Payton Wilson, Cam Ward Among Biggest Standouts Through Four Weeks Of CFB Season

By Devin Jackson

With a quarter of the college football season now complete, most teams will enter their conference schedules, to separate the College Football Playoff “contenders” and “pretenders.” Last weekend featured six ranked matchups, half of them coming from the Pac-12 alone, showcasing plenty of NFL Draft talent across the country – especially at the quarterback position. Oregon’s Bo Nix, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and North Carolina’s Drake Maye all put on a show in their respective matchups on Saturday, boosting an already deep quarterback class even more.

One quarterback in particular stole the show, though, and it wasn’t Caleb Williams. Washington State’s Cam Ward, in his second season with the Cougars after transferring from Incarnate Word, is having a sensational start to the 2023 season with 13 touchdowns (zero interceptions) while completing nearly 75% ofhis passes. Ward, along with a few other players, are among the biggest standouts through four weeks of the college football season and are eligible for the 2024 NFL Draft, set to take place in Detroit next April.

Cam Ward, QB, Washington State

Initially coming on my radar early in the 2021 season at Incarnate Word, Cam Ward’s arm talent has always been apparent, throwing from several different arm slots and simply flicking the ball to launch it deep downfield. However, his ability to make plays off-script and be an accurate distributor are shining in a big way during the 2023 season.

The post snap processing has taken a leap from previous years. Ward is looking offsafeties, consistently hitting the outside shoulder ofhis wideouts on vertical routes and is throwing with impressive anticipation. On out routes and curls, Ward is delivering the ball before his wideouts get their heads around. It’s all coming together for the Texas native, who should be getting just as much hype as the other Pac-12 quarterbacks.

If he can continue being accurate, especially under pressure, Ward could be pushing his name into the top 50 by the time Spring rolls around.

Payton Wilson, LB, NC State

There may not be a prospect who plays harder than NC State linebacker Payton Wilson, who, for the second season in a row, is healthy and impactful in every aspect ofthe game. At 6-4, 238 pounds, Wilson moves like a wide receiver, showing the ability to blitz effectively, shed blocks on the perimeter and the interior and chase down plays from behind or from the other side of the field. Wilson has next level speed and instincts, wreaking havoc as a pass rusher, as a run defender and even in coverage.

The injury history is extensive for Wilson (two knee surgeries, two shoulder surgeries) so it could ultimately drop him down on team boards in the spring, but if we’re strictly talking about on-field performance, no one may be as impressive as him at the linebacker position through four games. The Wolfpack standout has amassed 46 tackles (2.5 TFLs, 0.5 sack), a game sealing interception against UConn and two pass breakups. When you watch the NC State defense, number 11 won’t be hard to find. His teammate, Davin Vann, is worth the watch too.

Ben Sinnott, TE, Kansas State

An old-school, throwback tight end that will find a role as a middle-round selection in the spring is Kansas State tight end Ben Sinnott, who is quarterback Will Howard’s security blanket in the passing game. Sinnott doesn’t boast an athletic profile as other top tight ends taken in early rounds in years past, but his toughness, value as an insert blocker in the running game and ability to create after the catch is worth having on your team. He’s already on pace to out-produce his 2022 output (31 catches, 447 yards, 4 TD’s), amassing 16 receptions for 247 yards and two touchdowns in four starts this season.

His hands are extremely reliable in the passing game, with the ability to play out of his frame and extend his arms in traffic to make contested catches. He’s as steady as they come, and will immediately boost a tight end room with his skill set.

Bucky Irving, RB, Oregon

Bo Nix is engineering the Oregon offense that has been unstoppable this season, scoring 38 or more points in every game this season, but running back Bucky Irving is one of the toughest runners and finishers in the conference. At just 5-10, 195 pounds, Irving is small in stature, but finishes each run like he’s a 225 pound running back, a testament to his core strength and powerful lower half of his body.

Not only can Irving finish runs, but his elusiveness and natural feel for cutback lanes allows him to come out the backdoor ofholes and showcase his ability to make players miss in the open field. He adds value as a receiver out ofthe backfield too, turning small, checkdown yardage into explosive plays.

Irving is averaging a whopping 8.2 yards per carry this season, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Oregon will have their toughest game yet on October 14, against Washington, a game where Irving could continue to be a dual impact player for the Ducks offense.

James Thompson Jr, DL, Wisconsin

Aligning at five technique, as a one shade and even three technique, Wisconsin defensive lineman James Thompson Jr. is as versatile as they come. Possessing a lethal swim move, Thompson is a disruptive player who makes his presence known with his heavy hands and initial snap quickness to put offensive linemen on their heels. His motor runs hot, working tirelessly to chase down quarterbacks and running backs from the opposite side ofthe field.

Making seven starts last season, and coming on strong with four tackles for loss and two sacks over his last four games of 2022, Thompson already surpassed his sack total from last year with three so far this season. He, along with his teammate Ricardo Hallman, have been a force for the Badgers defense this season.

Feature Image Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Jackson

CFB/NFL Draft Analyst

Devin has been covering the NFL Draft since 2019 for various sites, including for the Philadelphia Inquirer most recently and follows college football closely all year round. Find him on Twitter @RealD_Jackson