College football fans and NFL draft enthusiasts were treated to the return of one of its classic rivalry games this week, as Pittsburgh and West Virginia renewed their famous Backyard Brawl after a decade hiatus. The return was exciting enough that it became the highest-attended Pittsburgh sporting event of all time with over 70,000 fans in attendance.
The game certainly didn’t disappoint, with multiple lead changes and a dramatic finish. West Virginia came up just short (quite literally) in the final seconds to give Pitt the victory, with Mountaineers QB JT Daniels unable to convert on a long fourth down to extend the game. Here is hoping they will play again sooner despite all of the changes to college football happening fast.
I came into the Backyard Brawl with a NFL draft few prospects in mind I was excited to see, but my attention ended up going to a few unexpected players who are now on my radar. Let’s start by taking a look at two players who aren’t draft-eligible, but are guys to watch for the future.
Future NFL Draft Prospects Donaldson and Hammond, Jr Shine in Backyard Brawl
Coming into the game I expected last year’s leading rusher for Pitt, junior RB Israel Abinikanda, to lead the rushing attack for the Panthers. Instead, sophomore RB Rodney Hammond Jr got the bulk of the carries with 16 rushes for 74 yards and two scores.
That stat line isn’t anything special in college football, but the burst and quickness he showed to go along with great toughness between the tackles was impressive to watch. He also had a 49-yard reception that showed off his speed in the open field. Definitely a player I will be keeping an eye on.
West Virginia’s leading rusher on the day also was a surprise, but for a completely different reason. Freshman tight end/running back CJ Donaldson was absolutely electric in his college debut, finishing with seven carries for 125 yards and a TD. He even blocked a punt that led to his only score of the day on a bruising five-yard run.
Listed at 6’2 and 240 pounds, he showed impressive burst and straight-line speed for such a big guy. He used that size to his advantage as well, bouncing off tacklers on his only touchdown of the day. It was a small sample size and he is only a freshman, but don’t be surprised if he is a popular name in NFL draft circles very soon.
Pitt’s 2023 NFL Draft Prospects Fail to Impress in Backyard Brawl
I was excited to watch NFL draft prospects like Habakkuk Baldonado and Calijah Kancey along Pitt’s defensive line after their impressive 2021 seasons, but they failed to make a huge impact in the Backyard Brawl. Baldonado didn’t play as much as I expected, and his most notable play was probably his taunting penalty that got West Virginia off their own goal line.
Kancey already has question marks about his size (6’0, 280), and in this game, it showed up in the run game. He didn’t impact the passing game much either, as he struggled to get off blocks and pressure Daniels. I think both players will ultimately have good seasons, but this wasn’t the best start for either of them.
Kedon Slovis was another player I was curious about now that he moved on from USC. He burst onto the scene with an electric freshman season in 2019, and NFL draft buzz immediately followed. He has regressed every season since, however, failing to establish himself as an NFL-caliber talent.
The shoulder injury he suffered in 2021 seems to have sapped some of his arm talent as well — which wasn’t a huge strength of his to begin with. He played well overall in this game, showing poise and accuracy down the stretch. I doubt he will be a highly-touted NFL draft prospect ever again, but he is worth keeping an eye on.
West Virginia Prospects Shine Despite Loss
The two players I was focusing on going into the game, JT Daniels and Dante Stills, both played well, especially Stills. However, it was a receiver who grabbed my attention early.
Bryce Ford-Wheaton isn’t an unknown player by any means. He was featured on Bruce Feldman’s popular list of freak athletes in college football for a reason. Standing over 6’3 and 225 pounds with surprising speed, he has always had immense potential. His numbers thus far have been lackluster, but the redshirt junior has never had a quarterback who could get him the football consistently.
Now with Daniels in the fold, Ford-Wheaton immediately made an impact with nine grabs for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately, he also dropped an easy catch that was intercepted and returned for the game-winning TD, but nobody is perfect. He was still a big reason they were in the game. If he can avoid drop issues, he could be a name to remember.
Daniels had a good game in his own right, but his lack of elite arm talent is easy to see — just as it was with Slovis. After failing to win the starting job last season with Georgia, this was Daniels last chance to be a starting QB. I think he will be a good player for the Mountaineers, but his NFL prospects seem unlikely to materialize.
NFL Draft Prospect of the Game: Dante Stills
The final and maybe most impressive player I was watching for was Dante Stills. The interior defensive lineman has made a huge impact for the Mountaineers. He was excellent in 2021 for the West Virginia defense, racking up seven sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
At 6’4, 285 pounds, he is an excellent athlete with plenty of quickness and get-off to pressure the QB. What I was most intrigued by in this game, though, was seeing him line up on the edge on early downs, and then kicking inside on passing downs.
That versatility will be important with him being a bit light for an interior player, but his play strength didn’t seem like an issue this game. He finished with a sack and a half to go along with a forced fumble and five total tackles.