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College Football Playoff: Five best 2021 NFL Draft prospects with most to prove in CFP Semifinal

College Football Playoff: 2021 NFL Draft
Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) calls a play at the line of scrimmage during the third quarter of the NCAA football game at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa. on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Ohio State Faces Penn State In Happy Valley

The College Football Playoff kicks off on Friday with the new year beginning in style as four of the country’s top college football programs battle it out to play in the national championship game.

While there is plenty at stake in Friday’s games for all four programs, many of the athletes playing on Friday will also be putting a lot on the line. These teams have been carried by some of the best players in college football, like Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields and Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones.

Not only are they competing for a shot at a championship ring, but also to improve their standing for the 2021 NFL Draft. It’s something Trevor Lawrence doesn’t have to worry about as the surefire No. 1 overall pick.

Here are the five best 2021 NFL Draft prospects with something to prove in the College Football Playoff.

College Football Playoff schedule: When, where to watch top 2021 NFL Draft prospects

Here is the schedule for the 2020 College Football Playoff.

CFP Semifinal: Rose Bowl, No. 4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide

  • When: Jan. 1, 2021, 4 PM EST
  • Where: AT&T Stadium
  • TV: ESPN
  • Notre Dame – Alabama odds: Alabama (-20), O/U (65.5)

CFP Semifinal: Allstate Sugar Bowl, No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 2 Clemson Tigers

  • When: Jan. 1, 2021, 8 PM EST
  • Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome
  • TV: ESPN
  • Ohio State – Clemson odds: Clemson (-7.5), O/U (66.5)

College Football Playoff: 2021 NFL Draft prospects with most to prove

Related: NFL mock draft 2022 – Quarterbacks make NFL history

Barring a historic implosion in the College Football Playoff Semifinal, Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence will be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He is viewed as a generational talent, arguably the best quarterback prospect to enter the NFL Draft since Andrew Luck.0

With his draft stock safe, we examine the other top 2021 NFL Draft prospects with plenty to prove on Friday.

Justin Fields, quarterback, Ohio State Buckeyes

College Football Playoff: Justin Fields: 2021 NFL Draft
Dec 28, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) against the Clemson Tigers during the 2019 Fiesta Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When the 2020 college football season kicked off, there was some debate between Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence as the top prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft. The discussion has vanished, in part due to two horrible games from Fields, but he still offers undeniable talent.

Related: New York Jets will listen to offers for No 2 pick

We’ve seen Fields make all the throws you could ask for. He carries a rocket arm, with the ability to drop dimes anywhere on the field. He can also excel when plays break downs, using his tremendous athleticism to buy time before launching a 40-plus yard strike for a huge play.

Everyone is still thinking about his rough showings against Northwestern and Indiana. In those two starts, Fields completed just 30-of-57 pass attempts (52.6%) with a 2/5 TD/INT ratio. It’s worth noting that this is Fields’ second season as a starter and we saw struggles from Lawrence in his second season, too.

  • Justin Fields stats (2020): Six games, 72.6% completion rate, 15/5 TD/INT ratio, 174.5 quarterback rating, 253.5 pass yards/game. Five rushing touchdowns, 275 rushing yards.
  • Trevor Lawrence stats (2019): 15 games, 65.8% completion rate, 36/8 TD/INT ratio, 166.7 quarterback rating, 244.3 pass yard/game. Nine rushing touchdowns, 563 rushing yards.

Keep in mind, Fields played without multiple starting wide receivers and offensive linemen (COVID-19) in those games against Northwestern and Indiana. Fortunately, the Buckeyes are in great shape heading into the College Football Playoff.

Ohio State is an underdog against Clemson, but it will have a shot to pull off the upset. If Fields excels, showing poise against pressure and exploits Brent Venables’ defense, it should secure his status as the second-best prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Related: How the New York Jets can build around Justin Fields

Derion Kendrick, cornerback, Clemson Tigers

College Football Playoff: Derion Kendrick: 2021 NFL Draft
Dec 19, 2020; Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers cornerback Derion Kendrick (1) on the sidelines in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Derion Kendrick’s path to this moment isn’t typical. While he was a five-star recruit in the 2018 recruiting class by 247 Sports, he arrived at Clemson as a wide receiver. He hauled in 15 receptions for 210 yards in his freshman season, before transitioning to cornerback as a sophomore. At 6-foot with good hands and great athleticism, the past two years have been all about development.

Kendrick already proved he could develop quickly with his stellar play this season. Entering the College Football Playoff, per Pro Football Focus, he has surrendered only 105 receiving yards across eight games this season. Set to draw coverage against Ohio State receiver Chris Olave, a top-50 2021 NFL Draft prospect, this is Kendrick’s shot to prove he can shadow NFL-caliber receivers.

If he shines in coverage against Ohio State’s passing attack, it will do wonders for Kendrick’s draft stock. He already came into this weekend as a top-50 draft prospect and a strong showing could vault him into the first round.

Mac Jones, quarterback, Alabama Crimson Tide

College Football Playoff: Mac Jones: 2021 NFL Draft
Dec 19, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones (10) warms up before playing the Florida Gators in the SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2020 college football season, Mac Jones was likely viewed as a potential Day 3 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He showed flashes as a starter in 2019, following Tua Tagovailoa’s hip injury, completing 68.8% of his passes with a 14/3 TD/INT ratio and 186.8 quarterback rating. However, everyone wanted to see him over a full season.

Jones has answered with an outstanding season, becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist and helping carry this offense to the College Football Playoff. He enters Friday with 3,739 passing yards, a 32/4 TD/INT ratio, 202.3 quarterback rating and is completing 76.5% of his pass attempts.

The consensus All-American quarterback will be challenged to win a national championship. He isn’t a great athlete, so he must win exclusively from the pocket. While he doesn’t have great arm strength, Jones isn’t afraid to take vertical shots and is actually doing it more than Tagovailoa did.

Notre Dame’s defense has held up adequately against opposing quarterbacks this season, outside of facing Trevor Lawrence. Opponents average 224.5 passing yards and 6.9 yards per attempt against the Fighting Irish, with a 119.1 quarterback rating. While Jones lacks elite physical tools, capping off his season with a championship run and an MVP stretch in the CFB Playoffs could push him into the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, Notre Dame

College Football Playoff: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah: 2021 NFL Draft
Oct 26, 2019; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins (25) leaps over Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6) in the first half at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As the NFL games evolve with more speed, defensive coaches are looking for even better athletes to plug into their defenses. It’s especially crucial at linebacker, where players with the ability to cover sideline-to-sideline and who can drop back in coverage are cherished.

Owusu-Koramoah fits everything a defensive coordinator wants at linebacker. He can drop back in coverage against tight ends or running backs and thrive; Notre Dame even uses him in the slot at times. He also loves to hit people, with three forces fumbles this season.

Already a projected first-round pick in our latest 2021 NFL Draft mock, Owusu-Koramoah will be put to the test against Alabama’s offense. If he can help contain running back Najee Harris, while taking away the middle of the field, it would be huge for his draft stock. Even if Notre Dame doesn’t win, a strong showing could make Owusu-Koramoah a top-20 pick.

Travis Etienne, running back, Clemson Tigers

College Football Playoff: 2021 NFL Draft: Travis Etienne
Dec 19, 2020; Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers running back Travis Etienne (9) is tackled by Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Nick McCloud (4) in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson fans need to savor every last game they have of Travis Etienne. He owns the school’s record books and will go down as one of the most accomplished running backs in college football history. He surprised many by turning down the 2020 NFL Draft, with the intent of winning a second national championship.

Etienne is the most explosive player in the College Football Playoff. While it’s been a down year for him statistically, this is a running back who rushed for 4,038 yards, 56 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards per carry across his first three seasons with the Tigers.

Running the football won’t be easy against the Buckeyes. Ohio State allowed the seventh-fewest rushing yards (96.7) per game this season, with opponents averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. If Etienne breaks off a few big runs and continues to prove he is evolving as a pass-catcher, it may vault him into the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

College Football Playoff: Top 2021 NFL Draft prospects to monitor:

  • Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade
  • Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave
  • Ohio State running back Trey Sermon
  • Clemson Tigers wide receiver Amari Rodgers
  • Notre Dame edge rusher Adetokunbo Ogundeji
  • Notre Dame offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg
  • Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II
  • Alabama running back Najee Harris
  • Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore