Predictions for Malik Zaire, Scott Pagano and College Football's Top Free Agents

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 7, 2017

Predictions for Malik Zaire, Scott Pagano and College Football's Top Free Agents

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    Former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire
    Former Notre Dame quarterback Malik ZaireJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    There are plenty of college football players who will suit up for their new teams this spring as the first wave of transfers already are settling in at their newest stomping grounds.

    But those guys aren't the only players seeking a fresh start. Several other potential high-profile athletes are still on the market as college football's version of free agency heats up.

    With spring practice having already started or just around the corner for schools across the nation, and with the semester too old for players to enroll in time to be eligible for the spring, numerous players are still making their final decisions.

    Many of those are players who could make an instant impact in 2017 as well.

    By now, you don't have to be an avid follower of college football to know that former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire and Clemson defensive tackle Scott Pagano are two of the biggest names out there looking for new homes.

    Other potential studs are available, too. So, let's take a look at some of college football's most sought-after free agents and take a swing in the dark at where they may wind up.

Jeff Badet, Wide Receiver

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    Kentucky may not be nearly as known for producing stud football players as basketball players, but head coach Mark Stoops enjoyed a 2016 campaign that helped rejuvenate a dormant program.

    That was mainly because of an upstart offense that found a bunch of weapons, such as quarterback Stephen Johnson as well as running backs Boom Williams and Benny Snell Jr. Receiver Jeff Badet emerged as a breakout star as well, gaining 670 yards and scoring four touchdowns.

    Now, he's bolting Lexington for his final season. The primary landing spots appear to be West Virginia and Oklahoma, two schools with which WVMetroNews.com's Allan Taylor notes the receiver has ties. 

    West Virginia graduate assistant Michael Burchett was previously at Kentucky, while Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is the older bother of Wildcats coach Mark Stoops.

    "Kentucky doesn’t throw the ball a lot, which is why he’s looking for a new location," Rivals.com writer Keenan Cummings told Taylor. "He wants to play in an offense that’s going to suit his skills more, and put the football in the air. He’s got one year left and he wants to show what he can do."

    Badet already has visited Morgantown, and he could wind up there, but WVU must survive a visit to see the Sooners this weekend. With quarterback Baker Mayfield back for his senior season and with Dede Westbrook gone, OU has a lot to sell.

    The bet here is the Sooners are too tough to pass up.

    Prediction: Oklahoma

Aaron Cochran, Offensive Tackle

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    California stud left tackle Aaron Cochran flirted with heading to the NFL a season early; that's how good a prospect he is.

    Instead, the former Bear elected to come back for his senior season, and now, the massive 6'8", 350-pound mauler is looking for a new home. Wherever he lines up this fall, he's almost certain to bolster an offensive line for a season before heading to the pros.

    Whoever gets a road-grading, pass-blocking monster like Cochran is going to be fortunate. He has played in 28 games with 16 starts over his Cal career.

    While the choices remain cloudy at this time, Cochran is scheduled to visit Oklahoma State this weekend, according to GoPokes.com's Robert Allen. Other teams could find their way into the mix, including Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Wolverines, who need linemen in the worst way.

    Cochran could make the cross-country trip to Ann Arbor, but with the Wolverines a primarily run-first team, it may be a bit of a gamble for him to make that large of a leap. On one hand, he could prove he's more of a complete lineman. On the other, going to a more pass-oriented scheme may make him more comfortable.

    That's why the safe money here is on the Cowboys. With head coach Mike Gundy entrenched at his alma mater, with the Pokes bringing back quarterback Mason Rudolph and a slew of receivers, they're going to throw the ball. A lot.

    They need an anchor such as Cochran holding down the fort up front. 

    Prediction: Oklahoma State

Breiden Fehoko, Defensive Tackle

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    John Weast/Getty Images

    Because of the high profile of his name and the program where he played last year, Scott Pagano is a name thrown around by everybody around college football when it comes to transfers.

    But he may not even be the top defensive tackle prospect on the market.

    That distinction would be battled by Texas Tech transfer Breiden Fehoko, who was once an elite prospect recruited by tons of schools out of Hawaii and an Under Armour All-American. In two seasons with the Red Raiders, he started 25 games.

    Now, everybody seems to want in on him (again) the second time around. Though there are a lot of suitors, Fehoko may be focusing on SEC programs such as Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss. BYU is also a possible option, and if Alabama decides to pop in with an offer, the Crimson Tide could be in the mix.

    Right now, however, head coach Ed Orgeron's Tigers are the popular pick making the push, according to Fehoko, via Geaux247's Shea Dixon.

    Oh man, I think when you talk about LSU they put a big emphasis on the defensive line there. With Coach O, Coach [Pete] Jenkins and Coach [Dave] Aranda, all across the board they are d-line coaches by trade. You look at how many years Coach O has coached the d-line. And to know he is with the defensive line every day, as well as Coach Jenkins, who is one of the most legendary coaches in the game. To me, that means a lot. 

    That sounds like a massive feather in the cap of the Bayou Bengals in being the recipient of Fehoko's final two seasons of eligibility. There are still several twists and turns in this recruitment, but Fehoko sounds like LSU's to lose right now. 

    Prediction: LSU

Brandon Harris, Quarterback

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    While LSU potentially may be taking away a stud like Fehoko, it's also giving one back in talented quarterback Brandon Harris.

    For whatever reason, Harris became a poster child for the Tigers' troubles when it came to recruiting and developing signal-callers over the final few years of head coach Les Miles' and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's tenure.

    The 6'3", 206-pound dual-threat signal-caller always had the arm strength and wheels to excel. But when the lights came on, his game turned off. He could never be consistently effective, and in his career in Baton Rouge, the quarterback threw for 2,745 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

    He added 370 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, but Danny Etling beat him out a season ago. Now, he's leaving his home state.

    Where will he end up?

    There seem to be several options out there, but the most consistent one you hear associated with Harris is North Carolina, who must replace Mitch Trubisky. Though the Tar Heels may like to have Malik Zaire more, Harris is a more likely option.

    SEC Country's Alex Hickey noted the tie to UNC is Miles' son, Manny, who is a walk-on there, and there is reported mutual interest. It seems like a golden opportunity for Harris who can fill a void that Trubisky vacated and learn under quarterback guru and head coach Larry Fedora.

    So, the Heels could be a good final destination for Harris.

    Prediction: North Carolina

Jalen Hurd, Running Back

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Former Tennessee running back and three-year starter Jalen Hurd was galloping toward the school's all-time leading rushing mark in his junior season a year ago before abruptly deciding to leave the team.

    Rumors abounded, but the official reasoning for Hurd's decision was listed as wanting to go to another program and reinvent his career or perhaps expand his role, catching more passes in a tight end or wide receiver role, according to the Courier-Journal's Steve Jones

    Thus far, Hurd has visited Ohio State, California and Louisville, with Oregon reportedly in the mix for his ultimate destination as well.

    Though it's difficult seeing a player with Hurd's size and strength playing anywhere but running back, it will be interesting to see if he does wind up at another position. Wherever he lands, he's going to have to sit out the entire 2017 season. 

    But an athlete with Hurd's upsize and experience could be a major coup for another program, especially if that program can convince him to stay in the offensive backfield, where he was a definite NFL prospect.

    A place where Hurd could seemingly expand his horizons and remain a running option as well would be with head coach Bobby Petrino's Cardinals. Though Ohio State's Urban Meyer recruited Hurd out of high school and may be an option, Petrino is an offensive wizard who can put Hurd in multiple positions.

    Those two options look like the best for Hurd, and Louisville could be the beneficiary of Hurd leaving Rocky Top. Right now, his entire recruitment is up in the air.

    Prediction: Louisville

Brandon McIlwain, Quarterback

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    It may have come as a surprise last week when South Carolina quarterback Brandon McIlwain decided to transfer from the Gamecocks after his redshirt freshman year.

    Look deeper, though, and it's obvious head coach Will Muschamp has found his quarterback of the future in Jake Bentley.

    That means McIlwain will look elsewhere, and though there haven't been any guesses or reports about where he'll wind up, his career could go a lot of different directions.

    He is one of the biggest wild cards on this entire list for several reasons.

    McIlwain was a highly touted baseball prospect coming out of high school in Newtown, Pennsylvania, before choosing the Gamecocks, where he played both sports. Though he rarely got on the diamond for the loaded Gamecocks, he could go to a school and play both sports again.

    He also could go to JUCO and focus on football to transfer to a larger program, or he could play JUCO baseball and head to the MLB draft with a quality season.

    Though they've not been noted as one of his options, the Temple Owls would be an ideal fit. According to the Temple News' Owen McCue, the Owls are looking for a new quarterback after Phillip Walker's career ended.

    That's near McIlwain's home, and he took a visit to Temple during his recruitment. That would get McIlwain closer to home and give former Florida defensive coordinator and new Owls head coach Geoff Collins a viable option at signal-caller for a couple of years.

    It all makes too much sense, right? This has to happen. 

    Prediction: Temple

Scott Pagano, Defensive Tackle

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    It's ironic that both big, star defensive tackles on this list are Hawaiian maulers who are going to make a couple of teams happy this offseason.

    Arguably the biggest name on the list is Scott Pagano, a 6'4", 295-pound graduate transfer who was basically a third starter for the national champion Clemson Tigers and head coach Dabo Swinney a season ago.

    According to 247Sports' Tom Loy, Pagano's production is incredible despite limited action. He recorded 93 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, seven quarterback pressures and one pass breakup in 705 career snaps for the Tigers.

    Now, he can go anywhere, and he took a visit to Notre Dame this past weekend. Other reported potential destinations are Oregon, Oklahoma, Cal, Nebraska, Texas and Arkansas.

    “We all wanted him to stay, but he said he had accomplished everything he wanted to do at Clemson," Swinney said in the statement, according to the South Bend Tribune's Tyler James (via NDInsider.com). "He came here to graduate and win a national championship, and he achieved both within the last two months. He indicated to me that he wants to start his graduate degree and play his final year of college football, probably on the West Coast."

    Pagano may wind up at a Pac-12 school such as Oregon or Cal, and that would make a lot of sense due to his Hawaiian home. But the Fighting Irish have a history of luring players from the islands. 

    Though the Irish had a disappointing 4-8 season a year ago, getting a player of Pagano's ilk to anchor that defensive line would be a major coup. 

    Prediction: Notre Dame

Thomas Sirk, Quarterback

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    Lance King/Getty Images

    When Duke lost quarterback Thomas Sirk this week to transfer, the Blue Devils lost a player who may go down as one of the best players in head coach David Cutcliffe's tenure.

    But they didn't lose their starter.

    That distinction belongs to Daniel Jones, who played admirably a season ago despite Duke's 4-8 final record. Jones was thrust into action when Sirk suffered the second Achilles injury of his career, costing him the entire 2016 season. He also missed 2013 with the same injury.

    After the NCAA granted Sirk a sixth season of eligibility, the Glen St. Mary, Florida, product will be using that season to play for another team. 

    It's so early that the details of who he's looking at haven't cleared. All we know is Sirk won't play for another ACC team or anybody on the Blue Devils' schedule. 

    So, where will he go?

    An ideal situation could materialize in his home state. If the SEC loosens its graduate transfer policy, the Gators could wind up taking a swing at Sirk. They've already been mentioned in Zaire circles, and while that makes a lot of sense, Sirk makes more.

    But the school that makes the most sense is East Carolina, where former Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery is leading the program. The Gators pursuing would make this interesting, but, for now, Sirk seems like a perfect fit for the Pirates.

    Prediction: East Carolina

Malik Zaire

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Two of Malik Zaire's three most-discussed options already have been mentioned in North Carolina and Florida, and the former Notre Dame signal-caller could wind up at either of those places.

    It seemed he was a lock for the Tar Heels, after all, before national signing day, until other teams decided to join the mix. Now, the 6'0", 225-pound quarterback who lost his job to DeShone Kizer while in South Bend, may be heading to the Big Ten.

    Zaire would love to revitalize his career after massive expectations fizzled with the Fighting Irish. In the space of three seasons, he's thrown for just 816 yards and six touchdowns. Still, his talent makes him a coveted commodity.

    He won the Music City Bowl MVP in 2014 in his first career start, and he started the first two games in '15 before breaking his ankle. Last year, it was Kizer's show.

    While the Gators or Heels could be where he winds up, a popular, trending choice could be Wisconsin. Head coach Paul Chryst is a known quarterback developer, and Zaire seems to fit best in a pro-style scheme. Back in December, ESPN.com's Matt Fortuna noted Zaire's offensive desires.

    "Pittsburgh is also in the running for Zaire's services, the source said, while adding that Auburn expressed some initial interest but would be a long shot given Zaire's desire to avoid a zone-read offense in favor of a pro-style set," Fortuna wrote.

    The Badgers would be an ideal fit, and though any of those three options could be his destination, Zaire would look good in red. 

    Prediction: Wisconsin

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