|Notre Dame's Manti Te'o (No. 5) is not only a legitimate Heisman contender, he's NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated prospect for the 2013 NFL draft in Saturday's showdown against Southern Cal. (US Presswirepan>|
They don't compete in the same conference and are separated by 2,095 miles geographically, but Notre Dame and Southern Cal have one of the most heated rivalries in college football. And they are also the top two NFL football factories in the country.
These are the only college programs to send at least 400 players each to the NFL. And considering the talent in this year's squads, this will be another can't-miss battle for NFL scouts.
Beyond that, even college football purists must appreciate a rivalry with so much great history.
National Titles? Each program has at least 11 National Championships, maybe more depending on your criteria. There were various methods of determining the National Championship until 1998 when the BCS seized control of declaring the title. According to some lists, Notre Dame won 13, including a couple of so-called mythical titles in the pre BCS era.
Heisman Trophies? Each team had seven winners, although that does count USC running back Reggie Bush, who was awarded the trophy in 2005, but forced to return in earlier this year.
When these two teams meet on Saturday night (8 p.m., ABC) at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, it will be for more than just bragging rights.
With a win, the Irish lock up a spot to compete for another National Title, somewhere between its 11th or 14th, depending on which list one reads. And with a strong performance against his favorite childhood team, Notre Dame senior linebacker Manti Te'o will strengthen his chances of winning the Heisman Trophy, which would be the eighth in team history.
But of all the rivalry showdowns this Saturday, the Notre Dame-Southen Cal match-up might have the most NFL talent on the field. Both squads boast rosters full of future Sunday players, making it a can't-miss game for scouts of all 32 NFL teams.
NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
ILB Manti Te'o (6-2, 255, 4.75, jersey #5): Before the season, Matt Barkley was considered the top-10 pick and Te'o was more of a late first rounder. But while the Trojans' quarterback has struggled as a senior, Te'o (pictured above) has emerged as Heisman contender and boosted his draft stock into the top-10 conversation. For the third straight season, he's going to finish as Notre Dame's leading tackler with 100-plus tackles. He as 98 stops entering Saturday's game. While he has always been a stout run defender, Te'o has been impressive in coverage in 2012, recording a team-best six interceptions (the first six of his career), which is also the second-most interceptions in the country.
FS Zeke Motta (6-2, 215, 4.54, jersey #17): Motta replaced last year's first round pick, Harrison Smith, as the leader of the secondary. He ranks second on the team in tackles (56), using his near-linebacker size to be a thumper against the run or his speed to cover the deep half of the field. Before the season, NFLDraftscout.com considered Motta as a later round prospect, but he has been a fast riser.
RB Theo Riddick (5-11, 200, 4.52, jersey #6): Riddick produced well at the wideout position over his first three seasons in South Bend, but last spring the Notre Dame coaching staff moved Riddick back to running back, the position he was recruited at out of high school. The move was scrutinized because junior Cierre Wood was already entrenched as the starter at running back, leaving one less weapon at receiver on offense. But Riddick has blossomed in the backfield with a team-best 734 rushing yards, including three 100-yard performances. He doesn't have prototypical size and build for the position, but he runs with quick feet, balance and toughness, finishing every run as if it's his last. He's more of a change-of-pace weapon at the next level, but his versatility to be effective at both running back and receiver will be enticing and worthy of a mid-to-late round draft pick.
C Braxston Cave (6-3, 305, 5.18, jersey #52): Cave doesn't receive enough attention for anchoring an offensive line that averages over 200 rushing yards each game. He was bit by the injury bug last season, but has returned healthy in 2012 and stabilized a problem area for the Irish, performing well as both a run blocker and pass protector. Cave should be one of the top centers selected on draft weekend, probably early on the third day.
Other seniors to watch: DT Kapron Lewis-Moore (6-4, 306, 4.89, #89), OG Mike Golic (6-3, 300, 5.18, #57), WR Robby Toma (5-9, 185, 4.50, #9)
TE Tyler Eifert (6-5, 252, 4.80, jersey #80): Eifert is the unquestioned leader of the Irish offense. While his production is slightly down while playing with a freshman quarterback this season, Eifert leads the team with 40 catches for 555 yards and four touchdowns. Defenses have game-planned to shut down Eifert this season, often double-teaming him in coverage, but he excels in traffic, using his frame to box-out defenders and his strong hands to come down with contested catches. Whether lined up against a linebacker, safety or cornerback, he has been able to gain enough separation in his routes to give his quarterback a big target. Eifert has the skill-set that translates very well to the next level and he's is the favorite to be the first player selected as his position next April if he declares.
DT Louis Nix (6-3, 338, 5.23, jersey #9): Despite a tumultuous off-season where Nix was rumored to be transferring, this redshirt sophomore has emerged as a terror in the middle of Notre Dame's three-man front. In most defenses, the nose guard occupies blocks and clogs the middle of the line of scrimmage. Nix can do those things, but he also shows the foot quickness and range to make plays in the backfield and downfield. More than just the athletic ability and power, he is playing with top-notch effort, which is a reason NFLDraftscout.com considers Nix at least a second day draft pick by scouts.
CB Bennett Jackson (6-0, 185, 4.45, jersey #2): A former wide receiver and track star, Jackson, a junior, has been the most consistent cornerback for Notre Dame in recent memory. He is extremely aggressive with the ball in the air, evidence by his four interceptions and eight passes defended this season. He also has been an impact run defender, tallying 55 tackles on the season. Jackson lacks quick-twitch speed, but plays disciplined, smart and physical. That should put make him a fast riser who moves into the top 100 on the NFLDraftscout.com draft list. Scouts will be anxious to see him lined up against the Trojans' playmaking receivers, Lee and Woods.
Other draft-eligible underclassmen to watch: OT Zack Martin (6-4, 305, 5.04, #70), WR T.J. Jones (5-11, 190, 4.46, #7), ILB Dan Fox (6-2, 240, 4.76, #48), OLB Prince Shembo (6-2, 250, 4.76, #55), RB Cierre Wood (6-0, 215, 4.48, #20).
SOUTHERN CAL TROJANS
QB Matt Barkley (6-2, 230, 4.84, jersey #7): Barkley has set almost every school passing record and has a 2-0 career record against the Irish. But he won't have a chance to make it 3-0 as head coach Lane Kiffin announced he would be held out this Saturday after spraining the AC joint in his throwing shoulder against UCLA. Missing senior day isn't exactly what Barkley expected when he decided to skip the NFL and return to USC for his final season of eligibility. But little has gone according to plans in 2012 for the Trojans quarterback. Projected as a potential top-10 prospect entering his senior season, Barkley hasn't progressed the way expected and could end up falling to the bottom of the first round or even out of the top-32 picks altogether.
C Khaled Holmes (6-3, 305, 5.17, jersey #78): Despite battling injuries most of the season, Holmes remains in the discussion to be the top senior selected at his position in next April's draft. He needs to improve in some areas as a run blocker, but has done a nice job firing off the snap and quickly setting up in pass pro.
RB Curtis McNeal (5-7, 190, 4.43, jersey #22): Although he has been mostly overlooked since Silas Redd arrived, McNeal started the last two games and produced with Redd on the mend. Against Arizona State and UCLA, McNeal rushed for a combined 324 yards on 52 rushes (6.2 average) and three total touchdowns. He doesn't have the size or build to be a feature runner in the NFL, but his elusive running style should make him an enticing third day pick.
FS T.J. McDonald (6-2, 205, 4.52, jersey #7): McDonald's story is similar to Barkley's. Considered an early round pick in the past, McDonald returned for his senior season, but hasn't shown the improvement expected. Oh, and they both wear #7 for the Trojans. Opinions are all over the map on his draft future, but McDonald won't have to worry about being an early round pick if the mental mistakes continue for the hard-hitting safety.
Other seniors to watch: DE Wes Horton (6-5, 255, 4.77, #96), SS Jawanza Starling (6-1, 200, 4.53, #29), OLB Tony Burnett (6-1, 211, 4.74, #34), FS Drew McAllister (6-1, 205, 4.56, #19)
WR Robert Woods (6-1, 190, 4.47, jersey #2): It's easy to overlook him playing alongside sophomore sensation Marqise Lee, but Woods is still a highly-graded NFL prospect in his own right. He doesn't "wow" in any one particular area, but Woods continues to be consistently productive and impresses scouts with his professional approach to the game. While he mays not be the early first round pick some believe, Woods has top-50 potential.
DE Morgan Breslin (6-2, 250, 4.67, jersey #91): The Trojans attract numerous five-star high school recruits to Los Angeles each season, but Breslin is a JUCO-transfer who has been the newcomer of the year for the Trojans. He leads the team in both tackles for loss (17.5) and sacks (11.5) and ranks among the conference leaders in both categories, adding 49 tackles and four pass break-ups. Breslin doesn't have elite size, but he has outstanding quickness off the snap and motor to collapse the pocket. The NFL loves productive pass rushers and with his breakout junior campaign, Breslin has worked himself into the top-64 mix.
CB Nickell Robey (5-8, 168, 4.42, jersey #21): Robey doesn't jump out based on the eyeball test and a lack of size/length will hurt his draft potential, but he continues to play bigger than his listed height and weight. Robey has outstanding speed and plays with a chip on his shoulder, showing the competitive nature and confidence needed to play man coverage in the NFL. What he lacks in size, he makes up with his physicality and tough approach to the game, also adding value as a return man on special teams. It's easy to dismiss a cornerback with his short stature, but that would be a mistake and he probably won't fall past day two on draft weekend.
Other draft-eligible underclassmen to watch: TE Xavier Grimble (6-5, 255, 4.72, #86), OLB Dion Bailey (6-0, 210, 4.46, #18), TE Randall Telfer (6-4, 255, 4.67, #82), OLB Hayes Pullard (6-0, 235, 4.57, #10), DT George Uko (6-3, 286, 5.02, #90), RB Silas Redd (5-10, 200, 4.48, #25).