As two of the more talented teams in the country, there are plenty of reasons for NFL scouts to take special interest in tonight's showdown between ACC and Big East powers Miami and Pittsburgh, respectively.
The game lost a bit of its luster with the injury and subsequent back surgery for All-Big East Defensive Player of the Year Greg Romeus. It would have made for highly entertaining scouting had the defensive end matched up tonight against Miami left tackle, Orlando Franklin -- especially considering that Romeus would have had the benefit of the home crowd noise behind him.
Still, there is plenty of talent to focus on in this game.
DE Allen Bailey: Bailey is among the more versatile defensive linemen in the country. He's played every one of the four down positions for the Hurricanes over his career, though most view him as a left defensive end or traditional 4-3 defensive tackle. Bailey has not demonstrated the burst off the snap for scouts to consider moving him to the right side. He has enough power to play the five technique (3-4 DE), as well. With injuries along their front, Bailey may be asked to play inside a bit tonight. So far this year he has seven tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He is still looking for his first sack of the season.
OT Orlando Franklin: Though I do not believe he has the quickness or balance to remain on at left tackle in the NFL, Franklin has played well in his first year at the position this season. Franklin plays with the nastiness and physicality that you'd expect from a former guard. At 6-7, 318 pounds I feel he's one of the better right tackle prospects in the country.
ILB Colin McCarthy: Wearing the No. 44 that Dan Morgan made famous, this is the type of game in which McCarthy should excel. Athletic enough to contribute against the pass, McCarthy's instincts and physicality should help him rack up tackles against a Pitt offense still trying to get 2010 Big East Conference Rookie of the Year Dion Lewis on track. McCarthy currently leads the 'Canes with 16 tackles, including 2.5 for loss.
WR Leonard Hankerson: A highly touted prep prospect who struggled with drops early in career, Hankerson has finally developed into the playmaker his raw skills always made seem possible. The 6-3, 215 pound Hankerson with legitimate downfield speed has emerged as Jacory Harris' obvious favorite this season. In fact, not only does Hankerson have twice as many catches (13) as the next Miami receiver (LaRon Howard with six), he has nearly four times as many receiving yards (205) to any one else on the 'Canes roster (Travis Benjamin's 62 yards).
The 'Canes feature several underclassmen to keep an eye on, as well. Chief among them is junior cornerback Brandon Harris.
These are the Pittsburgh Panthers I'll be focusing on:
OT Jason Pinkston: Like Miami's Franklin, I don't believe that Pinkston has the agility and balance to remain at left tackle in the NFL, but he is nonetheless a talented prospect. How he performs against Miami's athletic front seven will go a long way in determining his ranking with the scouts I spoke to prior to this game.
DE Jabaal Sheard: Though Romeus gets most of the attention, Sheard has been Pittsburgh's most consistent pass rusher throughout their respective careers. Sheard, 6-3 and 265 pounds, doesn't possess elite size or speed, but has enough of a burst to gain the initial advantage and closes quickly. Lining up at left defensive end, Sheard has eight tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack, thus far. He leads the team with five QB hurries. Sheard could use a strong performance in this game to distance himself from his last newsworthy event -- an ugly incident in August in which Sheard was arrested after a fight in which he threw a man through a glass door.
SS/OLB Dom DeCicco: DeCicco is the Panthers' starting strong safety, but at 6-3, 225 pounds I question if he has the straight-line speed and agility necessary to remain at this position in the NFL. He's a physical and instinctive defender, however, who enjoyed great production last year (88 tackles, three interceptions, forced fumble). He's struggled with injuries this season and may not be 100% for this game.
Pitt, like Miami, features several underclassmen worth watching. The obvious top player to watch is junior wideout Jonathan Baldwin, considered by some to be the top wide receiver prospect in the country. The 6-5, 225 pound Baldwin will give Miami's talented, but young secondary quite a matchup problem. It will be interesting to see how well Baldwin does when matched up against Harris one on one.
The game begins at 7:30 EST and will be televised on ESPN.