud the receivers’ vision rather than clear it.

Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.

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