As we celebrate the return of football this fall, I introduce a new article series detailing some of the individual matchups of interest for that week’s slate of games. Every Monday, you can expect a rundown of some players who repeatedly face each other in positional battles throughout the game. Some of these players may even hear their names called in the NFL Draft.
While early-season cupcakes may suffer from a dearth of household names on either side of the ball, they provide opportunities for hidden gems to see daylight on the big stage finally. Here are some players to look out for in Week 0.
Saturday, August 27
Nebraska @ Northwestern (12:30 PM)
EDGE Ochaun Mathis vs. OT Peter Skoronski
The 2022 College Football season starts off with a bang as the first B1G conference game of the year features a heavyweight clash in the trenches. Northwestern enters the season with low expectations and a lack of top-end talent to get excited about. Meanwhile, Nebraska comes with a fair amount of hype. Despite a disappointing record in 2021, Nebraska held the illustrious Ohio State offense to its lowest scoring total all season. Former TCU EDGE Ochaun Mathis joins this promising group and will face the current consensus #1 OT in the 2023 NFL Draft class in OT Peter Skoronski out of the gate.
Since taking over for Rashawn Slater as a true freshman in 2020, Skoronski has held down the LT spot in Evanston as the lone bright spot in a rather lackluster offense. At 6’4” and 315 pounds, he lacks some of the length that NFL teams might look for. But, with prior success against EDGEs, the likes of Aidan Hutchinson and George Karlaftis, Skoronski definitely has Sunday potential. Much like his predecessor, he is a smooth OT with outstanding mirror ability and enough agility to get to the outside and second-level. While he won’t necessarily maul power rushers, he often displays enough anchor to hold them off. Conversely, Skoronski has an excellent knack for guiding and trapping speed rushers upfield past the QB. Much like his situation at Northwestern, expect him to be the crown jewel of a relatively unexciting OT class in 2023.
Mathis presents an intriguing counterpoint to Skoronski. Mathis is one of those “first-off-the-bus” players that coaches love. At 6’5” and over 250 pounds, he possesses the ideal size to play the EDGE in the NFL and some of the accolades to match. Second Team All-Big12 in 2020 and First Team in 2021, the Texas-native has been highly regarded over his career. However, Mathis is a technician to a fault instead of using that size and strength. With a variety of effective jabs and counters in his repertoire, but he lacks a plan at the snap. This means he needs to rely on his poor play recognition skill to decide on a technique. With better play strength and strategic pass-rushing, Mathis should present a formidable challenge for Skoronski to kick off the season.
Wyoming @ Illinois (4:00 PM)
RB Titus Swen vs. DL Jer’zahn Newton
The last time we saw Wyoming face up against a Power 5 team was in 2019, when they defeated Missouri at home, as Kelly Bryant’s valiant 423 passing yards weren’t enough to overcome Sean Chambers’ 120 yards on the ground. All this to say, we rarely get the chance to see Wyoming play with the big boys. Illinois promises to bring some big boys to town, as we’ve come to expect from a Bret Bielema-coached team.
Contact balance is the name of the game for Swen. He rarely gets brought down by the first defender, often spinning and rolling over the second and third tacklers. Swen has a very even build and is slimmer than one would expect from a back that absorbs so many hits. While he has the burst to get through the hole, his second gear may be sufficient for the Mountain West but a touch slow for this level of competition. He has a knack for making cuts without sacrificing significant velocity, making him a threat for a house call even without elite speed, provided he can get to the open field. Swen will probably be the focal point of the Wyoming offense that lost the likes of WRs Isaiah Neyor and Xazavian Valladay to the transfer portal this past offseason and will be relied upon to carry an extensive load.
Newton exemplifies one of those big bodies that all Bret Bielema teams feature. At 6’2” and 290 lbs., Newton makes up one-half of the Illini’s impressive sophomore DL tandem. He has surprising quickness without sacrificing any sandbag ability, lending to his versatility to either put on some peanut butter and kick inside at the next level or slim down a little and play 5-tech. Initially recruited as an SDE, Newton anchors the line with decent footwork and is good at keeping his hips parallel to the LOS. He needs to improve his technique to fight double-teams, but this shouldn’t be an issue against a weak Wyoming OL. It remains to be seen how many times Swen will be able to spin out of Newton’s grasp come Saturday.
Vanderbilt @ Hawai’i (10:30 PM)
CB Jaylen Mahoney vs. WR Zion Bowens
NFL fans may be less interested in this game between an SEC basement-dweller and a Mountain West team in flux. But if fans are willing to stay up late for a classic late-night Hawai’i kickoff, they may be in for a treat. While Vanderbilt’s best chance of participating in the 2023 NFL Draft is Anfernee Orji, LBs don’t really have a direct counterpart for this article. With the return of the high-flying passing attack brought by Head Coach Timmy Chang to Hawai’i, Orji’s role may be limited to dropping back into a zone for most of the game. As a result, let’s shift focus to this highly-touted passing game.
Mahoney takes on the role of primary cover CB and will likely draw the assignment of Hawai’i #1 WR Zion Bowens. Mahoney lacks ideal size, and at 5’11”, you’d expect a much more agile DB. What he does bring to the table, however, is a scrappy mentality and the experience to back it up. In 2021, Mahoney finished third in tackles, second in sacks, and third in interceptions. What he lacks in physical ability, Mahoney more than makes up for it by sticking his nose in every play he can reach. Even with a stiff pedal, he is aggressive at the catch point and will fight and claw for every incompletion.
On the other side of the ball, Bowens is one of few returning offensive pieces for Hawai’i, giving him a leg up for chemistry with QB Brayden Schrager. All reports from camp indicate that Bowens continues to highlight his ability to stretch the field and get behind DBs. This skill set fits perfectly into what Chang wants to do with this offense. While not the biggest, nor the fastest, Bowens has a great sense of horizontal space on vertical concepts, boxing out DBs with his shoulders and hips to create angles for the catch. His speed is adequate for a deep threat, but won’t be unmanageable for SEC-level defenders. Expect Schrager to throw the ball a fair amount in this game. Bowens will likely be the target on a significant portion of those throws, where he’ll meet Mahoney all night.