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Which prospects should Chargers fans be watching in the Cotton Bowl?

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

And then there were four.

While the 2018 Bowl season is fun to watch on a cold winter’s day, the real story is, of course, the College Football Playoff. After much deliberation and a quick look at the resume, Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma will have a chance to head to San Francisco in January for a chance to be crowned the best of the best in the land.

While the Orange Bowl might be a higher scoring matchup thanks to the likes of Tua Tagovailoa and current Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, the Cotton Bowl might be the more exciting game for scouts. Both the Fighting Irish and Tigers have a plethora of NFL talent that will be featured in Arlington Saturday afternoon. With a talented defensive unit on both sides, this could be the top game for Chargers fans and scouts to be watching when kickoff rolls around.

We’ve covered three weeks of College Football bowl games, and hopefully, you’ve enjoyed our scouting process. One problem, however, we’ve only featured one player on every roster. That’s not the case today as the Cotton Bowl has a ton of potential future Bolts waiting to make their case and boost their draft status. Once again Jake Hefner comes out strong to help with another addition of Blooming Bolts. He’ll be taking on the Fighting Irish while yours truly covers Dabo Swinney’s impressive unit.

Just giving warning now so that you know who to call out in the comments section. Let’s kick this thing off, and the Cotton Bowl should be a game we all, including Tom Telesco, remember.

Clemson

DT Christian Wilkins

The Chargers defensive line might be switching some things up soon. Brandon Mebane is heading towards free agency at the age of 34, and it’s not a guarantee that the team will pick up Corey Liuget’s contract after suffering a season-ending knee injury. New isn’t always better, but it can be cheaper and work in the long run. Not matter what round the Bolts add one, fans should expect another defensive tackle to come off the board and head out west in April.

Dexter Lawrence might be herald as a better prospect by some of the more significant name players, but Wilkins actually projects to have a better career from the tape I watched. Also, Lawrence has been ruled out after failing a drug test, allowing the senior defensive tackle to gain ground in the draft race for the top defensive tackle. A smooth combination of both bull rusher and gap stopper, Wilkins does a fantastic job closing the gap up the middle and stuffing running back behind the line of scrimmage. Excellent at beating blocks thanks to his quick reaction time, most teams are forced to double team the defender to save their quarterback in the pocket.

Grading out as an early second round prospect, the Bolts could take Wilkins late in the first round and solidify their run defense along with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Wilkins is a game changer against the run and should help the Bolts remain on top of all the AFC rankings for years to come.

CB Trayvon Mullen

The Chargers secondary is in a bit of a pickle when looking at the long-term future. Desmond King is a stud but limited to a nickel/return man role. Casey Hayward had an offseason overall and could be beginning to decline in his overall play. Micheal Davis has shown flashes of growth but isn’t an ideal starter as of now. Both Trevor Williams and Jason Verrett should be gone after finishing the season on the injured reserved list. Telesco will likely target a cornerback at some point on day 2 or early day 3 in April.

Mullen might not be an elite cornerback, but he does have some promising skills that could merit a third round selection. At 6’1, Mullen fits the frame that most scouts look for in an outside cornerback. In coverage, the junior is physical with his opponents and limits the number of breakaways at the line of scrimmage. Perhaps stronger in a zone role, Mullen matches well with any receiving option and is aggressive in the air trying to cause turnovers.

While not an elite athlete, Mullen could be a versatile defender. Should he fail at cornerback, a move to free safety could benefit the Bolts long-term as well.

LB Kendall Joseph

Los Angeles will have plenty to decide this offseason about their linebacker room. Denzel Perryman will be coming off a season-ending injury while Jatavis Brown will be entering the final year of his contract. Kyle Emmanuel is at best a special teams player, and Kyzir White flashed promise at the WILL backer position. If the Bolts elect to move on from Perryman, a linebacker will be an early round pick for sure.

Electing to return for his redshirt senior season, Joseph’s stock hasn’t blossomed but remained in the same day 2 range. In three seasons as the team’s WILL linebacker, Joseph has been a tackling machine against the run, collecting 273 total tackles and a pair of interceptions. In coverage, Joseph is excellent at breaking down an offensive line and breaking out of his stance to play the run. A consistent tackler, the Tiger linebacker matches well with tight ends in coverage and can be a reliable defender to stop receivers after the catch.

While his shorter frame might not be ideal, a move inside to MIKE backer would allow Joseph to play the run better and eliminate short passes out of the backfield. If the Bolts wait until the third round to draft a linebacker, Joseph likely is on the short list.

OT Mitch Hyatt

Los Angeles will need to address their offensive line in either free agency or the draft for the future. Russell Okung still has one year left on his contract before the team will either elect to pick up his option or let him go. Michael Schofield, however, is up for a player-option deal following this season. If the Bolts feel comfortable with Forrest Lamp as their future guard, Schofield likely will hit the free agent pool.

While a three-year starter at left tackle for the Tigers offense, Hyatt might project better as a guard in the NFL. His blocking technique and arm length is weaker on the outside and could benefit playing against stockier players. Best in the run offense, the senior lineman does a decent job working the outside shoulder of his target and turning them away from the play. While a big project at the next level, Hyatt could be a swing tackle option that learns to play multiple roles on the offensive line for the future.

WR Hunter Renfrow

The Bolts wide receiver unit could be adding another Tiger this offseason. Tyrell Williams is heading toward free agency as of now, and the Chargers might just let him walk. Travis Benjamin is likely leaving as well following a weak 2018 campaign. Artavis Scott should be an option for the return game, but besides that, his receiving skills are limited to the red zone and short yardage situations.

While only a slot receiver, Renfrow would be a nice addition to Philip Rivers arsenal. A smooth route runner with the ability to win in soft coverage, Renfrow is a YAC machine, averaging 11.5 yards per catch for his career. Best used in short area plays, the senior receiver does a good job disguising his routes and winning against smaller defensive backs in the open field. Rivers could use a fourth option even if Williams re-signs. Renfrow is likely a day 3 pick and could be the missing piece that makes Los Angeles the offense to compete with moving forward.

Notre Dame

CB Julian Love

Love has been one of the most significant pieces of the Fighting Irish defense. In three years he compiled 174 tackles, six for loss, five interceptions (three for touchdowns) and 38 pass breakups. He doesn’t have the best measurables at 5’11, 193 pounds but he possesses the necessary traits for a starting caliber corner. Love displays good awareness and instincts when reading routes, contending passes and showing quality ball skills. He uses his hands well in off-coverage and has the speed to stay on top of receivers.

At the next level, Love will need to make some corrections to his footwork and his hand usage when in press coverage. Mel Kiper Jr. calls Love one of the more underrated prospects in college football and believes he has the potential to be a No.1 corner. He has yet to decide his future in the NFL, though he has received a 2nd round grade from pro scouts.

LB Drue Tranquill

As one of the most productive linebackers in college football this season. Tranquill is a high character prospect who plays physical with a relentless motor. A two-time captain for the Fighting Irish, Tranquill reads plays effectively and shows good awareness when in a zone defense. The fifth-year senior has registered 281 total tackles, 25.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks and three interceptions. Strong in the run game, Tranquill shows high football IQ and discipline as he won’t over pursue on tackles and blitzed from multiple positions in different defensive formations.

He has average athleticism for a player of his size (6’2, 233 pounds) but boasts a physical frame. While Tranquill has good experience, he has been limited in playing time as he has dealt with injuries, including two ACL tears. His injury history could be a red flag to NFL scouts, but if Tranquill can prove he is healthy, he could begin his NFL career as a quality backup.

DT Jerry Tillery

Originally recruited out of Evangel Christian Academy as an offensive lineman, Tillery was given a chance to contribute on Notre Dame’s defense as a freshman and quickly translated to his new position. The past two seasons have seen Tillery’s best production as he has recorded 84 total tackles, 17.5 for loss and 12.5 sacks. Undoubtedly his breakout performance came earlier this season against Clemson where Tillery was a one-man wrecking machine putting together 6 total tackles along with four sacks. At 6-foot-7, 305 pounds, Tillery has above average measurables for a player of his position and uses his length and power to his advantage. Perhaps the best trait in Tillery’s arsenal is his quickness.

Tillery is deceptively fast off the snap for a man of his size, capable of penetrating the gap and collapsing the pocket. The 20-year-old defensive lineman played with the notion of making the jump to the NFL last year but opted to return for his senior season. While his production has steadily improved, Tillery’s lack of versatility and consistency have been the biggest question marks among draft scouts. Long-term, Tillery could develop into an every-down starter, but will most likely begin his NFL career as a third-down pass rusher. Currently, Tillery projects as a late first or early second round pick.

LB Te’von Coney

Coney was another pillar of the Notre Dame defense this season. At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Coney is exceptionally athletic, playing with plenty of power and solid tackling ability. In his four years with the Irish, Coney has recorded 297 total tackles 22.5 for loss, 6.5 sacks, and one interception. Coney possesses tremendous speed, quickly reacting to the football with good anticipation.

However, he has limited range and can be a liability in coverage situations. Coney should see snaps on early downs and short yardage scenarios at the next level. Overall, 2018 has given a bump to Coney’s draft stock as Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline ranked Coney as a mid-fourth round selection to begin the season, but now believes that he is currently working his way into the Day 2 of the draft.

TE Alize Mack

Hunter Henry is one of the up and coming tight ends in the league. He’s coming off a torn ACL however and could need a year of full-time play to gain back that status. Antonio Gates will retire this season, and Virgil Green is no longer a solid secondary option. The Chargers should find a second man just in case Henry’s progression reaches a screeching halt.

Notre Dame is known for producing excellent tight end in the NFL and Mack could be the next one. Although relatively new in a starting role, the 6-4, 251-pound tight end could be a solid option in the red zone offense. A good blocker in space, Mack can help produce quality rushing yards in the open field. A mismatch against linebackers and slot cornerbacks, his route running will need to improve but should win a majority of battles. A quarterback can never have too many weapons. Mack would be a nice red zone threat.