The star players to watch in today’s opening game


    The 2020 college football season begins Saturday. Yes, you read that right: Austin Peay will play Central Arkansas (ESPN, 8 p.m. CT) on Saturday in the 2020 Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff in Montgomery, Alabama. 

    Central Arkansas (-4.5) is the favorite, according to William Hill. Both teams made the FCS playoffs last season, with Central Arkansas sharing the Southland Conference title with a 9-4 campaign (7-2 in the conference). The Governors went 7-1 to win the Ohio Valley Conference and finished 11-4 overall after reaching the FCS quarterfinals.

    Although each conference has canceled conference-only play, it has allowed its members to play non-conference games if they choose to. 

    Personally I’m excited to dig into some underrated talent on both sidelines. Let’s take a look at some of the top players on each team, starting with Central Arkansas and a guy who’s got some no-doubt NFL potential. 

    He’s the top NFL Draft prospect in the game and he’s not an afterthought in NFL circles. According to Bruce Feldman’s ‘Freaks List,’ Rochell has a 41-inch vertical, an 11-8 standing broad jump and has run sub-4.4 in the 40-yard dash. He does all that within a 6-1 frame. The bouncy corner picked off five passes in 2019 on his way to All-American status and has 10 interceptions for his career. Given the natural gifts and his status on the NFL radar well before the season, this could be a showcase money-making game for the Shreveport, La., native.

    One of the top sophomore quarterbacks in the FCS ranks in 2019, Smith set the single-season UCA passing mark with 3,704 yards and 32 touchdowns on 64.5 completion percentage. That all came after missing the previous season due to injury. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, this is a big season for Smith with the opportunity to emerge as an NFL prospect. He has a strong pedigree. His late mother played basketball and volleyball at UCA, his father played linebacker at Stephen F. Austin, his uncle Travian Smith played several years for the Oakland Raiders and another uncle, Ike Thomas, was a second round pick by the Dallas Cowboys.  

    A first team all-Southland Conference performer in 2019, Winningham had 814 yards receiving on 50 catches with eight touchdowns, all while missing four games with a broken arm. He’s listed at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds and he was critical in helping knock of Austin Peay in last year’s meeting, hauling in eight catches for 136 yards and two scores.

    The Southland Conference freshman of the year in 2019 and a freshman All-American, Hudson had 55 catches for 975 yards and 12 touchdowns in his debut season. That includes 120 yards and a touchdown against the Governors last September. That came after four catches and a touchdown in his collegiate debut against Western Kentucky, a win. The breakout performance wasn’t unexpected. He earned a three-star ranking by 247Sports out of Klein Oak in the Houston area, turning down a host of Ivy League offers and an offer from Rice to go to Central Arkansas. UCLA also took a long look at the 6-foot-2 talent after he had a strong camp showing prior to his senior season in high school.

    If you want to pinpoint the rise of the Austin Peay program from one of the worst programs in all of college football to an FCS playoff team, the commitment of Oatsvall is a good place to start. He was a three-star talent out of Middle Tennessee power Brentwood Academy that chose a winless Austin Peay program over offers from the service academies, a host of FCS powers and significant interest from FBS programs to play a position other than quarterback. His arrival for previous head coach Will Healy helped spark a flurry of commitments the likes of which did not typically consider APSU. Oatsvall, an undersized but athletic quarterback, was the OVC Freshman of the Year in 2017. Last fall, he was the preseason OVC Player of the Year but was knocked out for the season with injury against Central Arkansas in Week 2.

    Wilson is one of two players that has hit the radar of NFL scouts, though due to size limitations he enters his senior season as a prospect strictly on the periphery. To his credit, Wilson was voted OVC Preseason Player of the Year after a 2019 season that saw him amass 89 catches for 1,564 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s only 5-foot-9, working primarily out of the slot and is considered a mid-4.5 guy in NFL circles in terms of speed but Wilson is incredibly productive and finds the ball tends to find him, as does the end zone.   

    A consensus All-American in 2019 after putting together a monster season with seven interceptions, two returned for touchdown, 8 tackles for loss and 10 more pass breakups. Like Jackson, NFL scouts are monitoring. But also similar to Wilson, Jackson needs to calm concerns about size as he’s listed at 5-9, 185 pounds as is considered a high 4.5 guy in the 40. Physical traits aside, he’s a fun player on Saturdays. In addition to all of his interceptions, Jackson had two more forced fumbles, two recovered fumbles and two sacks and added a scoop and score to his touchdown total. A two-star out of Alabama, Jackson and Wilson were both part of that program changing 2017 recruiting class led by Oatsvall.

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    College football, Austin Peay Governors football, American football, NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, Ohio Valley Conference, Central Arkansas Bears and Sugar Bears

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