The premier matchup on the docket this week is, as I’m sure you all know, the battle between Penn State and Ohio State. It’s a game that is sure to have not only College Football Playoff implications, but big-time NFL Draft implications as well. There are star-studded matchups all over the field in that game, not least of which is going to be the battle between Saquon Barkley and Jerome Baker. But, if you’ll bear with me this week, I’d like to take my Prospect Matchup of the Week piece in a different direction; one that’s much more near and dear to my heart, while also dropping a bit of knowledge on you.
Anyone who knows me personally knows that I’m a huge Iowa State fan. When you’re trying to establish yourself as a legitimate writer and talent evaluator, it’s crucial that you remain as impartial as possible. That’s a tough task when you’re a football fan, and it’s even more difficult when writing about the team you root for. It’s something that I face routinely while writing for NFL Spin Zone covering the Miami Dolphins. But fandom shouldn’t prevent objectivity. It’s with that in mind that the most intriguing battle of the week for me is Joel Lanning, Iowa State linebacker, running up against TCU running back Sewo Olonilua.
Coming into this season, Joel Lanning was a guy who was barely on my radar as a potential draft pick. For those of you who may be unaware of his story, Lanning had been Iowa State’s starting quarterback the previous two seasons. He had performed admirably by Cyclone standards at the position but was nothing to write home about. Certainly not a player I would have considered as anything more than an undrafted free agent. Lanning eventually lost his starting job to Jacob Park last season and was asked by the team to switch to the other side of the football. Thus Joel Lanning, the middle linebacker, was born.
When the season started, Lanning was a curiosity for me. I didn’t expect anything of him but wanted to keep my eye on him in case he did well with the change. More out of fandom for the Cyclones than out of any expectation I would be scouting him as a potential selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. But Lanning has far exceeded my expectations and has shown some flashes of a guy worthy of a day 3 selection. How well he shows up on a national stage against the best competition he’ll ever face, the TCU Horned Frogs, will go a long way towards telling us if Lanning is for real, or if this potential has just been a flash in the pan.
Lanning, along with some strong talent up front, has been a key cog in the Cyclones bursting onto the scene this year and vaulting into the AP top 25 for the first time in a decade. Lanning has displayed strong read-and-react skills, along with a tenacity you want to see from the leader of your defense. He certainly has a long way to go, but for having played the position for seven games, I think he’s flashed enough raw talent to be worth a 5-7th round selection. What he does today against the best talent they’ll face all season will go a long way towards confirming, or invalidating, that stance. Sewo Olonilua, Darius Anderson, and Kenny Hill are going to test his ability to run sideline-to-sideline in both the run game and passing game.
Before I get into it, keep in mind that Sewo Olonilua is a true sophomore, so he’s not draft eligible. However, add him to your watch list now because he’s going to be a polarizing running back in next year’s class.
— TexasFootball.com (@dctf) October 14, 2017
One of a two-headed monster in the Horned Frogs backfield, Olonilua is a player I liked coming into the year. As a true freshman last year he displayed good burst and agility and has been, in my opinion, criminally underused this season. Olonilua has shown flashes of a solid running back when given a chance to flourish. But chances have been hard to come by, especially of late. Olonilua has averaged over four yards per carry on the season but has only eclipsed 10 touches in three games this season. The last three games combined Olonilua has only touched the ball 12 times.
He’s made the most of those opportunities on the season, however, scoring six touchdowns on just 37 carries. He’s used primarily as a goal-line threat in the Wildcat, but at 6’3” and nearly 230 pounds, he has the potential to be a lot more than that, given the right landing spot. Olonilua is a guy who could be a valuable contributor in a “running back by committee” scheme, with the potential to take over as a primary back. If you’re a fan of Kalen Ballage in this year’s class, you’ll likely ride the Olonilua train in 2019.
If you’re looking to impress your buddies with your draft knowledge come this April and the next, remember the names Joel Lanning and Sewo Olonilua. If you’re a team looking for a potential steal at linebacker or some solid running back depth, these two could make you look really smart at a time where the casual fan has long since run out of names they know. Keep your eyes peeled; these guys could surprise.