2023 NFL Draft prospects to watch in the first wave of bowl games

BOISE, ID - SEPTEMBER 17: Safety JL Skinner #0 of the Boise State Broncos breaks up a pass intended for wide receiver Randy Fields Jr. #0 of the UT Martin Skyhawks during second half action at Albertsons Stadium on September 17, 2022 in Boise, Idaho. Boise State won the game 30-7. (Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images)
BOISE, ID - SEPTEMBER 17: Safety JL Skinner #0 of the Boise State Broncos breaks up a pass intended for wide receiver Randy Fields Jr. #0 of the UT Martin Skyhawks during second half action at Albertsons Stadium on September 17, 2022 in Boise, Idaho. Boise State won the game 30-7. (Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images) /

As the 2023 NFL Draft approaches, and fans begin to dig in on the players that could make or break their favorite franchise’s future, bowl season in college football is the perfect opportunity to get a deeper look at some of the lesser known prospects and some of the heavy-hitters on the biggest stages in the sport.

There’s a reason bowl season coincides with the holidays, because it’s the greatest time of the year. Over 40 bowl games—including the College Football Playoff—squeezed into an 18-day window. Not only is it a gamblers dream, but it’s a football addicts perfect way of celebrating getting through the 12-hour long Saturday’s on the couch for the last three months.

From the goofy names with absurd sponsorships to “The Granddaddy of Them All,” this bowl season provides football lovers with 42 bowl games (including the FCS’ Celebration Bowl) in just under three weeks ahead of the CFB Playoff National Championship on January 9. In that time, plenty of prospects who will hear their names called at the NFL Draft in April will be suiting up.

Despite the increase in bowl game opt outs this year, and over the last few, all 42 bowl games will feature at least one 2023 NFL Draft prospect worth paying attention to, no matter the quality of the game. These are the NFL Draft prospects to watch in the first wave of bowl games.

HomeTown Lenders Bahamas Bowl- Miami (OH) vs. UAB

DeWayne McBride, RB, UAB (5-11, 215)

Even with a down year following the abrupt retirement of head coach Bill Clark, UAB remains one of the most NFL Draft talent rich programs in the C-USA—new head coach Trent Dilfer will lead them as they move to the AAC. Under Clark, the Blazers have always had a bellcow in the backfield and this year was no different with DeWayne McBride.

Not only did McBride top 1,000 yards for the second straight season, but the junior from Florida leads the FBS in rushing with 1,713 yards and is second in rushing TDs with 19. A well-built one-cut runner, McBride possesses the contact balance and lateral quickness to immediately produce in the NFL. If he declares, he’ll be viewed as the best RB prospect from the Group of Five.

On the other side, Penn State transfer Mac Hippenhammer has been the big play threat for Miami (OH) the last two seasons (combing for over 1,500 yards and 13 TDs). He’ll be dealing with UAB’s best defender in cornerback Starling Thomas V, who is East-West Shrine Bowl bound. Blazer receiver Trea Shropshire and offensive tackle Kadeem Telfort are also intriguing.

Duluth Trading Cure Bowl- No. 25 UTSA vs. No. 24 Troy

Zakhari Franklin, WR, UTSA (6-1, 185)

This is a perfect matchup, the two best non-AAC teams in the Group of Five going head-to-head. Under head coach Jeff Traylor, UTSA runs a dynamic offense (ninth in total offense in FBS) while Troy’s first-year head coach Jon Sumrall’s roots are on the defensive side (19th in total defense in FBS).

The question is, how will the Trojans slowdown the Road Runners passing attack? Over the last two seasons, senior receiver Zakhari Franklin has totalled 167 catches for 2,127 yards and 26 TDs.

Despite a slender build, Franklin excels in 50/50 situations where his body control and ball skills can be showcased. Combining those traits with his natural ability to sink his hips and explode out of breaks, Franklin is a Day 3 receiver to pay attention to in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Joining Franklin are Road Runners receiver Joshua Cephus, center Ahofitu Maka, and cornerback Corey Mayfield Jr. For Troy, all-time FBS tackle leader Carlton Martial makes up for his small stature by playing with high-speed violence—he’s got a chance to make an NFL team on special teams as a UDFA—and receiver RaJae’ Johnson and tackle Austin Stidham are worth a look.

Wasabi Fenway Bowl- Cincinnati vs. Louisville

Kei’Trel Clark, CB, Louisville (5-10, 177)

In a shocking turn of events, the Fenway Bowl has become the Scott Satterfiled bowl, with the former Louisville head coach replacing Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell (who’s off to Wisconsin) at Cincinnati. Though Satterfield won’t be coaching either side, the situation certainly adds drama to the game.

In terms of 2023 NFL Draft prospects, there’s quite a few on both sides, but Cardinals corner Kei’Trel Clark might be the most underrated—he’s headed to the East-West Shrine Bowl.

Although he has size concerns, Clark is one of the most aggressive corners in the class—his ability to trigger downhill on screens is absurd. In coverage, his quick feet allow him to click and close with ease in man and his instincts and eyes help him thrive in zone.

Along with Clark, Louisville defensive lineman YaYa Diaby is one to watch (he’s a member of Bruce Feldman’s yearly Freaks List), as are pass rusher Yasir Abdullah and go-to pass catchers Tyler Hudson and Marshon Ford.

With Cincinnati tight end Josh Whyle and receiver Tre Tucker (both headed to the Senior Bowl) opting out, keep an eye on receiver Tyler Scott, tight end Leonard Taylor, and offensive linemen Lorenz Metz. On the Bearcats defense, Jowon Briggs, Ivan and Deshawn Pace, Arquon Bush, and Ja’Von Hicks are all on the NFL radar.

Cricket Celebration Bowl- Jackson State vs. NC Central

Dallas Daniels, WR, Jackson State (6-1, 180)

As Deion Sanders prepares to move onto Colorado, it’s still up in the air whether or not he’ll be coaching in the Celebration Bowl. Even if he’s not, a lot of the talent he’s brought to Jackson State will be playing.

Leading receiver Dallas Daniels earned himself an East-West Shrine Bowl invite thanks to his ability to win deep and after the catch with his speed. The JUCO transfer is dynamic off the line of scrimmage with his release repertoire and fits the mold of an NFL Z-receiver.

On top of Daniels, the Tigers defensive leader Aubrey Miller Jr. is another 2023 NFL Draft prospect to watch. The Missouri transfer is headed to the Senior Bowl and plays fast and physical.

SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl- Florida vs. No. 14 Oregon State

Gervon Dexter, IDL, Florida (6-6, 312)

Between injuries (Luke Musgrave) and opt outs (Anthony Richardson, O’Cyrus Torrence, Justin Shorter, Ventrell Miller), a lot of the top talent won’t be playing in the Las Vegas Bowl. That makes it a perfect opportunity for Florida’s Gervon Dexter to remind the country why he was viewed as a potential first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft earlier in the season.

Dexter, a former five-star recruit, has been inconsistent during his time in Gainesville, but when he’s on, he’s a complete game wrecker (the Utah and Kentucky games this season). With his length and strength, he has no trouble eating space and holding the point as a run defender while his power and quickness translate to pass rush upside.

Running alongside Dexter on the Gators defense are pass rusher Princely Umanimelen (more likely a 2024 prospect), linebacker Amari Burney, and defensive back Trey Dean III. For the Beavers linebacker Omar Speights is the prospects to watch with cornerback Rejzohn Wright—brother of Cowboys corner Nahshon Wright—announcing this week he’ll be opting out and going pro.

Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl- Washington State vs. Fresno State

Jake Haener, QB, Fresno State (6-1, 210)

One of the more interesting matchups among non-ranked teams during bowl season, the LA Bowl will attract many eyes thanks in part to the quarterbacks suiting up on each side. Both Fresno State’s Jake Haener and Washington State’s Cameron Ward are future NFL passers.

The big-armed Ward will likely be returning for another season in Pullman after transferring up from Incarnate Word last year, but Haener could be a late riser in a weak QB class. A quick decision maker with an NFL-level arm, Haener thrives out of structure and possesses the clean mechanics and poise franchises will be looking for in a backup QB on early-Day 3 of the NFL Draft.

Helping Haener out are receiver Jalen Moreno-Cropper and running back Jordan Mims, two prospects who should get looks on Day 3 of the NFL Draft. Defensively, the Bulldogs Evan Williams is an underrated safety while Washington State’s Daiyan Henley, a run stuffing linebacker that will be in Mobile at the Senior Bowl with Haener in January, has opted out.

LendingTree Bowl- Rice vs. Southern Miss

Ikenna Enechukwu, DL, Rice (6-4, 266)

It looked like a long shot for either of these programs to be playing in a bowl game this year, with it being the first bowl game Rice has played in since 2014 and Southern Miss coming off back-to-back three-win seasons. That being said, there’s still NFL Draft talent to pay attention to in this one.

Due to the Owls recent struggles, Ikenna Enechukwu hasn’t received the attention he deserves as one of the top prospects in the C-USA. Asked to play all over Rice’s D-line (everything from 3-tech to the edge), his twitch, leverage, and strength have turned him into a quality power rusher and edge setter (he’s racked up 17.5 TFLs and 8 sacks the last two seasons).

This game will also have multiple NFL bloodlines in it with Rice’s second-leading receiver being Luke McCaffrey, Christian McCaffrey’s younger brother, and Southern Miss’ leading rusher Frank Gore Jr. Another Golden Eagle to watch, along with Gore Jr., is receiver Jason Brownlee (2,072 receiving yards and 20 TDs the last three seasons).

New Mexico Bowl- SMU vs. BYU

Blake Freeland, OT, BYU (6-8, 305)

SMU has become a receiver factory in recent years and Rashee Rice has got next with his penchant for YAC plays and flexibility to make jaw-dropping adjustments. But Rice, the best prospect on either team, has opted out of the New Mexico Bowl.

Fear not, like SMU, BYU has a likely top-100 selection in this NFL Draft too in offensive tackle Blake Freeland. Freeland is a smooth operator who leans on his natural athleticism to reach his landmarks and mirror pass rushers while using his length to do battle.

Though he needs to get stronger—both in the run game and with his anchor—Freeland’s likely going to help his stock a lot at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine.

Fellow Cougars (quarterback) Jaren Hall and (receiver) Puka Nacua, will also be on display for scouts. Hall is an older prospect (24 years old) but has a tantalizing arm and knack for off-platform throws. The Senior Bowl bound Nacua is a Washington transfer who has put up 1,787 yards from scrimmage and 16 TDs over two seasons in Provo.

Frisco Bowl- North Texas vs. Boise State

JL Skinner, S, Boise State (6-4, 220)

A battle of two teams that lost their conference championship games, which led to the firing of Seth Littrell at North Texas, the Frisco Bowl features a few interesting storylines. For example, the Mean Green’s QB Austin Aune will be playing in his last college football game… the former second-round pick of the Yankees is the oldest starting passer in the FBS at 29 years old.

Need more reason to watch? How about Boise State safety JL Skinner. Skinner has rare size for the position and the versatility to play single-high, two-deep, and overhang. With his length and range, he’s a major threat in zone coverage and his size and take on skills make him a hit stick waiting to happen when running the alley.

Skinner, a likely top-60 selection in the NFL Draft, isn’t the only prospect to pay attention to either. Boise State’s other safety Tyreque Jones is a solid player in his own right, as are Broncos nickel Kaonohi Kaniho, left tackle John Ojukwu, and running back George Holani. For North Texas, it’s all about linebacker KD Davis and cornerback DeShawn Gaddie.

Myrtle Beach Bowl- Marshall vs. UConn

Khalan Laborn, RB, Marshall (5-11, 212)

Nothing better than a bowl game being played on Coastal Carolina’s “surf turf” in Conway, South Carolina. Even better, it’s UConn’s first bowl since 2015—improbably led there by Jim Mora Jr. in his first season.

Mora Jr.’s Huskies will be taking on Marshall, whose head coach Charles Huff has developed two of the best running backs in recent memory (Saquon Barkley, Najee Harris) and found a hidden gem in former five-star recruit Khalan Laborn.

After spending three uneventful years on Florida State’s football team, Laborn was dismissed from the program. He decided to spend 2021 enrolled at FSU to graduate (he paid his own way).

This year, when Thundering Herd running back Rasheen Ali took sometime away from the team, Laborn sprung into action showcasing the lateral explosion and contact balance (he’s rushed for 1,423 yards and 16 TDs on the season).

While Laborn might not get drafted, he’s certainly one of the cooler stories in the upcoming NFL Draft. Other Marshall prospects to watch are defensive backs Steven Gilmore (Stephon Gilmore’s brother) and Micah Abraham, as for UConn, offensive lineman Christian Haynes and Jackson Mitchell are the guys.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl- Eastern Michigan vs. San Jose State

Viliami Fehoko, EDGE, San Jose State (6-4, 263)

What’s not to love about a bowl game between two historically bad programs that have been pulled out of the mud by their current head coaches (Chris Creighton for Eastern Michigan and Brent Brennan for San Jose State). To make matters even tastier, the winning coach gets a Gatorade cooler full of fries dump on them.

Shockingly, this game isn’t lacking for NFL Draft talent either, with Spartans defensive lineman Viliami Fehoko leading the way. The powerful pass rusher has been one of the best Group of Five defensive players over the last three seasons thanks to a motor that runs hot, violent hands, and the ability to play inside and create mismatches—he’s racked up 43.5 TFLs and 22 sacks since 2020.

Fehoko is headed to the East-West Shrine Bowl, as is Jose Ramirez, the Eagles best prospects—Ramirez explosive first step and quick hands are the reason he’s second in the FBS with 12 sacks.

Ramirez teammate Sidy Sow is a prospect to watch on the offensive line and San Jose State receiver Elijah Cooks, cornerback Nehemiah Shelton, and defensive end Cade Hall are a few more to pay attention to in this one.

RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl- Liberty vs. Toledo

Dallas Gant, LB, Toledo (6-3, 235)

The MAC Champions taking on a program in Liberty that lost their head coach to Auburn, but managed to hire Jamey Chadwell away from Coastal Carolina. Even with Hugh Freeze gone, the Flames offensive firepower could be hard to stop, luckily the Rockets have a couple stars in their front seven who could be selected in the NFL Draft.

The most talented of the bunch is linebacker Dallas Gant, a former blue chip recruit and Ohio State transfer. Gant’s prototype build paired with his range to run sideline-to-sideline make him a tackling machine (113 tackles and 5.5 TFLs this season) and an impact run defender.

Joining him in that Rockets front are linebacker Dyontae Johnson, defensive lineman Desjuan Johnson, and edge rusher Jamal Hines—all three will get NFL looks. Though Liberty lacks NFL talent, pass rusher Durrell Johnson and defensive back Javon Scruggs are names worth knowing.

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl- WKU vs. South Alabama

Darrell Luter Jr., CB, South Alabama

In what could have been one a perfect best-on-best scenario with Western Kentucky’s offense taking on South Alabama’s defense, the transfer portal struck as Hilltoppers quarterback Austin Reed looks to capitalize on a strong season (he threw for 4,249 yards with 44 total TDs after transferring up from West Florida) and build his stock for the 2024 NFL Draft.

Still, this is a showcase game for the Jaguars Darrell Luter Jr. as the Senior Bowl bound cornerback takes on a pass-heavy offense. Luter Jr.’s patient feet have turned him into a press-man savant in the Group of Five with his ability to mirror defenders and carry them downfield—he’s going to generate buzz in Mobile.

South Alabama’s leading receiver Jalen Wayne (Reggie Wayne’s nephew) is also headed to the Senior Bowl and Western Kentucky’s run-stuffing nose tackle Broderic Martin will be at the East-West Shrine Bowl. Those two and South Alabama running back La’Damian Webb and Western Kentucky receivers Jaylen Hall and Daewood Davis are all NFL Draft prospects.

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl- Baylor vs. Air Force

Siaki Ika, IDL, Baylor (6-4, 358)

Watching more talented football programs have to deal with the triple option will always be enjoyable—the triple option is the great equalizer. Seeing how Baylor head coach, and defensive guru, Dave Aranda handles it is the reason to watch the Armed Forces Bowl.

Even more intriguing, the Bears have the best nose tackle in the 2023 NFL Draft in Siaki “Apu” Ika and the thought of him battling against offensive linemen that are nearly 100 pounds lighter is popcorn worthy.

Ika’s the rare nose tackle who has the size to eat space and absorb blocks while possessing astonishing quickness for his size to shoot gaps and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Other Baylor NFL Draft prospects include left tackle Connor Galvin, defensive lineman Gabe Hall (a Freaks List member), and safety Christian Morgan. Air Force lacks prospects but running back Brad Roberts has run for 2,968 yards and 28 TDs over the last two seasons.

Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl- Louisiana vs. Houston

Nathaniel “Tank” Dell, WR, Houston (5-10, 155)

Last year Houston and Louisiana combined to go 25-3, this year the programs are just 13-11 together as they head to Shreveport for the Independence Bowl. The drop-off is understandable given the talent both teams lost from last year (and Ragin’ Cajun’s head coach Billy Napier leaving for Florida), but the Cougars still have multiple NFL Draft prospects.

Arguably the most dynamic receiver in the Group of Five the last two years has been Nathaniel “Tank” Dell (193 receptions for 2,683 yards and 27 TDs in his last 26 games).

Dell’s explosive route running and gamebreaking speed have made him into a threat both down the field and operating in space. Though size will always be the question, the Senior Bowl bound Dell will remind some of Hollywood Brown.

Dell’s production is a credit to fellow NFL Draft prospect and Senior Bowler Clayton Tune. The Cougars quarterback is one of the best senior passers in the country.

Houston left tackle Patrick Paul, safety Gervarrius Owens, and defensive lineman D’Anthony Jones join Dell and Tune as prospects, pass rusher Andre Jones (East-West Shrine Bowl) and receiver Michael Jefferson are the top dogs for Louisiana.

Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl- Wake Forest vs. Missouri

AT Perry, WR, Wake Forest (6-5, 206)

Once again, we’ve got a bowl game that gives us a dynamic offense playing a talented defense. Wake Forest’s slow mesh offense makes their passing attack hard to slowdown, but Missouri (28th in FBS in total defense) has a few NFL talents up to the challenge.

With the best prospect on either side opting out, Missouri pass rusher Isaiah McGuire (a Senior Bowler), the prospect to watch is Demon Deacons receiver AT Perry.

A true ball winner at X, Perry’s size, catch radius, and body control have made him a 50/50 ball extraordinaire. Perry’s caught 141 passes for 2,273 yards and 26 TDs over the last two seasons.

Alongside Perry on offense are receiver Donavon Greene, tight end Blake Whiteheart, quarterback Sam Hartman, and center Michael Jurgens—Wake also has Kobie Whiteside on defense.

Without McGuire, the Tigers will be led by pass rushers Trajan Jeffcoat and DJ Coleman, cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine, and offensive tackle Javon Foster.