College football bowl season never disappoints and this year was no different, especially for fans of the 2023 NFL Draft trying to get an early peak at the talents their team could bring in this April. From the Cure Bowl to the Rose Bowl, all 42 bowls had something (or someone) worth watching.
The bowl games were dripping with prospects, some brand names and others hidden gems in the upcoming NFL Draft. Each wave of bowls had a draft-eligible player boost their stock and bring attention to their talents in their final collegiate showing. The biggest winners were BYU’s Blake Freeland in the first wave, Florida State’s Jared Verse in the second wave (who just announced he’s returning to FSU), and Alabama’s Brian Branch in the third wave.
Of course, all those games were leading up to the two best College Football Playoff semifinal games in its nine year history, where once again 2023 NFL Draft prospects rose to the occasion. Though Ohio State’s CJ Stroud stole the show, he came up short (or at least the game-winning field goal did) to the Georgia Bulldogs while Michigan fell behind early and never could catch up to TCU.
This CFP National Championship is the perfect example of the two best ways to accumulate NFL Draft talent. For Kirby Smart at Georgia, it’s been about recruiting like a mad man and turning those five-stars and fellow blue chips into top-100 picks. While at TCU in his first season, Sonny Dykes has taken underrated recruits and worked to develop multi-year starters by putting them in the best position to succeed and showcase their traits.
It’s going to be all about the Bulldogs NFL talent on Monday, but despite the Horned Frogs not having the same pedigree, TCU has plenty of future NFL players on its roster. These are the 10 best 2023 NFL Draft prospects to watch in the championship game (there are far beyond 10 players in this game who will suit up on Sunday’s in the fall).
Steve Avila, OG, TCU (6-4, 330)
Talk about a matchup for Steve Avila to put the NFL Draft world on notice. The three-year starter will get to deal with potential top-3 pick Jalen Carter at times throughout the National Championship.
Avila, the Horned Frogs best offensive lineman, is a versatile and powerful left guard who sets the tone in the run game. A true run mauler, Avila leans on his strength, hand pop, leverage, and leg drive to knock defensive linemen off the ball. He’s a perfect fit in a power scheme at the next level.
Dealing with Carter will also give him the opportunity to prove he has the lateral agility to mirror in pass protection against quicker interior defensive linemen and enough foot speed to deal with a gap-shooting 3-tech in the run game. His strengths in pass pro are those heavy mitts and a strong base that allows him to naturally handle power.
With starts at center, right guard, and right tackle, along with his natural spot at left guard, Avila’s ability to create push and play with an edge in the run game will bring some nasty to the interior of an offensive line, and that could entice a team on Day 2 of the 2023 NFL Draft.
Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, CB, TCU (5-9, 180)
Nephew of all-time great Horned Frog LaDainian Tomlinson, Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson has created his own legend in Fort Worth after winning the Jim Thorpe Award and being named first-team All-American this season.
Although size concerns will always come up when talking about Hodges-Tomlinson, he’s shown for the last three seasons he’s an NFL-ready corner. Whether he plays on the outside or at nickel at the next level will depend on the situation, but he’s looked comfortable in both spots for TCU.
With patient feet, disciplined eyes, and smooth change of direction skills, Hodges-Tomlinson is natural playing off-zone in Cover 2 where he can use his instincts and quickness to read quarterbacks and close on the football. That’s not to say he’s not fit in man coverage, where his smooth pedal and fluid hips let him turn and run with ease on vertical routes and his clean feet help him stay sticky on in and out breaking routes.
The lack of length hurts him both when playing press, he predominantly plays off, and as a run defender where he can slip off ball carriers despite a willingness to trigger downhill. Hodges-Tomlinson will likely slide into Day 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft due to his size, but he has the tools and technique to find a starting role on the right team.
Kendre Miller, RB, TCU (6-0, 220)/Kenny McIntosh, RB, Georgia (6-1, 210)
Both programs possess likely top-10 running backs in what’s shaping up to be a deep 2023 NFL Draft for them. While different players stylistically, Kendre Miller and Kenny McIntosh are Day 2 types of backs who will immediately provide juice to an NFL backfield.
Miller, who is 50-50 to play in the championship game after sustaining a knee injury against Michigan, is built to be an every down back in the NFL. With explosive straight line speed, enough wiggle to make defenders miss in the hole, and the contact balance to run through arm tackles, he could quickly find a starting role at the next level. He’s been an engine this year for the TCU offense with 1,399 rushing yards and 17 TDs.
McIntosh wasn’t only Georgia’s leading rusher with 779 yards, but he was also their third leading receiver with 506 yards. It’s the perfect time for a player of McIntosh’s skill set to hit the NFL as pass catching backs become ever more popular. A natural glider with lateral explosiveness, McIntosh thrives in space and has the route running prowess and ball skills to line up at receiver from time to time.
The championship game is a great place for Miller to show he can create yards after contact and hit home runs against the best defense in the country, and for McIntosh, his versatility and ability to be a mismatch nightmare could be the key to the Bulldogs taking advantage of the Horned Frogs 3-3-5 defense.
Dylan Horton, EDGE, TCU (6-4, 275)
Arguably the biggest reason TCU defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie’s 3-3-5 defense works is because of defensive lineman Dylan Horton. A member of the Freaks List, Horton has a rare combination of twitch and power and it allows him to dominate in the trenches playing predominantly in a 4i to the boundary.
A New Mexico transfer, Horton started his collegiate career as a safety before transitioning to off-ball linebacker for the Lobos prior to bulking up and moving to the defensive line for the Horned Frogs. He managed to add size and strength without sacrificing too much of his athleticism and its turned him into a monster—after his 4 sack performance against Michigan in the semifinal, his stock is skyrocketing.
With the his heavy hands and flexibility to out leverage offensive linemen, Horton sets a strong edge while still having the play strength to lockout and shed blocks to make run stops himself. As a pass rusher, with his explosive first step and strength he generates power with ease to knock linemen off their block and can throw a changeup in his pass rush plan by utilizing his hands.
Dealing with Georgia tackles Broderick Jones and Warren McClendon in the title game will be yet another chance for Horton to show what he can bring to an NFL defensive line room.
Christopher Smith, S, Georgia (5-11, 195)
Georgia’s 2021 National Championship defense was full of premier NFL talent, and nearly all of the players that were draft-eligible left for the 2022 NFL Draft. The two key eligible defenders who returned were pass rusher Nolan Smith, who was lost earlier in the year to a pec injury, and safety Christopher Smith.
Smith has been the quarterback and captain of the Bulldogs defense all season in his second year starting. He’s taken a leap in 2022 that has him trending towards being a Day 2 pick in a solid safety class thanks to his IQ, cover instincts, and absurd aggressiveness as a run defender and patrol man over the middle.
Playing two-deep, single high, and coming down as a nickel/overhang, Smith has shown the eyes to play the deep half in Cover 2, the range to hang in the deep middle in Cover 1 and 3, and the closing speed to play the curl-flat. He’s even better in run support where he has some of the best take on skills in the class and runs the alley like a car crash.
Against TCU quarterback Max Duggan’s mobility, Smith will be an X-factor coming up in run support and this game should only further enhance his chances of sneaking into the second or third-round of the 2023 NFL Draft despite size concerns.
Darnell Washington, TE, Georgia (6-7, 270)
There’s one hell of a tight end class brewing for the 2023 NFL Draft and if Darnell Washington declares, he could end up in the first-round.
The best blocking tight end in the class, Washington acts as a sixth offensive lineman for Georgia with his penchant for washing defensive linemen and linebackers out of plays and flattening defensive backs in the open field as a puller.
With his size and strength, Washington is also a YAC threat where his jaw-dropping athleticism shows up (a man of his size shouldn’t make hurdling defenders look so easy). Using his length and frame, he’s a natural in 50/50 situations where he can box out defenders and use his condor like wingspan to haul in passes. Washington has been a big-play threat at Georgia with 746 yards on 44 catches (17.0 Avg) in 26 games.
Though he’s been the number two tight end throughout his career in Athens, Washington’s been an asset in the run game for what he does as an in-line blocker and it’s helped allow sophomore Brock Bowers (the top tight end in the 2024 NFL Draft) to become a superstar pass catcher. (Washington got hurt in the semifinal game and Georgia is “hopeful” he will play against TCU.)
Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia (6-2, 210)
The hero of last years National Championship win, Kelee Ringo came into the season as a potential top-10 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. The former No. 4 recruit in the 2020 class, Ringo hasn’t quite had the season many projected for him, but he’s still thick in the race to be the first cornerback selected in April.
After a less than stellar showing against Ohio State in the semifinal—Marvin Harrison Jr., who would be a top-10 pick if he was eligible in 2023, took Ringo to town—this is a perfect opportunity for him to show exactly why he can be a No. 1 corner in the NFL. TCU’s Quentin Johnston is no easy cover with his size and strength, but Ringo is literally built for this.
A physical press corner, Ringo excels when he can throw off timing and slow down receivers at the line using his big frame and length. He seems most comfortable playing Cover 1 and 3 where he can line up nose-to-nose with receivers and worry either about just them or the deep-third. To make up for his less than smooth change of direction skills, Ringo bullies receivers but still has the speed to carry them vertically.
This will be tape every NFL team in need of a starting cornerback will watch to see how Ringo stymies the height-weight-speed freak that is Quentin Johnston, the likely top receiver in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Broderick Jones, OT, Georgia (6-4, 310)
In what has been a murky offensive tackle class all season long, recent murmurs that Georgia left tackle Broderick Jones could be the first one selected in the 2023 NFL Draft shouldn’t come as a surprise (especially after Penn State’s Olu Fashanu elected to return to school).
A traits-based prospect, Jones is a natural mover in space who will excel in a zone run blocking scheme where he can climb to linebackers and blow them out of the water. For Georgia, he’s frequently making highlight reel plays when pulling or getting out in front of a screen where he can smear defensive backs into the turf.
That athleticism and physical nature would get any NFL talent evaluator excited, especially when they see that lateral quickness show up when mirroring twitchy pass rushers. Jones smoothly reaches landmarks on time when dealing with outside rushes and can reroute himself with ease to deal with inside counters.
His biggest issue is improving against power where his length, anchor, and hand placement can get him into trouble. There’s no better opportunity for Jones to show he has a strong enough anchor and refined enough hands to deal with power than against TCU’s Dylan Horton in the National Championship.
Although rawer than some of the other top offensive tackle prospects in the class, Jones traits are a compelling selling point for him to go as early as top-10.
Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU (6-4, 215)
All season when TCU and the hypnotoad faithful have needed a big play, Quentin Johnston has been there. The top receiver in the 2023 NFL Draft even made his biggest play of the year in the semifinal win against Michigan when he caught a drag and took it 76 yards for the TD to give TCU a 48-38 lead in the fourth quarter.
Johnston is the definition of a height-weight-speed mismatch with his ability to win vertically, after the catch, and in 50/50 situations. With his frame and physicality to win at the catch point, Johnston is the epitome of a ball winning X-receiver in today’s NFL. But unlike some towering receivers, he’s fluid enough to get in and out of his breaks to create separation as a route runner and has the speed to win deep.
What Johnston can do after the catch may be the most underrated aspect of his game. With his smoothness he’s able to sink his hips and turn up field in a hurry while utilizing that size and strength to run through the arm tackles of defensive backs.
In a weak year for receivers, Johnston’s skill set stands above the rest and he could be the only pass catcher selected in the top-15 this April. Going out with a bang against Kelee Ringo and the Bulldogs secondary will only hammer home that point.
Jalen Carter, IDL, Georgia (6-3, 310)
After two years of dominance, Jalen Carter likely has just one game left in his college career… and if things go right, he’ll leave Athens with two National Championship rings. The former five-star recruit has done everything he’s needed to in college football to turn himself into a top-three prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Carter is very similar to New York Jets Pro Bowl defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. He’s a complete force on the interior with jaw-dropping quickness, flexibility, and violent hands that make him a terrifying threat both as a gap shooter and pass rusher at 3-tech.
Despite sometimes being a half second slow off the ball, Carter makes up for it with an explosive second step and a strong pass rush plan that features a nasty club-swim, push-pull, and dip and rip. As a run defender, he can win with his athleticism by beating linemen to a gap or taking them on straight up with his wild knock back power. He’s a complete game wrecker.
After a quiet performance in the semifinal win over Ohio State where he looked gassed at times, all eyes will be on Carter as he tries to take over one final game after racking up 15.5 TFLs and 6 sacks the last two season.