2015 NFL Draft Players to Watch: Defensive Stars Will Shine Saturday

By Jason McIntyre

Each Friday, we’ll preview some college football players to watch ahead of the 2015 NFL draft. Some teams we’ve covered this season: Clemson/Georgia, Wisconsin/LSU; Oregon/Michigan State, USC/Stanford; UCLA/Texas, Arizona State/Colorado, Tennessee/Oklahoma; Florida/Alabama, Clemson/Florida State; Arkansas/Texas A&M, Oregon State/USC, Missouri/South Carolina.

Texas A&M at Mississippi State, Noon, ESPN

MISSISSIPPI STATE: Benardrick McKinney, LB, Redshirt Junior: Earlier this year, I had McKinney pegged as a top 10 pick in 2015 and not much has changed. Teams are enamored with his rare combination of size (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) and speed. Even if he measures a bit smaller at the Combine, he’ll run well and it appears he can play in either a 3-4 or 4-3. Had a strong game last year against Johnny Manziel (1.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks). Only knock on him I’ve seen is a lack of instincts. Played QB in high school.

Oklahoma at TCU, 3:30 pm, Fox Sports

OKLAHOMA: Eric Striker, LB, Junior: Incredible bowl game against Alabama put him on the map (three tackles for loss, three sacks, one forced fumble) and raised expectations for the 6-foot, 220-pound linebacker. He’s a tweener, and perfect in college, but what’s the move in the NFL? Lose 10 pounds and become a safety? Does he have the speed? Or does he bulk up by 15 pounds and stay a linebacker? Of all the defensive players listed in this post, you may not see a playmaker Saturday like Striker.

TCU: Chucky Hunter, DT, Senior: I included the Horned Frogs on my Lock of the Week list, and if they’re going to beat Oklahoma, they’ll need an impressive performance from their stout defense, which has seven returning players, led by Hunter. The 6-foot-1, 305 pound rock in the middle put up modest stats last year (6.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks), and he’ll probably be anywhere from the 8th to the 15th DT off the board in the 2015 draft. It’s a strong draft at DT – led by Ohio State’s Michael Bennett – and Hunter is an intriguing prospect. Can you imagine if he were playing next to Devonte Fields?

Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 pm, ABC

NEBRASKA: Randy Gregory, DE, Redshirt Junior: Is he the best defensive lineman in the country? USC’s Leonard Williams (see here) is obviously in the discussion, but Gregory (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) has been more consistent of the two, annihilating lineman in the Big 10 last season and in his last two games of 2014 (4.5 sacks combined against Miami and Illinois). He had a sack and tackle for loss last year against the Spartans, and chased QB Connor Cook all night (four hurries). Technically sound, powerful and swift, and it’ll be a shocker if he’s not a Top 15 pick in 2015. I sure hope this guy he blocked is OK.

MICHIGAN STATE: Shilique Calhoun, DE, Redshirt Junior, In the next tier of great defensive ends in college football, there’s Mr. Calhoun. (On our list of the Top 50 players in college football in the offseason, we had Calhoun 5th.) He’s a bit smaller than Gregory (6-foot-4) but also slightly heavier (260 pounds), but was a complete non-factor in last year’s game against Nebraska, so he’s playing with some motivation. Had him 13th in a Mock Draft earlier this year.