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One prospect Jets fans should watch in each of this weekend’s bowl games

James Empey, BYU, Jets, Draft, 2022
James Empey, BYU, Getty Images

The holiday season gets underway with two games on Friday

College bowl season gets back underway on Friday afternoon. Who should Jets fans keep an eye on this weekend? Jet X investigates a prospect from each team.

Bahamas Bowl (Friday, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Middle Tennessee: S Reed Blankenship

The reclamation of the safety spot in the post-Jamal Adams era is set to continue this offseason. If this cursed campaign has proved anything, it’s that the Jets need some help in the secondary, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Marcus Maye.

Blankenship, MTSU’s all-time leading tackler, could become an attractive Saturday option as a speedy, physical defender who would embrace Robert Saleh’s famous “all gas, no brake” philosophy.

Toledo: OL Vitaliy Gurman

With the Mekhi Becton malady threatening to reach season-long proportions, the Jets may look to expand on their blocking depth. Gurman has proven to be a versatile option that has paved the way for the Rockets’ strong run game. He most often lines up at the left tackle role that Becton normally occupies but has also been valuable in interior roles.

Cure Bowl (Friday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Coastal Carolina: TE Isaiah Likely

Even if you haven’t kept up to date on Chanticleer football this season, you’ve likely (pun intended) seen the 6’4, 245-pound tight end pop up on your social media timeline.

But, on a serious note, Likely has developed himself into an athletic scoring option through 25 touchdown grabs over the last four seasons (one of which was a 99-yard run to glory in a four-score day against Arkansas State in October).

Likely might have to improve his blocking abilities but there are few mid-major prospects this capable of contributing immediately. The Jets’ issues at tight end make scouting Likely a no-brainer.

Northern Illinois: OT Marques Cox

Another blindside stud who could serve as an intriguing day three project, Cox’s strong footwork and ability to contribute off the edge could work well in an offense that’s looking to utilize not only the talents of Zach Wilson but those of Michael Carter as well. With Cox as an anchor, NIU’s rushing attack finished second in the MAC this season.

Boca Raton Bowl (Saturday, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN)

Western Kentucky: DE DeAngelo Malone

Shcoking news here, but when the Jets’ pass rush has worked, good things have happened. New York is 3-2 this season when earning at least three sacks.

Malone has taken care of that department and then some, as he’s not only WKU’s all-time leader in quarterback takedowns (33) but is also second in Conference USA history with 58 tackles for a loss (passing current Jet and Marshall alum Vinny Curry).

Appalachian State: LB D’Marco Jackson

Most of the hype around Boca Raton has surrounded WKU’s offense, namely QB Bailey Zappe. A tall task thus awaits the Mountaineers’ defense, which shared top unit duties with Coastal Carolina in the Sun Belt this season.

The Jets could take a look at the experienced names in the ASU secondary (i.e. CB Steven Jones or S Ryan Huff), but the star defensive attraction is Jackson, the Sun Belt’s new Defensive Player of the Year. If Jackson can complement his downhill attack with improved coverage, the Jets could find a diamond in the rough hidden in Boone.

Celebration Bowl (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET, ABC)

South Carolina State: CB Decobie Durant

A converted quarterback, Durant has made up for his relatively small size (5’10, 175 lbs.) with a strong athleticism and downhill ability (which makes his run defense an invaluable weapon). Though his MEAC games are often designated for the streaming apps, Durant provided a strong showcase during the Bulldogs’ opening game against Clemson, where he earned two interceptions.

Jackson State: EDGE James Houston

Deion Sanders’ coaching endeavor has mostly centered around JSU’s revamped offense headlined by QB Shedeur Sanders. But Houston, a transfer from Florida, has headlined the Tigers’ defense and has made a strong NFL case for himself to the tune of 20.5 tackles for a loss, including 14.5 sacks. His efforts were rewarded with the SWAC’s Newcomer of the Year Award.

New Mexico Bowl (Saturday, 2:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)

UTEP: WR Jacob Cowing

It’s possible that Cowing is a prospect more worthy of the 2023 draft. The 5’11, 170-lb. junior could potentially up his stock by sticking in El Paso for another season.

But there’s no denying the speedy impact he could have as a day three draft entrant. Cowing has earned at least 150 yards in five games this season and helped the Miners end a seven-year bowl drought.

Fresno State: WR Jalen Cropper

Cropper was able to continue his strong connection with touted QB Jake Haener, who opted to stick around in The Valley after briefly entering the transfer portal. Cropper has reached Bulldog heights last reached by current NFL playmaker Davante Adams and has received late second-round grades from Bleacher Report.

His athleticism has helped him shoot up the draft boards and, with the Jets blessed with extra capital in the middle stages, Cropper could become an intriguing playmaker in green, especially if the team opts to move on from Denzel Mims.

Independence Bowl (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

UAB: TE Gerrit Prince

Another guy named Gerrit making an impact on New York sports? It’s almost as unlikely as Prince’s college football story, involving a rise from community college to become one of the Blazers’ most impactful contributors.

Prince has emerged as a reliable goal-line prescience, hauling in a dozen touchdowns over the last two seasons. The Jets brought in Tyler Kroft to potentially fulfill that role this year but injuries have prevented him from making a true impact.

BYU: C James Empey

Do the Jets dare return to the fountain of “youth”? Empey has dealt with injury woes and enters as a 25-year-old prospect but uniting Zach Wilson with his collegiate center could be an interesting idea that pays big dividends.

Empey probably could’ve been an early day three pick had he declared for the 2021 selections but opted to come back for another year.

LendingTree Bowl (Saturday. 5:45 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eastern Michigan: S Alvinoski LeFleur

LeFleur garnered SEC attention after gaining star status on the JUCO circuit. He headlined an EMU defense that finished seventh in the nation in red zone touchdown rate. He’ll likely need a strong, athletic showing at Indianapolis’ Combine to solidify his draft stock, but he has displayed good ability in both coverage and tackling.

Liberty: EDGE Durell Johnson

Though Johnson, another JUCO stud turned FBS contributor, isn’t the most athletic pass rusher – nor is his size ideal (235 lbs.) – his athletic abilities make him a strong backfield invader. Injuries have limited him to seven games after he tallied eight sacks in 2020, so he might need a good game on Mobile to impress the NFL scouts in attendance.

LA Bowl (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Utah State: WR Deven Thompkins

Whatever offensive success the Jets have had has partly stemmed from the slot position, namely through the efforts of Jameson Crowder and Braxton Berrios. With both up for free agency this spring, the Jets could keep an eye on Thompkins, whose smaller frame (5’8, 155 lbs.) likely has him destined for slot duties if/when the NFL comes calling.

Oregon State: ILB Avery Roberts

A transfer from Nebraska, Roberts established himself as one of the Pac-12’s top tacklers over the last two seasons (leading the conference in the stat each time). While his coverage needs some help, his ability to stop the run has proven invaluable.

If the Jets choose to move on from current interior man C.J. Mosley, Roberts could help partially fill the gap as a day three project.

New Orleans Bowl (Saturday, 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Louisiana: LB Chauncey Manac

With head coach Billy Napier having begun his new endeavor at Florida, the Cajuns will look to rely on some veteran leadership for a de facto home game against Marshall.

Manac has had an interesting career that began at Georgia. He went through a JUCO phase and ended up third in Sun Belt sacks this year with 10.5, allowing him to play his way into mock draft discussions. Manac has earned high praise for his ability to work in congested areas through his play down low.

It’s unfortunate that the Jets can’t keep an eye on right tackle and All-American nominee Max Mitchell, who will miss the game with a hand injury.

Marshall: CB Steven Gilmore

Gilmore’s another junior prospect (afforded an extra season due to COVID-19-related eligibility rules) who would likely be better off waiting until 2023. The cornerback market is a little too deep to make an impact and he’s another one that has to stave off concerns about his size (169 lbs., though his 6’2 length could work in his favor next year).

But there’s no doubt Gilmore has accomplished plenty in his career with the Thundering Herd and his efforts were rewarded with second-team Conference USA honors this year.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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