For the rest of the 2012 college football regular season, I will be listing "Five prospects" each Friday that I'll be focusing on for the upcoming weekend.
In reality, I'm focusing on dozens of prospects each week, not just the five I've highlighted below. The players listed are playing in high profile games and against the caliber of competition that I believe provides us with an opportunity to truly assess how a collegiate player might fare when asked to make the huge jump to the NFL.
Typically I focus on senior prospects in this space. However, with it becoming more and more obvious as to which underclassmen are considering the jump to the pros, I'll be incorporating a few more juniors and redshirt sophomores as the season goes on. Underclassmen are denoted with an asterisk.*
Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois: A year ago Illinois led the Big Ten in average sacks per game (3.15), finishing sixth in the entire country. So far this year the Illini have seen their sack totals more than cut in half (1.5 per game) and currently are tied with eight other teams for 78th in the NCAA. Some of the lost production, of course, stems from the absence of Whitney Mercilus, the nation's leading sacker a year ago, who the Houston Texans selected No. 26 overall in April. Not enough attention, however, is being given to the loss of then-defensive coordinator Vic Koennning, who incorporated relentless blitzing into his scheme, resulting in four different Illini defenders reaching double-digits in tackles for loss. Under new head coach Tim Beckman (who took over for Ron Zook) and his defensive coordinator Tim Banks, the Illini have featured less blitzing and are relying on their front four to create pressure. In leading Illinois with two sacks thus far, the 6-5, 240 pound Buchanan is doing his job but he hasn't yet shown the game-breaking pass rush some expected heading into this season, especially considering that he posted 64 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks a year ago. Buchanan should have the opportunity to build his numbers Saturday against Penn State, which features more of a traditional attack than the spread-heavy offenses Illinois has started the season off against. He might need it to justify his current ranking as NFLDraftScout.com's No. 43 overall prospect for 2013. This game begins at noon eastern and will be televised by ESPN.
John Jenkins, NG, Georgia:It isn't just because of the fact that CBS is airing this game that I mention the Georgia-Tennessee contest prominently. On a Saturday full of intriguing matchups (from both a conference and scouting perspective), none are better than this key SEC showdown. There are a handful of individual matchups in this contest that I and scouts are eagerly looking forward to seeing. I anticipate that the announcing crew of Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson will focus on the tough matchups the quarterbacks and receivers will be facing against these talented secondaries will be a recurring theme of the telecast. One that is certainly to play just as critical a role in determining the winner of this game, however, will take place at the line of scrimmage between the massive Jenkins -- who is earning first round grades from a number of scouts -- and the Volunteers' left guard Dallas Thomas, himself a potential top 50 pick. Jenkins (6-3, 358) is every bit as strong as his size would indicate but he's also a surprisingly nimble athlete. Thomas has very good lateral agility (which is among the reasons why NFLDraftScout.com continues to rank him as an offensive tackle despite his moving inside this season). Thomas will certainly have his hands full with Jenkins' (pictured above) size and power advantages, however, meaning that Vols' quarterback Tyler Bray, our fourth-rated quarterback, could see plenty of pressure up the middle. This game begins at 3:30 pm eastern and will be televised by CBS.
John Simon, OLB/DE, Ohio State: In terms of NFL potential, Simon's linemate Johnathan Hankins gets most of the attention (and in this case, the cover) but there is no question that it is Simon whose energy and big play proficiency who is the leader of this unit. A versatile player who often operates as a five-technique defensive end but has also played inside at defensive tackle and dropped back into coverage as an outside linebacker, the 6-2, 260 pound Simon is sure to intrigue NFL scouts working for 3-4 and 4-3 teams, alike. He's relentless and while undeniably shorter than scouts would prefer, his squatty compact frame makes him difficult to block. Simon earned First Team All Big Ten honors a season ago with 53 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He hasn't yet significantly built upon those numbers this season, recording just 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack through Ohio State's first four games. In what should be a defensive battle against Michigan State Saturday, however, don't be surprised if Simon builds upon these numbers. Simon currently ranks as NFLDraftScout.com's No. 51 overall prospect for 2013. This game is scheduled to begin at 3:30 pm eastern and will be televised by ABC.
Kenny Vaccaro, SS, Texas: The Longhorns are 3-0 and some believe Mack Brown's team is once again on the verge of proving they are the top team in the Big 12. To do so, they'll need to beat Oklahoma State, who at 20-5 in the conference since 2009, has proven itself to be the Big 12's best team during in recent seasons. The emergence of Longhorns' quarterback David Ash has Texas fans excited but this remains a team built largely around the speed and playmaking ability of their defense. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is a future head coach and his unit is stocked with NFL talent, not the least of which are a pair of potential first round pass rushers in Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor. One of the reasons why the Oklahoma State Cowboys have been able to be so successful in recent years is that their spread offense has largely neutralized great pass rushers. The absence of two-time Biletnikof winner Justin Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden means that the Cowboys will enter this game without the big name star power they've boasted in recent years but Mike Gundy's squad remains explosive offensively, averaging a gaudy 62.3 points per game (albeit against questionable competition). OSU is hopeful that they'll have starting quarterback Wes Lunt back for this game but unlike in recent years where the passing attack was boosted by the run, this Cowboys' offense is led by a two-headed rushing attack of Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith that is averaging 308.3 yards per game (sixth in the country). OSU's varied offense will test Vaccaro, who considered leaving for the NFL after his junior season and could be the next in a long line of terrific Longhorn defensive backs to hear his name called within the first 50 picks of the NFL draft. This game is scheduled to begin at 7:30 pm eastern and will be televised by FOX.
Matt Scott, QB, Arizona: A 49-0 blanking by No. 2 ranked Oregon last week certainly destroyed some of the momentum that Rich Rodriguez had built in leading the Arizona Wildcats to a 3-0 start but this remains a team on the rise. A significant reason for Rodriguez's immediate success in the Pac-12 has been the play of his senior quarterback, who currently is completing 65.9 of his passes for 1,205 yards and seven touchdowns (against four interceptions). Scott, 6-2 and 198 pounds, has every bit the arm strength that former Wildcats' (and current Philadelphia Eagles' backup) quarterback Nick Foles possesses and is certainly a better athlete (199 rushing yards, two scores so far in 2012). His ability to hurt defenses with both his arm and legs will put pressure on an Oregon State defense that has more than stepped up to the challenge in their early upset victories this season over Wisconsin and UCLA. The Beavers are lighter on the defensive line than most teams and therefore typically are able to put pressure on the quarterback. They also boast a terrific senior cornerback in Jordan Poyer, who could test Scott's willingness to throw to his favorite target Dan Buckner, himself a legitimate NFL prospect at 6-3, 215 pounds. Scott recognized that this was Foles' team a year ago and redshirted to protect his eligibility for one year as Arizona's unquestioned starter and give him a chance to impress NFL scouts. He's flashed an intriguing combination of size, arm talent and mobility but struggled amid constant pressure a week ago versus the Ducks. Considering his relative lack of experience, scouts knew he'd struggle at times. To earn a draft selection come April, he'll need to prove that he's learning from his mistakes and can handle the adversity that comes with a disappointing loss to play well in his next opportunity. This game is scheduled to begin at 10:00 pm eastern and will be televised by the Pac-12 Network.