From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!
Today I am previewing the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The Yellow Jackets are poised for another productive year running the football with their triple option offense, and with an experienced and deep offensive line returning they have a chance to lead the nation in rushing yardage. They are waiting for a receiver or two to emerge, but as usual they have one or two ready to step up and stretch the field when the team wants or needs to pass. Tevin Washington, Orwin Smith and David Sims are the heart of the running game, and the offensive line is led by Omoregie Uzzi, Jay Finch and Will Jackson.
The defense is the unit that needs to step up, as they haven’t been great thus far under Al Groh’s base 3-4 defense. This year they have some unheralded talent along the defensive line along with a couple potential stars at linebacker in Jeremiah Attaochu and Quayshawn Nealy. In the secondary they have two quality corners in Rod Sweeting and Louis Young, and an up-and-coming safety in Isaiah Johnson. It all starts with the run defense, and if that improves and the pass rush gets a boost from Attaochu and others then the secondary’s job will get easier. It will be interesting to see how they do, and I predict that they will win 8-9 games and finish 3rd in the Coastal Division. And now, here are the prospects to keep an eye on:
Tevin Washington, QB- Most people are familiar with Washington as he is the face of Georgia Tech’s vaunted triple option offense, and consequently he carries the ball the most since he touches it on every play. Last season he passed just 150 times, completing 74 passes for 1,652 yards, 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. He ran the ball 92 times more than he threw it, rushing 242 times for 986 yards and 11 touchdowns (4.1 ypc). This year the 6’1”, 205 pound quarterback/ball carrier enters his senior season and it will be interesting to see what he can produce. He’s obviously not a NFL quarterback, but he figures to get some attention as a running back prospect. The obvious problem with that is that he will have to get used to being handed the ball rather than touching it on every snap, but his experience reading keys and deciding whether to keep the ball or hand it off should help him transition to reading holes as a running back. It’s a tough transition, and it’s hard on evaluators, and that likely won’t help Washington’s case. I don’t know where to project him as a prospect right now, but gun to my head I’d say he’s a late round guy at this point.
Orwin Smith, RB- Smith is entering his senior season and he is coming off of a productive season, totaling 615 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 61 carries in addition to 13 receptions, 306 yards and another touchdown. Smith’s touches were limited, but his impact wasn’t. Now he is in his final season with the Yellow Jackets and he is being assessed for how well he transitions to the NFL. The problem is that all of those big plays are produced because of the scheme, not because he is a Reggie Bush/Barry Sanders caliber athlete. He is in the 4.5 range, and while that is respectable for a 6’0”, 202 pound running back it doesn’t quite line up with his 10.1 ypc average or his 23.5 average yards per reception. He contributes on kick-offs as well which helps him, but right now he’s a late round guy that is productive as a result of the scheme he plays in, and that’s going to be a tough designation to shake.
David Sims, RB*- Sims has a little bit of an easier time being projected to the NFL as he is playing the “B-Back” position that Jonathan Dwyer and Anthony Allen both parlayed into shots at the NFL while Smith plays the “A-Back” position which doesn’t transition as well. The B-Back is lined up directly behind the quarterback on a typical play, and will get the ball handed to him on the first read the quarterback is asked to make. Therefore, while it is a simple play and he doesn’t usually have to do a lot of reading of the defense, he is at least used to getting hand-offs, finding room to run and running with good pad level between the tackles. That makes the transition to the NFL easier, and Sims has a shot at the NFL. He’s listed at 6’0”, 218 pounds and has a listed 40 yard dash time in the 4.5’s (4.59 currently) but he has some potential as a power back. He was new to the position last year, so it will be interesting to see what damage he can do in his second year starting at the B-back spot.
Jeff Greene, WR**- Greene is the next receiver in line who is expected to take the nation by surprise with his combination of size, length and athletic ability. He didn’t have a single catch last year, but at 6’4”, 200 pounds and with 12 games of experience playing, even if he went without a catch, he is poised to break-out this year now that Stephen Hill has moved on to the NFL. He may not run a sub 4.4 like Hill did, but the coaching staff is excited about his upside and they expect a lot from him. He could very well lead GT in receiving this year despite not having a single catch a year ago. Only at Georgia Tech.
Jeremy Moore, WR*- Moore is even more under the radar than his teammate Green is, but he is listed at 6’3”, 180 pounds and while he wasn’t penciled into the starting line-up in the spring he fought his way up to a starting position and impressed the coaches. His former teammate Tyler Melton (take note, people who have first names that start with T and the last name Melton tend to be exceedingly brilliant) has said that he expects “Jeremy to be the surprise of the year” this season for Georgia Tech. That’s high praise, but according to Melton he has the speed, quickness and hands capable of surprising people this year. Most notably he said that he “doesn’t body catch. He snags everything out of the air.” That’s huge, especially for playing in this offense, because being able to catch less than accurate passes from triple-option quarterbacks means you have a bigger catch radius for them to throw to. That means more possible receptions, and those are few and far between in this run-first offense. Keep an eye on Moore, he has had trouble with injuries at Georgia Tech but I’m excited that he is finally getting his shot.
Ray Beno, OT*- Beno is the left tackle on the Yellow Jackets and he returns for his junior season with 12 career starts, all at left tackle, but according to Phil Steele he has experience playing at every spot along the offensive line. I was wondering if I should mention him or not, but that kind of versatility is quite rare and NFL teams are sure to take notice of that even if he doesn’t grade out as much more than a late rounder. At 6’2”, 290 pounds Beno is almost certainly going to be an interior lineman in the NFL but the versatility to play all over the offensive line is extremely important. I haven’t watched him before, but keep an eye on him over the next two years.
Omoregie Uzzi, OG- Uzzi may be the top NFL prospect on the Yellow Jackets right now, and I think he’s going to be considered a top 50 pick by the time the season is over. He has 24 career starts, all at right guard, and will be playing right guard again this season. He’s listed at 6’3”, 300 pounds and is a quality run blocker that is a natural knee bender, plays with good pad level and has some nastiness to him as well as a strong initial punch. I haven’t seen him much in pass protection, but then again that is bound to happen given the nature of Georgia Tech’s offense. His run blocking will garner him plenty of attention though, and if he can show some ability as a pass blocker his stock won’t dip out of the 2nd round.
Will Jackson, OG*- Jackson is a 6’3”, 285 pound junior who has 22 career starts all at left guard for the Yellow Jackets. He’s not a top prospect as of right now, but he’s a solid contributor who is someone to keep an eye on. He was a 1st team Freshman All American when he started 9 games as a freshman, and he returns to an experienced group as a junior. He isn’t the most physically imposing kid, but he’s tough and experienced. That will only become more evident as he continues to start more games, and he could realistically leave Georgia Tech with close to 50 starts by the end of his senior year.
Jay Finch, C*- Finch is the so-called “anchor” of the offensive line and returns for his junior season with 15 career starts, 12 of them at Center. He’s considered to have quality leadership, though I haven’t seen enough of him to know how often he makes line calls and adjustments to blocking schemes pre-snap. He’s considered to be a good athlete with plenty of quickness and good footwork. I haven’t seen much of him up to this point, but I’m expecting him to impress me this year as he has been named to the Rimington Watch List for the top center in the country.
Izaan Cross, DE- Cross is a 6’4”, 292 pound senior defensive end in Al Groh’s 3-4 defensive scheme. He returns for his senior season with plenty of experience in the form of 28 career starts, but he wasn’t as effective as some expected last year when he totaled 32 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 forced fumble and 4 pass deflections. The previous year he had 41 tackles, 5 TFL and 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble and four pass break-ups. It’s worth considering that in a 3-4 scheme like Groh’s the defensive line is expected to occupy blockers so that the linebackers can fill the gaps and stuff the run by tackling ball carriers in the gaps or forcing runs to be strung out towards the sidelines, so the defensive ends aren’t expected to be extremely productive on the stat line. Still, the dip in production was noticeable and it will be interesting to see how Cross does this year. I’m not that familiar with his game yet, so I’m interested to see whether he projects better to a 3-4 at DE or whether he might be better if he can penetrate upfield as a defensive tackle in a 4-3.
TJ Barnes, DT- Barnes is a gargantuan defensive tackle who will play nose tackle in Georgia Tech’s 3-4 defense this season. He was highly touted coming out of high school and during his redshirt year he wreaked consistent havoc playing on the scout team, causing coaches to salivate at his potential. He hasn’t lived up to it yet, however, and this season is his last shot. He returns for his senior season with just 3 career starts and despite playing in 13 games last season he only registered 11 tackles, 0.5 TFL and 1 sack. His conditioning has been a problem the past three years, but this year the 6’7”, 347 pound nose tackle is supposed to be in significantly better shape coming into this season. He spent extra time doing cardio and other conditioning workouts to get in better shape. It appears to be working, as offensive guard Will Jackson has claimed that Barnes is much quicker and more explosive off the ball. He’s got all the size and strength you could ask for in a nose tackle, particularly in a 3-4 defense, and if he has improved his conditioning enough he could be a very disruptive force for Georgia Tech this season. The problem with evaluating him will be evaluating if the light turned on just in time to boost his draft stock and his pay check, or whether the light came on and he is ready to potentially dominate as he gets in better shape and improves his hand usage and technique even more. I tend to shy away from one year wonders, but first Barnes has to have that one-year wonder season before we can try to determine whether it was a flash in the pan or not. Here’s hoping he has a great year and proves to be a dominant force in the middle of the Yellow Jacket defense.
Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB*- If Uzzi is the top prospect on Georgia Tech then Attaochu is a close second. The 6’3”, 235 pound outside linebacker possesses impressive athleticism, change of direction burst and edge speed to threaten offensive tackles off the edge. My problem with his game is his struggles once he is engaged. Like many talented edge rushers with impressive athleticism he has been able to get by on his athleticism alone, and hasn’t needed to bulk up to fight off blockers once he is engaged. He’s not a complete pass rusher yet, but he has the tools and skill set to be if he gets stronger, improves his hand usage and works to disengage from blockers better. He reminds me a little bit of the junior version of Von Miller, a talented speed rusher who wasn’t a complete defensive end/linebacker yet. But after he got a little stronger and improved his technique he ended up being the #2 overall pick in the draft. Attaochu may not be on Miller’s level, it’s too early to tell, but his athleticism is pretty rare and if his technique, functional strength and football IQ catches up with his athletic ability he’s going to be a very valuable commodity come draft time.
Quayshawn Nealy, OLB**- Nealy is a redshirt sophomore linebacker who the Georgia Tech coaches seem to be very excited about, particularly defensive coordinator Al Groh. Nealy has been spending a lot of time with Groh to help absorb the intricacies of the 3-4 defense better. He also added about 10 pounds of weight and is supposedly playing at about 235 pounds even though he is listed at just 6’1”, 223 pounds right now. Nealy has impressive athleticism, has been developing as a leader and I think he might be moving to one of the inside linebacker positions for the Yellow Jackets this season. I’ve read about him playing outside and also inside, so we will just have to wait and see on that front. Regardless, Nealy made the most of his appearances last season, including 7 starts, as he made 52 tackles, 3 TFL, broke up 3 passes and had 2 interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown in Georgia Tech’s bowl game last season. He’s got a lot of ability, and as the game slows down for him and he continues to fill out he has the potential to be a special player, particularly if he keeps absorbing as much of Groh’s defensive knowledge as he has already.
Rod Sweeting, CB- Sweeting is returning for his senior season with only 13 career starts but considerable playing experience while not designated as a starter. He had 7 pass break-ups and an interception as a sophomore in 13 games, and then started 13 games as a junior and totaled 56 tackles, 3 TFL, 10 pass break-ups and 3 interceptions. He’s not the biggest corner despite being listed at 6’0”, 184 pounds and could stand to add more weight to his tall frame. He’s a good athlete though, and most importantly he has smooth hips and transitions well when changing directions. As evidenced by his statistics as well as his play, he has quality ball skills and that is something that is incredibly important for defensive backs because I’m not convinced it can be coached up very well. You either have those skills or you don’t, and Sweeting has them. He’s a mid-round guy right now, but if he has a consistent senior season he could crack the top 100 selections in April. I expect him to be at the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game this winter.
Louis Young, CB*- Young is another tall corner, listed at 6’1”, but weighs 201 pounds and is much more filled out than Sweeting is right now. He may be more physically gifted, but he doesn’t have as much playing experience as Sweeting does and it shows. Young has shown he is no stranger to contact though, and seems to enjoy tackling which evaluators will love to see. He seems to mirror receivers well and has impressive quickness too. He is supposedly a very hard worker on and off the field and if he continues to work that hard it’s almost a virtual certainty that his play on the field will continue to improve exponentially. Now that he has a full season as a starter under his belt (12 starts, he was suspended for the bowl game for a violation of team rules) Young figures to improve on his 52 tackles, 3 TFL, 5 pass break-ups and 1 interception stat-line from his sophomore year. He has a lot of upside, so it is going to be fun to watch this secondary this season.
Isaiah Johnson, FS*- Johnson is a junior this season yet he returns with 16 starts to his name. He started all 13 games last season and was second on the team in tackles with 78 and also had 2 TFL, 1 sack, 3 pass break-ups and 3 interceptions to boot. He seems to have taken on a bit of a leadership role on the defense, and I’m excited to see the 6’2”, 205 pound center play more this season. I think he has a lot of potential.