Tag Archive: Strong Safety


Indiana Hoosiers Prospect Preview:

Nate Sudfeld, QB, Sophomore/Tre Roberson, Sophomore/Cameron Coffman, Junior- I had to lump all three of these guys into one preview because the starting position still hasn’t been decided yet. I haven’t watched Tre Roberson play in any games, but he is the more athletic of the three QB’s and started off the season strong statistically before breaking his leg. He’s good to go now, but I’m not sure he’s going to get his starting job back. While I haven’t seen him play much, I have to say I am not a fan of Cameron Coffman. He doesn’t have a very strong arm, he doesn’t offer the same athleticism that Roberson does, and I don’t think he has the same pocket passer upside that Sudfeld does. Personally, Sudfeld is the guy I want starting for Indiana. He showed me something against Ohio State and while he wasn’t making a wide array of difficult NFL throws he did show some gumption, the moment wasn’t too big for him as they were trying to come back, and he even made an impromptu flip pass to Stephen Houston as he was getting tackled that ended up being his second touchdown in the late portion of the 4th quarter. Personally, I prefer Sudfeld and his 6’5”, 234 pound frame and while he wasn’t perfect he forced a LOT less passes than Coffman did against Ohio State (Coffman could have easily had 3 or 4 interceptions in that game) and I think with Kevin Wilson’s tutelage he can develop into a quality passer. We’ll see who wins the job, but I personally think it will be between Sudfeld and Roberson.

Stephen Houston, RB, Senior- I like Houston, he’s listed at 6’0”, 225 but he has some speed, sub 4.6 for sure, and surprising quickness. He’s shown he can run effectively, he’s caught the ball (when he can get his hands on it Coffman) and I think he’s an underrated back for the 2014 class. Is he a star? No, but he can play. He ran for 749 yards (4.7 ypc), 12 touchdowns and added 37 receptions for 381 yards and 4 touchdowns. He may not be a burner, but I think he’s a reliable back that should get more attention this year thanks to Indiana’s potential to be a high scoring offense. They might put up a lot of yardage through the air, but Houston is the RB that will help keep the offense balanced this upcoming year.

Tevin Coleman, RB/KR, Sophomore- Coleman is a back-up running back but he is also the primary kick return man for Indiana. Last year the 6’1”, 209 pound back rushed for 225 yards and 1 touchdown and added 566 return yards (23.6 yard average) including 1 touchdown. He looks like a possible sub 4.5 guy to me when I watch him, and while he won’t be the starting back this year I think he has the inside track to that position as a junior. In the meantime he will continue to be a big play waiting to happen in the kick return game.

Cody Latimer, WR, Junior- I am a Cody Latimer fan. He has shown that he is a good hands catcher, I like his 6’3”, 215 frame and he looks like a solid route runner. He also adjusts to the ball well in the air and can catch passes that are behind him. He led the team with 805 receiving yards on 51 receptions, adding 6 touchdowns. He’s only a junior this year, but if Indiana settles on one quality passer I think Latimer is in line for a 1,000 yard, 10 touchdown season. He’s flying under the radar, but he’s going to be a draftable kid by the time he’s done at Indiana.

Kofi Hughes, WR, Senior- Hughes didn’t catch my eye quite as consistently as Latimer did, but he did have a fantastic catch on an underthrown deep ball against Ohio State. Like Latimer I think he adjusts well to the ball in the air, and he went up and got it over the corner. He’s listed at 6’2”, 215 pounds and produced 43 receptions, 639 yards and 3 touchdowns as a junior. Right now I think Hughes is a possible day 3 pick, but he needs to show improved route running and have a big year to help that happen. I think Indiana’s offense has the potential to be a high octane unit, and Hughes could really benefit from that.

Shane Wynn, WR, Junior- Wynn is the big play/YAC guy on Indiana’s offense. He may not have the best hands, and he’s undersized, but the 5’7”, 167 pound receiver has rumored 4.4 speed and great quickness/shiftiness to make guys miss. He absolutely EMBARRASSED Ryan Shazier in the open field with a lethal spin move, and he made a reception on a routine in route and took it the distance with his speed. His size is going to be the primary knock on him as a prospect, but NFL teams value speed and playmaking over all else at the end of the day and Wynn is a playmaker. If he can continue to eliminate drops and improve his route running his stock will move up. He’s definitely going to spend a lot of time on the field in the slot, so keep an eye on him.

Ted Bolser, TE, Senior- I like Bolser. He’s a reliable receiver and a solid blocker, not spectacular but solid. He is listed at 6’6”, 254 pounds and he moves pretty well. I don’t think he’s going to be an elite TE threat, but I think he’s draftable. He catches the ball well with his hands away from his body, but he’s not a big YAC threat from what I’ve seen. In my opinion he can make a roster, especially if he continues to improve as a blocker (already solid in that area). He did have one bad drop against Ohio State, and twice when he was tackled and heading out of bounds he fumbled the ball (very strange to see that happen twice in one game), but overall I like him. I don’t think he’s going to be a top 100 guy, but if he improves on his 41 receptions, 445 yards and 3 touchdowns as a junior you never know.

Jason Spriggs, OT, Sophomore- The first thing you notice about Spriggs is his huge frame. He’s listed at 6’7”, 280 pounds and it shows. He needs to get stronger and he really struggled with power of John Simon and Noah Spence because of his lack of strength. Spriggs has the length and athleticism to be a very good left tackle prospect, but he needs significant work on his initial drop step and his kick slide. He needs to work on keeping his pads down and get stronger in his lower half to generate more push in the run game, but he clearly moves well for his size and gets to the second level easily. But at this point defenders can shed his blocks too easily as he lacks strength in his initial punch/overall game. He’s still so young that the growth potential is there, and in two years he could be a top offensive tackle prospect. He certainly flashes upside as both a pass and run blocker, and he honestly remains me of Lane Johnson both in how he plays and how much weight he needs to gain to fill out his frame. I don’t think he’s going to run as well as Johnson did, but he’s a similar athlete in my opinion. But there were times against Ohio State that he got beat off the edge by John Simon, and a guy with his athletic ability shouldn’t be getting beat off the edge by a relatively limited athlete like Simon. There are times he just doesn’t gain any depth with his kick slide and it forces him into recovery mode too early. Combine that with his lack of strength and anchor and it puts him on skates more than I would like to see. He was protected in a quick passing offense last year so he didn’t give up an abundance of sacks, but he definitely had his struggles with the superior strength and technique of Simon and Spence against Ohio State. He’s got a lot of upside though, so I’m excited to see if he’s gotten stronger and improved technique wise as a sophomore.

Peyton Eckert, OT, Junior- I watched him and so far I’m not blown away by him based off of what I’ve seen. I don’t think he’s as good of an athlete as Spriggs, but he has some of the same issues. He needs to get stronger, work on his hands, and he struggles to sustain blocks at times. I want to see him finish blocks more and be more tenacious, there are times he throttles down a bit. He has 18 career starts, and he was still a sophomore last year, so I want to see if he can grow into his 6’6”, 295 pound frame and improve his technique much like Spriggs needs to.

Dan Feeney, OG, Sophomore- Feeney caught my eye because he has some nastiness to his game which I like. He’s listed at 6’4”, 305 pounds and started all 12 games as a true freshman last year. However, Michael Bennett’s quickness and hand usage gave him some trouble against Ohio State. He’s got ability, but needs some work. You can tell he was a freshman when you watch him, so it will be interesting to see how he and the rest of Indiana’s offensive line look now that they are more battle tested.

Bernard Taylor, OG, Junior- Taylor is a short, squatty player who looks like he has relatively short arms, but I like him. He was able to block Hankins 1 on 1 in pass pro at times, generated some push in the run game and finished blocks effectively. He has a pretty good anchor and plays with good natural leverage because he’s 6’2” 303 pounds, and does a good job using his strong lower half to his advantage. I haven’t seen enough of him for a full report, but he’s my #2 OL on Indiana behind Spriggs. He already has 16 career starts but missed the last 6 games of the season due to injury last year.

Antonio Marshall, CB, Senior- Marshall doesn’t look to have blazing speed and he did get burned by Devin Smith when he was locked up man to man for a touchdown when I watched him against Ohio State, but I think he’s a solid corner that may get UDFA looks with a solid senior year. He’s listed at 5’11”, 195 pounds, he closes well on plays in front of him, he’s a reliable tackler, and he has decent ball skills. He didn’t turn his head to look at a couple deep balls which I didn’t like to see, but he was in Smith’s hip pocket on a couple other deep throws from Braxton Miller.

Greg Heban, SS, Senior- Heban may be the best returning player on Indiana’s defense and he returns for his senior season as the leading tackler with 91 tackles, 1 sack, 6 TFL, 8 pass break-ups (tied for team lead) and 3 interceptions (led the team). From what I have seen of him he’s a reliable tackler, he seems to be pretty smart, and he’s a good athlete at least relative to Indiana’s defense. He’s not great in coverage contrary to what his stat line might indicate, but he’s not bad enough that I don’t think he has a shot at making a team in the NFL. He has good ball skills, but he wastes steps at times and doesn’t react as quickly as I would like. I like some of his game though, so I’m interested to see if he can boost his stock with a solid senior season.

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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 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 Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers have had a fantastic run since Bret Bielema took over, particularly in the last two years, going to consecutive Rose Bowls. That’s relatively unheard of, and even though they lost both in close games it still means the Badgers are a program on the rise and that they aren’t just a big, slow team that can’t hang with East or West Coast speed. I do want to mention that while Bielema has done a good job leading the Badgers into a new era after legendary Head Coach Barry Alvarez became the athletic director, I am not quite convinced he’s the best in-game coach. Specifically, I’m talking about timeout usage. I could go on a huge rant about this, specifically relating to Bielema, but the man simply doesn’t use his timeouts effectively. Take Wisconsin’s last second loss on a hail-mary to Michigan State last season. The Spartans were content to play for OT and were going to run the clock out but Bielema got cocky and called a timeout. That led the Spartans to get aggressive and roll the dice, and we all know what happened when they did. I was so shocked by the result that I actually wrote this after the game. Fast forward to the Rose Bowl against Oregon, when a wasted timeout early in the 2nd half (this is a vast oversimplification, I just don’t want to write 4,000 words about this) left Russell Wilson without a way to stop the clock other than spiking it with under 10 seconds to go, meaning he and the Badgers didn’t have a chance for one last play to score a touchdown and win the game. I’m sure some don’t think Bielema is a bad clock manager, but those two examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Bielema and his timeouts. I’ve actually never seen or heard of a head coach who uses them more poorly and sees his team suffer more for it as a result.

Anyways, Bielema sure has done a good job as a recruiter and that was evidenced by convincing Russell Wilson to transfer to the land of the cheese and he did it again with Danny O’Brien. I’m sure I’ll say this 1,000 times by the end of next season, but Badger fans please listen to me: Danny O’Brien is NOT Russell Wilson. I still believe he is a good quarterback, but like I said before last season Russell Wilson was special, and the Badgers won’t have another quarterback that good for a long time (if ever). O’Brien is officially the starter and has the unenviable job of replacing Wilson, who became a Wisconsin legend about as soon as he stepped on campus. O’Brien has the talent to keep defenses from keeping 8 defenders in the box because he will be able to make them pay thanks to Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen catching balls from him. The offensive line at Wisconsin is always impressive, and despite losing three starters they will be good again this season.

My concern, much like it was last year, is with the defense. The Badgers’ defense last year was very average, if not poor, and was really held together by Chris Borland, Mike Taylor, Antonio Fenelus and to some degree Aaron Henry. This year it looks like the Badgers will have some more talent in the front 7, particularly along the defensive line, which would be a HUGE relief for any Badger fan. If the defensive line, particularly the defensive tackles, can occupy blockers better and contribute a bit to the pass rush then Wisconsin’s stellar linebacker tandem will be able to make a lot of plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. But beyond that, if the pass rush improves considerably it will make life a lot easier on Wisconsin’s weakest link- The defensive secondary. They are returning only ONE player with an interception from last season, and only two players who are projected to start have an interception in their entire careers. They have some starting experience returning, but it is mostly starting experience spent making mental mistakes, not playing the ball correctly, and generally allowing big plays from opposing offenses. If the secondary can step up, this defense could actually be decent or maybe even pretty good. But if they continue to play like they did last year (or worse, thanks to Fenelus and Henry heading to the NFL) then the Badgers will be in a world of hurt without Russell Wilson and a quick-strike offense to compensate. Thanks to Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible for the conference championship game you’d have to be brain dead not to think Wisconsin is the favorite, but Michigan State is reloading better than I thought they would, and Michigan figures to be jockeying with Nebraska for the top spot in the Legends division (seriously, Leaders and Legends is still the stupidest thing ever) and all three teams will be able to give Wisconsin a run for their money as the Badgers try to get to an unheard of third straight Rose Bowl. And with that, here are  the prospects to keep an eye on for the 2012 season:

O’Brien has a chance to lead Wisconsin to a third consecutive Rose Bowl. He won’t be able to do what Russell Wilson did, but he can still be a quality quarterback thanks to his experience and preference for a pro-style offense.

Danny O’Brien, QB*- I watched O’Brien a fair amount as a freshman and got a chance to see two games of him as a sophomore and I didn’t see the same quarterback. I don’t think it was simply a fluke season as a freshman or a sophomore slump the next year, I think that he is a pro-style quarterback who was miscast in a spread offense as a sophomore. His freshman year he looked more decisive, comfortable and accurate. You could tell he was confident and believed that he was “the guy” when he was playing, and as a result he made plays and won games. Then they fired his HC, brought in a spread offense offensive coordinator, and tried to force a square peg into a round hole. O’Brien never looked comfortable running that offense, particularly the zone read aspect. I never saw him keep it on the zone read once, and that’s because he’s a pass first QB, not a scrambler. Defenses figured that out, and even on plays where the read would dictate pulling it and running with it O’Brien would hand it off for a limited gain. He just wasn’t a good fit for that offense, particularly from that aspect. But luckily for O’Brien, he graduated in just three years and was eligible to transfer out without having to sit for a season before playing again. That led to him being pursued by Wisconsin and Penn State very seriously, and many actually speculated that he would be going to Penn State when he took another late visit to them and was seen wearing Penn State apparel on campus. He chose the Badgers in the end, and it’s hard to say that he made the wrong decision considering all the damage that has been done to Penn State’s program. I think it’s safe to say he is happy that he decided to go to Wisconsin, and now he has a chance to start for two more seasons before heading into the NFL Draft. O’Brien isn’t a giant by any means, being listed at 6’3”, 215, but he sure makes Russell Wilson look short. O’Brien is likely only 6’2”, but that still makes him a legitimate three inches taller than the superstar signal caller that led Wisconsin back to a second consecutive Rose Bowl despite arriving just weeks before the start of the season. O’Brien is a good quarterback, but he is not the next Russell Wilson. Make no mistake about it, O’Brien is still developing as a quarterback. Wilson transferred to Wisconsin as a polished passer who probably could have left for the NFL Draft if he wanted to, and he showed what he could do when supported by a quality offensive line and running game. O’Brien was efficient at Maryland as a freshman, but the new offense and lack of quality weapons (including the loss of his go-to receiver Torrey Smith) outside of Davin Meggett certainly played a role in his down season last year. That and the fact that Maryland flip flopped between O’Brien and CJ Brown, a scrambler/option quarterback, for most of the season.

Now O’Brien has been established as the starting quarterback and he will have plenty of pieces around him to succeed. He has returning Heisman finalist Montee Ball, the speedster James White, future stud RB Melvin Gordon at running back, plus Jared Abbrederis, and Jacob Pedersen for him to throw to. When I watched O’Brien as a freshman I saw an accurate quarterback with pocket poise, the ability to throw accurately on the move (particularly to his right, as he is right-handed) and enough velocity to be a NFL starter. He doesn’t have a cannon, and his deep balls tend to have plenty of air under them, but I’ve watched him make an all-arm throw from the middle of the field to the left sideline with plenty of velocity, and that was during his sophomore season. He doesn’t have Russell Wilson’s arm, but I think it’s good enough to get a shot in the NFL. The most interesting aspect of this transfer, at least in my opinion, will be seeing how much more comfortable O’Brien will be in a pro-style offense than he was in the spread offense he was running last year. The Badgers offense has a lot of similarities schematically to the pro-style offense he was running at Maryland as a freshman, just different terminology I’m sure (as well as a bit more of an emphasis on feeding the quality ball-carriers the Badgers have in their backfield). That should help ease the transition for him, plus they have a cupcake schedule before opening Big-10 conference play with Nebraska in week 5. The first four weeks they will play Northern Iowa, at Oregon State, Utah State and UTEP. Not exactly a rough schedule, so the Badgers should be 4-0 heading to Nebraska for a big away game. He will be under a lot of pressure to be the next Russell Wilson, but O’Brien will realize that a lot of the pressure that he felt at Maryland will melt away thanks to the amazing running game the Badgers will have again this season. That offensive line doesn’t rebuild, it only reloads, so despite losing three starters (including two 1st round caliber interior linemen, Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz) they will continue to pound the rock at an impressive clip, especially since they have a quarterback who can make defenses pay when they load up the box against their stable of running backs. I’m very intrigued by O’Brien, and I am eager to see him return to his freshman form with his second chance at Wisconsin.

Montee Ball, RB- What is there to say about Montee Ball that hasn’t been said. He is one of the most NFL ready backs in college football, and really the only question marks people have about him are whether or not he plays behind “too good” of an offensive line so that he doesn’t really have vision or the more legitimate concern about his substantial workload at Wisconsin. Ball is listed at 5’11”, 212 and likely has 4.5 speed, but since he slimmed down before his junior season he has had substantially more burst. I thought he might have been carrying too much weight, and he always ran at one speed as a sophomore. But he was a different back, and a better one, as a junior, and it showed as he was a Heisman finalist and rushed for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns while catching 24 passes for 306 yards and 6 more touchdowns (he also threw 2 passes for 57 yards and a touchdown, giving him 40 total touchdowns on the season). He has the size, the athleticism, the burst, enough speed to gain chunks of yardage, the vision, the hands out of the backfield and the ability in pass protection to be a starting NFL running back right now. That’s why I thought he should declare after his Heisman caliber season last year and start getting paid for carrying the ball 300 times a year. Instead, he chose to come back, and he will certainly raise question marks about all the tread on his tires thanks to the way Wisconsin likes to run the ball. That’s really the only question mark about him in my opinion though, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t have 7-8 years of productive NFL running once he leaves Wisconsin after this season. He’s got everything you could want in a running back outside of 4.35 straight line speed.

James White, RB*- James White is a peculiar player. He looked absolutely unreal as a freshman playing behind Montee Ball once John Clay went down with an injury, rushing for 1,052 yards on 156 carries (6.74 ypc) and 14 touchdowns while adding 11 receptions for 88 more yards. I thought the Badgers were going to have the best running back tandem in the country last year, but White encountered a bit of a sophomore slump and rushed for only 713 yards on 141 carries, good for a 5.06 ypc average, and 6 touchdowns while adding 10 receptions and 150 yards out of the backfield. Those are still solid numbers, particularly since he was backing up a Heisman contender, but he didn’t look like the same back at all to me. He didn’t seem as decisive, as explosive and as dynamic as he did as a freshman. I have questions about his vision and while he has plenty of speed, burst and explosiveness, I am waiting to see the freshman version of James White. He and Danny O’Brien are in similar boats, trying to recapture their freshman glory heading into their junior seasons. I don’t know if White will ever recapture that dynamic freshman year version of himself, but I really hope he does. I would draft that kid, but I’m not so sure I would draft the back I saw as a sophomore.

Melvin Gordon is going to be the next feature back at Wisconsin, go ahead and put me on record.

Melvin Gordon, RB**- Gordon is only a redshirt freshman this year, but I think he is going to be the next great Wisconsin running back. He only got 20 carries and rushed for 98 yards and 1 touchdown last season, but was given a redshirt after playing in only three games. Due to injuries more than anything else, he was given a chance to be the feature back in Wisconsin’s spring game and he carried the ball 30 times for 159 yards and a touchdown, surpassing the statistics he amassed in three games last year. Gordon is buried on the depth chart behind Ball, who will get the lions’ share of the carries, and White, who provides some speed that Ball and Gordon can’t quite provide, but Gordon has feature back written all over him at 6’1, 200 pounds. I can’t wait to see more of him this year, because the little that I have been able to see of him has been awfully impressive. He likely won’t get more than 100 carries this year (even that would be considerable, but it would be nice to see him get touches to help keep Montee fresh) but when he does get touches I expect him to impress.

Jared Abbrederis, WR*- Abbrederis is a kid you just can’t help but root for. He emerged originally as a walk-on freshman, catching 20 passes for 289 yards and 3 touchdowns while also contributing a bit as a kick returner and punt returner. Then his role expanded even more as a sophomore with the arrival of Russell Wilson, and the 6’2”, 180 pound receiver hauled in 55 receptions for 933 yards and 8 touchdowns. He expanded his role as a return man, showcasing his shiftiness and ability to make defenders miss on the way to accumulating 315 yards and a touchdown on only 20 punt returns (15.75 average per return) as well as accounting for 689 kick return yards on 28 kick returns (24.61 average). That led to him signing his scholarship offer last January, which I was very happy to see. You love to see hard-working kids rewarded for their efforts, and not many have worked harder than Abbrederis. He may not be the biggest or the fastest, but he is a quality football player who has been a reliable target for the Badgers. He had a very unfortunate fumble in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon late in the game, and his mistimed jump on the Michigan State hail mary helped contribute to Wisconsin’s first loss of the season. Despite those two mistakes that were magnified because of the stages on which they occurred, I am a big fan of Abbrederis. He runs solid routes, catches the ball well with his hands and uses his long arms effectively, and makes plenty of defenders miss once he has the ball in his hands. Not only that, but even as a freshman he was subbed into the game instead of Nick Toon, who was a junior at the time, when they needed a receiver to block effectively. That says a lot about his effort level and his commitment to fundamentals, and even though he isn’t a huge receiver he takes his blocking seriously. He’s a pretty complete receiver who should continue to win talent evaluators over for the next two years as a Badger.

Jacob Pedersen, TE/H-Back*- Before Pedersen even became the starter I proclaimed that he would be the “next Lance Kendricks” meaning he would be a good blocker from the H-Back spot and also the primary receiving tight end. Despite only having 8 receptions as a freshman, I saw enough to project him as a quality passing option. He proved me right by catching 30 passes for 356 yards and 8 touchdowns despite only being a sophomore. At 6’4”, 240 pounds he is not big enough to play inline every down in the NFL, or even in the Big-10 really. He’s a good blocker for his size, much like Kendricks was, but he’s more of an H-Back/receiving tight end than an extension of the offensive line like the great blocking tight ends are. I have a feeling Danny O’Brien will be very happy to have Pedersen as a security blanket, I know Russell Wilson was.

Ricky Wagner, OT- Wagner is an offensive tackle I’ve been talking up since Gabe Carimi was still playing on the Badgers a couple years ago. I don’t think he’s going to be a left tackle in the NFL, but I was impressed with him when I watched him a couple years ago and I liked some of what I saw of him on the left side as well. He’s not a great pass blocker, but he’s reliable and good enough to play on the right side at the next level in my opinion. The problem I have with Wagner is that even though he is listed at 6’6”, 322 pounds and he plays offensive tackle for Wisconsin, he’s not a typical road grader that you would like at right tackle. His run blocking is fine for a left tackle, but he’s not a good enough pass blocker to stick on the left side at the next level. He’s kind of a man without a home, not being a good enough pass blocker to stick on the left and not a good enough run blocker to be a great fit on the right. I am interested to see how he looks this year, as I’m hoping he will have improved in one aspect or the other (or if we’re lucky, both!) to provide some clarity about which position he projects best to in the NFL. Otherwise he might be a bit of a swing tackle that is never much more than a solid/reliable starter at either spot. I like him, but he’s not a 1st round pick at this point in my opinion.

Frederick doesn’t have a ton of game experience at center (just four starts) but his combination of size, strength, and football IQ is going to make him a possible 1st round draft pick at the position.

Travis Frederick, C/OG*- Frederick is a mauler in the trenches and will be moving inside to Center full time this season despite having only four career starts at the position in his first two years with the Badgers. At 6’4”, 328 pounds he is an absolute behemoth for a center, and will give the Badgers a huge advantage in the run game despite losing a great center in Peter Konz who I had graded as a first rounder. Frederick has received a lot of praise from coaches and media alike for his football IQ, and that is critical for any offensive lineman moving inside to center. The fact that he happens to have great size for an offensive guard, and the fact that he was a very good left guard last season, only means that by moving inside to center he gives the Badgers another year (or maybe two if they are lucky) of having what I call “three guards” inside. By that I mean, often times centers are very smart players with sound technique, but they are often in the 6’2”-6’3”, 300 pound mold and not particularly physically imposing. But when you have a 6’3”+ center who weighs 310+ and most importantly PLAYS as big as he is you have an advantage. Instead of having two guards and a center who can’t drive block one on one or block a defensive tackle one on one in pass protection, you theoretically have three guards who can drive a man off the ball when matched up in man blocking schemes and that really helps you generate push in the run game and dominate opponents with power man blocking. Frederick gives the Badgers a chance to do this again, and I for one can’t wait to see how he does. Centers with his skill set often go in the first round because it is so rare to find a center who can snap well, make line calls and also be big, strong and physical enough to generate push in the run game 1 on 1. That’s why centers like Nick Mangold, Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Pouncey went in the 1st round and why Peter Konz would have had he not had injury questions surrounding him. Centers that big and talented are rare and are extremely valuable commodities. The fact that Frederick combines his size, strength and technique with a high football IQ means he has the chance to be the next first round center either this year or next.

Ryan Groy, OG*- Groy is the 6’5”, 322 pounder replacing Frederick at left guard and while he only has 6 career starts (including two at FULLBACK) he played in all 14 games last year and if you know anything about the Wisconsin football program you know they churn out road grading offensive lineman like a Hershey’s factory churns out chocolate. I haven’t scouted Groy specifically, but think about the left side of Wisconsin’s offensive line: LT- Wagner, 6’6”, 322 pounds LG- Groy, 6’5”, 322 pounds C- Frederick, 6’4”, 328 pounds. You think Wisconsin is planning on running to the left at all this year?

Brendan Kelly, DE- Kelly is a player that before last year I never thought I might include his name in one of these prospect previews. He is a 6’6”, 250 pound defensive end who played high school football in Eden Prairie (which is about 10 minutes away from where I am currently writing this, and also was a rival team of Edina high school where I happened to go) before choosing to go to Wisconsin to play college football. He has been through a myriad of injuries and has rarely been on the field unfortunately. He sustained a serious groin injury as a freshman but attempted to play through it before realizing that he had torn four muscles off of his pelvis, and missed the final conference game the Badgers played that season. When he attempted to come back during fall camp the next year he aggravated the injury, leading to additional surgery and time on the sidelines. He had three total surgeries on his groin, he has missed time with a hand injury, and missed some time in the spring with a hamstring tweak. None of it fazed him though, as he continued to support his teammates, lift what he could lift, watch film, and continue to demonstrate an intense passion for the game of football. He has fought through a lot of adversity to remain on this team, much less play, and I find myself rooting for him to stay healthy this year and show what he can do. He played in all 14 games last season as a junior, and totaled 35 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 pass break-up and 2 forced fumbles. It wasn’t as if he got those sacks against bottom feeders either. His three sacks were in three different games, coming against Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State. He started the final 8 games, his first coming against the Cornhuskers. The Badgers will use a rotation along the defensive line, but Kelly is expected to get a lot of snaps. He also has the potential to petition for a 6th year of eligibility thanks to losing almost three full years of his career due to hand and groin injuries. We’ll see if he gets that, but I am looking forward to seeing if he can help Gilbert boost the Badgers’ pass rush this season. They could really use it.

David Gilbert, DE*- Gilbert flashed some potential to me as a sophomore because the 6’4”, 250 pound defensive end showed an impressive get-off as well as burst and speed to get the edge. He’s an impressive looking athlete, and he had 3 sacks in Wisconsin’s first four games last year (though they played UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota in the first four weeks, with Gilbert getting a sack in each game except for the NIU game). However, he sustained a serious foot injury and was granted a medical redshirt to preserve his junior year of eligibility. He’s very strong, and he has all the physical tools you could want to be an effective defensive end. I want to see him play smarter, improve his technique and prove that he’s more than just an edge rusher with a bit of a bull rush. If he improves his technique and continues to improve his craft as a defensive end he could get 8-10 sacks this year or the next and boy do the Badgers need a pass rusher. They have really missed the pressure J.J. Watt put on passers.

I honestly believe that Beau Allen could be the best defensive tackle the Badgers have had in years.

Beau Allen, DT*- I haven’t scouted Allen specifically, but the 6’3”, 323 pound defensive tackle gives the Badgers some much needed size in the middle of the defense. As a sophomore he had 22 tackles, 4 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss despite not starting a single game because he was playing behind Patrick Butrym. I was never a Butrym fan, so I am interested to see if Allen can be a superior talent. Wisconsin fields three undersized tackling machines at linebacker, so they need their defensive tackles to occupy blockers and allow them to fly around and make plays without being reached by offensive linemen. If Allen can keep his linebackers clean and also apply pressure on the passer like he did in a rotational role last year he is going to get a lot of attention from scouts. I can’t remember the last time the Badgers had a quality pass rusher at defensive tackle, but I think Allen has a chance to change that. He has already shown signs of being an impact player, such as totaling 3 tackles for loss and a sack in Wisconsin’s 2012 Spring Game.

Ethan Hemer, DT*- Hemer is another big, strong defensive tackle who will be starting at nose tackle I believe. He is listed at 6’6”, 305 pounds and by playing next to Allen I believe he gives the Badgers the biggest defensive tackle starting tandem that they have had in some time. Like I just mentioned, they need big defensive tackles to keep their linebackers clean and I am eager to see if Hemer is up to that challenge. He comes into the season with 20 career starts, including all 14 games last season, and he managed 34 tackles and 1 sack in those 14 starts. I don’t need him to make 100 tackles, 15 sacks and force 5 fumbles (though that would be terrific) but he needs to show that he can hold up against double teams and help clog up running lanes in the middle of the defense. Nose Tackles that can do that are very valuable in the Big-10, and just as valuable in the NFL.

Chris Borland, MLB*- Borland is just a beast, I know that word is overused but it’s true. I remember when I was watching him as a freshman (god that feels like a long time ago) and even though he is probably only 5’10”, 250 pounds (yes, he’s listed at 250 pounds, though he’s also listed at 5’11”) he plays very instinctually, flies to the ball and is a tackling machine. He was second on the team in tackles with 143 tackles, led the team by a wide margin with 16.5 TFL, had 2.5 sacks, 5 pass break-ups, 2 interceptions and FIVE forced fumbles. Make no mistake about it, Borland is a man who can stuff a stat sheet and he really has a knack for forcing fumbles. His freshman year in 2009 he only had 54 tackles (36 solo), but he had 10.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 pass deflection, 1 interception, a blocked kick and five more forced fumbles! He got a medical redshirt in 2010 and came back at full force as a redshirt sophomore as you all know. He enters his junior year with 28 career tackles for loss, 7.5 career sacks, 3 interceptions and a staggering 10 forced fumbles. He’s undersized and he won’t be able to play middle linebacker in the NFL, but I think he will get a shot to play outside linebacker in the NFL. Maybe it will have to be in a Tampa-2, but he is too instinctual and too good a tackler to not get a NFL shot.

Mike Taylor, OLB- Taylor is taller than Borland at 6’3” but despite being listed four inches taller he weighs 28 pounds less, listed at only 222 pounds. That’s pretty light even for a weak side linebacker, but he produced anyways as he led the team in tackles (which is no easy task playing next to Borland) with 150 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions. He’s a senior this season and figures to help Wisconsin have one of the best, if not the best, linebacker tandems in the entire Big-10 conference. If the defensive line can keep him and Borland clean they are going to wreak a lot of havoc on opposing offenses, you can count on it.

Shelton Johnson, SS- There is actually a fair amount of potential in the Badgers’ front 7, more than I expected and more than they have had since they had J.J. Watt leading the charge to the Rose Bowl against the TCU Horned Frogs. The Badgers had a lot of trouble on the back-end last year though, even in spite of having two well established senior starters in Antonio Fenelus and Aaron Henry. Now they have both moved on to the NFL, and Shelton Johnson is the only, yes ONLY, returning defensive back that had an interception last season. He had four of them along with 54 tackles, 6 tackles for loss and four pass break-ups, so I think he has a chance to be a reliable safety in his second season as a starter, but the lack of talent around him is extremely concerning. The only returning defensive back besides Johnson with an interception in his entire career is Devin Smith, who has three, and he sustained a season-ending injury last season that earned him a medical redshirt. Johnson is going to be the best player in this secondary, and if a Smith and Marcus Cromartie don’t step up at corner this pass defense is going to struggle mightily, particularly with big plays. That is, unless the pass rush improves considerably. The defensive secondary will be the kryptonite of this Badger squad, but Johnson has a chance to help stop some of the bleeding.