AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl
Air Force vs. Georgia Tech
5 pm EST on ESPN2
Like Navy, Air Force as a service academy has limited potential for the pros. But they do have a nice pair of corners, headlined by CB Reggie Rembert, who is small, but has ball skills.
Georgia Tech will be without their star player, QB Josh Nesbitt in this game. Nesbitt is a good option QB, but he doesn't have the skills to play the QB position in the NFL. He is a good runner, but also doesn't have the durability to project well to play RB at the next level either. If he is going to stick in the pros, I think it will almost certainly require a move to WR, although questions about whether he has the speed to stick there also are big concerns.
Other than Nesbitt, the best prospects for Tech come on the defensive side of the ball. Brad Jefferson is a solid ILB in their 3-4 scheme, that is physical vs. the run and has a good nose for the ball. His problem is that he lacks the speed and range to make plays outside the hashmarks and he's limited in coverage for similar reasons. But his skills means he might project well as a reserve ILB in a 3-4 scheme as a two-down player. It'll be interesting to see how effective he is vs. the outside run in Air Force's option attack.
CB Mario Butler also flashes starting potential at cornerback. He has good size (6-0/180), speed, and athleticism, but he needs to polish up his footwork and technique. He shows the speed and burst to match up in man coverage with quality receivers, but suffers from Chris Houston disease in that he doesn't do a lot of the little things to think he can fully take advantage of that at the next level. He won't be tested too much vs. Air Force in the pass, but he'll have to carry his weight in run support, something he didn't really do in previous games I've seen of him.
OLB Anthony Egbuniwe also has NFL-level tools and potential as a 3-4 OLB. He shows the burst and quickness to get upfield and has the sort of size that could make him a nice developmental talent in the 3-4 scheme, but he hasn't quite put it all together to be a consistent force on defense.
The lone offensive player that is really worth keeping an eye on is RB Anthony Allen. Allen shined a few years back in Petrino's last year at Louisville, but then when Petrino left he fell off the planet, and transferred to Georgia Tech. Despite being less productive and having less acclaim, Allen probably projects better to the pro level as a B-back in their option than Jonathan Dwyer did a year ago. His power is solid, and he'll occasionally flash the quickness and vision that is hard to showcase in this style of offense. He's probably just going to be a short-yardage and complementary runner at best. He'd also have a chance to move to fullback as well due to his size (6-0/230), making him a decent late round prospect.
Champs Sports Bowl
West Virginia vs. N.C. State
6:30 PM EST on ESPN (Tuesday)
Finally we start to get into some games that feature good NFL prospects, not just guys that will be lucky to be 7th round picks.
The most notable prospect in this game will be West Virginia RB Noel Devine, an undersized runner (5-8/180) but with blazing speed. Devine's play has slipped off significantly this year, but he's been battling a toe injury all year long, which I believe is similar to the one that plagued LaDainian Tomlinson during his final years in San Diego. We'll have to see if the time off has helped it heal some, and whether he'll have his trademark explosiveness. But even with 9 good toes, Devine is still one of the quickest backs out there, he just clearly isn't able to bust as many big runs as normal. Devine has similar size to Warrick Dunn, but probably doesn't have quite the vision of Dunn to take full advantage of it. But in the right scheme, he can be a dangerous No. 2 option on a similar level to Darren Sproles: third down receiver, occasional runner, and return specialist.
But despite not being as notable, the best pro prospects on the field will be on both team's defenses. WVU FS Robert Sands is a giant safety (6-4/220) that plays all of the field. He's very comfortable up in the box where he works like an extra linebacker in their 3-3-5 defense, but also features the size and range to think he can also play the centerfield at the next level. He'll have to have a big game since he'll likely spend half his time chasing QB Russell Wilson over the field, and the other half defending against N.C. State's deep pass.
Speaking of WIlson, he is only a junior and doesn't have great NFL size (5-11/200) but he reminds me quite a bit of Seneca Wallace, who had similar size at Iowa State, and also had good athleticism and a strong arm. Wilson has been hurt in his development as a QB because he spends his springs/summers playing baseball instead of football, but if he was ever to develop 12 months to the game of football, he flashes a spark of that "it" factor to think he can stick long-term like Wallace as a No. 2 QB in the pros.
The other top prospect is N.C. State's LB Nate Irving. Irving has a good nose for the ball and is one of the more physical linebackers you'll see in the nation this year. He can potentially play any LB spot at the next level, whether it's in the 3-4 or 4-3. He's best when he's allowed to get upfield, attack the ball and line of scrimmage, but also flashes the speed and range to make plays sideline to sideline. The only negative for him is that he isn't very polished in coverage, and it'll be interesting to see how he handles WVU's speed.
His favorite targets are a pair of WRs in Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams. Spencer is the better of the pair, he's a capable vertical threat, with good hands and ball skills. The main question with him is whether he has the ideal size to hold up on the outside (6-2/185) and whether he has the range as a receiver to make plays on the short and intermediate routes as well as the deep ones. Williams has better size (6-4/215) but doesn't have Spencer's ball skills and toughness despite it. But he too has enough skills to think he can stick in the pros as a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver if he can stick on special teams. BUt his upside offensively is going to be limited.
Another junior to keep your eye on is TE George Bryan for N.C. State. Many draft sites rate him as the 2nd best junior TE in the country. I'm not going to go that far, but he's got good hands, has the size and potential to be a capable blocker. The problem is that he lacks ideal speed and athleticism to take advantage of his solid receiving skills and probably projects closer to a player like Reggie Kelly in the pros than he does to the next Heath Miller. Also on the underclassman radar is LB Terrell Manning. Manning is just a sophomore, and needs to fill out his frame better (6-3/225) and develop a more instinctual feel, but he shows the speed and range you love in a OLB prospect in a 4-3 scheme, but if he can get bigger and stronger vs. the inside run, one thinks he can also be a successful MLB as well in that same scheme.
The next best player on WVU is probably NT Chris Neild. He has good size (6-2/305) and anchors well in the middle. He's not a guy that is going to dominant centers in one on one matchups. His pass rushing potential is very limited as most of his sacks and stops come from his high motor and QBs stepping up in the pocket. But he has a future to develop as a reserve NT in a 3-4 scheme that with a few years under his belt can become a starter down the road. He'll be compared favorably to a player like Baltimore's Kelly Gregg.
Two other solid prospects on WVU's defense are OLB J.T. Thomas and CB Brandon Hogan. Thomas is fast and rangy and helps makes plays all over the field. He probably projects best as a backup WLB in a 4-3 scheme. He's not super big (6-2/230), but plays physical. The biggest concerns about him is whether his coverage abilities are polished enough to stick long-term in the pros. Hogan was a highly rated prospect going into the season, but didn't have a great season as many expected. He's not very big (5-10/190) and doesn't have ideal ball skills, but he is a guy that is good enough in man coverage to think he can stick as a nickel corner on the next level.
On offense, WR Jock Sanders is about the same size as Devine with similar speed and explosiveness. In the WVU offense, he runs basically screens, reverses, and end-arounds, and is very good at those things. His lack of size and limited route tree probably mean he projects best as a return threat than an offensive weapon, but he can be a dangerous weapon there.
Missouri vs. Iowa
10 pm EST on ESPN (Tuesday)
Besides the Boise State-Utah game, this will feature the best matchup of the early bowls.
For Missouri, the top two prospects will be a pair of underclassmen. QB Blaine Gabbert has great size (6-5/240), a good arm, and flashes the accuracy and anticipation that teams look for in a potential 1st round pick. Many scouts are very high on him and think he's 2nd only to Luck as the best QB prospect in the country right now. Apparently, he's weighing his pro options, but will make a decision that will largely depend on what Luck does. If Luck turns pro, then he'll stay and vie for the top QB spot next year. If Luck stays, he'll throw his hat in to this year's draft pool. But regardless, he'll need a big game here vs. Iowa's tough defense to springboard his stock for this April or the next.
On the other side of the ball is DE Aldon Smith, who according to reports already has made his decision to turn pro. Smith was limited for much of the regular season with an ankle injury, but came back late in the year, and despite obviously playing on one leg still flashed the top-end burst and edge speed to think he has a bright future as a pass rusher in the pros. Mizzou likes to move him around on their D-line from playing DE to DT to also standing up as a LB, in all three areas he shows the athleticism and quick first step to get after the QB. He's just been limited by the fact that he can't put a ton of weight on his ankle, limiting his flexibility and making him more of a straight-line rusher. One hopes that he is closer to 100% for this game, because he has 1st round potential.
The next best Mizzou prospect is a toss up between TE Michael Egnew or C Tim Barnes. Egnew is also a junior that might come out, but his future is likely tied to what Gabbert does. He is a similar prospect to former Mizzou TE Martin Rucker. He's really just a big WR (6-6/230) that in an earlier game I scouted just ran screens, and it remains to be seen if he has the well-rounded potential to really be a factor in the passing game at the next level. Barnes is a solid center in the middle that doesn't wow you, but plays with good technique, mean streak, and gets the job done. He'll have his hands full with the Iowa front. Helping him out will be LT Elvis Fisher, who I haven't really scouted yet, but is considered one of the better OT prospects heading into next year, so this will be a good test to see how he handles the top competition he'll face in this game.
On defense, Mizzou has two decent late round prospects in CB Kevin Rutland and FS Jasper Simmons. Rutland is another player that just gets the job done and competes. He has a decent future as a nickel corner and has been able to match wits with some of the better Big 12 receivers. Simmons isn't very big for a safety (6-0/200), but he's active and doesn't make a ton of mistakes to make you think he can stick as a reserve in the pros and special teams player.
Iowa is loaded with NFL prospects and has at least 1 at every position. So let's start with the QB: Ricky Stanzi. Stanzi was a turnover machine last year, but has completely flipped this year. He's running the offense very efficient and isn't making the bone-headed mistakes he did a year ago. Due to his size (6-4/230), arm, and athleticism, he has a chance to stick in the pros as a solid backup for a long time, and if he gets into the right situation might make a decent starter for some team a la a Tony Romo.
Iowa's RB prospect Adam Robinson will not be appearing in this game due to a suspension. But as a sophomore, he has a chance to be one of the better RB prospects next year. He isn't very big (5-9/205), but runs hard with good burst and vision. He's someone to keep an eye out for next year.
At WR, they have two solid NFL prospects in Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and junior Marvin McNutt. Both are probably 3rd/4th round guys. LIke Robinson however, DJK is suspended for this game due to some drug charges. So McNutt will be asked to carry the slack at wideout. He has good size, makes plays, but not sure he is a reliable go-to option. He'll get a chance to prove it in this game.
TE Allen Reisner isn't very big (6-3/250), but is a productive 3rd option in their offense and has some potential as an H-back.
As usual, Iowa has a solid line. The best prospect is sophomore LT Riley Reiff, who has the potential to be a Top 10 pick next year, and probably in this year's down class could do the same. He'll be matched up with Smith throughout the game, testing both guys.
Iowa features 5 defensive linemen that WILL get drafted, either this year or next. The big name of the group is DE Adrian Clayborn, who is the most likely to be a 1st round pick. CLayborn has had a down year this year in terms of his productive, but he's a talented player that has good size, quickness, and strength. He'll need to have a big game to entrench himself as a middle 1st round pick rather than late rounder that he suddenly appears to be. Opposite him is usually Christian Ballard, who plays both inside and outside. But he projects best outside in a 5-technique in a 3-4 scheme, where he reminds me of a player similar to Houston's Antonio Smith. He is probably a 2nd rounder. Also starting is DT Karl Klug, and like Ballard, he'll probably play DE in a 3-4 scheme. Klug is a high motor guy that probably benefits from the attention that his teammates get, freeing him up to take advantage of numerous 1 on 1 situations. He's probably a 4th/5th rounder at best. Two juniors are DT Mike Daniels and DE Broderick Binns. Both are situational guys. Daniels isn't very big, but he's very disruptive and dominates in 1 on 1 matchups. Binns also is able to provide pressure opposite Clayborn when Ballard moves inside. Both have the potential to be early round picks when they come out.
At LB, Jeremiha Hunter is a decent late round pick that has a good nose for the ball and rarely makes mistakes. But he doesn't have the speed or range to match up in coverage as well, and probably projects as a backup in the pros.
CB Shaun Prater is another solid junior that is getting potential 1st round buzz, but he probably only goes that high if he decides to come back for his senior year. Joining him is junior SS Tyler Sash. You're likely to see a lot of Sash in this game because he plays well in the box due to his very good closing burst on the ball. He's not the best tackler, but he'll provide some hits and can make stops in the open field because he's so good at cutting the legs of the ballcarrier. He projects well as a FS in a Cover-2 scheme. Along with them is senior FS Brett Greenwood. He won't make a lot of plays because he's usually handling his duties in centerfield. But he has the potential to be a nice backup in a cover-2 scheme and a guy that can shine on special teams.
They even have good pro prospects on special teams! P Ryan Donahue is one of the best in the country with his big leg and solid accuracy. LS Andrew Schulze is also a pretty good snapper as well.
"Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis" -- Maharbal, 216 B.C.E.