In preparation for the 2013 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: 12
2012 NFL Draft picks: Two -- SS Winston Guy (Sixth Round, No. 181 overall), LB Danny Trevathan (Sixth Round, No. 188 overall)
Despite possessing less physical talent than the traditional SEC powerhouses, the University of Kentucky Wildcats have done a fair job in recent years of proving that the school can win on the gridiron and not just on the basketball court.
Largely due to the innovative offenses from Hal Mumme (and by extension Mike Leach), Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips, scoring points hasn't typically been the problem for the Wildcats. Last season, two defensive players rose to be stars for Kentucky. As such, those two standouts -- linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Winston Guy -- would up being selected in the 2012 NFL draft.
Phillips led the Wildcats to a bowl in his first season (2010) after taking over for Brooks. Kentucky lost to Pittsburgh 27-10 in the BBVA Compass Bowl, however, dropping their record to 6-7. Last season, the Wildcats failed to make the postseason, finishing 5-7. With back to back losing seasons it may not matter that Kentucky has made strides since Phillips rose to head coach if the team doesn't turn things around this year. Unfortunately, Joker may have to have some tricks up his sleeve for that to occur, as the team doesn't appear to be loaded with the established NFL prospects that typically coincide with a surprise win total.
Top-five prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft
1. OG Larry Warford (6-3, 343)
As his size would suggest, Warford is a load in the middle for the Wildcats. He possesses a short, squatty frame with broad shoulders, making him difficult for defensive tackles to slip past when he's in pass protection. Warford, who was started the past 25 consecutive games and has 35 games total under his belt, shows good awareness to handle surprise blitzes and the competitiveness to finish off defenders that he sees off-balance, contributing to his team-leading 34 knockdown blocks a season ago. A relatively rare all-conference pick for the Wildcats, Warford has been named to the preseason All-SEC squad prior to each of the past two seasons (2012, 2011) and earned second team honors from league coaches following his junior campaign. As a run blocker, Warford gets a powerful first shove into his opponent but must do a better job of continuing the block as he can get fundamentally lazy and not keeping his feet moving forward. Though he appears to have the quick feet to block on the move, too often he gets off-balance, resulting in his being on the ground more than scouts would like. Considering his frame and experience, Warford may get looks at center as well as his customary right guard position by scouts. He isn't the elite prospect that his hype might lead one to believe but could challenge for a spot amongst the top 100 picks in 2013 -- which would be quite the accomplishment considering that the last offensive linemen selected in the NFL draft was guard Todd Perry, who the Chicago Bears selected in the fourth round back in 1993.
2. WR La'Rod King (6-3, 222)
While the Wildcats have struggled to put offensive linemen into the NFL, in comparison the program has been a virtual factory of receivers, churning out seven into the pro game over the past 15 years, most notably the Buffalo Bills' Stevie Johnson and the Green Bay Packers' Randall Cobb. Like Johnson (who was drafted in the seventh round), King (pictured above) lacks the elite measureables to warrant early round consideration. He's a long-strider with good build-up speed and the size and willingness as a blocker to remain outside at split end. King showed improved route-running as a junior and, not surprisingly, developed into Kentucky's most reliable pass-catcher despite the fact that the Wildcats had a revolving door at quarterback last year (and could this year, as well). He eclipsed previous career highs in receptions (40), receiving yards (598) and touchdowns (seven), leading the team in all three categories. The focus that he demonstrated last year, however, wasn't there during the spring as King became a father and elected to pledge a fraternity. King has publicly admitted that he was distracted during the spring and has thus far proven a different player during summer practices. NFL scouts won't be pleased with King's decision to put a fraternity pledge over football but a strong 2012 campaign can erase memories quickly. With 86 receptions over his career -- over twice as many as the rest of the Kentucky receiving corps combined -- the Wildcats are counting on the preseason All-SEC pick (second team) to do so.
3. DB Martavius Neloms (6-1, 186)
A versatile defensive back who has seen starting action at both corner and safety for the Wildcats, Neloms has the combination of size, physicality and experience to intrigue scouts. Also, unlike his teammate La'Rod King, Neloms demonstrated this past spring the type of committment to earn points with coaches by agreeing to switch back to cornerback (his original position with the team) after emerging in 2011 as a standout safety. Neloms played in 10 games as a true freshman cornerback, even starting against South Carolina when injuries forced the Wildcats to shuffle their depth chart. He finished with 14 tackles on the season and a pass breakup. He emerged as a starter at cornerback a year later, registering 55 stops, along with five tackles for loss, two sacks, two passes broken up and forced a fumble. Viewed as the most physical and reliable open field tackler of Kentucky's cornerbacks a year ago, Neloms was asked to move to free safety to pair with the Wildcats' standout Winston Guy. Though he struggled, at times, adjusting to his role as the "quarterback of the defense," his physicality once again stood out. Despite missing the last two games with a high ankle sprain, Neloms finished tied for third on the team (behind Trevathan and Guy) in tackles with 71. He also notched five pass breakups and the first interception of his career. Neloms appears to have the straight-line speed and foot quickness to handle the move back to cornerback. He's generally been viewed as a more reliable run defender on the outside than he has been against the pass, typically providing solid (but not ideal) coverage but closing quickly to make the tackle once the catch is made. He'll be asked to play a great deal of press man this season and appears to have the length and toughness to remain in this capacity at the next level, though a return to safety is also possible.
4. DE Collins Ukwu (6-5, 258)
Kentucky isn't often recognized as a strong contributor of NFL talent along the defensive line but with five Wildcats drafted within the top 100 picks over the past 10 years, it certainly have the attention of scouts. Like notable defensive tackles in recent years Corey Peters (Atlanta Falcons) and Jeremy Jarmon (Denver Broncos), Ukwu (pronounced OOK-woo) didn't sign with Kentucky as a highly regarded prospect but as a 6-5, 200 pound project. He's since added nearly 60 pounds and has flashed the combination of burst off the snap and strength at the point of attack to result in a splashy season. The problem is, the results simply haven't come yet. Ukwu redshirted in 2008 but quickly jumped into the action a season later, playing in all 13 games and earning starts in three contests. He finished with 14 tackles on the season, with 1.5 for loss. Ukwu started all 13 in 2010 but his statistics didn't jump much (26 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack). Ukwu's production did jump last season but shoulder injuries robbed him of his strength (and three games). He finished with career-highs in tackles (28), tackles for loss (6.5) and sacks (2.5) and those close to the program feel he could enjoy a true breakout season as a senior. He possesses the combination of size and athleticism to keep an eye on but scouts, like the Kentucky faithful, would like to see more out of Ukwu this season.
5. OC Matt Smith (6-4, 298)
As mentioned previously Kentucky has struggled to put offensive linemen into the NFL over the past 20 years but between Warford and the high-effort Smith, things could be changing in Lexington. Smith signed with Kentucky as a defensive tackle but was asked to make the transition to the offensive side of the line of scrimmage in his first season with the program, redshirting in 2008. He saw action in six games as a backup in 2009 before emerging as the team's starting center in 2010, getting the nod in all 13 games and surprising coaches with his steady play in his first season as a starter. Expected to take his game to a new level last season, Smith instead missed the first two games with a sprained ankle and didn't show the same mobility as the year before in the next couple of game in which he played. Ultimately, he wound up starting the final nine games of the season. Smith possesses good height for the center position, though he is a bit narrow in his shoulders and hips than most teams prefer. He's a reliable snapper who shows some quickness getting to the second level when run blocking. He's a bit stiff, however, having to gather himself to adjust to moving defenders. He does a nice job of making the line calls and shows enough lateral agility and balance to protect up the middle, though he fails to bend his knees properly and can be pushed into the quarterback with a good bull rush. Smith isn't flashy, nor does he flash the power that helps his teammate Warford rack up pancake blocks, but he is smart and steady. If able to end his career at Kentucky with a strong senior season, Smith will have a shot at earning a late round selection or priority free agent grade.
QB Morgan Newton (6-4, 240)
CB Cartier Rice (5-10, 187)
FS Mikie Benton (5-11, 195)
ILB Avery Williamson (6-1, 245)*
For all of NFLDraftScout.com's team-by-team previews of the top prospects to watch in the 2012 season in preparation for the 2013 NFL draft, click here.
Photo credit: US Presswire