Tag Archive: Middle Linebacker


Raymond Sanders, RB, Senior- Sanders is a “short not small” back who is listed at 5’8”, 199 pounds and I believe he is close to 200 based on watching him. He’s short, but he is compact and it’s obvious he spends time in the weight room. He supposedly has a 40 time in the 4.42-4.45 range and he looks fast on tape, but he also has impressive quickness and burst. At times his legs went dead on contact, but there were others where he effectively churned his legs for additional, tough yardage. He is a reliable receiver out of the backfield and should be effective on screens as well. I haven’t been able to effectively evaluate his vision yet, partially because of the problems Kentucky had up front overall in the games I watched (especially against Mississippi State). Sanders is a bit of a sleeper in my opinion right now, but he has the chance to move up draft boards if he can stay healthy and be more consistent. Once again, that comes back to the offensive line play, but he only went over 100 yards against Kent State and Samford as a junior. That needs to change in his final year as a Wildcat.

Demarco Robinson, WR, Junior- Robinson is another undersized weapon that Kentucky likes to get the ball to. He’s listed at 5’10”, 159 pounds but honestly didn’t look like he only weighed 160 to me when I watched him. Sure he looks skinny, but not THAT skinny. Anyway, he has shown that he is a reliable hands catcher, can make defenders miss after the catch, and isn’t afraid of contact despite being so small. He looks like a sub 4.5 guy to me, but he better be at that size. I’d like to see him fill out his frame to 175+ at some point, but he’s still a playmaker at this size. He finished the season with 28 receptions, 297 yards and no touchdowns, also offering 117 yards (6.5 average per return) on punts.

Daryl Collins, WR, Sophomore- Collins kind of looks like a running back to me because he’s listed at 5’11’, 205 pounds and looks like he’s in the 4.5-4.55 range to me. He’s not quite as fast as Robinson, but he’s equally as shifty in the open field and can make guys miss after the catch. He didn’t get as much action in the games I watched, but when he did get looks he seemed to catch the ball well with his hands and not allow it into his chest which was good. He totaled 17 receptions for 171 yards and no touchdowns last year, but hopefully he can step up his game and give Kentucky a couple reliable options in the pass game. Out of their top 7 receivers, only ONE returns with a touchdown reception from the 2012 season, and that is back-up running back Jonathan George. Kentucky really needs Robinson and Collins to step up.

Darrian Miller, OT, Junior- I was keeping my eye on Kentucky’s offensive line the entire time I watched the offense and I was doing my best not to watch Larry Warford at right guard. I wasn’t very impressed with the majority of the line, but Miller caught my eye. He’s listed at 6’5”, 288 pounds and despite needing to get stronger and not looking comfortable in space I liked what I saw. He looks like he has the athletic ability to remain outside at tackle at the next level, and while he isn’t “quick-twitch” he did a solid job recovering if he was ever put on skates. He needs to get stronger to improve his anchor and so he isn’t so susceptible to being pushed off balance by power moves, but if he can work on that he should solidify the left tackle spot from a pass blocking perspective. In the run game he didn’t look very good getting to the second level and had multiple issues letting linebackers get by him, but when he was asked to block the lineman in front of him he did just fine. He created some push (though a couple times the defender was playing WAY too high) and he did a pretty good job sealing off some running lanes for Sanders. He’s not a great run blocker or pass blocker at this point, but I do see some upside here.

Alvin Dupree, DE, Junior- Dupree is a talented player who many are expecting to have a break-out season this year. His break-out may have already occurred last year though, as Dupree accounted for 91 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 6 TFL and 1 pass break-up. This year he is moving full time to the defensive end position in Kentucky’s new defensive scheme, and I for one am excited to see how he does as a full time pass rusher. When I watched him he spent a lot of time in coverage and while he wasn’t terrible he didn’t look very comfortable dropping in space. Not only that, but he didn’t attack blocks, stack and shed and play as aggressively as I would like either. I’m hoping Kentucky’s new defensive line coach will be able to light a fire under him and get him to play more violently, particularly with his hands. He’s got all the size (6’4”, 254 pounds) and athleticism you could want in a defensive end, but was clearly very raw when he was rushing the passer as a sophomore. If he can learn to use his hands better, dip his shoulder and generally improve his overall technique he could be in for a big year for Kentucky. That’s obviously a lot of things he needs to work on, but the ability is there, he just needs to work on refining his game.

Za’Darius Smith, DE, Junior- Smith is the one player on this list that I wasn’t able to watch at all because he was signed as a 4 star junior college transfer. However, he had an impressive spring (especially in the spring game) so I wanted to list him here. Like Dupree he has all the size and speed you could want, but he is still learning the position. He’s listed at 6’6”, 257 pounds and only started playing football as a senior in high school. He’s entering his 4th year playing football, so he is obviously more raw than you would like. However, his talent is undeniable and if his defensive line coach can coach up his technique then Kentucky could have a surprisingly good pair of pass rushers at defensive end this year.

Mister Cobble, DT, Senior- Mister Cobble is one of my favorite football names ever, but his mom supposedly named him that so that when people said his name he would be treated like a gentlemen. I think that’s nice, and I love the name, so I wanted to work that tidbit into this preview. Cobble is a short, squatty defensive tackle who is listed at 6’0”, 340 pounds. He has surprising burst off the line for such a heavy guy and I’d honestly like to see him get into the 320-325 range because I think he’s carrying a lot of extra weight that he doesn’t need. Still, he’s tough to move off the line of scrimmage and definitely surprised me with how well he matched up with Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State’s stud offensive guard, in the run game. He had his way with Mississippi State’s center Dillon Day, consistently moving him into the backfield and refusing to be moved off the line of scrimmage when blocked 1 on 1. He flashed the ability to collapse the pocket with a bull rush, but I don’t think Cobble is going to offer much of a pass rush at the next level. He is likely going to be more of a two down run defender, so if he can continue to improve his conditioning and help stabilize Kentucky’s run defense he may have a shot as an undrafted free agent.

Donte Rumph, DT, Senior- Rumph is the more highly touted defensive tackle on Kentucky’s roster but despite his impressive listed size of 6’3”, 323 I came away quite unimpressed with Rumph’s game. He was consistently washed out in the run game whether he was doubled or not, and he did not show any explosion or burst off the snap at all. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency to his game, and I really can’t believe he ended up with 4 sacks and 2 TFL last year. He looks like a possible NFL player thanks to his size, but based off of what I’ve seen from him when I watched him I don’t think he’s got a shot to get drafted.

Tristian Johnson, DT, Senior- Johnson was called out by Joker Phillips last year for not taking football seriously enough and for joking around too much, but after that he seemed to get it together and help make an impact. This was especially evident against Mississippi State as he notched his only solo sack of the season and was consistently disruptive versus the run. He didn’t rack up stats last year, but he finished with 27 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 TFL and 2 pass break-ups. He is an undersized defensive tackle, only listed at 6’1”, 277 pounds, but he has more upfield burst than Cobble and Rumph and plays in the backfield more as a result. If he can continue to get stronger and fill out his frame (he may not be able to get much bigger than 285 without losing some of his quickness) then I think he has a chance to catch on as an undrafted free agent. He plays with good pad level, gets off the ball relatively well, and has some strength despite his listed weight. He’s not listed as a starter, but he’s got more disruptive potential than Cobble or Rumph.

Avery Williamson, MLB, Senior- Williamson is far and away my favorite NFL prospect on this team right now. He’s listed at 6’1”, 241 pounds and I’d ballpark his 40 time in the 4.7 range, but he plays very instinctually, moves through trash well and closes like a missile. He plays downhill pretty well, occasionally showing hesitation, but he reads his keys effectively and is a very reliable tackler. Not only that, he’s got plenty of pop as a hitter and knows how to time his blitz to get a free shot on the quarterback. He led Kentucky’s defense in tackles by a wide margin, finishing with 135 tackles, 3 sacks, 1.5 TFL, 4 pass break-ups and 1 interception. He doesn’t look especially fluid in coverage, and doesn’t have insane range, but I think he is a very underrated inside linebacker at this point. He needs to get better at stacking and shedding, but he has flashed the aggressiveness to shock an offensive linemen before making the tackle. He just doesn’t do very well once he is engaged. I think he can be a 3 down linebacker in the NFL, and he was a joy to watch while I was scouting Kentucky.

Cody Quinn, CB, Sophomore- Quinn played as a true freshman last year and started 6 games, managing 25 tackles and 5 pass break-ups. Quinn is tiny and is listed at only 5’10”, 177 pounds, and he played like it at times when he didn’t give very good efforts at making tackles on larger receivers. However, he looks like a fluid athlete with good closing speed, and he made a very nice play on the ball that almost resulted in a tip drill interception for his safety. I didn’t get to see much of him because of ESPN’s camera angles, but he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on thanks to his athleticism and fluidity.

Fred Tiller, CB, Sophomore- Tiller is in the same boat that Quinn is in. He is listed at 6’0”, 170 pounds (yes, 2 inches taller but 7 pounds lighter than Quinn) and he played in 11 games as a true freshman. He totaled 27 tackles and 2 pass deflections in those games. Now he is likely to be a starter, and he is also an impressive athlete with some ball skills. Kentucky is going to have some trouble in the secondary thanks to all the youth they have playing back there. Quinn and Tiller figure to be starting at both corner spots with 6 combined starts in their respective careers, and both safeties have never started a game in the SEC either. One is a junior college transfer, the other a sophomore who has never received a start. That puts the onus on Kentucky’s front 7 to generate a lot of pressure and make life easy for the Wildcats’ secondary, otherwise it could be a long year full of big plays downfield.

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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.

Corey Robinson, QB, Troy:*

Overall: Robinson impressed me, though he only attempted 11 passes, and for the most part he had a clean pocket as a result of good protection and made easy throws. He was accurate and threw a beautiful deep ball vs 1 on 1 coverage, but I didn’t see him come off his primary read regularly. Obviously I need to see more of him, and he’s just a junior, but I think he has a NFL future. He’s impressed me since he was a freshman at Troy, and has been overlooked because of his height his entire football career. He can play, and I hope he’s alright as it looked like he may have sustained a concussion.

Quanterus Smith, DE, WKU:

Overall: I came in excited to watch Smith against Troy but despite flashing a bit of hand usage to keep his blocker off balance he didn’t do anything as a pass rusher despite entering the game with 6.5 sacks on the season (including one against DJ Fluker). He has some edge speed, flashes of hand usage, and seems to have a solid motor, but that didn’t translate into production against Troy. Had Robinson not been knocked out just before halftime I have plenty of confidence that Troy would have beaten WKU, and Smith’s inability to beat Troy’s RT like he stole something played a big role in that.

Jack Doyle, TE, WKU:

Overall: Doyle impressed me. He’s not a 1st round prospect by any means, but as a mid-late round prospect I think he has some value. This was the first time I’d watched him, so it’s impossible for me to put a round grade on him given that, but he has the size at 6’6”, 252 pounds, looks pretty athletic, gave good effort as a blocker and caught all the passes I saw thrown to him (even though they were mostly underneath). He needs technique work as a blocker, but he showed that he can be a wall-off type even if he didn’t get much push or sustain consistently against defensive ends in the run game. He’s a solid prospect, so keep an eye on him.

Mitchell Henry, TE, WKU:**

Overall: If Doyle was solid and consistent, Henry was eye-catching and intriguing. At first I thought he was a wide receiver, but he’s a 6’4”, 245 pound tight end who is an interesting joker tight end prospect. He is an athletic kid with some burst to him, he releases off the line of scrimmage well, looks smooth when running his routes, seems to have good hands and showed that he can make tough catches in traffic a few times last night. I’m definitely a fan, and since he is only a sophomore he should have two years as the starter barring unforeseen circumstances after Doyle graduates.

Antonio Andrews, RB, WKU:*

Overall: Andrews finished with 26 carries for 113 yards (4.6 ypc) and 1 reception for 14 yards, but he easily could have had a couple touchdowns receiving as he beat linebackers with his route running in man coverage at least two or three times and was horribly overthrown by his quarterback Jakes (who is not nearly draftable despite being born one day after me on February 28th, 1990). He impressed me as a route runner and as a runner despite fumbling the ball twice. He is a bigger back at 6’0”, 211 pounds but has legitimate athleticism and shiftiness to him which I liked. Both of his fumbles, from what I could see, were forced by defenders getting their helmets on the ball and dislodging it. There’s not a ton you can do about that, but the little that he could have done (cover the ball with two hands when contact was imminent) didn’t happen, and that is on him. What bothered me more was even later in the game, despite fumbling twice in the first half, still was running towards and through contact with one arm on the ball and on one play I thought he was definitely going to get stripped from behind. I like Andrews, but he needs to work on ball security. He’s only a junior and I would be surprised if he declared after this season, but it’s his first year as a starter and he has had a great start to the season after stepping up to replace Bobby Rainey after he left for the NFL. I like him, but he has room to improve.

Andrew Jackson, MLB, WKU:*

Overall: Jackson was a very pleasant surprise for me because I love instinctual middle linebackers that can deliver a big hit. It’s one reason I really liked Curtis Lofton, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes coming out, and it’s why I like Jackson. He’s listed at 6’1”, 265 pounds but he looked like he could stand to lose 10-15 pounds and perhaps help himself move even better than he does. He looked like a pretty good athlete despite potentially carrying extra weight, and he is a tackling machine. He had 17 TFL last season during his first year as a starter while he also had 100+ tackles (40-45 solos if I remember correctly) and already has at least 7.5 TFL thus far as a junior. I think he may need to improve his conditioning, because I think he was taken out for a few plays on one of Troy’s longer drives, but that comes back to the weight issue. If he drops that and improves his conditioning LOOK OUT. He’s a nice middle linebacker and I definitely enjoyed watching him against Troy.

Xavius Boyd, OLB, WKU:*

Overall: Boyd is another talented junior linebacker on WKU. I didn’t see him as much as Jackson, but he filled downhill well and made a couple nice plays on the goal line to help force Troy to attempt a fake field goal despite having the ball inside the 10, getting a pass interference penalty, and then still getting stopped three more times. It was an impressive stand, and Boyd definitely contributed to it.

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 Florida State, and my god are they talented. This preview took me hours longer than I expected it to only because of the sheer vastness of talent that Jimbo Fisher and Florida State have assembled. It’s almost unbelievable, and there’s no way to cover it all in one post. I, however, took my best shot at it here. On offense the ‘Noles return 8 starters including quarterback EJ Manuel who was good but not great in his first full season as a starter last year. That obviously had a lot to do with the massive number of injuries that FSU’s offense sustained last year, especially along the offensive line, but Manuel has plenty of room to improve before I will grade him as even a 2nd round pick. Luckily, the FSU running game should be much improved this season thanks in part to true sophomore Devonta Freeman, and Manuel has plenty of receiving threats to throw the ball to. Rashad Greene is my favorite, but Rodney Smith, Christian Green and Nick O’Leary should all be reliable, consistent targets this season. The question for me is the offensive line, where they have some talent and depth but not an abundance of starting experience. They aren’t a reliable unit and they lost their top two tackles from a year ago, Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders. Stepping up to replace them is going to be critical, especially since Manuel has a tendency to hang onto the ball longer than he should.

The defense, however, should carry this team to at least 10 wins this season. With a unit this talented anything else would be a disappointment. It’s not completely inconceivable that Florida State could have 3 top 40 picks just at defensive end, and they also have the top recruit in the country Mario Edwards entering the fold at the defensive end spot. They have everything from a potential 1st round pick in Timmy Jernigan at defensive tackle, to a top 100 prospect nose tackle in Anthony “Amp” McCloud, to an underrated 3 tech in Everett Dawkins. They also have a pair of reliable middle linebackers and a stud outside linebacker in Christian Jones. Top that off with a pair of probable 1st round picks in Xavier Rhodes and Lamarcus Joyner in the secondary and you have to wonder how anyone plans on getting into field goal range against this defense, much less scoring touchdowns. This defense is going to be incredible, and if the offensive line steps up and EJ Manuel starts to live up to his potential this team could be downright scary. I’m not confident in the offensive line or in EJ, however, and that means I still think Virginia Tech is going to come through as the ACC Champion. With that, here is my prospect preview of Florida State’s insanely talented roster:

P.S. I have to give a huge shout-out to TomahawkNation.com because they were a fantastic resource for this piece and they do an absolutely unbelievable job covering Florida State and football in general over there. Give them a read whether you like Florida State or not.

EJ Manuel, QB- Manuel is returning for his second full season as a starter with 17 career starts over his Seminole career. He’s listed at 6’5”, 238 pounds and definitely passes the eye test, and his strong arm is noticeable right away. Not only that, but he is very athletic for his size which helped him rush for 141 yards and 4 touchdowns last year in addition to passing for 2,666 yards (65.3% completion), 18 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. One would assume he would improve on those numbers this year, particularly with some intriguing talent returning at receiver and running back, but I will be looking to see how his accuracy develops in addition to his pocket poise and ability to read defenses. He’s definitely got potential, but at this point he’s a lot closer to a 3rd round prospect than a 1st rounder in my opinion. I don’t think he processes information quickly enough to be a top college quarterback and eventual quality NFL starter, and unless his head catches up with his arm and his body he’s going to be a physically gifted quarterback who never put it together from the mental aspect of the game. Until he proves that his football IQ has improved and that he can read defenses well I’m not going to grade him in the top 64 picks.

Devonta Freeman, RB**- Freeman is only a true sophomore but he led the Seminoles in rushing last season, overtaking the oft-injured Jermaine Thomas. He rushed just 120 times but gained 579 yards (4.8 ypc) and 8 touchdowns as a freshman. I think he’s poised for a huge break-out season this year, as he is healthy and ready to rumble. He is listed at 5’8”, 200 pounds and honestly his running style and tools reminds me of Trent Richardson. I know that’s extremely high praise, but I can’t help but think of Richardson when I watch him run. He is not afraid to lower his pads and initiate contact with defenders, he churns his legs very well to get tough yards, he falls forward consistently, he has plenty of speed to rip off big chunks of yardage, he is shifty and can make defenders miss, and he has flashed the ability to catch passes well out of the backfield despite only having 15 receptions for 94 yards last season. I’m a big Freeman fan, and I hope he gets way more than 120 carries this season because this kid is special.

Rashad Greene, WR**- I may be a huge fan of Devonta Freeman but I am just as big a fan of Rashad Greene. He was mind-blowingly good as a true freshman last year as he led FSU in receptions (38), receiving yards (596) and touchdowns (7) all while having a 15.7 yards per reception average. He has fantastic hands, adjusts so well to the ball and just has a knack for making critical catches when his team needs him to. He can still improve as a route runner, but he is already pretty respectable in that department for such a young player. His body control and concentration is exceptional, and I think the 6’0”, 175 pound receiver is already one of the best in the ACC. He showed that consistently last year, and he has all the speed, burst and ball skills you could ever want in a wide receiver. Much like Freeman, this kid is SPECIAL.

Rodney Smith, WR- Smith is returning for his senior year with 20 career starts, including 12 last year during which he totaled 36 receptions, 561 yards and 4 touchdowns. At 6’6”, 219 pounds Smith is a huge target and has tons of potential as a red-zone threat. He came to FSU as a very raw player that needed to grow into his frame, and now that he is listed at 219 pounds he seems to have done so. He doesn’t have explosive speed but he is a long strider with build-up speed that can sneak behind defenses if they don’t keep an eye on him. Because of his height he has plenty of potential to come down with jump balls, and has good hands so he is able to win some of those match-ups. He’s not a top 100 pick at this point, but he has worked hard to fill out his frame, improve his route running and learn to shield defenders from the ball with his 6’6” frame. 6’6” receivers with good hands are exceedingly rare, and it seems that Smith fits that bill. If he can continue to show improvement, particularly in his route running, he will catch plenty of eyes as a senior. This senior receiver class is significantly worse than the 2012 draft class, so if Smith has a great season he could really vault himself up draft boards.

Christian Green, WR**- Green is another explosive receiver that Manuel will have to find a way to get the ball to on a regular basis. Green is listed at 6’2”, 206 and has fantastic raw athleticism and tons of speed, and as a redshirt freshman last season he had 26 receptions, 450 yards but no touchdowns. His speed presents a lot of potential headaches for defenses, but his route running needs considerable work so he is able to be bottled up by quality cornerbacks. If his route running improves he could be a huge difference maker in 2012 though, particularly if Manuel starts to read defenses better and quicker.

Nick O’Leary, TE**- O’Leary is just a true sophomore but he flashed some serious potential as a freshman last season en route to a 12 catch, 164 yard, 1 touchdown season as a true freshman. He may not have had eye-popping numbers, but the 6’4”, 240 pound tight end is ready to break out this year. He has good hands, runs good routes and is probably the best tight end FSU has had on its roster in years. I’m not sure how good of a blocker he is, but as a receiver he is likely to be targeted much more frequently than he was last season and should start to garner a lot of national attention soon. He’s a very good tight end prospect, so keep an eye on him.

Bjoern Werner, DE*- Werner is one of the top defensive ends in the country and could be a part of one of the best pass rushing draft classes in recent memory. Werner is listed at 6’4”, 272 pounds and in 13 starts last season he had 37 tackles, 4 TFL, 7 sacks, 8 pass break-ups, 1 interception, 1 fumble forced and 1 fumble that he returned 25 yards for a touchdown. Werner is the top prospect on FSU’s loaded roster which says a lot about him. He is only a true junior and yet he has played in every game over his first two years with the Seminoles. He has tons of potential thanks to his fantastic strength, work ethic and motor. He made huge strides as a sophomore despite it being his fourth year of football and he may be saving his best for last as a junior. He is still raw and is just scratching the surface of his potential, and I think he has the makings of a top 10 pick come April. Defensive ends with Werner’s skill set are exceedingly rare, and combining that with a fierce work ethic and motor often ends in good or great NFL careers. That is what I anticipate from Werner, and I dare you to ignore him when you watch Florida State’s defense this year. It’s nearly impossible.

Brandon Jenkins, DE- Jenkins is certainly the more well-known pass rusher on Florida State’s defense, but Werner is the superior prospect thanks to his size and strength. Jenkins has worked hard to add muscle to his frame, as he is currently listed at 6’3”, 260 pounds and was only about 240 when he broke out as a true sophomore. His stats may have slipped last season as he “only” had 41 tackles, 4 TFL, 8 sacks and 1 pass break-up, but that was largely due to an increase in attention from opposing offenses in the way of double teams and screens to his side of the field. The attention offenses gave to Jenkins certainly played a role in Werner’s break-out, but both are potential 1st round picks in their own right. Having that much talent at defensive end plus Tank Carradine, who would start on 95% of college football’s defensive lines but comes off the bench at Florida State, makes Florida State’s defensive line incredibly fierce even without considering the talent they have at defensive tackle. It will be interesting to see if Jenkins is actually playing at 260, my guess it he is in the 250-255 range. He might be able to get away with that at right end in the NFL, especially if he holds up against the run better as he showed the ability to do last year, but the best use of all of his athleticism might be at 3-4 outside linebacker. Regardless, he has all the burst, explosion and athletic ability you could ever want in a pass rusher, and with an 8-10 sack season this year he will likely go in the top 32 selections in April.

Tank Carradine, DE- Carradine is the odd man out on Florida State’s depth chart but he undoubtedly has a NFL future. Carradine is listed at 6’5”, 264 pounds and is extremely strong and projects very well to the strong side end in a 4-3 defense in my opinion. Last year was his first with the Seminoles and many didn’t expect him to contribute a lot but he shocked them all. He finished with 38 tackles, 2.5 TFL, and 5.5 sacks after committing to FSU out of junior college. Carradine doesn’t have the elite burst off the snap and doesn’t have Jenkins’ edge speed but he closes like a missile and his strength is on the same level as Werner’s. He was extremely impressive for a player new to the program last year and should be even better this year. I don’t think FSU will have 3 first round picks at defensive end, but if Carradine surprises people again and has a great season despite the team trying to divide limited snaps between three stud defensive ends then it wouldn’t be completely outlandish even in a draft class with so much pass rushing talent. I really like what Carradine brings to the table and I can’t wait to see how he does this year even if he isn’t starting for FSU.

Timmy Jernigan, DT**- Jernigan has the most upside of any of the defensive tackles in my opinion, and he showed a lot of it as a true freshman. The 6’3”, 301 pound defensive tackle accounted for 30 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, and 1 fumble recovery. That’s an amazing year for a freshman defensive tackle, and it’s really raised expectations for him as a sophomore. This is a talented defensive line though, one of the two best in the country along with LSU in my opinion, and that means there won’t be an abundance of tackles for loss and sacks just floating around. Jernigan will still earn his keep though thanks to his fantastic blend of quickness, athleticism and strength. It was noted that one of his weaknesses is that he can be put on skates by a pair of quality offensive linemen double teaming him, but if that’s one of the only issues you can find with the game of a true freshman defensive tackle then you have stumbled on to a future top 10 pick in the making in my opinion. He’s got incredible upside and as long as he continues to work and progress he should end up as a top 15 pick one day.

Anthony McCloud, DT- McCloud is essentially the antithesis of Jernigan. He’s listed at 6’2”, 312 pounds and while he doesn’t have Jernigan’s freakish athleticism he does a fantastic job plugging up the middle of the field from the nose tackle position. He is squatty, strong and incredibly hard to move off the ball even with a double team. He may not offer the pass rush or backfield disruption of a player like Jernigan, but considering how trendy the 3-4 defense has become in the NFL space-eaters like Jernigan that simply occupy blockers and clog the A gaps in the middle of the defense are still incredibly valuable. He’s assignment reliable, he doesn’t get moved off the ball and he’s a team player. That sounds like he a top 100 lock in the NFL draft to me, especially if he continues to impress versus the run as a senior.

Everett Dawkins, DT- Dawkins flies under the radar on Florida State because he is literally surrounded with NFL talent in every direction. Jenkins, Werner, Carradine and Jernigan were all in the limelight last season, and Dawkins just went about his business on his way to a ho-hum 25 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 sack, 3 pass break-up, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble season. For most starting defensive tackles this would be a “meh” season, and statistically perhaps it is. But when your top three defensive ends combine for 20.5 sacks there just aren’t a ton of sacks to go around for your defensive tackles (FSU had “just” 6.5 between Dawkins, McCloud and Jernigan). Dawkins is listed at 6’2”, 301 pounds and is reliable against the run and the pass. He’s tough to move in the run game, he has great burst and acceleration and I think his statistics mask how much NFL ability he has. He’s playing on an incredibly talented defensive line which will make some teams wonder how good he really is, but he’s a top 100 pick without a doubt in my mind and should prove as much during the season and hopefully at the Senior Bowl.

Vince Williams, MLB- Williams is the starting MLB heading into the season despite some significant opposition from Telvin Smith, a 6’3”, 210 pound junior. Williams had a good season last year as he totaled 54 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 pass break-ups, and 1 interception. Williams is a good run defender but there are questions about how good he is versus the pass. I don’t know that much about him to be honest, but he played a key role in the FSU run defense being as good as it was (opponents averaged just 2.3 yards per carry against the ‘Noles, and only Wake Forest and Miami averaged over 3 yards per carry against them last season). He’s a reliable tackler and he may not be a freak athlete, but he knows his responsibilities and he sticks to them. He’s probably not going to be a high draft pick, but there are certainly worse middle linebackers starting around the ACC and the country.

Telvin Smith, MLB*- Smith attempted to challenge and overtake Williams, but he wasn’t able to do so from what I understand. He’s listed at 6’3”, 210 pounds and from what I understand he is the better coverage linebacker and makes more flashy plays than Williams does. That was partially evidenced by his stat-line as he totaled 42 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 pass break-ups, 1 interception and 1 forced fumble as a sophomore. He probably has more upside than Williams, but for now Williams is the starter even if Smith is still rotated in. He will almost certainly be the starter as a senior in 2013.

Christian Jones, OLB*- Jones is a stud outside linebacker, there’s no other way to say it. He may not be quite where you want to be as far as the mental aspect of the game is concerned, but he has all the size and athletic ability you could ever want in an outside linebacker. He’s listed at 6’4”, 237 pounds and has the speed and change of direction to cover any tight end and even slot receivers at times. He’s a ferocious hitter and while his stats may not jump off the page (56 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 pass break-ups) he absolutely has 1st round upside and the 2012 season may be the year he really starts to reach it. He’s a freak athlete and could even consider bulking up and playing 3-4 outside linebacker if he wanted to. He’s that caliber of athlete.

Xavier Rhodes, CB*- Rhodes really caught my eye as a redshirt freshman and he did it again last year when I was watching FSU against Notre Dame and he was doing a good job 1 on 1 against Michael Floyd who went #13 overall in the NFL Draft this past year to the Arizona Cardinals. Rhodes has fantastic size for a corner and is listed at 6’2”, 209 pounds, has the speed to turn and run with most any receiver, and has very long arms which help him at the line of scrimmage as well as in coverage when he tries to make plays on the ball. He’s got a ton of ability, impressive instincts and great ball skills and even though he didn’t have a great season last year (according to Tomahawk Nation there were rumors of attitude and work ethic problems with Rhodes after his terrific freshman year, which is a bit of a red flag) he still had 43 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 4 pass break-ups and 1 interception. That was a bit of a disappointment after he had 4 interceptions as a freshman, but now that he is back for his junior season and his third year as a starter (he returns with 25 career starts) he has a chance to get back to freshman form and show evaluators the potential top 15 pick we all saw two years ago.

Lamarcus Joyner, SS*- I am a BIG Joyner fan. He may be undersized for the safety position at 5’8”, 193 pounds but he is a fantastic player. He has fantastic instincts which is probably my favorite part of his game, but the fact that he has incredible range, legitimate 4.4 speed, long arms, great ball skills and closes like a heat-seeking missile sure doesn’t hurt either. Did I mention he packs a whallop as a hitter, averaged 30.5 yards per kick return and is one of the emotional leaders of the defense? Oh, and had 54 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 3 pass break-ups and 4 interceptions as a sophomore? He is my #1 draft eligible safety and it’s not even close. He is a 1st round lock if he continues to play anything like he did last season even in spite of his height. If he holds up from a durability stand-point the only knock close-minded analysts will be able to find on him is his lack of height. Joyner is the caliber of player that USC fans and the national media tried to hype Taylor Mays up to be except that Joyner is vastly better despite being about 5-6 inches shorter. Give me Joyner in my secondary literally any day of the week, he is the rare safety that makes the entire rest of the defense better because of his range and playmaking ability, and that’s why I would pick him in the top 20 (maybe even higher, though I want to see him as a second year starter before I go that far) without a second thought.

Dustin Hopkins, K- Hopkins rounds out this absolutely insane list of NFL Draft prospects and hopefuls. He is a good kicker who hasn’t been automatic or completely clutch, but he has reliable. He was 1st team all ACC last year as he made all 44 of his extra point attempts and made 22 of his 27 field goals with a long of 53 (though he was 1/3 from 50+). He drives the ball very well on kick-offs and certainly contributes to Florida State having as good of a kick-off coverage team as they do. I’m not sure if he will be drafted, but he could very well end up in the 5th-7th round conversation.

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 Cavaliers. The Cavaliers made it to a bowl game last season but lost to Auburn 43-24. This year the Cavaliers are hoping to build on their 8-5 season in 2011, and Head Coach Mike London seems to be doing a good job. He took his 4-8 team in 2010 and helped mold it into an 8 win team just a year later, and now in 2012 they have a shot at a similar win total. They return their starting quarterback from a year ago in Michael Rocco and he has fresh competition at quarterback now that Alabama transfer Phillip Sims has been added to the fold. Rocco has the hold on the starting job for now, but Sims is a superior talent because of his athleticism and arm strength. Rocco won the job because of his command of the offense, but as Sims catches up to him in that regard it will be hard for London to keep a player with Sims’ talent off the field in my opinion. The competition in the 2013 spring should be a very good one, but for now Rocco will be the quarterback. The Cavaliers return two talented running backs in Perry Jones and Kevin Parks, and their offensive line returns three starters that I believe have NFL futures. The Cavaliers don’t have much experience at wide receiver, but returning receiving leader Tim Smith is poised for a break-out season, as is Darius Jennings, a true sophomore wide receiver with plenty of speed. The Cavaliers should have a pretty reliable offense this year, particularly if Rocco continues to improve and some of his relative unknown receiving options step up.

Strangely, the question marks surround the defense more than the offense. The defensive line has some talent headlined by captain Will Hill and defensive end Bill Schautz, and captains Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds anchor the linebackers. I wonder how much of a pass rush this defensive line will generate, and that makes me even more concerned about the Cavaliers’ secondary. They are starting a lot of inexperienced players, and return only one starter to that unit. They have potential, but their lack of in-game experience is likely going to rear its ugly head in the form of big plays this season, and that is going to hurt the Cavaliers in their quest to win an ACC Championship. I think UVA will go to a bowl game again, but I don’t think they will be able to unseat Virginia Tech for a trip to the ACC title game. With that, take a look at Virginia’s prospects to keep an eye on:

Michael Rocco, QB*- Rocco is a 6’3”, 225 pound junior who enters this season with 13 career starts that all came as a sophomore. He looked like the obvious choice to be the starting QB, but then Phillip Sims transferred to Virginia from Alabama after losing the starting job to AJ McCarron again. Rocco isn’t a great athlete but he was solid as a starter last year, passing for 2,671 yards (60.7% completion), 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He doesn’t have as strong of an arm as Sims does, though he probably has above average arm strength if I had to approximate, but it’s not ideal. I want to see him improve as a decision maker this year, which could very well happen given how often he is praised for his football IQ and intangibles. He’s tough and he’s an effective leader even if he isn’t a big “rah-rah” guy, and that could be what helps him keep his job more than anything else. It will be interesting to see how he does this season, because keeping a hold on his starting job will require improving on the field and some mental toughness off of it. Sims isn’t going to go away, and he will be nipping at his heels all season in all likelihood. Rocco should be named the starter even if he isn’t as physically gifted because he knows the offense so well and Sims is still playing catch-up in that regard.

Phillip Sims, QB**- Sims is the talented but often overlooked quarterback that is likely to back Rocco up this season. Sims was AJ McCarron’s back-up at Alabama and could never overtake him to win the job, and transferred to Virginia hoping to unseat Rocco and start here. That seems unlikely even though he gained a medical hardship waiver enabling him to play right away. That meant he was in a stiff competition for playing time with the entrenched starting quarterback without having a firm grasp of the offense. Sims doesn’t have the playbook mastered yet, and even though it is similar to the offense he ran at Alabama it will take him time to master the terminology that Rocco is already fluent in. Sims likely won’t unseat Rocco for the starting job now, but down the line once they are both more comfortable Sims could have a chance to do so. Sims is listed at 6’2”, 217 pounds and I believe he is only a redshirt sophomore. That means that even if Rocco holds him off until he graduates Sims should have a season to start as a senior unless Rocco leaves early or he manages to overtake him before he graduates. It should be an intriguing developing story because Sims has a lot of natural talent, he’s just not as advanced as Rocco is in the mental aspect of the game, particularly as it pertains to UVA’s offense.

Perry Jones, RB- Jones is returning for his senior year with the Cavaliers having started 24 games in his career. He’s listed at 5’8”, 185 pounds but is pretty filled out considering his small frame. He is everywhere on Virginia’s offense, rushing 184 times for 915 yards and 5 touchdowns (5.0 ypc) and catching 38 passes for 506 yards and 3 touchdowns as a junior. Jones may be a smaller back but he runs hard and with authority, doesn’t back down from contact, and has plenty of shiftiness and quickness as a runner. He doesn’t have gamebreaking straight line speed, and he may not have the frame to take a consistent pounding as a feature back at the next level, but his ability to run the ball effectively as well as catch the ball out of the backfield should result in him being drafted in the 5th-6th round range if not higher next April.

Kevin Parks, RB**- Parks may only be a sophomore but he’s got plenty of upside and will likely be the feature back after Jones graduates. He’s a shorter back like Jones as he is listed at 5’8”, but he weighs just shy of 200 pounds, and is listed at 195. That’s a lot of muscle to pack onto that short frame, and he almost reminds me of Doug Martin in that respect (aka, the Muscle Hampster). Predictably Parks runs hard, can’t be taken down by arm tackles, has some burst to hit the hole and has good leg drive. He isn’t on Jones’ level as a receiver out of the backfield, catching just 11 passes for 82 yards and 1 touchdown as a freshman, but I would be surprised if he didn’t improve in that regard. He’s got a lot of ability and despite playing second fiddle to Jones last year he rushed for 709 yards and 9 touchdowns (4.7 ypc). He may not be the starter yet, but he’s going to get plenty of touches this year and will almost certainly be the go-to guy at running back in 2013.

Tim Smith, WR*- Smith is the top returning receiver coming back for the Cavaliers and is primed and ready for a break-out season if he can stay healthy. He lost the 2010 season to injury when he had to have reconstructive ankle surgery, and despite not being 100% last season from being “nicked up” he was far and away the best deep threat the Cavaliers had on their roster. He caught 33 balls for 565 yards and 3 touchdowns, averaging 17.1 yards per reception. He’s listed at 6’0”, 185 pounds and has plenty of speed to threaten teams vertically and has a 4.4 speed in the 40 yard dash. His sophomore season was just the beginning of his production and he is ready to make even more big plays this season. He has assumed a significant leadership role with the wide receivers because he is the most experienced of the entire lot, and has been pushing and motivating them all to get better. He is committed to improving and his goal is to get 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns this season even though only two Virginia receivers have eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving since 1990. He was actually high school teammates with Phillip Sims which provides an interesting dynamic for the quarterback competition that I imagine will be ongoing. Smith works hard, watches a lot of film and has become a leader all of which I love to hear. Now he just has to stay healthy and he should break out this season.

Darius Jennings, WR**- Jennings is a 5’11”, 165 pound receiver who is entering his true sophomore season but he has explosive speed much like Smith does. He had 20 receptions for 238 yards and 1 touchdown as a sophomore, but his biggest game came against Miami when he caught two screen passes but turned them into 78 combined yards and his only touchdown of the season. He’s dangerous in the open field and was utilized as the team’s primary kick returner last year, totaling a 20 yard average on his 30 runbacks. He seems poised to step up as well, and has reportedly been learning a lot from the leader of the receivers Tim Smith. He isn’t very big like Smith and he has plenty of speed and burst, so look out for them to turn a lot of short receptions into big gains thanks to their ability to generate yards after the catch.

Colter Phillips, TE- Phillips has 26 career starts but despite that he has never been much of a receiving threat, and he only had 3 receptions for 15 yards as a junior. He looked like he was ready to step up as a sophomore though, as he caught 18 receptions for 155 yards and 3 touchdowns. It remains to be seen how much of a role he will play in the passing attack this season, but hopefully he will be more involved. He is listed at 6’6”, 245 pounds and has the athletic ability and hands to be a productive tight end, he just needs to stay on the field.

Oday Aboushi, OT- Aboushi is the top draft prospect on Virginia’s roster right now and he has a legitimate shot at being a 1st round pick if he continues to improve as a senior. He enters his senior season with 25 career starts (20 coming at left tackle) and has prototypical left tackle size at 6’6”, 310 pounds and has the athleticism to stick at the position in the NFL. He is a hard worker and continues to improve, but he isn’t a very good run blocker at this point. That won’t deter teams from drafting him if he shows he can be a quality starting left tackle at the next level, but if teams are wishy washy about him sticking there or moving back to right tackle then his less impressive run blocking will drag his overall grade down. It will be interesting to see how he does as a senior because he is one of the top senior offensive tackles in the country.

Morgan Moses, OT*- Moses is a mountain of a man who enters his junior season with 20 career starts including 19 at Right Tackle (the other at right guard). He seems like a prototypical right tackle in the NFL to me, and is listed at 6’6”, 335 pounds and after reportedly weighing 350 pounds last season. He has surprisingly good feet and I think he can stay on the outside at the next level based on what I’ve seen so far. I’m not quite convinced he can be a left tackle in the NFL though. However, after Aboushi graduates if Moses doesn’t declare early he will likely slide over to left tackle as a senior like he did while Aboushi missed spring practice this season. Moses is very talented and has a lot of potential and is a potential 1st round pick in his own right, and forms one of the best offensive tackle combos in the entire country.

Luke Bowanko, OG*- Bowanko is returning for his second full season as a starter after starting all 13 games at right guard as a sophomore. He’s listed at 6’6”, 295 pounds and figures to get even bigger as he continues to fill out his frame. Bowanko has impressive speed and movement skills for an offensive lineman and reportedly ran a 4.8 40 yard dash when he was a junior in high school. Not only is he skilled on the football field but he works hard in the classroom and chose Virginia largely because of academics. He seems like a great kid and he’s an easy guy to root for, and I’m excited to see how he plays this year. This offensive line returns three starters and all three have NFL futures. Bowanko might be under the radar right now, but he won’t stay that way for long.

Bill Schautz, DE- Schautz is a high effort defensive end who has some injury question marks. He broke his leg in two places last season against Florida State and spent the entire offseason rehabbing to try to come back for the season. He is supposedly 100% now, and that is a tribute to his impressive work ethic and determination. He’s a senior now and if he can stay healthy for the entire season he could easily surpass his last season totals of 28 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks and 2 pass break-ups. He’s got a great motor and always plays with great intensity, and has reportedly taken the top recruit in the state of Virginia, Eli Harold, under his wing. The two are roommates and if Harold, who has been timed at 4.46 in the 40 yard dash, begins to emulate Schautz’ work ethic and motor the sky will be the limit for him. There’s no word on whether Harold will play this season or not, but even if he doesn’t the lessons he will learn from Schautz will be valuable. He’s a key cog on the Cavaliers defense and while he might not be more than a late rounder or undrafted free agent at this point his leadership and work ethic will prove valuable if he does get a shot at the NFL.

Will Hill, DT- Hill is returning for his senior year with the Cavaliers and the defensive tackle has been named a team captain for the 2012 season. He is listed at 6’4”, 280 pounds and despite only having 1 career start he returns as a starting defensive tackle and a leader at that. Last season he had 36 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 2 pass break-ups and 1 forced fumble. I think he is ready to surpass all of those totals as a senior. He’s a bit undersized and could stand to add some more weight to fill out his frame, but he’s flying way under the radar since he has so little starting and playing experience beyond last season. He’s flashed some hand usage thus far in his career, but if he can continue to improve his hand usage and get more violent to shed blocks quicker and more decisively he would make more impact plays. He’s got a good motor and work ethic, so I think he’s capable of those improvements. If he can step up it would really help Virginia’s defense as a whole, both in run defense and in pass defense.

Steve Greer, MLB- Greer might be the top prospect on Virginia’s defense. He is listed at 6’2”, 225 pounds and he led the team in tackles last season with 103 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks and 4 pass break-ups. He has 24 career starts as he started as a freshman and as a junior, but lost his starting job as a sophomore despite playing in every game. He’s going to be the starter in the middle again this year, and figures to be one of the leaders of the defense along with Will Hill and Bill Schautz and was named a team captain for the 2012 season. He’s a tough player that doesn’t have great range though, and even though he’s a good tackler he is relatively unproven in coverage. He has some work to do to get drafted, but he’s got the attitude and work ethic to make a NFL roster even if he doesn’t get drafted.

LaRoy Reynolds, OLB- Reynolds was the second leading tackler on the Cavaliers last season with 88 tackles, 8 TFL and 1 pass break-up as a junior. He’s listed at 6’2”, 230 pounds and has been named a captain for the 2012 season. He’s not quite as fundamentally sound as Greer is as a tackler, but he has more explosiveness as a hitter and is no stranger to aggressive take-downs. He’s a little more physically imposing despite their similar measurables, but he tackles high more than I would like which can lead to missed tackles if it isn’t corrected. He contributes on special teams as well which should help him make a NFL roster even if he doesn’t get drafted.

Demetrious Nicholson, CB**- Nicholson started 13 games last year as a true freshman and is the only returning starter in the secondary for the Cavaliers which is going to be a serious concern for their defense this season. The pressure is squarely on the front 7 to make things as easy as possible for the secondary as they start not one, not two, not three but FOUR sophomores including three true sophomores in their defensive backfield. Nicholson is easily the most proven commodity having started last season as a true freshman as he earned 2nd team freshman All-American honors as he totaled 60 tackles, 2 TFL, 8 pass deflections and 2 interceptions. He is the only defender returning with an interception in 2011 and is going to be under intense pressure. Even if he steps up and plays well teams will just avoid him and challenge the other unproven members of the Cavalier secondary. Nicholson is listed at 5’11” but only weighs 165 pounds, so durability may be a concern for him until he can fill out his frame, but he has plenty of talent.

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 Miami Hurricanes. Miami has had a lot of trouble off the field, both from potential scandal and sanction and because they lost a shocking amount of juniors to early declaration for the NFL Draft. For some it worked out ok, for others it didn’t. Regardless, it left Miami with a relatively inexperienced roster that only projects to start a few seniors on either side of the ball (5 by my count on both offense and defense). That means some growing pains are in order, but I think it will make them a much more competitive team in a year or two. They have the strong armed Stephen Morris at quarterback who will hopefully breathe a breath of fresh air into the Hurricanes offense after watching Jacory Harris bumble around for so many years. They also have underrated running back Mike James back in the fold, and he is being severely overlooked by the college football community and NFL Draftniks. He’s going to have a big year this year. They are relatively inexperienced at wideout, but they have young talent in the form of Allen Hurns and Phillip Dorsett. Their offensive line is actually shockingly good, and they have four players listed at over 6’5″, 310 pounds (the only one who isn’t is their center who is 6’4″, 290 pounds) and return some experience as well. Their offense should be fine, but probably not that explosive unless Morris surprises and multiple receivers break out for them this season.

I’m not sure what to expect from the defense on the other hand. They have some talent, but I have a feeling they are going to go through some growing pains just like the offense will. The unit is highlighted by star defensive end Anthony Chickillo who tied for the team lead in sacks as a true freshman with 5 and future stud Middle Linebacker Denzel Perryman. Ray-Ray Armstrong is no longer with the team, and that means an inexperienced player will likely be replacing him in the backfield next to elder statesmen Vaughn Telemaque. I’m not sure how this defense is going to perform, but if I had to guess I’d say they will probably be an average unit this season. And with that, here are the prospects to keep an eye on:

Stephen Morris, QB*- Morris is a solid but not spectacular college quarterback and I don’t think he’s much of a NFL prospect at this point. He’s listed at 6’2”, 214 pounds and is pretty decently filled out. He’s got some experience starting, and honestly I would have preferred playing him to Jacory Harris last season. You knew what you were getting with Harris, and I would have rather let Morris try to grow and develop but that’s just me! Now Morris is the starter and he is coming into the season with 5 career starts at quarterback. He wasn’t overly efficient as a freshman, and he missed time in spring practice, but it will be interesting to see how strong his command of the offense is since he has been in and out of games so often his first two years.

James is replacing Lamar Miller as the feature back and I expect him to open a lot of eyes this season. He’s very underrated.

Mike James, RB- James was overshadowed by Lamar Miller last season, but he rushed for 275 yards on just 72 carries and 7 touchdowns. He also had 9 receptions for 80 yards and another touchdown. I am actually a big Mike James fan. He’s got the size you love in a running back at a compact 5’11”, 222 pounds and he has a very strong lower half. He doesn’t have the elite speed that Miller does, he’s probably more of a 4.48-4.5 guy, and he doesn’t have the same explosion and acceleration. However, he has fantastic leg drive and absolutely doesn’t go down to arm tackles. He was reportedly struggling with turf toe last season which might explain why he didn’t look as explosive to me, and Al Golden was quoted as saying that he looked faster and quicker in the spring. If that’s the case then James is going to shoot up draft boards this year because his vision, leg drive, shiftiness to make guys miss, his ability to push a pile, balance and his tendency to lower his pads and initiate contact with the defender will endear him to evaluators. And if he’s faster and quicker then he is going to rush for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns easily in my opinion. He has soft hands and can catch the ball away from his body even though he hasn’t been used much in that capacity outside of screens. I haven’t seen him in pass protection a lot, but when I have he has shown good effort as a blocker and has even lined up at fullback at times and blocked for Lamar Miller. He’s a complete back who is ready to be a top 100 pick. Keep an eye on him, I’m a big James fan and he’s easy to root for, especially since his mother died in a car accident a couple of years ago. I’m looking forward to him blowing up and shooting up draft boards this season.

Allen Hurns, WR*- Hurns is a 6’3”, 190 pound junior who had 31 receptions for 415 yards and 4 touchdowns in 7 starts as a sophomore last season. He’s got 4.4 speed and he may be ready for a breakout season this year. He’s the leading returning receiver and with Tommy Streeter, Travis Benjamin and LaRon Byrd moving on to the NFL there is going to be a lot of production to replace. I’m excited to see if Hurns can step up and become the go-to guy for Morris. I really think he is capable of filling that void.

Phillip Dorsett, WR**- Dorsett is a speedster who supposedly has sub 4.4 speed. He’s undersized at 5’10”, 186 pounds but his speed and burst compensates for it. Not only will he likely play frequently in the slot, but he will be replacing Travis Benjamin as the team’s primary return man on kick-offs and punts. I haven’t seen him before since he is just a true sophomore, but he’s explosive and he’s going to make an impact in the slot and on special teams this season.

Clive Walford, TE**- Walford may be the next Miami tight end to head to the NFL and make an impact. He’s listed at 6’4”, 250 pounds and has 4.6-4.7 speed. Walford was a redshirt freshman last season and only had 18 receptions for 172 yards and 1 touchdown, but I’m intrigued by him and I think that he is going to build off of his 8 starts as a freshman and take big steps forward as a sophomore. Technically he will be eligible for the draft after this season, but I think he will be in Miami for at least two more years. Keep an eye on him, I have a feeling Morris will be getting the ball to him frequently this season.

Malcolm Bunche, OT**- Bunche is a redshirt sophomore this season and he is the guy who has held off Seantrel Henderson from being the left tackle (in addition to Henderson’s injury issues). Bunche is no small lineman either, he’s listed at 6’7”, 325 pounds and while he only had 1 start last year he played in 8 games despite struggling with a back injury last year. According to offensive line coach Art Kehoe he was the ‘Canes best offensive lineman in the spring and is also the strongest player on the ‘Canes, allegedly having done 36 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press despite being only a sophomore! Bunche strikes me as a potential NFL left tackle because despite his size he has pretty good feet and really seems to “get it.” He supposedly watches a lot of film, makes sure he eats healthy, and frequently does extra work with star defensive end Anthony Chickillo. Bunche has never started a game at left tackle, and I’m sure he will have some growing pains at the position but I think he has a lot of upside.

Seantrel Henderson, OT*- Henderson was a top recruit who actually played high school football in Minnesota. He was heavily recruited and was considered the top offensive tackle recruit in the country at the time. When I watched him in high school it was evident he was dominating because he was bigger than everyone else, and I never thought he could play left tackle in college. I also questioned how well he would transition to blocking players that he can’t dominate quite as easily thanks to his size, length and brute strength. We haven’t gotten much of a taste for that as he has only started 11 games in two years with Miami and 9 of those came as a redshirt freshman. He has dealt with injuries and while he has a lot of upside thanks to his size and strength he needs to stay healthy and keep his head on straight if he’s going to have any chance of living up to his potential. Because of how highly he was recruited many people think he has 1st round potential, but Bunche is the tackle on Miami who has upside that high. Henderson has a lot of unrealized potential, but I’m not sure he is ever going to live up to his high school billing.

Jon Feliciano, OG**- I don’t know much about Feliciano’s game since he was a redshirt freshman last season, but he started 8 games at right tackle and didn’t allow a single sack. The 6’5”, 320 pound lineman has moved inside to left guard, and should help form a formidable left side playing next to Malcolm Bunche. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to playing on the opposite side of the line and inside at guard, but his size and work ethic makes him a very intriguing player.

Brandon Linder, OG*- Linder is another mammoth sized offensive lineman who is projected to start for the ‘Canes this season. He is the fourth offensive lineman who is listed at 6’5” or taller while weighing 310 pounds or more. Linder is listed at 6’6”, 310 pounds and still has plenty of room to add weight to his frame. He enters his junior season with 14 career starts, including 12 last season all at right guard. He’s considered the leader of the offensive line since he is the most experienced member of the front five. I’m not that familiar with his game, but he should help anchor a surprisingly talented offensive line.

Two of my favorite ‘Canes; Mike James spraying Anthony Chickillo with a water bottle during practice. Both will have to play great this year for Miami to go to a bowl game.

Anthony Chickillo, DE**- Chickillo is my favorite prospect on the entire Hurricanes roster. He’s only a true sophomore but he is listed at 6’4”, 258 pounds and was tied for the team lead with 5 sacks last season while starting 9 games as a true freshman. He’s going to be a 1st round pick in a couple years and I can’t wait to see what he does this season. He’s already assuming leadership of the defensive line thanks to all the losses they sustained last season, and I think his combination of size, athleticism, work ethic and intangibles are going to culminate in at least two more special seasons before he leaves for the NFL Draft. If you don’t know him, watch him.

Darius Smith, DT- Smith has only flashed some potential at Miami, but his previous listing of 6’2”, 360 pounds meant that while he is a short, squatty player who has the potential to clog up the middle of the defense he also needed to improve his conditioning considerably. He had 21 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack and 1 pass break-up during his first season with the ‘Canes after transferring from a junior college last season. His conditioning should be much better this year, as he is supposedly weighing in at about 324 pounds now and should move better and be more explosive this season. He is very strong and has big, strong hands that he uses to effectively occupy blockers to plug up the middle of the defense. That earned him the nickname “the Plug” and if he can show that he can stand up to double teams and collapse the pocket as a pass rusher he could move up draft boards this season.

Curtis Porter, DT*- Porter is a 6’1”, 300 pound junior defensive tackle who has a lot of ability but has had a tough go of it with injuries. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2010, and then in August of 2011 he broke a bone in his finger (it actually broke the skin) and unfortunately got infected not once but twice after that. He’s finally healthy and ready to start this season, and he’s got a lot of potential. Despite the injury to his knee two years ago his teammate Darius Smith said that Porter is the quickest and most explosive off the ball of all of the Miami defensive linemen. He only had 10 tackles last year because of his problems with his finger, but hopefully he can stay healthy and prove to be a disruptive force on the Hurricanes defensive line.

Denzel Perryman, MLB**- Perryman is a 6’0”, 225 pound linebacker who had a great season as a true freshman. He started 5 games but played in 12 and totaled 69 tackles, 5.5 TFL and 1 sack. Some have gone so far as to compare him to Miami Hurricanes great and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis this offseason. I won’t go that far, but Perryman has boatloads of potential and should do a fantastic job replacing Sean Spence at middle linebacker for the ‘Canes. He plays aggressive and loves to hit, and stepping into the middle linebacker spot as a true sophomore is a testament to his ability. He may not be Ray Lewis yet, but he did have similar statistics as Ray did as a freshman at Miami and he also wears #52, just like Ray. Perhaps the stars are aligning for the second coming of Ray Lewis, but if Perryman plays as well as Ray on the field and comes anywhere close to his intangibles and leadership capability the ‘Canes will have a special, special player on their hands. I look forward to seeing how he does this season.

Ramon Buchanan, OLB- Buchanan is back for another season with Miami after receiving a medical hardship waiver for a knee injury he sustained last season. Hopefully he is back to 100%, and the 6’1”, 222 pound Buchanan can end his Miami career on a high note. Like many players recruited to Miami he has tons of athletic ability and is very rangy, but struggles to get off blocks once engaged and prefers to avoid blockers and work through the trash to make plays. If he’s all the way back from his knee injury he could be in for a surprisingly good season, and his experience will be helpful as there are only a couple other projected starters on defense that are seniors.

Brandon McGee, CB- McGee is another very talented Hurricane who came to Miami with high expectations but has yet to live up to them. He’s listed at 6’0”, 190 pounds and has a lot of speed and smooth hips, but all of his athletic ability hasn’t translated into production on the field. He had 38 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 pass break-ups and 1 interception last season, but a player with his ability is capable of more than that. It will be interesting to see if he steps up his play this year, as I think his technique and awareness could use improving. Whether that happens or not will determine whether he’s a late bloomer or a player who never put it together. If the light starts to come on some teams will begin to wonder if his best football is ahead of him, while others will worry that he was motivated by a NFL pay day.

Vaughn Telemaque, SS- Telemaque is the most experienced returning defender for the Hurricanes as he has 36 career starts. The 6’2”, 211 pound safety has a lot of potential and is a rangy defender that tackles well, but he only had 59 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 pass break-up and an interception as a junior. I expect more from him and so does the rest of the Miami coaching staff and fan base. He’s got the upside of a top-100 pick, I’m just not sure whether or not he will live up to that this season.

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 North Carolina Tar Heels. The Tar Heels program has been under fire for what feels like an eternity to me (but I am a Tar Heels fan) and rumors continue to swirl around the program. Hopefully there aren’t extremely severe sanctions levied against the program, but that is all up in the air. All we can do is focus on football, and that’s what Larry Fedora and his team plan to do. I’ve been impressed with how Fedora has been handling this team, because Butch Davis was labeled a “player’s coach” but really was letting the inmates run the asylum, and while there were plenty of talented inmates he never coached them up or got the most out of them. He simply got what they were willing to give at any given time, but that was usually enough to win 8 games and be competitive. Fedora doesn’t share that same view, and in his first meetings even with returning starters and seniors he told them he expects them to drop weight, come back in better shape and improve before the season starts. Fedora seems to command respect, and Sylvester Williams noted that even though his Southern Miss team knew he was leaving after the bowl game they still played hard for him and won that game. Williams even said that played a role in him coming back for his second season with the team after transferring in from junior college. Fedora’s attitude appears to be contagious, as multiple players, most notably Williams and offensive guard Travis Bond, are supposedly in much better shape this summer and I am excited to see how that manifests itself on the field. The offense should be good even if it takes a bit to adjust to the new scheme, but Bryn Renner, Giovani Bernard, Erik Highsmith, Jheranie Boyd and Eric Ebron are ready to make plays and the offensive line returns three seniors and a junior, and is one of the most experienced offensive lines in the conference if not the entire country. And with Fedora pushing them to get in better shape and work hard to improve, I have no doubt the offense is going to be good for some big plays.

The defense has always been filled to the brim with talent, but for reasons I mentioned previously this unit never seemed to live up to it’s billing on paper. The Tar Heels defense has been churning out defensive prospects since Davis stepped on campus, and this year will be no different even with a new coaching staff in place. Kareem Martin, Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick continue the time-honored UNC tradition of generating quality defensive prospects, but there is more young talent there obviously. They are running a 4-2-5 this season, and while I prefer a 4-3 or a 3-4 I am willing to wait and see how this defense works. The Tar Heels have the talent to run it, so I’ll trust the coaching staff for now until I have reason to do otherwise. This team isn’t eligible to win the conference or play in the postseason this year, but that shouldn’t stop them from getting 8-10 wins this season. They have a very favorable schedule, with Louisville, Virginia Tech, Miami, NC State and Georgia Tech as their toughest tests in my opinion. With that, we move on to the prospects to keep an eye on:

Renner has enough tools to be considered a NFL prospect, but I want to see improved decision making and efficiency from him in his second season as a starter. With the great OL and bountiful weapons around him, he’s in line for a big season.

Bryn Renner, QB*- Renner has been competing for the starting job since he was a freshman when he was TJ Yates’ primary back-up, and I was actually hoping he would start that season because I was not a big Yates fan. Regardless, he got his shot last season as a sophomore and had a very good first season. He passed for 3,086 yards, completed 68.3% of his passes and passed for 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He’s got solid size for a quarterback at 6’3”, 215 pounds and has some athleticism to extend the play, but he is a pocket passer first and foremost. He has some arm strength, and he flashes accuracy, but I was a little concerned with some of his decision making last season. I am hoping to see him improve in that department as well as the rest of his game, but he could cut down on his interception total pretty easily by throwing the ball away and not forcing passes into coverage. I think that’s a step he’s capable of taking this year, and with plenty of weapons at disposal and an offensive line that returns three seniors and a junior left tackle in James Hurst I think he has a chance at 3,500+ yards and 30+ touchdowns this season. I’m still not sure he’s more than a mid-round guy as a NFL prospect at this point, but I look forward to seeing him grow over the next two seasons because he definitely has a lot of potential. He’s still pretty new to the position having only played two years of quarterback in high school, so he should improve considerably over the next two seasons at UNC.

Giovani Bernard, RB**- Bernard emerged as the top back the Tar Heels had last season, playing in 13 games and starting 11 of them and earning the ACC Rookie Player of the Year award as he rushed for 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns (5.2 ypc) as well as catching 45 passes for 362 more yards and a touchdown. He has been through a lot in his life whether it was losing his mother at 10 years old, having to watch much of his family attempt to survive the disaster in Haiti, or sustaining season ending injuries as a senior in high school and as a true freshman at North Carolina, Bernard has been through plenty. He finally got on the field last season as a redshirt freshman and he obviously didn’t disappoint, becoming just the 14th UNC running back to rush for over 1,000 yards in the program’s history and the first since 1997. He provided a running game that the Tar Heels haven’t had since I started watching football attentively, and my god was that fun to see. He dealt with a hip injury in the middle of the season, but still managed to be productive and help carry the offense. Bernard is coming off of his worst performance of the season against Missouri in UNC’s bowl game, rushing 13 times for 31 yards and no touchdowns against the Tigers. I’m sure he will be focusing on never letting that happen again, and I feel bad for Elon’s team because he is going to take that pent up frustration out on them in week 1. Bernard has NFL back written all over him thanks to his compact frame (5’10”, 210 pounds), impressive speed, burst, vision and hands out of the backfield. He’s very close to becoming a complete back despite only being a sophomore, and that should really excite Tar Heels fans. Hopefully Rynner and Bernard will both be back for 2013, because they could be an even more special combo than they will be this season. Rumor has it Bernard will even be the team’s punt returner this year thanks to injuries at that spot, so keep an eye on him on offense and special teams.

I’ve had my eye on Highsmith for a long time, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him as a Tar Heel over the last four years. Hopefully his senior season is the best of them all.

Erik Highsmith, WR- Highsmith is a kid I have been keeping an eye on since he was a freshman, because it was then that he first flashed upside, catching 37 passes for 425 yards and 2 touchdowns that year despite being rated as a three star wide receiver prospect if I remember correctly. The 6’3”, 190 pound receiver has never slowed down, catching 25 balls for 348 yards and 3 touchdowns as a sophomore and grabbing 51 receptions for 726 yards and 5 touchdowns as a junior. Dwight Jones has moved on (though to what, we’re not really sure) and Highsmith should be a breath of fresh air for NFL talent evaluators who saw Jones’ skill set but clearly questioned his dedication and determination which led to him being undrafted. It seems they were right to doubt him, as he quit shortly after signing with the Texans. Still, Highsmith has always been the overachieving type of player and truthfully I never expected to be writing about him as a legitimate NFL prospect when I watched him as a freshman. He’s got the size, long arms and soft hands that NFL teams will love in a receiver, and his work ethic and determination to improve is obvious because of his vast starting experience dating back to his freshman year, as he returns for his senior season with 30 career starts. He projects as more of a possession receiver at the next level, and I’d like to see him continue to improve his route running, but he’s better after the catch than you might expect and should prove to be the superior prospect to his teammate Jones who always got all the attention while at Chapel Hill. Highsmith is an easy kid to root for and I’m excited to see him this season.

Jheranie Boyd, WR- Boyd is another senior receiver but he is not nearly as polished or consistent as Highsmith. Boyd is a 6’2”, 190 pound speedster with an estimated 40 time in the 4.4’s who has been primarily a vertical threat for UNC for the past couple of years. Last season he led the team with a 20.9 average yards per catch despite only catching 14 balls for 292 yards and 5 touchdowns. He gives the Tar Heels a quick strike element to the team, slightly reminiscent of what Brandon Tate did for them a few years ago before his devastating injury. Boyd doesn’t have great hands at this point, and he could be a lot better than he currently is, but I’m hoping he can put it all together as a senior and really show what he can do. Teams will love his combination of size, speed and potential, but his inconsistency and lack of production will keep him as a mid-late round prospect until he really steps up his game. Hopefully that happens as a senior, because he has a lot of untapped upside.

TJ Thorpe, WR**- TJ Thorpe is another speedster that should provide the Tar Heels with a vertical threat, and despite only being a true sophomore with 2 receptions and 70 yards to his name I had to mention him because of his upside as a receiver as well as his already impressive production as a kick returner. As a true freshman Thorpe returned 36 kick-offs for 960 yards (26.7 avg) and 1 touchdown, and figures to continue to return kicks and hopefully punts as a true sophomore. He’s listed at 6’0”, 190 pounds but also has 4.4 speed and if his 35 yard average per reception last season is any indication he is going to threaten defenses vertically for the Tar Heels if he can stay healthy. Right now, unfortunately, that health is in question as he suffered a “serious” foot injury in early August and it is not known how much time he will miss. Hopefully it’s not much, because he has a lot of upside as a playmaker for the Tar Heels on offense and on special teams.

Eric Ebron, TE**- Ebron is another true sophomore that I had to include because he is penciled in as the starting tight end and he could be in for a big season. Ebron is listed at 6’4”, 230 pounds and while he only had 10 receptions last year he made the most of them, totaling 207 yards (20.7 ypc average, 2nd on the team only to Boyd) and 1 touchdown. A reliable tight end is a quarterback’s best friend, and if Ebron is ready to step up (which I really think he is) then he could have a huge season this year. He is said to have 4.5 speed, plenty of strength and that makes me think he’s ready to surpass his freshman totals easily. He should be played in-line and also split out in the slot which will cause a lot of match-up problems for opposing defenses. He’s got all the ability, but as long as he keeps himself on the right path off the field (he missed the Missouri bowl game because his grades weren’t up to par) he should catch a lot of eyes this season for the Tar Heels. Fedora’s offense and staff has a history of sending quality tight end prospects to the NFL, and Ebron is going to be the next in line in my opinion.

James Hurst, OT*- Hurst was a top recruit out of high school and chose to come to North Carolina where he made an immediate impact. He started 12 games at left tackle as a true freshman and started 13 more at left tackle as a sophomore. He should have 12 more starts at left tackle by the end of his junior year, and he will have a tough decision about whether or not he should come back for his senior season or enter the draft. At 6’7”, 310 pounds he has ideal left tackle size, arm length and still has the frame to add strength. He’s athletic for his size and while he isn’t a top 5 pick right now, he has that kind of upside. It will be interesting to see how much he has progressed over the summer, because if he starts matching up with some of the pass rush talent in the ACC (most notably that of Virginia Tech, Miami and Georgia Tech) he could vault himself into 1st round consideration easily. His match-up on October 6th against James Gayle and J.R. Collins of Virginia Tech is one everyone needs to watch.

Brennan Williams, OT- Williams plays on the right side and is obviously not the same prospect that Hurst is. He has similar size, being listed at 6’7”, 315 pounds, but isn’t the same athlete. He returns for his senior season with 14 career starts, and figures to continue to make his mark in the run game, as he totaled 30 knock downs last season. The true test for Williams will be how well he can show up in pass protection. Last year was his first full season as a starter, so it’s tough to project him right now. He’s probably in the mid-late round range right now, but could improve that easily with a good season.

Jonathan Cooper, OG- Right now Cooper is the best NFL Draft prospect on the team, though Hurst could pass him with a good or great season this year. Cooper has a whopping 35 career starts entering his senior season and all but one of them has been at left guard (one was at Center as a sophomore). The 6’3”, 305 pound guard isn’t the definition of a road grader, but he moves extremely well for an offensive lineman and should be an ideal pulling guard at the next level. I think he might be a great fit for a zone blocking scheme because of his quickness, change of direction speed and ability to get to the second level pretty much effortlessly. I’m not sure what I think of him in a power scheme, and he could stand to get stronger, but he still has a great shot at being a top 40 pick without much improvement as a senior.

Travis Bond, OG- Bond is the “other” guard on the Tar Heels who is very much overshadowed by Cooper. Bond is a massive player as he is listed at 6’7”, 345 pounds and was always the antithesis of Cooper and not moving very well. He supposedly ballooned up to 372 pounds after the bowl game against Missouri and Larry Fedora and his new coaching staff simply told him he couldn’t play in this offense at that weight. Bond heard the message loud and clear and through a lot of careful eating, cardio and even some sand pit work with defensive backs Bond dropped about 45 pounds and now weighs under 330, the lowest I’ve seen him listed at since he has been a Tar Heel. He claims he is moving much better and feels lighter on his feet, and has even been running with the second team at right tackle in practice. Bond may be completely under the radar right now, but look out for him at right guard this year now that he is in much better shape and if Williams goes down at right tackle it sounds like Bond would be the player the coaching staff would slide outside.

Kareem Martin, DE*- Martin has NFL size at 6’6”, 260 pounds and despite entering his sophomore season with only 3 career starts he outworked Donte Paige-Moss and took his starting job at defensive end, leading to an incredibly disappointing season for Paige-Moss that ended with a poorly thought out criticism of his coaches via Twitter as well as a serious knee injury. Martin enters his junior season with 16 career starts and had 40 tackles, 3 TFL, 4 sacks and 6 pass deflections last season. He has a large frame, long arms and plenty of athleticism. He is still developing as a prospect, but as he improves his technique and hand usage Martin will be getting a LOT of attention from NFL scouts. 6’6”, 260 pound defensive ends don’t grow on trees, and Martin has top 50 pick upside.

Williams had an instant impact after transferring from JUCO last year despite his lack of football experience, but now that he has slimmed down and improved his conditioning he’s ready to live up to his 1st round upside.

Sylvester Williams, DT- I’m a big fan of Williams and while he will be playing the 3 technique tackle position again in UNC’s new 4-2-5 defense. That is going to put new pressure on the front four to stop the run, because the 5th defensive back is likely going to be Gene Robinson, a 5’11”, 190 pound in the box type safety. That means Williams is going to have to step up and defend the run better, as he had a problem with this at times last season, particularly against Missouri. He was driven off the ball by double teams in that game and thanks to Tydreke Powell’s problems in that game as well it led to huge running lanes for the Tigers. Williams has all the size, athleticism and potential you could want at 6’3”, 315 pounds and he has the burst and speed to penetrate and make plays in the backfield as evidenced by his 54 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 pass break-ups, 1 forced fumble and 1 interception in his first season with the Tar Heels. He is still learning the position and barely played football in high school and transferred from Junior College to the Tar Heels last year and made an immediate impact. He may not be polished and refined even after this season, but his upside is undeniable. He is supposedly down to about 300 pounds this season after Larry Fedora motivated him to lose weight and come into camp in better shape, much like he did with Travis Bond and other Tar Heels. He has said that he feels much lighter, quicker but just as strong. Hopefully that helps him defend the run better, and I think it will help him boost the Tar Heels’ pass rush. He has plenty of strength, has flashed violent hands and with this added burst he could shock people with his season this year. I’m excited to see Williams as a senior because I think he has 1st round upside, and with Fedora and his quality coaching staff pushing him I think he can reach it.

Kevin Reddick, MLB- Reddick feels like he has been on the Tar Heels for an eternity to me, and he has 31 career starts entering his senior season with the team. Reddick is going to be one of the key cogs in the new 4-2-5 defense and I am hoping that the 6’3”, 240 pound linebacker won’t play as soft as past senior defensive prospects have on the Tar Heels, most notably Zach Brown who many nicknamed “Pillow Hands” because of how much he seemed to despise contact. Reddick is the leading returning tackler for the Tar Heels, and he had 71 last year as well as 5 TFL, 1 sack and 4 pass break-ups as a junior. He is a good tackler though he attempts more arm tackles and tackles high more than I would like, but hopefully he can improve his tackling technique a bit as a senior. He is expected to be one of the leaders of the defense and I can’t wait to see how he does in this new scheme.

Tim Scott, CB**- Scott started 8 games last season as a true freshman corner and certainly did not disappoint. The 5’11”, 180 pound corner with plenty of speed had 43 tackles, 2 TFL, 6 pass break-ups and 1 interception in his first season with the Tar Heels. He may only be a true sophomore, but he has a lot of potential and if the Tar Heels defensive line can apply consistent pressure I think you will see Scott break out this season. Keep an eye on him.

Tre Boston, S*- Boston returns for his junior season with 14 career starts and is coming off of a season where he totaled 70 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 pass break-ups and 3 interceptions as a sophomore. He’s listed at 6’1”, 190 pounds and while I’m not that familiar with his game I am excited to see how he plays this year. He’s the most experienced starter in the Tar Heel secondary and will be relied upon while the rest of the defense adjusts to the new defense.

Casey Barth, K- Barth is a very experienced kicker and is the next in line of talented Barth kickers who have played at North Carolina. His older brother, Connor, is a talented kicker who went undrafted but is now a very reliable kicker on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Casey is just as talented in my opinion, and has 63 career field goal attempts. He was 10/15 with a long of 42 as a true freshman, 21/25 with a long of 42 as a sophomore, 19/22 with a long of 49 as a junior, and then missed last season after making 11 extra points and 1 46 yard field goal last season before a groin injury sidelined him for all but 3 games. He’s back for his 5th year with the Tar Heels now, and should provide a very reliable kicking leg for the new coaching staff if he can stay healthy. I’m not sure he will be drafted, but I think he will be one of the better kickers in the conference.

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.