Well, hype season for the Heisman has started. That Geno Smith, he's pretty good. And this past Saturday's playground football affair between West Virginia and Baylor in their Big 12 opener was the perfect way to get his campaign started. It was just like last season's Orange Bowl, except Baylor scored more than Clemson. After the blurbs about this weekend's top five games, you can find my list of favorite prospects through the first month of the season.
This Saturday's most enticing matchups:
#4 LSU @ #10 Florida - 3:30 PM EST
This should be fun. I've been trying to figure out whether I think QB Zach Mettenberger is good. After catching parts of LSU's past two games against Auburn and Towson, both of which were pervasively underwhelming, I'm leaning toward the negative. Nevertheless, Mettenberger is nearly 6'5" and 230 pounds, so I'm not ready to sell him entirely. Sophomore RB Kenny Hilliard hasn't done much for me, either. The most well-known name on defense is that of DE Barkevious Mingo, who without question makes my All-Name Team. He's a freak of nature and, at 6'4" and 240 pounds, reportedly runs in the 4.5 range. Wasn't much of a factor against Auburn and had just one sack against Towson. After what Mingo did last season, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because his combination of size, speed, athleticism, and talent is truly rare. But the two players who have made the biggest difference on the LSU defense are DE Sam Montgomery and DT Anthony Johnson.
For Florida, I like QB Jeff Driskel, who has emerged in his first year as a starter. After a staggered start, his second half performance to bring Florida back against Texas A&M got things rolling. The last two games, he's been efficient, decisive, confident, and accurate. The sophomore QB certainly looks the part at 6'3" and nearly 240 pounds. Combine that with his cannon of an arm, athleticism, and 4.6 speed that he's not afraid to utilize and you have a bona fide pro prospect. Strong enough to shrug off potential sacks and nimble enough to skirt away from them, as well, Driskel is deadly both inside and outside the pocket.
On defense, Matt Elam has been compared to Brian Dawkins (*drool*). A complete safety with elite instincts, he covers ground, plays center field and can match up with tight ends and running backs. Elam is good against the run, a physical hitter who flies to the football and blows up ball carriers (though his tackling can be erratic and is something I need to hone in on when I examine him more closely), while also showing flashes of being a dangerous blitzer and disruptive force in the backfield. Plays violently and toes the line, but can sometimes let emotions get the best of him. To that extent, my only real concern about Elam at the next level is his size and whether he'll be able to sustain his current style of play. A scheme-flexible hybrid who could play probably both safety spots in the NFL, he has all the makings of a stud difference-maker at the next level. Capped with a dominant performance in Gator Bowl win over Ohio State (6 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack), Elam was the best player on Florida's defense last year -- what I loved most is that he actually led the Gators in tackles for loss with 11 -- and remains so now. Seriously, Brian Dawkins-level unique skill set for the position, leadership intangible included. I want Matt Elam on my football team, but we might have to talk about wearing a bigger jersey. This isn't the 1980's.
#8 West Virginia @ #11 Texas - 7:00 PM EST
Geno Smith will be profiled later. Besides, I have to mention his lethal tandem of wideouts, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Austin is that diminutive yet dynamic talent whose speed, acceleration, vision and natural running ability make him a threat to take it to the house every time. He reminds me of a more versatile DeSean Jackson. Bailey just continues to grow on me. Though just under 5'10" and 195 pounds, he has the wingspan of a player who's 6'2" or 6'3", which increases his catch radius. Not as purely talented as Austin but makes up for it with savvy and precise routes, while showing more wiggle and elusiveness than I remember from last season. Bailey has good speed but is quicker than fast, catches everything, tracks the ball in the air REALLY well (possibly his best attribute), and can work the entire field. Kinda reminds me of Greg Jennings.
On the other side, sophomore David Ash has taken Texas by storm and played extremely well. I couldn't have been more impressed with his play last weekend against Oklahoma State, especially during the game-winning drive when, starting on 3rd and 10, he ripped off four straight completions for 70 yards, moving the Longhorns from their own 25 down to the Cowboys' 5. Joe Bergeron scored the touchdown two carries later. If it wasn't for Geno Smith, Ash's remarkable accuracy would be getting a lot more notice.
#5 Georgia @ #6 South Carolina - 7:00 PM EST
A bunch of prospects to watch in this one (including Georgia FS and All-Name Team nominee Bacarri Rambo, who returned against Tennessee last week after serving a four-game suspension for failing a drug test thanks to some pot brownies), but I won't be able to take my eyes off Jadeveon Clowney. He would be a shoe-in top-five draft pick in 2013 if he were eligible to declare. Remember how Julio Jones was so physically mature at 18 that he dominated older college players and probably could've played in the NFL immediately? Clowney is the same way, except he's a nearly 6'6", 260-pound monster who can run a sub-4.7 and has a basketball player's athleticism. As a freshman, Clowney made his mark with 8 sacks and 12 total tackles for loss. In this, his sophomore season, he's only gotten better, boasting 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss through the Gamecocks' first five games. It's terrifying to think how good he can become. Clowney, the number one overall high school recruit back in 2010, has fulfilled the hype, and then some. A Julius Peppers/Jason Pierre-Paul kind of freak and every NFL team's wet dream at the DE position. I also happen to think Jadeveon's surname is appropriate, since all he does is make clowns out of the guys who try to block him.
South Carolina's other starting DE, Devin Taylor, was lauded as a potential first round pick coming off a breakout 2010 season. Instead of building on that, however, he struggled to live up to expectations in 2011 and 2012 hasn't been any better. At nearly 6'7" and 270 pounds, the raw physical traits are undeniable, but he's too stiff and slow to take advantage of size and strength. If Taylor was actually good, he'd be annihilating opposing offenses and making them pay for double-teaming Clowney.
Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones and QB Aaron Murray are the Bulldogs' most notable pro prospects on defense and offense, respectively. I'm not as high on Jones, though, mainly because I don't see him as a top-five overall pick. He's a fast and relentless player, but looks smaller than his listed height/weight and struggles to consistently get off blocks, so strength is a concern. Gets engulfed too much, and I don't see a variety of counter moves when engaged with offensive linemen (he's used to just blowing by them); reports of him having short arms means such struggles will likely only get more pronounced in the pros. Jones is one of those guys with whom I wonder if his skills and ability to impact the game will transfer to the next level (where he profiles strictly as a 3-4 OLB), since his only plus skill is as a pass rusher whose final measurables could be average at best.
Aaron Murray's never really stood out to me as a potential NFL starting quarterback, even though he plays in a pro-style offense in the SEC against the best defenses in the country. Tough customer with gunslinger mentality; strong arm but erratic accuracy, especially on short passes, and, like a gunslinger is wont to do, makes too many risky throws into coverage. Murray's size is a serious cause for concern, and he has fair number of passes batted down at LOS.
#23 Washington @ #2 Oregon - 10:30 PM EST
Oregon DE Dion Jordan (6056 / 243) is the guy who caught my eye when watching the Ducks (vs. Fresno State and Washington State). By the end of the season, I think he makes his way into the top-three at his position for the draft. A former tight end, Jordan's size/length/athleticism combination is apparent and there's still lots of upside, especially considering this is just his third season playing defensive end.
I also like Ducks freshman QB Marcus Mariota. Thoroughly exciting player with the physical tools and passing skills to be a star. Kenjon Barner is the feature back, but sophomore De'Anthony Thomas is a dual-threat dynamo with electrifying speed (definitely sub-4.4) and skills. He's averaging 9.7 yards per carry and leads the team in both receptions and receiving yards.
For Washington, there's junior quarterback Keith Price, who, after a breakout sophomore season, has been up and down so far in 2012. Sophomore wideout Kasen Williams had his best game as a collegian -- first time breaking 100 yards receiving -- in the Huskies' upset of #8 Stanford last week.
And drumroll, please...
Wake Forest @ Maryland - 3:30 PM EST
Sorry, had to. Wake Forest is terrible, but Maryland actually has a number of legitimate NFL prospects, mostly seniors on defense. The most impressive player on the team, however, is just a freshman. He's the offense's only game-breaking weapon and a future star.
Stefon Diggs (FR) - WR - 6002 / 185. Freshman Stefon Diggs' recruitment was the subject of considerable hype, and it was a major coup for Maryland to keep the local product close to home, as literally every top program extended him an offer. The hype is justified because he has the pure talent to be better than Darrius Heyward-Bey and Torrey Smith, to be an indisputable number one wide receiver in the NFL. Diggs makes at least two or three "wow" plays every game (on limited touches), whether it's as a receiver or kick/punt returner; the Terps just gotta get him the ball any way possible. His real dealness is not even a question. A game-breaker with speed, vision and elusiveness to match, to watch Stefon Diggs is to be excited and amazed. Just ask West Virginia how good he is. In a game with Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, Diggs showed there was a third legit pro at the wide receiver position on display.
Some lofty praise for Diggs from senior A.J. Francis:
"I've never played with anyone like him.... He's one of the best players I've ever seen. He does things on the field not a lot of other people can do. A lot of the plays he makes, there's no other word for it but unbelievable. He's so good as a freshman, it's hard to believe."
Matt Furstenburg - TE - 6036 / 245. Not the sexiest nor most gifted player, but he's a big, reliable target with soft hands and always seems to come up with the clutch catch. A complete tight end who can stay in and block or work the middle of the field as a receiver. I've got a soft spot for Furstenberg, especially since there are times he reminds me of Brent Celek.
Joe Vellano - DE/DT - 6016 / 285. Undersized, but he's a guy whose motor and consistency make him impossible not to like. I'll always remember watching Vellano return a fumble for a touchdown before the end of the first half in the rain during last season's opener against Miami. We're talking about a defensive tackle who recorded 20 tackles in a game last season against Georgia Tech, and 94 -- 94! --overall. Those are both single-game and season records for his position, right? Unfortunately, only 7.5 of those tackles went for loss. The good news: Vellano already has 5 tackles for loss this season. He is perhaps the foremost senior leader on a revitalized Terps defense that, oh by the way, held West Virginia to just 31 points and looked pretty legit in the process.
A.J. Francis - DT/DE - 6036 / 305. Until the real measurements are made, we won't know his exact height and weight. All I know is Francis is big, can move and has looked really good so far this season. Smart guy, too. Impressing me more and more each game.
Demetrius Hartsfield - ILB - 6013 /240. Moved from outside to middle linebacker and has been all over the place the first four games, making the play to seal both victories (fumble recovery against William & Mary, interception against Temple). Compact, quick, diagnoses well and has shown ability to get into the backfield (had tackle for loss and sacked Geno Smith in loss to West Virginia).
Kenneth Tate - OLB - 6036 / 230. Looked like a rising star and sure future pro as a sophomore, when he was Kenny, but a position switch from safety to linebacker followed by a torn ACL changed everything. It became an out-of-sight-out-of-mind situation, with everyone wondering how Tate would look post-injury. Chatter fell off as the team's meltdown and resulting drama with Randy Edsall took center stage. Tate just returned against West Virginia two weeks ago and made his presence felt immediately, tackling Tavon Austin for no gain and then breaking up a pass on his first two plays. Seems to bode well.
Matt Robinson (SO) - SS - 6024 / 225 - Had a tremendous start to last season, including standout performance against West Virginia, before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Came back Week 3 against Connecticut and has shown flashes in both games. Big, physical safety who can run.
Geno Smith - QB - 6025 / 220 - West Virginia. Obviously, he's not going to keep putting up these video-game-on-rookie-mode numbers. But if you've watched Geno over the years, you know he's a special breed and could sense this breakout coming. I've been on this bandwagon for nearly two years, and he was/remains my Heisman pick for 2012. I tweeted over the weekend that Geno Smith is this season's Robert Griffin III. Everyone knew he was good, but now they're starting to realize HOW good. His maturity and growth as a quarterback has been a treat to monitor. Whereas Geno used to lock onto his primary target, he's now patiently going through his reads and deftly manipulating coverage with his eyes, looking off safeties to throw open his intended receiver. Geno is in total control of Dana Holgerson's offense, and he's making it look easy. Who knows, maybe he'll go on to win the Heisman, become a top-five pick in the draft, and get anointed as some NFL franchise's savior. For now, Geno needs to focus on beating Texas. I think Grantland's Chris Brown had the perfect word to describe his game: elegance. It's an aesthetic and visceral pleasure to watch Geno Smith play. I don't think any quarterback in the nation throws a prettier, more catchable, perfectly placed ball. It's a thing of beauty.
Munchie Legaux (JR) - QB - 6036 / 199 - Cincinnati. Come on, with a name like that? That's my first criteria when evaluating a player. How cool is his name, and how much fun do I have saying it? Munchie Legaux kills this category. Wins it, hands down. Now, how good is he as a football player? Munchie's game isn't the most efficient, there are some accuracy issues, and his delivery is Vince Young-esque. However, he keeps plays alive, makes things happen, and is lots of fun to root for. How about that game-winning touchdown pass to beat Virginia Tech at FedEx Field on Saturday? Money. So the name checks out and I am entertained when watching him. Oh, and he's got the wild dreadlocks going on. I don't care if Munchie's pro credentials are flimsy at best, he's my guy.
"Whatchu know 'bout Munchie Legaux!" - Whoever was doing the color commentary for Cincinnati/Virginia Tech
Joseph Randle - RB - Oklahoma State - 6001 / 200. Played in the shadow of Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden last season, but Randle is a complete back with workhorse potential who can get tough yards and has excellent vision. He's shown the speed to run by defenders, the agility to juke them into submission, the power to run over them, and is an excellent receiver. Randle looks even better now that he's the featured player on offense and was the best on the field against Texas. Honestly, I think what strikes me most is how effective Randle is at blitz pickup. Numerous times last year I saw him make a key block on a free pass rusher to give Brandon Weeden that extra moment he needed to make, and complete, a throw. Randle has been a stud so far in 2012 and looks to have taken his play to the next level.
Chris Thompson - RB - 5087 / 187 - Florida State. Explosive, turbo boosters are on another level. It's unbelievable to think Thompson broke his back last season. If he sees even a sliver of daylight, he's gone. Elite receiving skills only add to the electric skill set. Thompson won't be a feature back in the NFL, but he will be a dangerous weapon and home-run threat on offense. I really like his fullback, Lonnie Pryor, too, who I view as the best pro prospect at the position due to his versatility as a blocker, runner, and receiver. Here's an excellent profile and detailed scouting report from SBNation's Florida State Football blog.
Marquess Wilson (JR) - WR - 6031 / 188 - Washington State. A stud since his freshman season, Wilson now has the fortune of playing in Mike Leach's system. He's working on his third straight 1000-yard season and had a hell of a game against Oregon this past weekend. Tall, lanky receiver with great body control. Excellent leaper who high-points the ball and makes tough catches. Really the only pro-worthy player on Washington State's offense, which makes his talents stand out even more. Wilson's not a burner and needs to add weight/strength to his frame, but the skills are there to be a capable NFL receiver. I've also taken a shine to Wilson's teammate, DE/OLB Travis Long (6035 / 245).
Bjoern Werner - DE - 6035 / 256 - Florida State. Been intrigued by Werner since he started at Florida State. The name immediately drew my attention. Finding out he was German only piqued my interest. I wanted to know his story and how he got into football. The European players always fascinate me, and Werner's no different. I also love watching him. His play in a tough 23-13 loss against Oklahoma last season is what cemented me as a believer. It was sublime. I didn't even need to see anymore games to decide I was 100% in. Werner displayed his trademark ferociousness, harassed the quarterback, shed blocks, set the edge, and tackled well. He was everywhere. But what struck me most was his discipline, patience, and ability to diagnose plays. You can tell Werner's very intelligent and cerebral. I literally cannot think of a Seminoles games I've watched where he hasn't had a significant impact. Werner's defensive end partner on the other side of the line, Cornellius Carradine, is the more physically gifted of the two and a damn good player in his own right. Probably a first round pick.
Ezekiel Ansah - DE - 6'6" / 270 (trouble finding exact measurements) - BYU. Ansah is a freak of nature with limitless potential, the kind of player NFL teams dream about. A native of Ghana and former track athlete, he is like mana from heaven for the size/weight/speed/athleticism combo enthusiasts. The Jason Pierre-Paul comparison is being floated, and it makes sense. The crazy part is Ansah has the raw ability to be better than JPP. I don't think it's that outrageous to suggest, considering the most common word used to describe Pierre-Paul when he came out of college was... "raw." Just don't dismiss the idea right away, especially with what pro coaching could do for his development. This is a guy who, at his size, ran the 200 meters in 21.89 seconds. I cannot wait to see what unbelievable time he puts up in the 40-yard dash. Ansah has workout warrior written all over him and will definitely be someone who sees his stock skyrocket in pre-draft events.
Here's what his coach, Bronco Mendenhall (adoptive father of Rashard) said when Ansah first showed up:
Ezekiel wandered through our office one day; I think our players kind of directed him, seeing he's 6-foot-whatever he is. He runs a 21.9 200-meters, but we had to help him put his (football) stuff on; he'd never put gear on before. He's a work in progress, but he wanted to give it a try. He showed up this summer, the players loved him; he wouldn't go away... even though he wasn't prepared, he showed up for workouts. He kind of grew on (the players) and they came to me and said 'make sure you bring him in the 105.' He doesn't know anything (about playing defensive end), but when he decides to run fast, he runs fast, and he's big.
Scary part: Now Ansah knows how to play football. He's been a dominant force so far this season, and he's only going to get better and better. Was a one-man wrecking crew in BYU's 7-6 slugfest upset of Boise State, recording 8 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and 1 pass breakup. That BYU defense is as stingy as any in the country, ranking fourth overall in points allowed per game (10.0), and Ansah is the unit's most salivatory prospect. By the time you read this, BYU will have already played Utah State.* Speaking of Utah State....
*(Edit: And Ansah will have already added to his growing legend with 2 more sacks and 3 more tackles for loss.)
Bojay Filimoeatu - OLB - 6012 / 258 - Utah State. Another guy who passes the name test. Elite ability to diagnose plays and get to the spot, head on a swivel/aware of everything going on, beats blockers with ease, disciplined, strong tackler, all over the field and made what seemed like every play/stop for Utah State defense in win over Utah, which was the first time I'd ever heard of or watched him. Filimoeatu's size and first step quickness alone are enough to intrigue, but it's his feel for the game and inspirational leadership that add to his overall appeal. During the Utah State/Utah game, the announcers alluded to Filimoeatu having an injury history, but he played all of last season, and, as far as I can tell, was healthy both years in junior college. So... yeah, I don't know.
Michael Mauti - ILB - 6016 / 236 - Penn State. Mauti made quite the impression on me before the season even started, when he served as the lead spokesman for team solidarity in the wake of the devastating NCAA sanctions that resulted from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Coming back from an ACL tear in his left knee that ended his 2011 season in late September (an ACL tear in his right knee robbed him of the 2009 season, as well), Mauti's resolute leadership off the field has extended to his performance on the field, where he's the heartbeat of the Nittany Lions defense and has been an impact player in each game. I just wish he could've gone the extra yard on his 99-yard interception return and scored a touchdown at the end of the first half against Illinois last week. Another Nittany Lion I really like is FB Michael Zordich (yes, son of former Eagles SS Mike Zordich), a tough kid whose versatility as a blocker, runner, and receiver enhances his (moderate) status as a pro prospect.