Tag Archive: Center


Dominic_RaiolaWhat year is it? Oh, it’s 2013? Good to know, because Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola set us back a few years today before and after the Lions began their game against the Green Bay Packers.

The Wisconsin Band, one of the best in the nation I must say, typically performs for at least one Packers home game during the season. As someone who grew up across the street from three boys who have ALL played the tuba and marched in the band I am very familiar with this tradition and I have seen numerous pictures of them during these events. In fact, my best friend even got to do a Lambeau Leap into the crowd after his performance (a childhood dream for any die hard Packer fan). The Packer faithful love the band, and the band loves performing at these events. It is truly a win-win, but that wasn’t the case today thanks to Raiola.

According to a Wisconsin tuba player, Raiola and his teammates were engaged in their pregame warm-ups on the field near the goal line when he turned around and called him and the other tubas “Fat mother f**kers” and told them that “they sucked.” According to that tuba player no one in the band had done anything to provoke him, and no other band members I spoke with witnessed anything that could have provoked Raiola. The tuba player I spoke with made sure to point out that the rest of the band hadn’t even been on the field yet, and none of the tuba players said anything to him, so no one in the band could have provoked Raiola prior to him making those comments.

As the band was preparing to play the National Anthem another band member told me Raiola was yelling at him, saying such things such as “Hey fat guy, you want a hot dog?” When this band member did not acknowledge him, he continued to yell at other band members within earshot of him until the band began to play. A third band member told me Raiola was calling a band member near him a “fat fu**” prior to their pregame performance as well.

After the band’s halftime performance multiple band members I spoke with told me he and multiple other band members vividly heard Raiola ridicule a trombone player’s weight while they were performing. One band member reported hearing a female member of the band say “Hey number 51,” referring to Raiola, which multiple band members told me he responded to by calling her “the c-word” as they were walking back to their seats.

This is all in addition to this facebook status which has been shared 243 times as of this writing:

Zach York Facebook Status

According to this band member Raiola made comments regarding his sexuality, as well as other insults involving his sister and recently deceased mother. An additional band member confirmed this story, adding that one such insult was “[Raiola] was going to take his trumpet and shove it up his sister’s p***y” in addition to Raiola “repeatedly calling him a f*g.” According to this band member “as soon as we stopped for our position to play the National Anthem I just heard [Raiola] yelling continually at him.”  Multiple other members of the band reported hearing Raiola uttering homophobic slurs throughout his unprovoked denigrating of the students prior to the National anthem.

This is a developing story and as I confirm more information regarding this story I will be sure to update this post. Raiola, 34, is the longtime starting center for the Detroit Lions. He was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2001 NFL Draft and has been a regular starter since the 2002 season. He played college football at the University of Nebraska.

It is worth noting that while Raiola’s comments were completely uncalled for, a band member confirmed to me that Lions safety Louis Delmas apologized to him and other members of the band for Raiola’s actions and assured them that he had spoken with him about it. He also added that he enjoyed their performance.

Update: 11:31 am CT 10/7/13

For those asking, I have emailed the Lions director of Media Relations for comment and have not heard back as of this time. At least one other writer has attempted to reach them for comment and has not heard yet back either.

Update: 11:37 am CT 10/7/13

The Lions have issued a statement, this is via Chris McCosky of Detroit News and DetroitNews.com:
@cmccosky: Lions statement on Raiola: “Those reports are extremely inconsistent with the standard of behavior we expect from our players.”
@cmccosky: More from Lions: “We currently are gathering more information and will respond further when appropriate.”

Update: 11:48 CT 10/7/13

Jay Sorgi (@jsorgi) interviewed the father of a band member who witnessed it, listen to the interview and read his article on it here: http://www.jrn.com/tmj4/green-bay-packers/Report-Lions-player-tosses-epithets-at-UW-Band-during-Packers-game-226755831.html

Update: 12:05 CT 10/7/13

My colleague Jeff Risdon weighs in on the Raiola comments: http://www.detroitlionsdraft.com/2013/10/raiola-and-the-band/

Update: 12:20 pm CT 10/7/13

Jay Sorgi interviews a band member who heard the comments Raiola made: http://www.jrn.com/tmj4/green-bay-packers/Report-Lions-player-tosses-epithets-at-UW-Band-during-Packers-game-226755831.html

Update: 1:53 pm CT 10/8/13

Dominic Raiola has issued an apology. Here is the link courtesy of Jay Sorgi: http://www.jrn.com/tmj4/green-bay-packers/Lions-player-apologizes-for-attacks-UW-Band-members-during-Packers-game-226935431.html

Update: 1:58 pm CT 10/8/13

This will likely be the final update, Pro Football Talk is reporting that the Lions will not discipline Raiola and that he is making a donation to the Wisconsin Band program. No word on how much money he is donating. http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2013/10/08/dominic-raiola-donates-to-wisconsin-band-wont-be-disciplined-2/

Brandon Allen, QB, Sophomore- Allen is obviously young and inexperienced, but I think he has a lot of upside. He may not have quite as strong an arm as Brandon Mitchell (the man he beat out for the starting quarterback job) but he definitely has adequate velocity based on what I’ve seen. I think he can add even more velocity if he starts using his lower body better, as he is making a lot of “all arm” throws right now in my opinion. However, he showed pretty good accuracy, he is athletic and can throw on the run, and supposedly has been emerging as a leader since he was named the starter. He’s listed at 6’3”, 214 pounds and only threw 49 passes last year (completing 21) for 186 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions. Part of that is because he was the next guy in line after Tyler Wilson went down and had to start against Alabama as a freshman. He’s going to take his lumps as a brand new starter in the SEC this year, but I definitely think he has some long term upside.

Jonathan Williams, RB, Sophomore- I like what I saw from Williams in the spring game. He’s got some big shoes to fill since Knile Davis went so high in the draft (higher than I would have drafted him, to be sure) and I was one of the biggest Dennis Johnson fans last year (if not the biggest). However, the 6’0”, 220 pound running back showed impressive burst and athleticism for his size, he ran hard and gained some tough yards after contact. He’s powerfully built but he has enough athleticism to gain chunks of yardage and isn’t purely a power back. Not only that, but he showed some ability to make catches out of the backfield. He’s also surprisingly shifty for such a big running back which I really liked to see. I think he’s going to have a big year if Arkansas can give him the requisite blocking up front.

Nate Holmes, RB, Sophomore- Holmes is a speed demon, simple as that. He’s listed at 6’1”, 176 pounds but he has a lot of speed and is the fastest back that Arkansas has. He doubles as a punt returner and I really think that he has a chance to be a gamebreaker in that phase of the game. He’s not going to get a lot of carries I don’t think, but he could be worked in as a change of pace guy. He was held out of the first half of the spring game because of academic issues, so if he can stay eligible I think he can be a very valuable weapon for Arkansas.

Demetrius Wilson, WR, Senior- Wilson impressed me while I was watching the spring game. I don’t know how many receptions he ended up with, but he showed reliable hands and was able to make a couple of tacklers miss (particularly on curl routes) and gain extra yardage after the catch. He doesn’t look like a dynamic receiver necessarily, but I think he is going to easily surpass his 9 reception, 117 yard, 1 touchdown stat line from a year ago. He’s listed at 6’1”, 202 pounds and likely isn’t even on NFL draft radars as a possible undrafted free agent (he played some special teams for the Razorbacks last year for what it’s worth) so I am hoping he has a good year as a senior.

Javontee Herndon, WR, Senior- Herndon is one of the main guys returning for Arkansas at receiver, though that isn’t saying a whole lot. He is tied with Mekale McKay for the most receptions returning to Arkansas with 21, and is second to McKay in yards with 304 last year. He also added 3 touchdowns, the most of any receiver returning to Arkansas. The offense last year was essentially just throw the ball to Cobi Hamilton, and it showed as he totaled 90 receptions, 1,335 yards and 5 touchdowns, or 69 more receptions, 1,018 more yards and 2 more touchdowns than ANY receiver returning for 2013. That is a staggering differential, and I’m not sure Herndon or anyone on the roster is going to be able to be that “go to” guy that Hamilton was last year. Still, Herndon showed reliable hands, wiggle after the catch and seemed to be a solid route runner. He’s listed at 6’1”, 194 and he doesn’t exactly look like a burner, but he should be a reliable slot receiver for Arkansas as a senior. He’s likely in the undrafted free agent boat as well, but that can all change if he can finish his career on a strong note.

Mekale McKay, WR, Sophomore- McKay is the guy I think might have the chance to replace Hamilton’s vast production at some point. It may not be this year, but I think he’s got the most upside of any of the receivers I’m previewing. He’s listed at 6’6”, 195 pounds and definitely looks skinny when you watch him. He produced 21 receptions, 317 yards and 2 touchdowns as a freshman and is going to be relied upon as a significant contributor as a sophomore. He and Herndon are the two most productive receivers returning for Arkansas this year, so it will be interesting to see if his route running has improved since the spring game. He showed good hands and obviously has a large target radius, but he really needs to fill out his frame too. He still demonstrated to me that he can make a catch and take a hit, and while he isn’t a burner he has long strides so he can cover more ground than you might think. He’s got upside, so we’ll see what he can do as a sophomore.

Keon Hatcher, WR, Sophomore- Hatcher is a back-up on this team right now but he impressed me in the spring game. He’s likely not going to get much playing time this year, but he’s listed at 6’2”, 208 pounds, looked like a natural hands catcher and showed some wiggle after the catch. I think he’s going to be a significant contributor in the future, but may not be this year.

Travis Swanson, C, Senior- Swanson is the best prospect that the Razorbacks return on their offense, and he is considered by many as the top Center in the 2014 NFL Draft class. Initially when I watched him I was pretty underwhelmed, and he really seemed to struggle against Texas A&M’s Kirby Ennis, a 6’4”, 300 pound nose guard. He struggled to create push in the run game when blocking defensive linemen 1 on 1 in all the games that I watched which is contrary to what you might think given his listed size of 6’5”, 314 pounds. Still, he had a bad game against Texas A&M and that happens to everyone, it’s why you need to watch more than one game whenever possible. Swanson bounced back strong against Auburn and showed more mobility than I saw versus Texas A&M (almost to the point that I wondered if Swanson was playing through an injury that week) and looked more comfortable combo blocking and reaching linebackers at the second level. That was very encouraging to see, and it was also good to see him flash some ability to pull and make cut blocks. I think he needs work in this area, but there’s ability to work with there. He can generate push when double teaming with one of his guards, but he’s at his best when he can combo block, reach the second level, or seal off a defender without trying to push him off the ball. When he tries to generate push he tends to lean too much and it made him easy to shed for guys like Kirby Ennis of A&M and Isaac Gross of Ole Miss. There were times that Swanson really seemed to struggle with speed and quickness in the run game, and that was particularly evident against Ole Miss when Isaac Gross regularly beat him despite being listed as a 6’1”, 255 pound true freshman defensive tackle. He was much quicker than Swanson and that made it tough for him to initiate contact and keep him out of the backfield. However, despite some of his struggles in the run game I was quite impressed with him in the pass game. It’s evident that he is very smart and he makes very few mental mistakes based on what I was able to see. He isn’t easily fooled by twists, stunts, or late blitzes and seems comfortable making line calls and adjusting blocking schemes. That is good news, because he’s going to have to hold Brandon Allen’s hand a little bit in that regard since he has so little experience starting at quarterback in the SEC. He’s also regarded as a very good leader and that is very encouraging. I thought he showed a pretty solid anchor in pass protection, but I still think he can get stronger and improve it at this point in his career. He’s pretty tough to bull rush though, and a number of the issues I saw with him in the run game weren’t present in the pass game. He’s going to be a good pass protector in the NFL and I think he might be able to plug and play at the center position thanks to that skill set. He has experience snapping under center, in shotgun and the pistol thanks to Arkansas’ offense, and as I mentioned previously he has a lot of experience making line calls. I still want to see him continue to work on his hand placement, particularly in the run game, and there are times in pass pro where he tends to shuffle back in a strange way. He almost seems to be on his heels trying to gain depth after the snap, and it looks like if he was engaged he would really struggle to anchor and recover. He’s shown an ability to do that when I’ve watched him, but that shuffle looked strange to me. Regardless, he still needs work in the running game and I’m not sure he’s ever going to be the mauling run blocker you might expect given his size and weight, but he’s a good pass blocker with a high football IQ who I think has a long NFL career in front of him. At this point I have a 3rd round grade on him, so it will be interesting to see if he can boost his stock beyond that point during his senior season.

Chris Smith, DE, Senior- Smith is a defensive end that is listed at 6’3”, 266 pounds but I’d be surprised if he was really that tall and that heavy when officially measured and weighed, but that’s just my opinion of how he looks when I’m re-watching his games. He has a very impressive first step and that helps put offensive tackles on their heels immediately, and he does a good job working back inside if he gets them off balance. He flashes a solid bull rush, but after that his pass rush repertoire is fairly limited. He needs to learn to use his hands better and I worry about how long his arms are. There were a number of times that he was engulfed by larger, long armed offensive tackles. He needs to learn to slap their hands away and avoid getting locked up with them, but he also needs to learn to shed those blocks better with counter moves after he is inevitably engaged on some plays. He got washed out at times versus the run, particularly against those massive offensive tackles, but he’s no slouch in the run game either. He seems to have a good motor as well and that matches up nicely with his 52 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 3.5 TFL and 4 pass break-ups from a year ago. He’s not great at getting his hands into passing lanes, but he at least flashes the ability to do it. I like him as a defensive end prospect and he’s a very solid 3rd rounder in my mind right now. That could obviously change with another strong season this year.

Trey Flowers, DE, Junior- I was relatively familiar with Smith having watched him the past couple seasons, but Flowers was a player I was completely unfamiliar with. I knew he was productive last year, but I hadn’t really watched him play. When I finally did I was blown away. I like Smith, but I love Flowers. He is a former linebacker who is listed at 6’4”, 256 pounds and he honestly reminds me of Barkevious Mingo when I watch him play. I don’t think he is that level of a freakish athlete, but he has a long, lanky frame that he can definitely stand to add weight to, he plays the run much better than you would expect given his frame and athleticism, and he’s a hell of a pass rushing prospect. He’s still learning the position, and he doesn’t have Smith’s elite get-off, but there is 1st round upside here in my opinion. Last year as a sophomore he notched 50 tackles, 6 sacks, 7 TFL, and 3 pass deflections. He packs a punch as a hitter, he’s got an impressive motor and he has been very disruptive and active in all of the games I’ve watched (albeit less disruptive against Texas A&M because he and Smith were playing contain the whole game). He sets the edge well, seems to understand how to control blockers with his long arms and then shed to make the tackle, and I’ve watched him beat an offensive lineman, then a running back, and then end up with a sack despite all of that. He’s a very impressive player and he and Smith are going to be a helluva pass rushing duo for Arkansas this year, and boy will they need it.

Deatrich Wise, DE, Sophomore- Wise is only a sophomore but he impressed me when I was watching Arkansas’ spring game. He is the back-up to Trey Flowers at defensive end but he definitely flashed some impressive athleticism when he got playing time. He is listed at 6’6”, 265 pounds and has very long arms. He just engulfs ball carriers when he wraps them up. Wise also has some burst and he flashed some bend as well. He’s still learning how to use his hands and obviously needs development, but he definitely intrigued me and he could be next in the line of promising pass rushers on Arkansas’ roster. Never thought I’d say those words a couple years ago!

Bryan Jones, DT, Senior- Jones looks like a solid defensive tackle prospect to me. I think he’s probably a day 3 guy right now, but he has more pass rushing upside than I previously believed when I started watching him. Initially I thought he was purely a run defender and wouldn’t add much to the pass rush at all, but over the next two games I saw more burst off the ball and a little more explosion than I anticipated which was encouraging to see. He’s listed at 6’2”, 310 pounds and produced 52 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 3.5 TFL as a junior. He’s not on the same level as a prospect as Chris Smith or Trey Flowers in my opinion, but with a strong season I think he could boost his stock. He isn’t elite at the point of attack, but he is definitely reliable there and doesn’t get pushed around too easily versus the run. He’s not going to be a dynamic pass rusher, but he has flashed the ability to collapse the pocket with a bull rush and has flashed a pretty good swim move to beat a 1 on 1 block or split a double team. I’m looking forward to see if he takes any steps forward as a senior.

Robert Thomas, DT, Senior- Thomas didn’t get a ton of playing time as a junior but I think he’s going to surprise some people as a senior. He is projected to be a starter now and the 6’3”, 318 pound defensive tackle has some promise in my opinion. He only had 18 tackles last season, but he still managed 2.5 sacks and 2.5 TFL despite starting only 2 games (though he registered one of those sacks against Louisiana Monroe and had his 2.5 TFL versus the run against Jacksonville State and Louisiana Monroe). Still, he showed me something and he isn’t easy to push off the ball either, though he has struggled at times versus double teams. I think he has more burst and explosion off the ball than Jones does and he seems to be more violent and play with more purpose than Jones does at times. He seems feisty to me and I think he has a good motor, while there are times I think Jones is going through the motions a little bit. We’ll see if he keeps that motor running full time now that he’s a starter, but I think he’s got a chance to boost his stock and get drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent.

Tevin Mitchel, CB, Junior- I really wish I had more notes on Mitchel because he’s an intriguing player but unfortunately between the camera angles and the teams Arkansas was playing in the games that I watched he wasn’t tested a whole lot. Mitchel is the boundary corner on Arkansas’ defense (or at least it seemed that way when I was watching them) meaning if the ball is on the left hash he will defend the outside receiver that lines up on the near sideline. The field corner (Will Hines) defends the outside receiver closest to the far sideline. The boundary corner is considered the more difficult position because you have less time to react before the ball gets there, which is why the more experienced Mitchel played there last season. He produced 34 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 4 pass deflections and 1 interception on the season. He’s listed at 6’0”, 181 pounds and he definitely has a lot of upside, but I need to see more of him before I will be able to evaluate him fairly. He spends a lot of time dropping into zone coverage, particularly Cover-3 according to my notes, so I’d like to see him a lot more in man coverage.

Will Hines, CB, Sophomore- I didn’t get to see as much of Hines as I would have liked when I watched Arkansas, but he’s got some upside and got playing time as a true freshman last year (including 9 starts). That’s obviously rough in the SEC, but he had 24 tackles, 4 pass break-ups and an interception despite that. Supposedly he had an up and down spring, but he had an interception (albeit on a pretty poor throw) in the spring game and has the size (6’1”, 191 pounds) that some NFL teams are starting to target in corners. I haven’t been able to evaluate him specifically yet, but he didn’t look especially fluid when I did see him. However, he’s definitely worth keeping an eye on this year and in coming seasons.

Zach Hocker, K, Senior- Hocker caught my eye in the spring game during the bizarre kicking competition they had to try to give the defense some points. Normally I wouldn’t watch it, but Hocker has a legit NFL leg. He was 16/19 with a long of 51 as a freshman, but he hasn’t been quite as consistent since then. He was 21/27 with a long of 50 as a sophomore, and only 11/18 with a long of 46 as a junior. He’s got a strong leg though, he just needs to be more consistent. We’ll see if he can get back to his freshman year success, but he’s definitely got the leg to be a NFL kicker. He was just short of a 60 yard field goal in the spring game.

Johnny Manziel: Enough Is Enough

First of all, I just want to say that I am a little frustrated with myself for even writing this article. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject of Johnny Manziel and the outrageous attention he has been receiving this offseason, and as a result I am very passionate on the subject. But as much as I have wanted to write this article for the past few weeks, I also regret doing it because it is just adding to the list of articles and news stories talking about him, and that is not something I am proud of doing. I am proud of what I have written here, but I am not proud of continuing to excessively discuss Manziel and everything that has happened to him. I think we have gone beyond overkill, and I think we all as members of the media and society need to take a step back and think about what we are doing and the impact it could have. However, in order to do that, I must talk about myself a bit to help create some context for why I think the way I do.

It seems pretty clear to me that Manziel is overwhelmed by everything that has happened to him, and I can’t say I blame him one bit. I am a NFL Draft analyst and I pride myself on finding potential stars or breakout players before the season starts, and even a week or two into the season I had never heard of Johnny Manziel. In that sense, watching him play and develop over the course of the season was beautiful to me. I didn’t see it coming at all, and that was refreshing. As I strive longer and harder to turn covering or participating in football into my long term career I am finding that making football my job removes a little bit of the fun from watching it. I can’t help but look up players I have never watched before when they make a play that sticks out to me. I can’t help but analyze the plays as they unfold, and I find it harder and harder to turn off the scout inside me and just watch the game to enjoy it. In a weird way, that is why I think I, in some miniscule way, understand what Manziel is attempting to grapple with.

Let me be very clear: I have never played a down of organized football. I worked for Beloit College’s football team for three years doing film work while I attended the school, but I have never played. I realize that makes what I just asserted seem completely ridiculous, but I have no interest in deceiving people by making them think that I too was a superbly talented quarterback who had to struggle to comprehend and control his own fame. That has never happened to me. However, I did grow up in affluent suburb called Edina in the state of Minnesota and I think I understand, in very small way, how Manziel has grown up. I lived in the same house for my entire life until two years ago when my parents told me they were getting a divorce. I visited during my school’s October break my senior year of college and everything was the same. My parents were clearly unhappy, my basketball hoop was still intact in the backyard, and all of my possessions were in my room or downstairs in front of our big screen TV. I was happy with things remaining the way they were, but I knew they wouldn’t be that way for long. When I came back for Thanksgiving just a month later my mom had moved into a new house 30 minutes away in the country and my dad had moved into an apartment ten minutes away, but still in the city of Edina. My house was empty and on the market, and I felt like I was robbed of the chance to say goodbye to it. It was my own fault for not doing so ahead of time, but I still I felt like I had missed the chance to pack up all of my things one possession at a time, reminisce about all the memories I had made in that house, and then make my peace as I moved on with my life. When I go home I still drive by my old house, thinking about all the memories I made living there for over 21 years of my life, and how lucky I was to have not had to move out of my family home until I had nearly graduated from college. But this clarity and perception of what was happening has only come to me after having been removed from that time period, and I am hopeful that the same will be true for Manziel, though by then I am afraid it might be too late.

Let me pose you all a question. How often after a tragic event happens to a celebrity or someone who is perceived to “have it all” do we all say “it’s always the happy ones” or “no one saw it coming”? I did not anticipate Junior Seau, a Hall of Fame linebacker with thousands of adoring fans, committing suicide as he unsuccessfully grappled with his life post-football. The point is, it’s not “always the happy ones,” it is always the ones that are perceived as happy from the outside, from fans, and from the media. As unfortunate as this is, Wright Thompson’s brilliant article on Manziel and his family have made it obvious: A tragic event may be coming. There are signs, the writing is on the wall, and yet no one is letting up. Everyone who writes about him continues to push him further and further to the brink. Why? Because he won a Heisman trophy? Because he tries to escape his own persona by living a normal college life? Because he makes mistakes??

I realize many people think Manziel is spoiled, and as a result have absolutely no sympathy for him. After all, he and his family are wealthy, if he wants something he can buy it, and even if he doesn’t succeed as a NFL quarterback he likely won’t ever be working two low-paying jobs just to pay the electric bill. But isn’t there an old adage that money doesn’t buy happiness, or did I just make that up? Just because you or I – complete outsiders as it pertains to Johnny Manziel’s life – think to ourselves, “Wow, if I had everything he has then I would be very happy with my life,” doesn’t mean that Manziel is happy. That likely has everything to do with his perspective as well as your own, but I don’t think there is anyone who has read an article about him that would argue that he doesn’t seem like he is troubled, or perhaps even deeply troubled. I have no proof of this, but I believe Manziel is partying and trying to have fun to escape the reality that he has stumbled into. And you know what? I don’t blame him. I’ve never been under nearly the same microscope that Manziel has been under, and yet I have gone out and partied to try to deal with the stresses of my life in a similar, albeit likely less extravagant, fashion. This all dawned on me over this past weekend that I spent in Madison, Wisconsin with my best friend since I was in middle school.

I woke up on Friday, July 26th and as I do most days I got up, grabbed my phone, and checked Twitter. I tend to get on Twitter and read my timeline like a personalized newspaper, catching up on things that may have happened over the hours that I was sleeping. It may seem ridiculous, but there have been many nights I have gone to bed at 2:00 or even 3:00 am and woken up the next morning behind on a story regarding a suspension, an arrest, or even at times, a death. That was the case on the morning of July, 30th when I woke up and saw an ESPN alert that Texas A&M’s Polo Manukainiu, and incoming Utah Ute Gaius Vaenuke had tragically lost their lives in a one vehicle accident.

However, last Friday, something much different happened. I looked at my Twitter notifications and to my shock and awe David Pollack, an ESPN analyst and member of the College Football Gameday crew, had followed me on Twitter. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was to me. I watched Pollack dominate the SEC as a Georgia linebacker as I was growing up, and I watched him blossom into a very good NFL player prior to his career ending neck injury. I was relieved to see him land on his feet with ESPN and continue to be involved with football, something not all football players manage to do after their careers end whether on their own terms or someone else’s. Not only was I honored to have him follow me at all, but he was just shy of 95,000 followers (he has since exceeded that total) and follows under 100 people. It absolutely blew my mind, and I really couldn’t wrap my head around it. I immediately texted my best friend, asked him what he was doing this weekend, and in minutes it was decided that I would be heading up to Madison, Wisconsin – one of the country’s greatest college towns – to hang out with him on his last full weekend before he went back to school. I needed to get away and share the absurdity not only of David Pollack following me on Twitter, but of Bomani Jones, a man I have been reading and watching on ESPN First Take since I was in high school (if not longer) following me on Twitter two weeks beforehand. I may not have been Johnny Manziel but, not to toot my own horn, I felt like I was getting popular on Twitter. I began to think about whether or not I should get a personal account for my high school and college friends to interact with me on, something I never thought I would do, that I honestly thought was a ridiculously egotistical thing for anyone to do when I first created my NFL Draft Blog and Twitter account. “Why would I ever need a personal account and a professional one? Will I ever be that egomaniacal?” It seemed absurd to me, and yet here I was, contemplating the very thing that just a few years ago I practically swore I would never take myself seriously enough to do.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, the craziness did not end there. I went out with my best friend and some of his friends from college and had a great night. It really helped me get out of my own head. I woke up at 8:00 am the next morning, and while my friend slept in the other room, I began working on my Arkansas Razorbacks prospect preview by watching their entire Spring Game on YouTube prior to watching the games I have on my external hard drive. I completed my evaluations of about half of the players that I wanted to include in the preview, but decided to delve deeper into my evaluation of Travis Swanson, Arkansas’ highly touted senior center prospect who I have seen regarded as the top center in this class. He has all the size, football IQ and leadership capability you could want in a center, so without having scouted him it made sense that he would be discussed in such a way. However, upon watching him play I was disappointed. I expected a 1st or 2nd round player, but I felt like I was watching a 4th rounder. That shouldn’t sound like an insult (though I realize it likely comes off that way) because being drafted at all is a monumental accomplishment. I elected to tweet my thoughts about Swanson being a “mid-rounder”, not knowing what would ensue that afternoon.

A local TV reporter in Arkansas happened to see my tweet and in his response he casually mentioned that my opinion of Swanson seemed to fly in the face of what the Razorbacks’ new head coach, Bret Bielema, seemed to think of the senior center. We had a brief, civil discussion, and as a result I received tweets from a few Arkansas fans eager for me to further explain my position. Understandably so. I continued to watch Arkansas games to further improve my evaluation of Swanson as well as the rest of his teammates that I was including in the preview, when all of a sudden I saw a new interaction pop up on Twitter. I paused the game, opened the Twitter tab on my laptop, and to my complete surprise, Bret Bielema had seen the tweet, looked at my Twitter page and sent a response. Without quoting it directly, he essentially insinuated that because I was a “former” draft analyst at the web site NFL Draft Monsters (where I cut my teeth in my coverage of the NFL Draft) my opinion should not be trusted, and that his evaluation of his center was correct. I was not offended by this, rather I enjoyed the confrontation and another insinuation that I simply didn’t know what I was talking about. I thrive in those situations as Alex Holmes and his family found out when they attacked my credibility as it pertained to my evaluation of his brother, Khaled Holmes, after I projected him as a 4th round draft pick in June 2012 prior to his being drafted in the 4th round of the 2013 draft. I simply couldn’t believe that Bielema, the former head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers (whose town I was staying in for the weekend) and the new head man of an SEC football team had taken the time to look at my Twitter profile and respond to my tweet, even if it wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence in my skills as a draft analyst. I respectfully responded and, as I expected, received no response from him, but that didn’t stop a number of angry Arkansas fans from calling me a hater, looking through my past scouting reports to find guys that I had missed on, or simply telling me I had no idea what I was talking about. My phone went off with new tweets for the rest of the afternoon, as well as text messages from friends who thought it was absolutely hilarious that I had ruffled Bielema’s feathers enough to get a response out of him.

As the night wore on I went out to have some fun and get my mind off of this new Twitter interaction, and after a couple particularly specific shots at my credibility I responded to a couple of angry Arkansas fans in a less than professional manner. I didn’t swear at them, but I did use a heavy dose of sarcasm and I was less than nice to them. I was tired of being attacked, particularly since they hadn’t even gotten to read my analysis of Swanson because I hadn’t even written it yet! The next night I again went out with my friends and had fun, but unfortunately got in an argument with a Vikings fan who disagreed with my selection of David Fales in a Twitter mock draft I had been participating in. He wasn’t being very respectful, and I was pretty short on patience after my bout with the unhappy Arkansas fans the day before, so I wasn’t very respectful back. It was just another ridiculous Twitter interaction, and I was starting to get overwhelmed by the whole thing. This was capped off beautifully by gaining a number of influential followers who were beat writers or reporters in Arkansas and Kentucky following discussion of the Razorback prospects and the release of my Kentucky Wildcats prospect preview on Monday, July 29th. That same day, I was followed by Chris Smith and Trey Flowers, two very talented starting defensive ends on the Razorbacks, just days after their coach insinuated I wasn’t exactly credible. The brightest moment of all was, without a doubt, one of my all time favorite players, Alge Crumpler, following me on Twitter. Crumpler was a star tight end on the Falcons back when Mike Vick was on the team, and I have been a huge fan of his for at least the past ten years. Seeing him finally follow me on Twitter was a huge moment for me, and yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds. But later, to top it all off, I got dragged into a pissing match that a New York Post beat writer found himself in after mistakenly tweeting about the read option being a formation, rather than just a play. If you had told me on Thursday night when I went to bed that within the next four days I would be followed by all those people, tweeted at by Bielema and involved in any of those absurd arguments, I would have told you that you were crazy.  And yet…here I was.

I am telling you all of this not to try to put you to sleep, not to try to act like I am a hot shot, but to get all of this off my chest in what I consider to be a safe space on my blog. I may not be proud of this, but all of that overwhelmed me. I began to realize that I couldn’t just tweet whatever I wanted without ever having to face the consequences of the things or people I was tweeting about seeing my thoughts. I finally understood that I had to be more professional on Twitter, and though I had learned those lessons previously, I had never learned them as intensely as I had this particular weekend. And finally, I am telling you this because this is the context that I needed to paint for you so that I could prove to you that in some miniscule, fraction of a way, I think I understand how Johnny Manziel feels.

I have spent thousands of words trying to explain why I think I understand how Manziel feels, and yet even as I type it that sounds ridiculous to me, as I’m sure it sounds just as ridiculous to all of you. Yet I still believe it anyway. I have not felt the pressure he has, nor have I been attacked the way he has been, but on a microscopic level I have experienced a small fraction of what he has. I have let my frustrations get the better of me after reading too many negative tweets, I have lashed out at people who I felt have criticized me unfairly, and I have tried to get away from it all by surrounding myself with trusted friends who, as much as I want them to, didn’t understand what I was going through. Doesn’t that sound, just a little bit, like what Manziel is dealing with?

I have spent a lot of time trying to legitimize my claim that I get where Manziel is coming from, but now it’s time to delve deeper into what he is dealing with. It is clear to me that Manziel has stumbled into this fame without knowing exactly what to do with it, and before he knew it, partially because he was barred from interacting with the media per Kevin Sumlin’s coaching policy, Johnny Football took off and no one got to know the man behind the mask. I see people criticizing his maturity, lambasting him for poor decision making, and shredding him for how he carries himself. I see people call him cocky, arrogant, spoiled, and various other adjectives. But how many of you reading this had your life figured out at 20 years old? How many of you were vastly more mature than Manziel is at the ripe old age of 20? I certainly wasn’t. I might have thought I was at the time, but I like to think I’m smart enough now to realize that I wasn’t. I made mistakes. I screwed up. But most importantly, I learned from it. I can’t speak to whether Manziel is learning from it or not, but for his sake I hope he is. And if he hasn’t yet, I have faith that as he gets older and hopefully wiser that he will.

So is Johnny Manziel just a kid too immature for the fame he has stumbled into? Or is he a metaphor for all of college football and our society in general? We have this very talented 20 year old kid who we should be cherishing for his mesmerizing play on the football field, yet all we ever talk about is him going to courtside basketball games, going to fraternity parties, putting up pictures on instagram or tweeting things he should probably keep to himself. He is making Texas A&M and the NCAA millions of dollars, he helped Kevin Sumlin get a $1 million raise, and Texas A&M is building a new stadium, yet all Manziel has gotten out of the deal is largely unwanted limelight and near constant attacks on the content of his character. Not that he needs the money, but he is clearly a precious product on the field, yet he benefits from his performances much less than those running the show around him. He is such a bright light on the field, yet all the attention he receives off of it threatens to smother that light until it burns out. As a society and as a collective media shouldn’t we at least consider giving him a break?

Maybe it’s not fair to think that someone who has achieved so much at such a young age should even have a chance for, much less deserve, a break like that. But the more I hear about Manziel the more I keep thinking back to Ryan Leaf. Leaf was considered arrogant to a point that people disliked him, he was consistently getting in trouble off the field, and after he retired a complete disappointment he was indicted on burglary and controlled-substance charges in Texas in May of 2009. In March of 2012 he was arrested on burglary, theft and drug charges in his home town of Great Falls, Montana. Then, four days later, he was arrested again on burglary, theft and two counts of criminal possession of dangerous drugs. He was sentenced to seven years in custody of the Montana Department of Corrections, but he continued to cause trouble, including threatening a staff member and violating the conditions of his drug treatment placement. He was clearly a very troubled young man, and he never got his life together. As a result, he ended up in jail. Can’t you say similar things about Jamarcus Russell? Or Maurice Clarett?

Yes, they brought this on themselves, and Manziel has brought this on himself as well, but even in spite of all he has accomplished, all the fame he “enjoys” every day, and all the money he could potentially make, I feel bad for him. He clearly doesn’t want all of this attention if you ask me. I think he wants to be a normal college kid, and I think he wants to be able to have fun and play football. But his immense success has taken that away from him, and that’s something that is hard for people to understand. They see him win games and they see him partying and think “wow, that kid has it all” but I think he parties to try to escape his own celebrity, or to at least try to wrangle it.  I think that way because I think that is exactly what I would do if I was in his shoes. The world is obsessed with “Johnny Football” the electrifying athlete who beat Alabama as a freshman, was the 5th player to ever pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 more in the same season, and the only freshman to ever win the Heisman trophy in the history of the award. But they do not know Johnny Manziel the person, they only know some of the infamous things he has done off the field while he tries to escape or hide from the insatiable demand for updates on his whereabouts or activities from any news outlet you can think of. I would bet you $1,000 that all Manziel wants right now is some time to himself with his friends, with his family, without having to worry about someone taking a picture of him having fun, and without having to worry about being swarmed by strangers trying to catch a glimpse of his greatness. It’s hard to explain, and even harder for a normal person to understand, but I think that sometimes when you want something so bad for so long and you finally stumble into it you realize that it isn’t exactly what you thought it would be and it’s harder to control than you ever could have imagined. I think Manziel is finding that out right now.

It is for that reason that I am hoping and begging all of you to collectively give Manziel a break. Will that actually happen? No, it almost certainly won’t. But amidst all the overzealous analysis of his character without ever having spoken a word to him, amidst all of the criticism of how he carries himself off the field, and amidst all of the constant discussion about him and his future I would feel remiss if I didn’t at least voice my opinion on the matter and say that I am worried about him. I am worried that as the attention he garners from the media continues to intensify it will push him closer and closer to the edge of the cliff, and I don’t know what is waiting for him if he falls off of it. Drugs? Alcoholism? Jail time? Death? I have no idea what it could be, but I know I am not alone in worrying about him now that I have read Thompson’s article, which involves his parents openly agonizing about what will happen to him if he doesn’t mature and if this pressure doesn’t let up. I don’t want to find out what happens to him either, so I am hoping that Manziel finds a way to block out the pressure, live his life, and mature. I’m only 23 years old and I can’t imagine the pressure he is under, and I can see minute similarities between him and myself aside from the major difference in athletic ability and fame. I still have a lot of growing up to do, and so does Manziel, especially because he is three years younger than I am. If I was in his position I would want people to cut me some slack, and even though from a NFL Draft perspective he is raising a lot of red flags, the last thing I am thinking about right now is his NFL Draft stock. I am more worried about him as a person, and if he can’t find a way to cope with all of this pressure I think he is going to crack like Ryan Leaf did, although perhaps not in the same exact manner.

When he officially declares for the NFL Draft we will cross that bridge and discuss his draft stock, but for now I’d rather just appreciate all of the talent he has and marvel at what he can do on the football field. Shouldn’t we enjoy what we have in Manziel before he is gone? And more importantly, shouldn’t we focus on the positives and try to give him the benefit of the doubt for some of his shortcomings? Wouldn’t you want someone, or everyone, to do that for you if you were in his position? Haven’t people given you second chances in life, looked past any of your shortcomings, and given you the benefit of the doubt? I know I have, and I still believe in the golden rule that you should treat others the way you want to be treated. So tell me, are you treating Manziel the way you would want to be treated if you were walking a mile in his shoes? If you aren’t, maybe you should reevaluate how you perceive his situation. Like most things, it’s not as black and white as “he’s a hero” or “he’s a villain.” He is just Johnny Manziel, and he deserves a break.

Wisconsin Badgers Prospect Preview:

Joel Stave, QB, Sophomore- If my opinion means anything, then Joel Stave should be the starting quarterback of the Wisconsin Badgers. He has to have the inside track for the job after the way he played in the spring game, but the new Badgers Head Coach Gary Andersen likes his quarterbacks to be mobile so it’s no sure thing. However, Stave has all the size (6’5”, 219) and arm strength a Badger fan could ask for. His accuracy impressed me as well, but he has room to grow in that area (particularly on deep balls, which he is hit or miss on). On top of that, Stave essentially saved Wisconsin’s season last year by solidifying the quarterback position and giving them a semblance of a passing game, so I trust him to be an effective starter for the full length of a season if he can stay healthy. Stave completed 58.8 % of the 119 passes he threw a year ago and started 6 games. He passed for 1,104 yards, 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions in those games. He may not be perfect, but if the Badgers can run the ball effectively they won’t need him to be. I’ll take him over any Badger quarterback I’ve watched since I started watching college football with the obvious exception of Russell Wilson. Now, if Stave can’t stay healthy the Badgers do have a reliable option in Curt Phillips, a 6th year senior, that they can trust to take snaps at quarterback. Still, if I have to choose between Stave and “Curt Tebow” as I took to calling him during some of his late game heroics last year I’ll take Stave and not think twice.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Sophomore- Gordon is a kid that I heard about during the spring game last year and I immediately was intrigued. A 6’1”, 206 pound kid with what I believe is sub 4.5 speed? Sign me up. Gordon was impressive last year and despite being behind both Montee Ball and James White he racked up 621 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns with an INSANE 10 yard per carry average. Not only that, but he added 151 yards and a 21.6 yard average per kick return as well. Gordon is an impressive back with the strength to run through tackles, impressive burst and enough long speed to rip off big chunks of yardage. He’s going to be the next great Wisconsin running back and I’ve been saying it since last August. I still feel the same way, and I can’t wait to watch him split the carries with James White this year.

James White, RB, Senior- White is an interesting player, because as a sophomore he really ran into the “sophomore slump” that talented freshmen run into at times. The 5’10”, 197 pound back ran for “only” 713 yards (5.06 ypc) and 6 touchdowns after rushing for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman. He got back on track as a junior, rushing for 806 yards (6.45 ypc) and 12 touchdowns despite carrying the ball less than he did as a sophomore (125 carries vs 141 carries). He’s Wisconsin’s speed back and he has legitimate sub 4.5 speed, he’s very quick, and he has surprising strength for a smaller back. Not only that, but he’s a reliable and dangerous receiver out of the backfield who figures to be featured more in this role as a senior. I like White, but I can’t quite shake that sophomore slump season from my memory despite the bounce-back year he had last year. I’m still hoping to see that absolutely dynamic freshman again, and I hope he comes back for one last hurrah this season.

Jared Abbrederis, WR, Senior- Abbrederis is a player I’ve been rooting for since he was a freshman. He’s a former walk-on who actually got playing time in one receiver sets over Nick Toon even as a freshman while Toon was a junior. He’s a high effort, high work ethic player who may not be the biggest or the fastest, but he finds a way to get the job done. He’s listed at 6’2”, 188 pounds but I think he will measure in at 6’1” or maybe even 6’0” even. He’s probably going to run in the 4.55 range for his 40 yard dash time so he’s not a burner, but he runs good routes, has good quickness and reliable hands. If he gets drafted I think it will be at the end of the draft, likely in the 6th-7th round range, but it’s entirely possible he ends up signing with a team as an undrafted free agent. Still, Abbrederis has been a reliable receiver for the Badgers since he arrived on campus and he produced 49 receptions, 837 yards and 5 touchdowns last year despite the carousel at quarterback throughout the season.

Kenzel Doe, WR/KR, Junior- Doe was flying under my radar as he only hauled in 16 receptions for 121 yards as a sophomore but I expect his role on the team to increase significantly this year. Doe is a dynamic threat in the slot and as a return man and I expect him to be utilized in a number of ways to take advantage of his speed. Doe is listed at 5’8”, 170 pounds, so he is quite undersized, but he has plenty of speed and quickness to help compensate for that. As a return man he averaged 27.9 yards per kick return and 12.4 yards per punt return, including an 82 yard touchdown against his new Head Coach’s former team Utah State. He had a very good spring game and I fully expect to see him as Wisconsin’s primary slot receiver, kick returner and hopefully punt returner as well. If Stave wins the job I think Doe will easily exceed his 16 receptions and 121 yards as a sophomore.

Jacob Pedersen, TE, Senior- Pedersen isn’t the same prospect that Lance Kendricks was at the position a couple of years ago, but Pedersen is a poor-mans Kendricks to me. He’s not the same athlete, he doesn’t have the same upside, but he is reliable in the pass game and as a run blocker. He’s not going to be a dominant in line blocker at the next level, but as an H-Back type blocker he will be just fine. At 6’4”, 237 pounds he’s not a huge guy but he has enough athleticism for me to think he’s going to get day 3 consideration. He isn’t a flashy player that does anything spectacularly well, but he is solid in all areas.

Ryan Groy, OT/OG, Senior- Groy is a player I was initially worried about sliding outside to tackle, but I think he will be able to hold up alright there as a senior. It’s tough to project how the 6’5”, 318 pounder will do on the blind side since I’ve never seen him play there, but he has enough lateral agility, good enough length and a strong enough anchor for me to think he can handle it. Originally I viewed him as only a guard, but after watching him and taking notes I think he might have a shot at playing tackle at the next level. That is all obviously projection, and I’m certainly not sold on him as a NFL left tackle, but he is carrying a day 2 grade from me into the season without a doubt. I’m excited to see what he can do, because as a guard he showed pretty good hand placement, a good anchor, and was smooth getting to the second level. He doesn’t strike me as a mauler in the run game, and is at his best when he can double team a defender, seal him off, cut him, or combo block and get to the second level. He’s not a great puller, but he looked solid when asked to do it. I think he’s going to be a good ZBS fit at the next level, and could potentially be a very good right tackle in a scheme that uses a lot of those concepts. I can’t wait to see what he can do outside at tackle this year.

Rob Havenstein, OT, Junior- Havenstein was a bit of a problem area for Wisconsin’s line last year but I see potential when I watch him. The most surprising thing about the 6’8”, 342 pound lineman was how quick he was out of his stance as a pass blocker. He gets good depth, is often the first one out of his stance, and doesn’t look like he will struggle with speed off the edge if he can improve his technique over the next two seasons. He has the length, he has the size, he just needs to work on some of his mechanical issues. He ends up on the ground a lot as a result of poor hand placement and I’m not sure if he’s a natural knee bender at this point. He’s obviously huge and is effective when he blocks down on defensive tackles and can wash them out thanks to his size and strength, but he’s not great at getting to the second level. He showed some ability to recover in pass protection which was encouraging, but I’m going to be watching him closely next year to see how he does when he is tested by quality pass rushers.

Kyle Costigan, OG, Junior- It’s official- the Kyle Costigan bandwagon starts behind me. I am driving it and there’s no one that can convince me otherwise. I LOVE this kid’s game. He’s listed at 6’4”, 313 pounds but he moves like he weighs 280. He is such a smooth puller, he is a text book combo blocker, he gets to the 2nd level easily, and he is a very good cut blocker. Not only that, but in the Ohio State game he absolutely held his own in 1 on 1 situations with Johnathan Hankins which is no easy task. He was only a sophomore, but he was awfully impressive to me in the games I watched. He looks like a potential 1st round draft pick if he continues to improve and get stronger. Look out for him.

Dan Voltz, C, Freshman- Voltz is a player I obviously haven’t watched any of yet but the coaches seem to be high on him and he’s being pegged as a potential future 1st rounder following in the steps of Peter Konz (2nd rounder) and Travis Frederick (1st rounder, even if everyone hated the pick). He’s listed at 6’4”, 301 pounds and is supposed to be very smart based on what I’ve read about him. It’s going to be tough to pick up where Frederick left off from a football IQ standpoint but I’m excited to see what he can do as the only underclassman starting on Wisconsin’s offensive line at what some consider the most critical position.

Ethan Hemer, DE/DT, Senior- Hemer is a player I’m excited to watch this year because I think the 3-4 scheme that the Badgers are installing as their new base defense will play to his strong suits. He’s listed at 6’6”, 296 pounds so he is essentially the prototype 3-4 defensive end. Last year he managed 24 tackles, 1 sack, 1.5 TFL and 3 pass defections in his first year as a starter. I expect him to be more disruptive this year and I think 3-4 teams are going to be intrigued by him as a possible day 3 selection.

Beau Allen, DT, Senior- Allen is the key cog in Wisconsin’s defense this year because if he can hold up versus double teams in the middle and free up Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong to play clean versus the run then the Badgers will be a much better defense in 2013. Allen certainly has the size to do it as he is listed at 6’3”, 335 and is one of the key players returning on defense. He managed 37 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 5 TFL and 2 pass break-ups as a junior and while I think that his statistics might not be the same as a year ago at the end of the season he may have an even bigger impact. He’s going to see a lot of double teams this year and if he can hold up at the point of attack he’s going to be very attractive to a lot of 3-4 teams at the next level.

Brendan Kelly, DE/OLB, Senior- Kelly is a player I’m really rooting for because he has been through so much during his time with the Badgers. He sustained a serious groin injury as a freshman but attempted to play through it before realizing that he had torn four muscles off of his pelvis, and missed the final conference game the Badgers played that season. When he attempted to come back during fall camp the next year he aggravated the injury, leading to additional surgery and time on the sidelines. He had three total surgeries on his groin and he missed time with a hand injury as well. He stayed healthy (as far as I know) last season and the 6’6”, 258 pounder managed 28 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 TFL and 2 pass break-ups on the year. I’m not sure he’s going to be considered before the end of day 3, but the fact that he even has the chance to be drafted after all the injuries he has sustained is impressive. I’m really hoping he has a break-out year this year rotating with Tyler Dippel at outside linebacker.

Chris Borland, ILB, Senior- It’s hard to believe Borland is finally a senior, but it’s happened. It feels to me like he’s been at Wisconsin forever, but now the “short not small” 5’11”, 242 pound linebacker is getting ready to graduate and attempt a jump to the NFL. Borland’s size is going to hurt him in the eyes of evaluators but he’s strong, moves well and is a very good tackler. He has exceeded 100 tackles the last two years, including 104 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL and 6 pass break-ups as a junior. Borland doesn’t excel at shedding blocks and can be engulfed by bigger players at times, but he has a good motor and plays the run well. He’s a good blitzer as well, but I don’t completely trust him in pass coverage. I don’t think he’s a liability there, but I think he still has room to improve that part of his game. He’s not going to be a fit for every defensive scheme in the NFL, and many will doubt that he even has starter upside. I’ve seen him play too much to say he doesn’t, but I don’t think he’s going to be given a starting gig. He’s going to have to make the team as a likely day 3 selection and claw his way to playing time. I think he can do it though, and hopefully I’ll be able to see him show his skills at an All-Star game this winter.

Ethan Armstrong, ILB, Senior- I’m not very familiar with Armstrong’s game as last season was his first as a starter, but the undersized 6’2”, 216 pound linebacker started all 14 games last season and managed 93 tackles, 2 TFL, 4 pass break-ups and an interception. I don’t think he’s the same prospect that Borland is and isn’t nearly as filled out considering he is listed as 3 inches taller than him yet he reportedly weighs 26 pounds less. If he can fill out his frame he might have a NFL future, but there’s no way he can last in the NFL weighing under 220 pounds.

Dezman Southward, FS, Senior- Southward is the only returning starter in Wisconsin’s secondary but from all I’ve read about him he has really taken to his new leadership role as the veteran among the DB’s. The most surprising thing to me about Southward was that he only picked up football as a senior in high school (he previously played basketball) and didn’t even play safety. He has had to start from scratch as far as learning the game and as a fifth year senior he has only been playing the game for 6 years. The 6’2”, 213 pound safety is obviously a good athlete and he is being touted as a potential star this year. In his first season as a starter Southward totaled 69 tackles, 8 TFL, 4 pass break-ups and 1 interception from his free safety position. This year he will be expected to be even better in coverage and help Wisconsin create more turnovers.

Iowa Hawkeyes Prospect Preview:

Mark Weisman, RB, Junior- Weisman is a 6’0”, 236 pound power back that helped save Iowa’s rushing attack last season. He walked on as a fullback after deciding to leave the Air Force and attend Iowa (playing for Iowa was “his dream”) and after injuries to two running backs against Northern Iowa Weisman was the next man up and he never looked back. He rushed 159 times for 815 yards and 8 touchdowns and added 15 receptions for 90 yards and another score as a receiver. Weisman won’t be confused for a speed back, but he seems to have pretty good vision, surprising quickness for someone who is supposed to be a fullback, and he runs hard with good pad level. It’s not surprising to see him run through tackles or run defenders over altogether when you watch him run. He figures to be “the guy” for Iowa this year, and it’s a pretty awesome story. Whether he will show the athleticism and skill set to be a NFL running back is another thing, but I am looking forward to seeing him run the ball and help stabilize the Iowa running game this season.

Kevonte Martin-Manley, WR, Junior- Most people would have assumed that Keenan Davis led the Hawkeyes in all statistical categories last season but in reality Martin-Manley (KMM) led the team in receptions (52), tied Davis for the lead in receiving yards (571) and led the team with 2 touchdowns. Obviously those aren’t earth shattering numbers, but the 6’0”, 205 pound receiver showed some promise as a possible slot receiver last year. He’s still only a junior, so I am looking forward to seeing if he can be “the guy” at wide receiver for the Hawkeyes this year. They still haven’t settled on a starting quarterback yet, so there’s a good chance KMM will have to deal with uneven quarterback play for another year if not two. Also, keep an eye on Jordan Cotton as a wide receiver and return man.

CJ Fiedorowicz, TE, Senior- I have been waiting for Fiedorowicz to break out for the past two years and while I’m not sure it will happen this year I don’t think it will be because he lacks talent. The 6’7”, 265 pound tight end has had to deal with some pretty bad quarterback play the last couple of years and it doesn’t figure to get much better now that they are going to have a first time starter this year. Say what you will about James Vandenberg, but he threw every pass for Iowa last season. The Hawkeyes will be lucky to have that same kind of consistency this year in my opinion. That spells trouble for Fiedorowicz who, while being an excellent blocker, only totaled 45 receptions for 433 yards and 1 touchdown last year. He’s one of the most talented tight ends in the country, but it doesn’t show on the stat sheet because he doesn’t have anyone to get him the ball. Fiedorowicz is essentially an extension of the offensive line as a blocker which is a great asset for a team who runs a traditional pro style offense like Iowa, and it will make him appealing to teams like the Steelers in the NFL. For a full scouting report on Fiedorowicz read Matt Mochal’s write-up on him and follow him on Twitter @itsasabotage.

Brandon Scherff, OT, Junior- Scherff is coming off of a broken leg but he was 100% in the spring so he should be fine for the 2013 season. He’s not the same athlete that Van Sloten is but he is stronger and better in the run game. He’s shown an effective cut block and seems comfortable with zone and man concepts which is good, and he also has shown he can drive block a bit and generate push off the ball at times. He looks less comfortable in his pass sets though and looked slow off the ball against NIU, though that may have just been because Alan Baxter was flying off the edge so quick. But he did look late off the ball a number of times and wasn’t getting great depth in his initial drop or his kick slide in general, and it led to him being off balance at times. I think Scherff is more of a RT in the NFL, and I honestly think Van Sloten might be a better traditional fit at LT than Scherff is given his athleticism and some of his issues generating push in 1 on 1 situations. Scherff is the better run blocker, but I’ll give Van Sloten the edge in pass pro. Scherff’s main goal has to be to stay healthy, and it’s clear his presence was missed in the running game after his injury. If he stays healthy the run game should be fine, but I still have questions about him in pass protection.

Brett Van Sloten, OT, Senior- The first thing I noticed about Van Sloten (or BVS) is that he is an impressive athlete and I speculated that he had to be a former TE. Turns out he was, he played tight end and defensive end in high school. He is listed at 6’7”, 300 pounds and he moves like a defensive end. BVS needs to improve his anchor and get stronger in the lower half, but boy does he have potential thanks to that athletic ability. Seems to have pretty good length, needs to play with a bit better pad level, but his movement skills are awfully impressive for a 6’7” tackle. I’m not sure I saw him get speed rushed effectively once against Penn State, and while he doesn’t have much buzz around him right now I think he’s a nice sleeper prospect at the offensive tackle position. He’s not projected to get drafted now, but if he’s as athletic as he looks to me then I think he will creep up boards over the course of the year. If he can improve his anchor and work on his pad level a little bit I think that will help him even more.

Austin Blythe, Sophomore- Blythe is listed at 6’3”, 300 pounds but he looks smaller than that to me, likely 6’2” or so. He also seems to have short arms which concerns me, but he has a pretty stocky build. He started 9 games at right guard last year as a redshirt freshman and was a 1st team freshman All-American. He held his own for a freshman, but he has some room for improvement. He seems to lack lateral quickness and really struggled against players that were athletic enough to beat him with quickness and upfield speed. Jordan Hill gave him a lot of trouble, and it had to do with his quickness and burst. He is an effective combo blocker and he can get to the second level effectively, but he struggled at times in pass protection and giving up interior pressure frequently leads to disaster on pass plays. Blythe is moving inside to center this year so it will be interesting to see if he is stronger and more adept at handling quicker pass rushers. I think he is smart enough to handle the pivot and some of his issues at guard may not be as obvious at center. Only time will tell, but Iowa needs to elevate their interior line play if they are going to have any success as an offense. That starts with Blythe.

Dominic Alvis, DE, Senior- Alvis is a returning starter who is listed at 6’4”, 265 pounds. He’s kind of your typical Iowa defensive lineman who is a high effort, technically sound player that doesn’t have an abundance of athletic ability or upside. I think his best bet is to bulk up and attempt to stick as a 3-4 defensive end because he doesn’t have the quickness or edge speed to consistently win as a 4-3 edge rusher at the next level. He seems to use his hands effectively but he is regularly late off the ball and he doesn’t have the quick-twitch athleticism to compensate for it. He seems to have a good feel for getting his hands up to try to impact passing lanes, but he’s not going to offer much as a pass rusher in a 4-3 alignment.

Carl Davis, DT, Junior- Carl Davis is my guy. Last year I was watching Iowa’s defense and while they didn’t have much talent outside of Micah Hyde #71 stuck out to me consistently. Davis is listed at 6’5”, 315 pounds and is a surprisingly good athlete for such a large man. He was flashing a lot of upside but he was a raw sophomore that needed to work on his pad level, improve his technique and get more playing time. He is projected to be a starter this fall and that might have something to do with him dominating in the spring. While he struggled against the undersized James Ferentz in practice last year, this year Davis is the one doing the dominating thanks to supposedly better pad level. This will be his first year as a starter and he only had 14 tackles and 1.5 TFL last year, but expect a BIG statistical uptick in 2013. Even if he doesn’t total a lot of sacks or tackles for loss you can bet his impact will be felt on Iowa’s defense. He’s likely going to draw consistent double teams which could free up other players to make plays, particularly Iowa’s three senior linebackers. I’m a big Davis fan and if the rumors about his improved pad level are true we could all be in for a treat whenever we watch Iowa play.

James Morris, MLB, Senior- Morris is the middle linebacker for the Hawkeyes and he was 2nd on their team in tackles last year with 113 as well as 1.5 sacks, 7.5 TFL, 4 pass break-ups and 1 interception. Contrary to all of those pass break-ups I don’t think the 6’2”, 240 pound linebacker excels in coverage. He isn’t a great athlete and as a result he doesn’t have great range, and he takes some false steps when asked to drop in coverage. He isn’t bad passing defenders off in zone and gets solid depth, but he’s not going to be a playmaker in coverage in the NFL in my opinion. He seems to be a smart player but doesn’t shed blocks well and gets caught up in the trash too much for my liking versus the run. This was particularly obvious against Michigan State this year, and Le’Veon Bell benefited greatly from it. Morris is a reliable tackler and he’s got a good motor, but I just don’t see a starting NFL linebacker based off of what I’ve seen from him so far. He’s got another year to prove me wrong, but I’m not high on him right now.

Anthony Hitchens, OLB, Senior- Hitchens is the Iowa linebacker I am least familiar with but he led the Hawkeyes in tackles with 124 last year, adding 1 sack and 4.5 tackles for loss. He is listed at 6’1”, 233 pounds and I believe last year was his first as a starter. I’m looking forward to seeing what he brings to the table as a senior and a second year starter, but right now I’m not overly intrigued by him. Still, his production last year meant I needed to try to do my due diligence on him.

Christian Kirksey, OLB, Senior- Kirksey is my favorite linebacker on the Hawkeyes and is one of their better defensive prospects overall in my opinion. I think he is the best athlete of the three senior ‘backers and it shows in coverage. First of all, despite being listed at 6’2”, 235 pounds he looks like a safety on the field which is both a good and a bad thing for a linebacker. I haven’t seen him shed blocks particularly effectively, but he gives good effort in the run game and attacks which I like to see. He’s got better range than Morris and looks more comfortable dropping into zone coverage to me. I’m not sure if he is going to be a starting linebacker in the NFL, but I think he has a better skill set to do it than Morris or Hitchens. We will see if I’m right over the course of the year, but right now Kirksey is my top linebacker on the Hawkeyes.

Illinois Fighting Illini Prospect Preview

Nathan Scheehaase, QB, Senior- Scheelhaase feels like he has been at Illinois forever to me (and he has, this is his 5th and final year with the team) and while he showed some potential as a freshman he has largely been unimpressive in the years since. That may have something to do with changing offensive coordinators every year (we saw what that did to Alex Smith, after all) but blaming his unimpressive accuracy and relatively poor decision making on the constant change at offensive coordinator doesn’t add up to me. Still, it looks like the 6’3”, 200 pound senior will be the starter over Riley O’Toole (who threw four, yes FOUR, interceptions in the spring game) in spite of throwing for just 1,361 yards on 246 attempts (60.6% completion) with 4 touchdowns and 8 interceptions (usually you hope for the direct opposite ratio). He doesn’t have a very strong arm, he’s not accurate, he doesn’t protect the football, and he doesn’t have a lot of poise in the pocket. Sounds like the next Andrew Luck right? I don’t think Scheelhaase will have a great senior year, but I’ve never been a big fan and I will be very surprised if he is drafted whether it is at quarterback or wide receiver.

Wes Lunt, QB, Sophomore- I really wish Lunt could start this year but unfortunately we will all have to wait a year. I was a fan of Lunt at Oklahoma State and was rooting for him to win the starting job despite being a true freshman. He had an up and down freshman year, but upon realizing that he wouldn’t be the starter he elected to transfer. He’s still young, and he will have a year to learn Cubit’s system before he has to play, and I think he has some upside. He’s more of a pocket passer which theoretically fits Cubit’s system better, and I think he has much better arm strength than Scheelhaase. So I for one am excited to see if he can win the starting job over O’Toole (god I hope so) so I can see what he brings to the table for two or three years as the starter.

Donovonn Young, RB, Junior- I have been on the Donovonn Young bandwagon since he was a freshman and I’m not hopping off now. The offensive line was underwhelming last year (despite my fandom of Hugh Thornton) and Young only got 131 carries which he turned into 571 yards and 3 touchdowns. Those obviously aren’t eye popping numbers, but he also led the team in receptions with 38 and added 172 receiving yards and another touchdown through the air. He’s a complete back and at 6’0”, 220 he is a load to bring down in the open field. I’d say he has about 4.5 speed, some quickness, reliable hands out of the backfield, and he runs hard which I like to see. I don’t think he’s on Rashard Mendenhall’s level yet, but I still believe he has similar upside. If the Illini can solidify their offensive line I think Young could surprise a lot of people, he’s a talented back.

Justin Hardee, WR, Sophomore- The Illini have two senior wide receivers in Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford, but neither one jumped off the screen to me when I watched Illinois during the season or in the spring game. The kid who DID jump off the screen was then freshman, now sophomore Justin Hardee. Hardee is listed at 6’1”, 190 pounds and I’m not sure how fast he is, but boy does he have good hands. He was snagging passes outside of his frame like it was nothing in the spring game and actually went over 100 yards in the game despite O’Toole’s ineptitude. Hardee is buried on the depth chart behind more experienced players like Lankford, Harris, and Martize Barr, but I think Hardee has more upside than all of them. He had 17 receptions for 192 yards last year as a true freshman, but I’m hoping he gets more playing time because I seriously think he might have the best hands on the team.

Jon Davis, TE, Junior- Jon Davis is an interesting case because while he showed a lot of promise as a freshman his production dropped from 22 receptions, 187 yards and 1 touchdown as a freshman to just 9 receptions, 88 yards and 1 touchdown as a sophomore. In fact, he had 12 more attempts RUSHING than he did receptions which I could hardly believe. He’s clearly an impressive athlete as he managed 102 yards and 1 touchdown on his 21 attempts, but I think all Illinois fans want to see him become more of a focus in the passing game as a junior and a senior. He’s got a lot of upside, but the 6’3”, 240 pound H-Back just hasn’t lived up to it yet. Hopefully he takes a big step forward as a junior, but until the quarterback play is elevated it’s going to be hard for him to put up significant numbers.

Alex Hill, C, Junior- Hill is a favorite of alioneye.com and I have to say I’m intrigued with him as well. He’s listed at 6’3”, 325 pounds and I love that size in a Center. He doesn’t have much previous experience having only started 3 games in his first two seasons, but he played in 11 games last year including one start at left guard. It sounds like the Illini haven’t had the luxury of developing their young linemen and instead have essentially been playing them before they were likely ready which explains some of their poor offensive line play last year. I’m still skeptical that their offensive line will be much better this year, but they return three starters (though Simon Cvijanovic will be moving to left tackle full time) and Hill is replacing Graham Pocic at center. Since Hill doesn’t have a lot of starting experience I’m not very familiar with his game, but he’s definitely one of the guys I’ll be keeping an eye on up front.

Simon Cvijanovic, OT, Junior- Cvijanovic caught my eye both because of his last name and because he has 15 career starts (13 at right tackle, just two at left tackle) but he will be the starting left tackle for the Illini this year. Cvijanovic is listed at 6’5”, 295 pounds and has shown me some upside as a wall-off blocker, but I’m interested to see more of him from a pass protection perspective at left tackle. He doesn’t look overly comfortable in his kick slide on the left side, though he does seem to have pretty good lateral agility. He’s still a relative unknown to me but he’s one of Illinois’ top returning linemen so he’s definitely on my watch list.

Houston Bates, DE, Junior- Bates is a linebacker who has been converted to defensive end so his speed and athleticism isn’t the question mark. He’s listed at 6’3”, 240 pounds so he will need to gain some weight if he’s going to hold up at defensive end in the Big-10. However, if there’s one player who I think could provide some boost to Illinois’ pass rush this year I think it is Bates. I don’t have any tape to base that on since he’s moving to a new position this year, but I’m excited to see what he can produce from a pass rush perspective.

Jonathan Brown, OLB, Senior- Brown is the top senior or junior prospect on the Illini in my opinion. I’ve been watching him since he was a sophomore and while he had a great sophomore year he hasn’t quite lived up to my expectations for him. Some of that has to do with injuries, but if he can stay healthy I think he can recreate his sophomore season where he had 108 tackles and 18.5 TFL. He was a force that year, but injuries robbed him of 3 games and 5 starts as a junior. The 6’1”, 235 pound linebacker still managed 59 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 7 TFL and 1 pass break-up as a junior though. Brown may not be the biggest linebacker but he is a good athlete, a reliable tackler, and he has a high football IQ. He struggles when asked to shed blocks and can get caught up in trash at times, but I think he projects pretty well to a weak-side linebacker role at the next level. He has day 2 upside, but he needs to stay healthy and show what he can do all year to help revive his stock a bit.

Mason Monheim, MLB, Sophomore- Monheim had a great freshman year and honestly watching him I wouldn’t have guessed that he was a true freshman. He had some trouble trying to spy Braxton Miller in the Ohio State game, but that’s not an easy task for anyone, much less a true freshman, to accomplish. He’s another relatively undersized linebacker who is listed at 6’1”, 230 pounds and he led the team with 86 tackles last year. He also added 1.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL, 1 pass break-up and an interception. He seems to have similar instincts as Jonathan Brown and also struggles to shed blocks much like Brown does. He has room to grow though, so he’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Minnesota Golden Gophers Prospect Preview:

Philip Nelson, QB, Sophomore- Nelson returns as the incumbent starter after a solid but unspectacular freshman year. The Gophers struggled to find consistency of any kind at quarterback between MarQueis Gray, Max Shortell and Nelson. Nelson finished the season with the most yardage but the lowest completion percentage of any of the three quarterbacks who threw a pass for the Gophers in 2013, but according to the guys at thedailygopher.com Nelson has looked accurate and displayed improved decision making this spring. That’s a good sign for the Gophers because they need the 6’2”, 215 pound quarterback to complete passes at a higher clip than his 49.3% rate of 2012. He took his lumps last season, but I expect Nelson to be a solid starter for the Gophers despite his age. If he can stay healthy I think he will prove to be an effective QB, albeit one that needs seasoning and development. Based on what I’ve seen from Nelson he doesn’t have the strongest arm, and as far as the NFL is concerned it is probably no better than average at this point. However, he does have pretty reliable accuracy and touch, he can extend plays with his legs (as well as pick up yardage with them) and make throws on the move outside the pocket. Only time will tell if Nelson has the arm strength to make the jump to the next level, but I think he has enough to be a successful college quarterback.

Donnell Kirkwood, RB, Junior- Last year I was completely on board the James Gillum hype train after I watched what I could of him from junior college and all the reports were that he would likely be “the guy” for the Gophers at running back in 2012. In case you were wondering if you can take everything you see or hear in the spring and summer at face value, you can’t. Gillum had 27 carries for 73 yards and 1 touchdown in 2012 despite the hype train and Donnell Kirkwood emerged as a much more effective back. Kirkwood averaged 4.2 yards per carry behind an offensive line that was constantly changing as a result of injuries. He really came on the scene in my eyes against Northwestern (a game that I attended) where he was consistently running with fantastic pad level. He was regularly gaining tough yardage with his leg drive and making Northwestern’s defense fight to even get him to the ground. Kirkwood is a compact running back listed at 5’10”, 223 pounds and he runs with purpose. His pad level is impressive, he gains good yardage after initial contact thanks to his strong lower body, and he has surprising quickness for his size. The downside is that he was barely utilized at all in the passing game last year, and I haven’t evaluated him as a pass protector yet either. I want to see him utilized more out of the backfield as a receiver and I’m intrigued by his potential as a pass protector thanks to his attitude running the ball as well as his size and strength. I’m definitely a big Kirkwood fan and I’m anticipating a 1,000 yard, 10+ touchdown season from him if he stays healthy.

Mike Henry, FB, Senior- Mike Henry is a little-known player because he rarely touches the ball on the Gophers offense, but he offers value as a blocker which is why I felt he warranted mention here. The NFL seems to be utilizing fullbacks less and less, but versatile players that are willing to block are universally valued in NFL circles and I think Henry has a chance to show he fits that bill. He likely won’t get drafted, but if he can demonstrate his blocking prowess as well as show something as a runner or a receiver he could have a chance to stick somewhere.

Derrick Engel, WR, Senior- Derrick Engel enters 2013 as the leading returning receiver for the Gophers, though that isn’t saying much. He totaled 18 receptions and 375 yards last year, including an impressive 20.8 yards per reception. The 6’2”, 187 pound receiver only produced one touchdown though, but that figures to improve if Phillip Nelson can stabilize the Gophers’ quarterback play. From what I have seen of Engel he doesn’t have elite speed (though he had a listed 40 time of 4.4 at 170 pounds coming out of high school), nor does he have spectacular hands, but he seems to be a reliable receiver that Nelson will be able to count on. Whether that gets him a look as an undrafted free agent or not remains to be seen.

Jamel Harbison, WR, Freshman- Harbison redshirted last year and hasn’t had the healthiest of starts to his career as a Gopher but he was healthy enough to go in the spring game and he impressed me. He seems to run crisp routes, adjusts well to less than perfect throws and showed some wiggle after the catch. He’s listed at 5’11”, 199 and will likely get a lot of time in the slot this year. According to thedailygopher.com coaches have been saying he was the most talented receiver on the roster since he was a true freshman last year, but we will see what he can do if he stays healthy all season. He was quoted as saying that the knee was not a problem at all after the spring game and that he had no problems cutting en route to catching 5 balls for 52 yards and 1 touchdown in the game, so hopefully he continues to be effective for the Gophers all season long.

Devin Crawford-Tufts, WR, Junior- Crawford-Tufts was a guy I previewed last year and he still hasn’t lived up to some of the hype he has gotten during his time with the Gophers. On paper he has the size (6’2”, 193) and the speed to be a legitimate contributor at receiver, but as a sophomore he only managed 16 receptions, 189 yards and 1 touchdown which was against Texas Tech in their bowl game. The potential is all there, it’s just a question of whether the lightbulb comes on for him or not. He’s usually a solid bet for a big play, but he and the Gophers’ quarterbacks just haven’t quite connected on them yet.

Drew Goodger, TE, Junior- Goodger returns for his junior year as the top tight end and the 6’5”, 265 pounder intrigues me as an every down prospect at the next level. I haven’t seen enough of him as a receiver (though I guess no one has, really. He only caught 13 balls for 155 yards and 3 TD’s last year) but he has definite upside as a blocker. There will be more footage to go over now that he’s the starter, but I am looking forward to seeing him as a blocker and as a receiver.

Ed Olson, OT, Senior- Olson is the returning starter with the most experience having started 27 games at left tackle for the Gophers. He is listed at 6’7”, 309 pounds and plays with an aggressive mean streak, but most importantly just needs to stay healthy. He has been a starter since Day 1 of his freshman year, but he missed 4 starts due to injury as a freshman, 2 starts due to injury in 2011, and 4 starts in 2012. He has never played and started an entire full season despite entering his fourth season as a starter, so staying healthy for a full year would benefit his draft stock significantly. I think he has the size and length to remain at tackle, but whether he will play at left or right at the next level remains up in the air. He needs to stay healthy and play more consistent, and if he does those things he could be the first Gopher offensive lineman drafted since Greg Eslinger (round 6) and Mark Setterstrom (round 7) were drafted in 2006.

Josh Campion, OT, Sophomore- Campion is a player I am less familiar with than some of these guys, but the guys at thedailygopher.com thought he might be one of the better prospects on the team, so I did my due diligence on him. He’s listed at 6’5”, 326 pounds and started all 13 games at right tackle last year despite being a redshirt freshman. I haven’t scouted him yet, but he’s definitely a player I’m going to keep my eye on when I watch the Gophers this season.

Zac Epping, OG/C, Junior- Epping is the most talented lineman the Gophers have in my opinion and despite being asked to move between both guard spots as well as center as a sophomore he played at a high level at all three. He should be locked into the left guard spot all year as long as he stays healthy, but showing the flexibility to play center will only make him more appealing to NFL teams. He is listed at 6’2”, 321 pounds and is going to be high on my list of interior linemen to watch this upcoming year.

Brian Bobek, C, Junior- Bobek is a transfer from Ohio State that is projected to start at Center for the Gophers this season. If he can solidify the position it will mean the Gophers will have a strong left side of Olson, Epping and Bobek at the pivot. Bobek is listed at 6’2”, 282 pounds but even though he was highly touted out of high school he missed most of the spring practices “due to illness” according to the Gophers. We’ll see if he wins the job outright in fall camp, but he’s probably got the inside track on Jon Christenson, the 6’4”, 306 pound guard/center who started 6 games last year for the Gophers.

Thieren Cockran, DE, Sophomore- Cockran has the highest upside of any of the Gophers’ defensive ends in my opinion. He is listed at 6’6”, 245, has a basketball background and a 6’9” wingspan to boot. According to his high school head coach he consistently timed in the 4.5-4.6 range in high school and even though he only had 1 sack last year I think he is ready to step up and help take some pressure off of Ra’Shede Hageman now that D.L. Wilhite has graduated. Cockran doesn’t have an abundance of experience, but he’s got the speed and length to be a dangerous pass rusher.

Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Senior- Hageman is without a doubt the Gophers’ top defensive prospect. He is a freak athlete listed at 6’6”, 311 pounds with incredible athleticism for his size. I think he has the potential to be a stud defensive end in a 3-4, but he is a very intriguing 4-3 defensive tackle as well. Either way, NFL teams are taking notice and if he can build on his impressive redshirt junior season from a year ago he could end up in the 1st round of the NFL Draft. Last year Hageman totaled 35 tackles, 6 sacks, 1.5 tackles for loss and 2 pass break-ups despite still learning the position. He still needs to learn how to play with better pad level because at 6’6” he tends to play too tall at times. Not only that, but he stands up too much out of his stance for my liking. He’s still raw, but I’d like to see him fire out of his stance and not stand up quite as much. He also is raw when it comes to shedding blocks and actively using his hands, but I believe that he can learn and improve that with time. What he does have is great size, length, raw power and he really flashes an impressive bull rush despite his issues with pad level. He hasn’t made a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage as a defensive tackle versus the run and I think that’s because he’s not a penetrator type, and that makes me think his ceiling might be highest at the defensive end position in a 3-4. He shows a consistently good motor which I really like, he is a pretty reliable tackler, and if his work ethic is as good as I think it is I think the sky is the limit for him. Don’t be surprised when he ends up in the 1st round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Derrick Wells, CB, Junior- Wells is a former safety turned corner who has the difficult task of playing the “boundary corner” in the Gophers defense. That means he will likely be left on an island 1 on 1 often over the course of the season, so the 6’0”, 206 pound corner will likely be tested during his junior season. Last year Wells totaled 74 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 10 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions. He will be playing a new position this year, but I was impressed with his ball skills when I watched him. NFL teams have been targeting bigger, stronger corners recently and I think Wells fits that bill. I’m excited to see what he can do as a full time starter at corner.

Eric Murray, CB, Sophomore- Murray hasn’t locked down the spot opposite Wells yet, but Phil Steele projected him to be the starter and I have read good things about him during spring practice. The 6’0”, 194 pound corner is a smooth athlete with good hips according to thedailygopher.com and while I can’t claim to have seen him play as a freshman he certainly seems to have upside if he got some first team reps during the spring. It remains to be seen if he will lock down a spot, but I’m intrigued.

Brock Vereen, FS, Senior- Vereen is a solid but not spectacular safety who may not be projected to be drafted right now but has a chance to improve his stock with a strong senior season. He’s listed at 6’0”, 202 pounds and had 64 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 TFL, 9 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions as a junior in 2012. He is considered one of the leaders of the defense and has experience playing man to man coverage as well as dropping into zone thanks to his time spent at corner earlier in his career. He’s a likely undrafted free agent, but I think he has a chance to sneak up draft boards and give himself a chance to make a team this year.

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.

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 Virginia Tech Hokies. I’m not going to lie, I expect the Hokies to win the ACC and finish in the top 5 this season, they are loaded with talent even if some of it (particularly at running back, along the offensive line and safety) is relatively unproven. Logan Thomas is poised for a huge second season as a starter and he is on my Heisman short list right now, partially thanks to the fact that, while unproven, I trust the group he has blocking for him and he has three senior receivers with significant playing experience returning this year. He will have weapons to throw to, and if Michael Holmes or J.C. Coleman step up at running back it will be business as usual for the Hokie offense. The offense might not be elite, but I think it will be good and potentially even explosive.

The real strength of the Hokies is their defense, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Their defensive line is one of the best in the country, and is headlined by James Gayle and J.R. Collins, two dynamic and explosive pass rushers. Bruce Taylor anchors the defense at middle linebacker, and as usual the Hokies have plenty of playmakers in the secondary. They are a little short on experience at safety, but cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum should be very good. The defensive line and the intense pressure they will apply on quarterbacks with just a four man rush will make for plenty of potential turnovers, and Bud Foster’s brilliant, aggressive scheme calls for lots of pressure from blitzing linebackers and defensive backs which will only turn up the heat even more. This is going to be one of the best defenses in the country, and it all starts up front. And with that, here are the prospects to keep an eye on:

Logan Thomas is on my short list for the Heisman this year, and I think he is ready to take a huge step forward as a quarterback. Photo Credit: MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times

Logan Thomas, QB*- Thomas enters his junior season and his second season as a starter with very high expectations. He had a great first season as a starter passing for 3,013 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing 59.8% of his 391 attempts. Despite his 6’6”, 262 pound frame Thomas is very athletic and was actually recruited as a tight end out of high school due to his size, bulk and athletic ability. That means he’s a threat to run, particularly on the zone read, and while he regularly handed off to David Wilson on those plays he kept it for a few timely and memorable touchdown runs right up the middle of the defense, particularly against Miami. On the season he ran for 469 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he will be depended on for even more production in 2012. The offense lost David Wilson, the reigning ACC player of the year, Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale to the NFL but luckily for Thomas they have three senior receivers ready to fill the void and they all have significant playing experience. Thomas was brought along fairly slowly last year, but his growth was noticeable week to week and with all that experience as well as a full offseason on top of it I expect a special season out of him this year. I will have a full scouting report up on Thomas before the season starts, but his combination of size, arm strength and athleticism is rare enough to make him a potential top 5 pick if he progressed as I expect him to this year and decided to leave a year early. Many will make comparisons to Cam Newton, but as of right now the more accurate comparison is Josh Freeman in my opinion. But if he shows the uncanny ability to will his team to not only a high caliber bowl game but a national championship he will naturally draw even more comparisons to Newton than he does already.

Marcus Davis, WR- Davis is a WR I like quite a bit, he’s one of the most underrated receivers in the country, and I think he’s going to be the top target for Thomas this season. When I first saw Davis in the slot two years ago I thought he was a tight end he is so big, but he is a WR and a big one at that; he’s listed at 6’4”, 228 pounds and he looks like a guy who could run a 4.5 40 yard dash or faster. Last year he had 30 receptions, 510 yards and 5 touchdowns but I expect him to exceed that easily in 2012. He has speed, but at his height he is lethal on 50/50 balls and shows a lot of ability to adjust to the ball in the air, high point it and come down with it even in traffic. He adjusts to the ball well and seems to have pretty good body control, not to mention long arms and reliable hands. He catches the ball well outside of his frame and even if he isn’t asked to threaten defenses vertically at the next level his combination of size, athleticism and hands will make him a reliable contributor, not to mention the fact that he gives good effort as a blocker and due to his size and strength is quite effective at it. I’m not sure what his upside is just yet, but I am a big fan of Davis without a doubt. Keep an eye on him.

DJ Coles, WR- Coles is another wide receiver I like, and he’s another big receiver for Thomas to throw to. He’s listed at 6’3”, 216 pounds and much like Davis he has impressed me with his hands, his ability to track the ball in the air and make tough catches look easy. He has reliable hands as well, and actually returns with the most receptions of any Hokie receiver with 36. He had 480 yards and 3 touchdowns on those receptions, and I think he is poised to surpass those numbers easily this year assuming he stays healthy. He had surgery to repair his PCL in January and is still recovering, but he claims he will be ready for week one. I hope he is, because he should be a key cog in Virginia Tech’s passing offense this year.

Dyrell Roberts, WR- A couple years ago Roberts was considered the most dynamic receiver the Hokies had to offer. I preferred Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, and eventually they became the top two receivers as Roberts’ bouts with concentration lapses moved him down the depth chart. Last season he only had three receptions for 45 yards before suffering a season ending injury. He’s back for another shot at it again this year, and the 6’2” 188 pounder may actually play a lot in the slot thanks to the two large receivers above him on the depth chart. Roberts has plenty of speed, I think he’s a sub-4.5 guy, but his hands are inconsistent and that always bothered me. If he has improved his concentration and his hands then he could be in for a big year, but I don’t think he will outproduce Davis or Coles.

Nick Becton, OT- Becton is a senior who played over 450 snaps last season and played in all 14 games, but he wasn’t an every down starter and will likely be starting his first full season this year. He is charged with protecting Logan Thomas’ blind side and if the 6’6”, 326 pound left tackle can keep Thomas upright he is going to garner plenty of attention from scouts. He’s a relative unknown right now, and I’m not that familiar with his game outside of the fact that he is very strong, has long arms and plenty of potential. He almost became a starter in 2010 but because his turf toe injury took longer to heal than expected Andrew Lanier took hold of the starting role and left Becton in a reserve role. But Becton reportedly outplayed Lanier down the stretch last season and while he doesn’t return with 14 games as a starter he played in all 14 and played a considerable amount. Early in his career he was apparently considered to be playing “too nice” without enough aggressiveness, but the other book-end tackle for the Hokies, Vince Painter, said that last year Becton “started playing like somebody was stealing his car.” I love aggressiveness and nastiness in offensive linemen, and if Becton has discovered that in himself he could be quite the sleeper at the left tackle position. I am very intrigued by his upside, and I am looking forward to seeing his lateral agility and kick slide, because right now he sounds like he could be a top 100 pick at left tackle if he has a consistent season this year.

Vince Painter, OT- Painter, much like Becton, has been waiting for his shot to start for a long time and now the fifth year senior is finally getting his shot. The 6’5”, 304 pound tackle is considered a physical freak, having been timed at 4.74 in the 40 yard dash earlier in his career. However, he never earned much playing time and his flashy tools were never utilized. Now he has his chance to show what he can do this year, and while I’m not as excited about his potential as Becton he could surprise people with his play this season. I know I’m rooting for him, he’s waited a long time for his shot at the starting lineup.

Brent Benedict, OG**- Benedict is a redshirt sophomore I believe, but he’s got a lot of potential. He originally went to Georgia out of high school but according to this article a knee injury he sustained during his senior year of high school carried into his freshman season at Georgia, and apparently he wasn’t happy with how the training staff helped him rehab his injury. He sat out last year, and is now poised to start at right guard this season. Benedict has impressive size at 6’5”, 311 pounds and I think he has plenty of potential as a drive blocker, but I don’t know much about him in pass protection. He’s a relative unknown to everyone outside of the Hokie program, so I am very interested to see how he looks in his first season as a starter. I think he has a lot of potential if he can stay healthy.

Andrew Miller, C*- Miller is a 6’4, 300 pound center and he will anchor the offensive line as the only returning starter with any, technically, starting experience. Miller has been named to the Rimington Watch List and I am excited to see him play more this season. He’s a tough player, he’s poised to become the leader of the offensive line, and he plays with nastiness which as I have mentioned a million times I really like in offensive linemen. I am very anxious to see how he develops in his second season as a starter because I think he has plenty of draftable upside as a center.

James Gayle has 1st round pick written all over him and he is just scratching the surface of his potential. He spent the offseason working to improve his hand usage and master the little things you need to learn to be a complete defensive end, and it should result in a 10+ sack season for him in 2012.

James Gayle, DE*- James Gayle is probably my favorite player on the Hokies’ roster, but that might have something to do with him growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and agreeing to do this interview with me earlier this summer. He’s a great kid, and if you haven’t read that interview you should. Gayle is a physical freak that has been hand timed in the 4.4’s despite weighing about 258 pounds at the time according to James. He claims he got his speed from his All-Big Ten running back father, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that. James is an explosive athlete that is still learning how to play the position despite leading the team in sacks with 7 last season (and he missed 3 games last year!). Gayle is just scratching the surface of his massive potential, and I think he is ready for a 10+ sack season this year for the Hokies. He is going to have such a strong start to the season in my opinion that I think he’s going to start demanding double teams or at least extra help, which is going to make the rest of his defensive line and defense that much more dangerous.

J.R. Collins, DE*- Collins is another one of my favorite Hokies and I think he and Gayle are one of the best, if not the best, defensive end tandems in the entire country. Gayle spoke very highly of Collins when I spoke with him and Collins is a kid who might be a little undersized at 6’2”, 252 pounds but he is lightning quick, fast and has a relentless motor as James will attest to. Collins had 6 sacks last season, and I think he and Gayle may combine for over 20 this year, I’m dead serious. Collins doesn’t have the height and frame that James does, but I still love his upside as a pass rusher.

Antoine Hopkins, DT- Antoine and his brother are flying WAY under the radar thanks to Gayle, Collins, Bruce Taylor, Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum but the Hopkins brothers are not going to be overlooked much longer. Antoine is listed at 6’1”, 318, but he is squatty, powerful and pretty quick for his size. He had 4.5 TFL and 2 sacks as a sophomore but missed over half of the season last year because of injury. Hopefully he is back to 100% by now. If he is, Virginia Tech could have a defensive line on par with the best in the country, even LSU.

Derrick Hopkins, DT*- Derrick is Antoine’s little brother but he is pretty big in his own right. Like his brother he doesn’t have ideal height, being listed at 6’0” even, but weighs 305 pounds and is a squatty defensive tackle. He wins leverage battles naturally because of his height and when he gets into your pads he can use his strength to walk you into the backfield, which helped him produce 51 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 sacks and a pass break-up as a sophomore. Now a junior with an entire 14 games of starting experience under his belt he is the fourth cog on a defensive line that should be able to generate pressure even without any of Bud Foster’s brilliant scheming.

Bruce Taylor, MLB- Taylor is one of the elder statesmen of the defense, returning for his senior season with 23 career starts. He would have more had he not missed time last season with a foot injury, but regardless he is still a quality middle linebacker prospect thanks to his size and productivity. He is listed at 6’2”, 253 pounds and despite missing 6 games last season he had 53 tackles, 2 TFL and 5 sacks. The year before as a sophomore he was even more productive, totaling 91 tackles, 9.5 TFL and 6 sacks as well as four pass break-ups. I’ve never been blown away by him in pass coverage, but I need to see more of him before I come to any conclusions. Right now I have a 3rd or 4th round grade on him, and I’m excited to see what he can do with a full season of healthy football.

Tariq Edwards, OLB*- I honestly haven’t seen much of Edwards but I want to see more of him. He’s only a junior this season, but last year as a sophomore he had a great season totaling 71 tackles, 8 TFL and 3.5 sacks as well as 2 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions. The 6’2”, 232 pound linebacker is an impressive player, but he is coming off a surgery to remove a screw from the rod that he had surgically implanted in his leg. The hope is that it will alleviate some pain he has been having, but obviously that is a situation to keep an eye on. Hopefully he comes back healthy and has another big season.

Antone Exum, CB*- Exum is a player that James specifically told me to look out for, but he’s hard to ignore thanks to his 6’0”, 219 pound listed size especially now that he is at corner. James told me he runs about a 4.35 despite being 220 pounds which is extremely impressive even if it is hand-timed, and he is obviously quite the athlete. He played free safety last year and led the team in tackles with 89, had 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 10 pass break-ups and an interception. He’s a playmaker and I can’t wait to see how he does as a corner, but even if he isn’t a great fit there I think he projects very well to the safety position at the next level.

Kyle Fuller, CB*- Fuller is yet another playmaker on this defense and while he isn’t quite as filled out as Exum he’s still pretty big for a corner. He’s listed at 6’0”, 188 pounds and I believe he has legit sub 4.5 speed. Plus, like James said, he plays even bigger than he is and loves to hit. That helped him gather 65 tackles, 10 TFL (10 tackles for loss for a corner is out of this world), 4.5 sacks, 7 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions as a sophomore. I’m expecting him to take an even bigger step forward as a junior, and with all the talent VT has in the front 7 there are going to be plenty of poor throws, decisions and opportunities for turnovers for this secondary and I expect Fuller to take advantage of them.

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 Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes are coming off of a bowl game beating at the hands of Oklahoma, and 2012 probably won’t be much better than 2011 was for the Iowa faithful. James Vandenberg returns for his second season as a starter but in typical Iowa fashion Marcus Coker, the team’s top running back last season, will not be back with the team last year. I have lost track of how many quality running backs have emerged and eventually been kicked off of Iowa’s team, but it seems like it has happened every year since Shonn Greene left for the NFL. Regardless, the Hawkeyes are back to square one with the running back position yet again and hopefully someone emerges and manages not to get kicked off the team this year. All-time leading receiver Marvin McNutt has moved on to the NFL as well, leaving Keenan Davis as the primary target at receiver. Luckily, CJ Fiedorowicz is poised to emerge as the best tight end in the Big-10 and one of the best in the entire nation, so he should be a very good option for Vandenberg on offense. Unfortunately, question marks abound along the offensive line as the unit returns only two starters, Matt Tobin and James Ferentz. The offensive line is one of the most important pieces of any offense, and the offense will only be as good as that unit allows it to be. It remains to be seen just how quickly they will be able to gel.

On defense, the questions abound along the defensive line as well. The Hawkeyes lost three seniors to graduation, including their disruptive defensive tackle Mike Daniels. They are largely inexperienced along the defensive front, and will be looking to anyone and everyone to step up to fill the void left by the three seniors who moved on this year. Luckily, Iowa returns plenty of talent at linebacker, headlined by Middle Linebacker James Morris and Weak-side Linebacker Christian Kirksey. They also have some talent in the secondary, most notably cornerback Micah Hyde, but free safety Tanner Miller also showed some upside as a a first year starter as a sophomore. Overall, the sheer number of question marks along the offensive and defensive lines for Iowa makes me wonder how many more wins than 6 they will be able to accumulate this year, but Kirk Ferentz is one of the best in the business at getting the most out of the talent he has on the roster, and that’s why I refuse to predict that he and his Hawkeyes will miss out on a bowl game this season. And with that, here are the prospects to keep an eye on:

Vandenberg has some natural talent, but I want to see him do the little things better in his second season as a starter before I give him more than an UDFA grade.

James Vandenberg, QB- Vandenberg is a solid college quarterback at this point, but now that he is in a new offense it will be interesting to see if he takes the next step in his second year as a starter. At 6’3”, 212 pounds he has solid size, he has pretty good arm strength and flashes quality ball placement at times, but it is inconsistent as is his play overall. He needs to work on his footwork in my opinion, as at times he throws flat-footed when he has functional space to step into his throws, fades away from throws when he senses pressure (whether it is there or not) but also doesn’t throw accurately when he is throwing on the move. He shows the ability to make some pre-snap reads but locks on to his primary receiver too much and doesn’t go through his progressions well post-snap and tends to hesitate and occasionally panic if his primary receiver isn’t there. I think that if he improves his mechanics, particularly his footwork, his accuracy will improve and he will become more efficient. He doesn’t throw a great deep ball at this point, and I think he needs to execute his fakes better as a play-action passer to suck in the defense. These are little things, but it will make him a better quarterback if he works on them. Right now he’s a 7th round/UDFA prospect in my opinion and he will have to show considerable progress to work his way into the mid-rounds this season. That is all possible since he was a year one starter last year, but he still has significant hurdles to overcome to impress me enough to bump up his grade.

Keenan Davis, WR- Davis has the size and length that you want in a NFL receiver at 6’3”, 215 pounds and shows the ability to catch the ball outside of his frame which I love to see. I want to see him run better routes and improve his concentration to eliminate drops, but he has the size and athleticism to win 50/50 balls and make plays in traffic. He’s got the body type to be an effective possession receiver at the next level if nothing else, and it will be interesting to see how he handles being the #1 target this season with Marvin McNutt moving on to the NFL. I also want to see more effort out of him as a blocker, because he was rarely on the play-side blocking and often looked lackadaisical like he didn’t really think blocking the backside corner was important. He had the best season of his career last year with 50 catches for 713 yards and 4 touchdowns and if Vandenberg steps up and Davis improves his route running and concentration he could be in for an even bigger year in 2012.

I’m already convinced that Fiedorowicz is the best draft eligible blocking tight end in this class, and I’m convinced he’s going to play a critical role as a receiver for Iowa this year as well. Soon everyone who gets a chance to watch him will be raving about him, he’s a first round talent.

CJ Fiedorowicz, TE*- Fiedorowicz is easily my favorite prospect on the Hawkeyes. I absolutely love scouting tight ends that are quality blockers and I’m not sure there will be a better blocking tight end eligible for the 2012 draft than “CJF” as I will henceforth refer to him. CJF is literally an extension of the offensive line at 6’7”, 255 pounds and showed the ability to seal off defensive ends and linebackers in the run game to create seams for runners, he showed he could come in motion and shock a linebacker filling in the middle of the field, and he showed that he can handle a defensive end one on one in the run game (even 6’5”, 270 pound ones on Oklahoma) and in the pass game, showing solid hand placement, using his long arms to latch on and sustaining blocks effectively without letting his hands get outside onto the shoulder pads. He’s going to be a huge asset in the run game and when he’s kept in to pass block at the next level whenever he chooses to leave Iowa, and did I mention he has soft hands as well? He only caught 16 passes for 167 yards and 3 touchdowns last year, but expect him to catch at least 40-50 balls for 500+ yards and 7+ touchdowns this season now that McNutt has moved on and Vandenberg will be looking for a #2 passing option. CJF figures to be a very important cog in the Iowa offense this year, and I can’t wait to see how he looks once he is targeted more in the passing game. I think he has 1st round potential written all over him. Click here for a full scouting report on Fiedorowicz.

Matt Tobin, OG- Tobin is the only other returning starter on the offensive line besides James Ferentz and I was kind of expecting him to be a player the group could rally around but I was disappointed with what I saw from him when I watched film. He’s listed at 6’6”, 290 pounds so while he has all the height you could want he is relatively light, particularly in the lower body in my opinion. He has pretty long arms but he struggles to play with consistent pad level and shorter, squattier defensive linemen have an easy time getting under his pads and driving him off the line of scrimmage. This causes him to struggle to drive defensive tackles off the ball in the run game and makes him susceptible to bull rushes since he doesn’t have a great anchor. He bends at the waist at times as well and doesn’t seem to have great balance or hand placement. Overall, he looks like an undrafted free agent to me right now. Unless he comes back stronger with improved technique my grade probably won’t change much.

James Ferentz, C- Ferentz is a kid I like quite a bit. He’s probably a fourth rounder as a center at this point, but that has more to do with his size and limited upside than it does with what he’s shown me on film. At 6’2”, 284 pounds he certainly doesn’t jump off the tape at you as a physical freak, but he has worked hard to add weight since being a 250 pound offensive lineman coming out of high school. He’s not going to be able to pack 30 more pounds onto that frame, but getting up in the 300 pound range would be very beneficial for him, particularly against stronger, physical defensive lineman. Right now he just doesn’t have the lower body strength to handle strong players bull-rushing him, and even got run over by Tom Wort when he blitzed up the middle on a run play. Wort is a 6’0”, 230 pound linebacker, he should not be able to bull rush a 284 pound center on a run play and knock him over backwards. However, Ferentz plays with good pad level in part thanks to his natural leverage, and does a good job with his hand placement and with his feet. He’s scrappy and blocks to the whistle which I like. He’s more of a wall-off blocker than a drive blocker thanks to his size, but he can walk defenders down the line of scrimmage or push them off the ball occasionally if they let him get into their pads. He’s not going to wow you with his size or workout numbers, but Ferentz is a coach’s son who is the heart and soul of the offensive line, a team leader and the kind of kid you want on your team. He may not wow talent evaluators the second they see him, but he’s the type of player that impresses you in interviews and ends up playing for the same team for 12 years because of his football IQ and leadership capability.

Dominic Alvis, DE*- Alvis is a 6’4”, 265 pound defensive end who has actually flashed some explosiveness and playmaking ability which this defensive line is in sore need of. He had 30 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 pass break-up and 1 forced fumble as a sophomore last year before tearing his ACL, causing him to miss Iowa’s last 5 games. He’s one of the leaders of the defensive line because he is one of the oldest and most experienced linemen the Hawkeyes have despite only having 8 career starts and the fact that he is entering his junior season. He is the leading returning tackler of anyone on the defensive line, and I would expect his production to spike this season especially if he can stay healthy.

Joe Gaglione, DE/DT- Gaglione is a bit of a ‘tweener at 6’4”, 264 pounds but he is still listed as a defensive tackle at times. I saw him lining up at defensive end when I watched him on tape, but he is likely an undrafted kid no matter where he lines up. I wanted to list him on here because he is a high-effort kid who fights off blocks even if he struggles to disengage from bigger, stronger blockers and doesn’t look like an elite athlete. Plenty of people slept on another undersized defensive end/defensive tackle ‘tweener from Iowa a couple years ago, but I was high on him and he went on to have a very productive rookie season with the Titans. That man was Karl Klug, and no one seemed to be impressed with him at the East-West Shrine Game but his non-stop motor and great work ethic endeared him to me and he shocked everyone as a rookie. I’m not saying Gaglione is going to do the same thing, nor that he is even capable of that, but just because a kid is a ‘tweener and may not have an ideal position doesn’t mean he can’t be productive if he works hard and has a good motor.

Carl Davis, DT*- Davis had a very limited impact last season, but the 6’5”, 310 pound defensive tackle who was highly touted coming out of high school appears to be on the verge of a break-out season, and boy do the Hawkeyes need it along the defensive line. If Davis can step up and be disruptive against the run and the pass this year it will make the entire defense better, and help hold the rest of the inexperienced defensive line together. He only played in 6 games and totaled 2 tackles last year, but if there was ever a time for him to turn it on it is right now.

Christian Kirksey, OLB*- I didn’t get to see a ton of Kirksey on film, but he returns for his second full season as a starter with 13 games of experience under his belt and tied with James Morris for the team lead in tackles with 110 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 3 pass break-ups and an interception. He looked pretty comfortable dropping into coverage, and was often lined up in front of receivers or tight ends who were split out in the slot when I saw him. At 6’2”, 220 pounds he doesn’t have the ideal bulk for a NFL linebacker, but hopefully he will be able to add some weight and continue to be productive over the next two seasons.

James Morris, MLB*- I liked what I saw from Morris. He doesn’t look like an elite middle linebacker, but he looks like a fourth round guy to me. He’s listed at 6’2”, 230 pounds and while he isn’t an elite athlete and he has some stiffness to him I liked that he showed that he could read and react, close quickly on plays in front of him and tackle well. He also showed some ability in coverage, and even though he over-pursues at times I still like him as a linebacker prospect. Like I said, he’s not elite, but he’s reliable and shows some instincts which help mask his lack of elite athleticism. He had 110 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 pass break-up and an interception as a sophomore last year and returns with 18 career starts as a junior.

Hyde offers great size, football IQ, tackling and ball skills for the cornerback position, and projects to be a reliable #2 starter in the NFL.

Micah Hyde, CB- If I wasn’t so enamored with CJ Fiedorowicz Micah Hyde would probably be my top rated prospect on the Hawkeyes heading into 2012. Hyde is a special teams stud for one, which I always love to see from starters in college, and I have read a number of articles about him showing quality leadership which is another thing I love to hear about NFL prospects I am scouting. Hyde has 26 career starts to his name (all but two of them at corner, the other two being at free safety) and his 6’1”, 190 pound frame is quite good for the cornerback position. He isn’t an elite athlete in my opinion and doesn’t have great hips to turn and run with receivers downfield, but his size, length, football IQ and ball skills are evident on film. Not only that, but Hyde is a very good tackler for a cornerback, and he finished last season with 72 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 8 pass deflections and 3 interceptions. He’s not an elite prospect, but he is without a doubt a top-100 pick in my opinion. He’s got the upside to be a reliable #2 starter, special teams ace and quality locker-room presence. NFL teams will love that.

Tanner Miller, FS*- Miller was the team’s third leading tackler despite it being his first season as a starter, but that didn’t stop the 6’2”, 201 pound safety from racking up 76 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 pass deflections and 3 interceptions as a sophomore. He is the only returning defensive back who is projected to start that has any starting experience outside of Micah Hyde, and will be expected to be one of the leaders of the secondary as BJ Lowery fills in opposite Hyde at corner and Nico Law, a true sophomore, fills in opposite Miller at safety.