Seven college football stars who could face long wait in NFL draft

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Many of college football’s most accomplished players will launch their professional careers to great fanfare this week as early selections in the NFL draft.

For the likes of Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr., among others, the wait to learn of their future team shouldn’t be long, as they and several other standouts from marquee programs have long been considered locks for the top of the first round. Yet the draft isn’t always so kind to other notable names, whose collegiate achievements don’t always indicate widespread NFL interest. 

Undoubtedly, there will be major figures who last well into the third day of the draft, and even some who will end up undrafted. Here are seven former college football stars who could be headed for such a fate:

Stetson Bennett IV, QB, Georgia

Regardless of his landing spot, it’s remarkable that a 5-11, 193-pound former walk-on has managed to make NFL teams mull using a draft pick on him. Bennett helped position himself for this unlikely ascension by delivering when the stakes were highest, sparking Georgia to consecutive national championships and earning offensive MVP in all four College Football Playoff games he started. 

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For all his heroics, however, there’s only so high a slightly built, 25-year-old quarterback with questionable arm strength and erratic accuracy can expect to rise in the draft. Bennett only created more problems for himself during the pre-draft process with his January arrest in Dallas for public intoxication. He might have a chance to carve out a career as a trusted NFL backup, but it’s hard to see much growth potential left in Bennett. His window for being taken might not open until the final rounds.

Max Duggan, QB, TCU

A four-year starter for the Horned Frogs, Duggan was bound for the bench in 2022 before an ankle injury to first-stringer Chandler Morris in the opener gave him the opportunity to reclaim his job. The 6-1, 207-pound signal-caller subsequently engineered the most electric season in school history, leading TCU to the national championship game and finishing as the Davey O’Brien Award winner and Heisman Trophy runner-up.

Duggan did all that with a style distinctly his own. He confidently attacked defenses, taking shots in the deep passing game and grinding out tough yards and touchdowns (28 for his career) as a runner. Translating that skill set to NFL success, however, could be exceedingly difficult, as his ball placement and comfort operating in the pocket are too spotty to position him as a trusted backup in the near future. Perhaps he’ll find his way as a developmental option, but that likely means launching his career as a late Day 3 pick or undrafted free agent.

Deuce Vaughn, RB, Kansas State

There’s no way to properly discuss Vaughn’s play and his pro potential without addressing his 5-5, 179-pound frame. His height was the shortest recorded at the NFL scouting combine since at least 2003, and he looks set to take the unofficial title of smallest player in the league. 

Of course, Vaughn has defied doubters thus far, becoming a two-time consensus All-American last season with 1,936 all-purpose yards, the most of any player in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Still, his size could be prohibitive to some. His runs will be in jeopardy of routinely dying at first contact, and leaving him in for pass protection is an invitation for disaster. Vaughn shouldn’t expect to hear his name called until Day 3, but the more important factor for his pro success will be landing with a coaching staff that can scheme him touches in the open field.

Charlie Jones, WR, Purdue

The picture of persistence, Jones didn’t let two transfers deter him from finally becoming the focal point of an offense in his sixth year of eligibility. He led the FBS with 110 catches in 2022 while also notching 1,361 yards and 12 touchdowns.

But at 5-11 and 175 pounds, Jones will be slapped with the dreaded undersized slot receiver label that has weighed down so many pass catchers’ draft stock. That role could still lead to a fruitful career, as he could become a trusted target underneath given his ultra-reliable hands. It just might mean Jones having to wait until Saturday before he is chosen – which still stands as a major victory for a player who was off the NFL radar until last fall.

Andre Carter II, DE, Army

Coming off a 2021 campaign in which he trailed only Will Anderson Jr. in sacks with 15 ½, Carter generated early buzz as a potential fringe first-rounder for 2023. Last year’s trying campaign in which he was held to just 3 ½ sacks, however, raised questions about just how highly the player set to become Army’s second NFL draftee in the common-draft era can reasonably expect to be selected.

The pre-draft process only heightened some concerns, as the 6-7, 256-pound Carter posted fewest bench press reps (11) of any edge rusher while underwhelming with his vertical leap (30 inches) and broad jump (9-1). Those results should be somewhat expected, though, as Carter’s military duties left him unable to bulk up or train with a single-minded focus. Some teams might acknowledge those limitations and envision what filling out his frame will do to elevate a proven pass rusher with the length and fluidity to fluster NFL offensive tackles. For others, his subpar strength could be a sticking point. But given that any team taking him on likely will need to exhibit patience in his development, mid-to-late Day 3 could be his range. 

Ivan Pace Jr., LB, Cincinnati

The Miami (Ohio) transfer was one of college football’s best breakout stories last year, as he became the Bearcats’ first unanimous All-American in school history after a 137-tackle, 10-sack season. But just where does a 5-10, 231-pound linebacker who operates best working downhill fit in the NFL?

In college, Pace compensated for his size with outstanding knowhow, taking advantage of his stature by winning leverage battles against blockers or knifing past them when they lunged. No matter how impressive his strength is, however, it will be a tall order for him to repeatedly beat NFL offensive linemen to make plays in the backfield. And while a tweener who resembles a safety might be expected to hold his own in coverage, Pace looks ill suited to take on running backs and receivers in space. That unique set of physical tools and playing style should curb the number of teams that will consider him in the draft, as unleashing his playmaking ability will require a specific vision for his utilization. 

Tre Hodges-Tomlinson, CB, TCU

The nephew of Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson made a name for himself at his uncle’s alma mater by starring on the other side of the ball. A first-team All-Big 12 selection in his first two years as a starter, Hodges-Tomlinson elevated his game in 2022, earning the Jim Thorpe Award as he recorded three interceptions and 18 passes defensed while denying almost every downfield throw in his direction. 

At just under 5-8 and 178 pounds with short arms, however, Hodges-Tomlinson will be an immediate matchup liability against all but the smallest NFL receivers. He’s likely bound for the slot, where he can rely on his quick-trigger movements and face few scenarios in which he can be easily boxed out. While he should still appeal to a team that understands how to use him, Hodges-Tomlinson seems destined to be picked on Day 3, behind several less accomplished but more physically imposing cornerbacks. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

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