Kraft Fight Hunter Bowl
Boston College vs. Nevada
9 pm EST on ESPN
This is not a sexy bowl game, but there are a few noteworthy prospects. For BC, the two players to keep your eyes on are OLB Mark Herzlich and OT Anthony Castonzo. Herzlich as most know came back from cancer last year. I saw him earlier in the season and it was clear to me that he had lost something. I'm curious to see now whether he's gotten better. HIs burst, change of direction, and ability to play in space just weren't quite there at the beginning of the season. Before his cancer, Herzlich was a potential Top 15 pick that would have been a top fit in a 3-4 scheme at OLB. He still projects best in that scheme, but based off what I saw of him earlier in the season, I would project him now to be a 4th round prospect.
Castonzo is also projected as a potential 1st round pick going into the season, but I'm not sure that will be the case unless he has a strong off-season. But I'm sure he'll be a 2nd round pick. He's not the biggest player (6-7/295) but he has good feet and technique. He's a similar player to Sam Baker in that he projects best in a zone-blocking scheme that prefers its linemen to get position rather than push. He can be a very effective starter, but only in the right scheme.
For Nevada, also two players should stand out on both sides of the ball. QB Colin Kaepernick is big at 6-6/220 with a cannon for an arm and very good mobility and running skills. I've seen Kaepernick since he was a freshman starter however, and I'm not convinced he's made a ton of improvement over the years as a passer. His decision making is still erratic, particularly when it comes to running around and he'll take too many sacks. NFL teams will love his arm strength and he has a chance to move up boards as a mid-round QB, but in my eyes he's at best a 6th/7th round project.
On defense is the player most likely to go first for Nevada in OLB/DE Dontay Moch. Moch is a top athlete, that I've heard some people say can run a sub 4.3 40. Might be an exaggeration, but nonetheless he's a guy that likely will shine at the combine and in the off-season, so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if he is a 1st round pick when it's all said and done. He isn't super big (6-1/240), but is a very productive pass rusher with a dangerous first step and good straight-lien speed. Despite his athleticism, I think he's too one-dimensional, not sure he has the hips to play in coverage and doesn't play with great awareness. But he's talented and could draw comparisons to Robert Mathis/Cameron Wake.
Nobody else really jumps out at you in this game for Nevada. Nevada TE Virgil Green isn't very big and projects as an H-back in the pros. But he has good hands despite not having great speed, but could be a late round pick. OG John Bender is really big (6-8/330), but might be too tall for his own good because he doesn't get much push and mgiht be limited to being a backup in a zone blocking scheme. RB Vai Taua is productive and has good power, but you're not sure if his lack of burst and speed is going to allow him to stick in the pros.
For BC, I saw somewhere that junior CB Donnie Fletcher is thinking of coming out. Haven't really watched him before so this will be a chance to get a look at him if that is the case. Besides Castonzo, BC has two decent senior starters up front in OG Thomas Claiborne and RT Rich Lapham. Lapham has good size (6-8/325) but his feet are too slow and his technique isn't good enough to make up for it. Claiborne is a widebody (6-2/330) that is good in a short-area, but his technique and footwork need a lot of work, and he's a project.
Tostitos BCS National Championship
Auburn vs. Oregon
8:30 pm EST on ESPN (Monday)
OK, now we're at the point we've all been waiting for. Most of the NFL talent will be featured on Auburn's roster, and most of that talent will be featured in two players: QB Cam Newton and DT NIck Fairley.
Newton is a dynamic athlete. Every year it seems that some QB prospect wows me with his arm strength, but Newton has done so again, making me question whether or not he has the best arm I've ever seen. I've seen him throw a 60-yard pass on a frozen rope. And coupled with his athleticism, that is at a level that we haven't seen since Michael Vick, you can be convinced that Newton is going to make plays at the next level, assuming he decides to come out. The issue with Newton is whether or not he'll develop the pocket passing skills to truly maximize his talent. His footwork and mechanics are very sloppy and raw and he's a very unpolished passer. Another year would do him wonders, and also answer questions about his intangibles (i.e. his desire to get better as a passer) which are going to make or break his NFL career in the long run. Eventually the NFL always catches up, just like it did with Vick and Vince Young, and you cannot run your way to the Super Bowl in the NFL at the QB position.
Fairley might be the No. 1 pick, particularly if he shines in this game. He's a dominant pass rusher, and his ability to get upfield penetration will likely make or break Auburn's success in this game. I do like Fairley's talent, but I'm not personally enamored with him. I don't really like his motor, and I've heard concerns about his work ethic, and I'm sure while everybody wants to compare him to Warren Sapp or Ndamukong Suh, I don't think that he's that good. As a run defender, he's hit or miss. But despite this issues, it's obvious he has the potential to be a dominant 4-3 under tackle.
As far as senior prospects go for Auburn, ILB Josh Bynes probably tops this list. Bynes is a physical run defender that the only concerns about him is his range and coverage ability. I've seen flashes of both in games, but I've seen other times where he looks lost when you force him outside the hashmarks or into coverage. He'll be a guy that can fit well in a 3-4 scheme because of those issues better than he can in a 4-3. He'll likely be a 3rd/4th round pick.
OT Lee Ziemba is a guy that I've liked for two years now, but apparently a lot of draftniks are just lukewarm over. He's nothing special as a prospect, but he's polished and very effective. He's not a premier LT prospect, but his feet and technique are good enough for him to get by there. I think he projects much better as a RT in a zone-blocking scheme where he can be like a less athletic Eric Winston.
Besides Fairley, Auburn has two decent senior DT prospects that can help out a rotation. DT Zach Clayton is the starter and while he lacks the size, probably projects best as a nose in a 3-4 scheme. Mike Blanc has enough quickness to think he can stick as a No. 3 or No. 4 DT in a rotation in a 4-3 scheme. Neither are reliable playmakers, but playing beside Fairley allows them to win the occasional 1 on 1 matchup.
OLB Craig Stevens is a guy that was touted going into the season, but every Auburn game I've seen this year, the guy gets abused and doesn't make many plays. He's undersized (6-2/220) and struggles as a run defender. He has good speed and quickness to show potential as a nickel linebacker and work in coverage, but he's not super polished there. He's a guy that at the end of the day probably is just a ST guy rather than a reliable backup.
SS Zac Etheridge is a tough player. He's not very big for a safety, but he plays tough vs. the run, although that lack of ideal size gets exposed quite a bit. As far as coverage goes, he doesn't bring much to the table. In the end, you have a prospect similar to Chris Crocker or Erik Coleman, but unlike those two he's not good enough to play right away and will have to work his way up an NFL depth chart from ST to backup to maybe being a starter 3-5 years down the road. But even then, as is the case with those two, he'll be limited.
Two more juniors to keep your eyes on: WR Darvin Adams and CB Neiko Thorpe. Adams is Newton's favorite target on offense, and while I haven't heard a ton of talk about him going pro, he's definitely good enough to get drafted and the probable departure of Newton may mean he also jumps ship. Thorpe is a guy that has NFL-level tools, but gets beat repeatedly despite this fact. He just doesn't have the awareness to think he can excel in man coverage. The best you hope for is another Chris Houston that can be an effective starter over the long haul despite being more down than up.
K Wes Byrum is also one of the better FG kickers out there as well.
Like I said earlier, Oregon doesn't have a ton of top NFL talent. ILB Casey Matthews is probably the best prospect for the 2011 draft. He's not as good as his brother, but he's a player that shines as a blitzer and projects well into a 3-4 system inside. A team that wants a tough, physical, and fast inside backer will likely target him as a 2nd round pick. His success in this game could really make or break his draft stock, as he'll be a key reason if the Ducks can contain Newton with his timely blitzes and the pressure he can get. And because of the family pedigree, success of his brother in the pros, and a big game here, it wouldn't be crazy that he could sneak into the 1st round. The major issue with Matthews at the pro level is whether he'll be good enough in coverage to be more a top starter.
RB LaMichael James is a RS Sophomore that has apparently decided to give Oregon at least one more go. But he's the star of the offense. His speed and ability to make plays in space means that when he does get to the NFL level, he can potentially provide the matchup issues that a guy like Reggie Bush creates for an offense. As a pure running back, he'll be limited because he's not very good between the tackles, and probably won't be an every down runner because of that, not unless he plays behind a very good zone blocking line.
Also on offense, TE David Paulsen is a junior that continues Oregon's fine tradition of producing good, but not great NFL tight ends: Justin Peelle, Dante Rosario, Ed Dickson, George Wrighster are the others. Paulsen has good hands and speed. He isn't quite the blocker that Dickson was, but he's good enough there that he can be an every down inline TE.
WR Jeff Maehl is skinny, but has good speed and can stick in the pros as a slot receiver. Up front LT Bo Thran isn't very big, and probably will need to move to guard at the pro level, but he can potentially stick as a utility backup in a zone blocking scheme similar to what Oregon runs.
Defensively, the bulk of Oregon's talent lies in their front seven. Unfortunately, none besides Matthews are what I'd call reliable playmakers. The closest being DE Brandon Bair, who is productive. He's a good stack and shed DE that uses his hands well, and if he can bulk up should fit very well in a 3-4 scheme at DE, but he's not the disruptive guy that we've seen in previous games gives Newton the most trouble. LB Spencer Paysinger plays beside Matthews in their 3-4 scheme. He's a guy that is fast and good in space, but not a guy that can shine at the point of attack. He can stick in the pros as a backup WLB in a 4-3. Kenny Rowe is their most talented pass rusher, but he's a one-note guy that relies on his edge speed which isn't always good enough to beat disciplined OTs (like a Ziemba), and he disappears for big chunks of games because of that. So unless he has a big game, it's going to be hard for the Ducks defense to disrupt Newton in the backfield, where he is at his weakest. At best, Rowe is probably a 4th/5th round.
Guys that aren't really on draft radars, but will be worth watching on offense is sophomore QB Darron Thomas and RB Kenjon Barner. Both are draft eligible if they wanted to be, but I'd be surprised if they didn't return.
Because I'm not sure Oregon has the defensive playmakers to slow down Newton and Auburn's offensive attack, this thing might become a shootout. So along with James, Thomas and Barner and Oregon's fast-paced offense are going to have to put up points.
"Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis" -- Maharbal, 216 B.C.E.