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6 college football stars are poised to boost their NFL draft stock in 2023

Rob Rang

NFL draft analyst

It seems obvious that every college football player is hoping to enjoy a healthy and productive 2023 season and build up their roster ahead of next spring’s NFL draft. But for some players this year is even more important than others.

A year ago, future top five picks Anthony Richardson and Devon Witherspoon would certainly have highlighted this list. A year earlier it could have been the No. 1 overall pick, Travon Walker or Kenny Pickett.

Like them, each of the prospects listed below have already made a good impression on Scouts. All enter the year as legitimate draft prospects. But there are many more possibilities.

Whether it’s from previous injuries, a crowded depth table, or simply because the spotlight is somewhere else, these up-and-coming talents start this season with plenty to gain, including a chance to catapult themselves into the early round.

Cam risesQB, Utah: As we’ve seen in recent years with the sudden rise of Joe Burrow, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance (among others), a dominant season can set the hearts of NFL scouts racing and lead to a dramatic rise at the draft Day lead this player. Rising suffered a cruciate ligament tear 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 there’s optimism that he’ll make a full recovery — and maybe even play Florida in the Utes’ season opener — due to the uncertainty surrounding his availability, Rising was intentionally omitted from my last article on this year’s top quarterback contenders.

However, should he manage to convince the scouts of his sanity, the plucky signal caller could live up to his surname by steadily climbing the draft boards. He’ll be 25 before he snaps his first NFL snap, and he’s since undergone major knee and shoulder surgeries. But Rising has also demonstrated rare toughness for the position, as well as plenty of arm strength, agility and moxie, leading Utah to back-to-back Pac-12 titles. After first signing with the Texas Longhorns as a celebrated four-star recruit from Ventura, Calif., Rising has played 25 games in the starting XI since his transfer to Utah. He enters the 2023 season with a 64.1% completion rate, with 46 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions in a professional tackle.

Though they have vastly different playstyles, Rising could follow a similar path to the pros as last year’s breakthrough star Hendon Hooker, who emerged as a Heisman Trophy contender for Tennessee after a transfer from Virginia Tech and significant injuries of his own in the past season. Hooker was drafted 68th overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2023 draft.

Zion Tupuola fetuiEN, Washington: Like the Rising mentioned above, Tupuola-Fetui is already well known in the scouting community after recording seven sacks and three forced fumbles as a Pac-12 leader 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 tendon and having relatively poor results last year (28 tackles, including 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble), the senior could face a massive campaign.

Boosting the cause of ZTF is the fact that he is no longer the primary target when countering offensive blocking plans. That honor goes to junior Bralen Trice, whose mix of size, speed and power produced nine sacks in his own breakout campaign a year ago. Trice is reaping numerous comparisons to former husky Joe Tryon Shoyinka, a first-round pick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2021. The two-headed monster as a pass-rusher could pull off video game-like numbers as opponents are forced to pass early in often hoping to keep up with Michael Penix Jr. and Washington’s high-profile offense.

Fadil DiggsEN, Texas A&M: It’s not often that players in Tuscaloosa achieve career-best performances away from home, but Diggs did just that in a narrow loss to Alabama a year ago. Diggs recorded six tackles — including three for the loss — two sacks and two forced fumbles to cement himself in the minds of NFL scouts. Unfortunately, he was down soon after with nagging injuries, meaning the Aggies lost their best passer and team captain after eight games. However, Jimbo Fisher’s team looks primed for a rebound in 2023, with Diggs and one of the most talented defenses in the country taking the lead.

At 6’1″ and weighing 250 pounds, the former four-star New Jersey recruit certainly looks like a future first-round draft pick. The broad-shouldered, long-armed edge rusher has the bulk to stand up at the attacking point and tear down ball carriers that would be out of reach for most defenders. However, it’s his speed, turning and lateral dexterity that most intrigues Scouts. Diggs only has four sacks in his freshman three years at College Station. Don’t be surprised if he doubles that number this fall and becomes one of the hottest names among edge rushers going into the 2024 NFL draft.

TimSmithDT, Alabama: Speaking of Alabama and prospects who look like this, you had to know that the same program that produced the most talented roster in college football history would be coming up again, albeit Bryce Young, Will Anderson and Jahmyr Gibbs, along with ten other former Crimsons Tide teammates in the top 12 were NFL draft picks since 2019.

Smith may have a familiar-sounding name, and in this era of gigantic linemen, his six-foot-tall, 270-pound stature may even seem relatively unassuming. And with just 20 tackles, including two losses and a lone sack, Smith lacks the performance on the field to garner much media attention.

But Smith has a uniquely sculpted physique for a 300-pounder, and even as a starting player a year ago, he’s already proven more valuable on Tide defense than his stats would suggest. Practically a granite block in attack, he offers a similar style to former Alabama run stuffer Daron Payne, who despite his early exit to the NFL with just three career sacks was picked 13th overall by Washington in 2018 and won his last year first Pro Bowl.

KeAndre Lambert-SmithWR, Penn State: Lambert-Smith is a pure streaker who could be the biggest beneficiary of a Penn State offensive that aims for more downfield attacks in 2023. Lambert-Smith shone a year ago — he had four touchdowns, the highest of his career, including a Rose Bowl-record 88 yards. But that could only be a preview of much greater things to come if former five-star quarterback Drew Allar is the guy head coach James Franklin and Nittany Lions supporters think he is.

Lambert-Smith signed with Penn State as a much-touted four-star recruit from Norfolk, Virginia, and seemed well on his way to stardom when a year later he started all 13 games and recorded 34 passes for 521 yards and three scores against Future caught first-round pick Jahan Dotson. After Dotson joined the Washington Commanders, however, Lambert-Smith didn’t climb to the top, falling back to eight starts in 2022 and “only” 24 grabs for 389 yards.

The 1.8m tall, 188-pounder has a legitimate speed of 4.4 and, like a true Nittany Lion, comes off his breaks with lightning speed and displays far more route-skating ability than his reputation as a pure threat type would suggest. He also boasts NFL bloodlines as his uncle, Kam Chancellor, was a heavy safety and was a key member of Seattle’s famed Legion of Boom.

Can Penn State make a splash in the Big Ten East?

T J TampaCB, Iowa State: Speaking of dominant defensive backs, scouts are excited to see what Tampa can achieve in 2023 as he will now be covering without the help of Will McDonald IV, who is now harrying the New York Jets quarterbacks. Last year, the prototype Tampa shone in his first full season as a starting cornerback, earning Second Team All-Big 12 honors by amassing nine pass breakups and a career-best 40 tackles and an interception and forced major Fumble recorded the 1-yard line against rival Iowa. Of course, without a dominant pass rush, which McDonald offered a year ago, it’s a lot harder to cover the field.

Like recent top picks Sauce Gardner and Joey Porter Jr., the six-foot-tall, 200-pound Tampa — a fittingly native of Florida — uses his length to catch receivers at the line of scrimmage while boasting of it Agility and acceleration required to run down with them. His long arms and active hands act like windscreen wipers on his opponent, except that they obscure rather than clear the recipient’s vision.

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

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