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: 20
2012 NFL Draft picks: 4 – OLB Lavonte David (2nd round, 58th overall), DL Jared Crick (4th round, 126th overall), CB Alonzo Dennard (7th round, 224th overall), OT Marcel Jones (7th round, 234th overall)
Since the AFL/NFL merger, Nebraska has produced at least three draft picks every season, a streak that has spanned 43 years and counting. Over the past five years, the Cornhuskers have had only three players drafted in the top-100 (DT Ndamukong Suh, CB Prince Amukamara and OLB Lavonte David), but Nebraska has sent numerous quality prospects to the NFL in the middle-to-late rounds with players like RB Roy Helu, CB Zack Bowman and OG Carl Nicks finding success despite being drafted in the fourth round or later. And the same will be true for the Huskers in the 2013 NFL Draft as they probably won't have a player drafted in the first few rounds, but a handful (or more) of Nebraska prospects will hear their names called on draft weekend.
Despite being the favorites by many to win the conference in their inaugural season in the Big Ten, Nebraska fell short of that goal with three conference losses in 2011. However, the Huskers, who haven't won a conference title since 1999, have a good shot of making the Big Ten Championship Game in 2012, facing Michigan and Wisconsin at home. Since Bo Pelini took over as head coach in 2008, the Cornhuskers have averaged 9.5 wins, the best four-year stretch for the program since Nebraska's glory days in the ‘90s.
Top-five prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft
1. RB Rex Burkhead (5-11, 210)
Although rarely given the credit, Burkhead (pictured above) is the best offensive player at Nebraska, coming off a productive junior season where he finished third in the conference with 1,357 rushing yards. He came close to a school record with 284 carries last season while lining up all over the backfield, even at quarterback, and also out-wide as a receiver. Burkhead wasn't considered a big-time recruit out of high school in Plano, Texas, but received offers from Texas A&M, Michigan, Stanford and several others before deciding to enroll in Lincoln. He was stuck behind Roy Helu on the running back depth chart as a freshman and sophomore, but still saw a good amount of playing time, combining for 1,297 rushing yards as a back-up. Burkhead became the starter in 2011 (13 starts) and finished with a team-best 1,357 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns, earning First Team All-Big Ten honors. He is a compactly-built 210 pounds with excellent balance, running close to the ground and with a head of steam. Burkhead is hard-nosed and tough as nails, finishing every run and popping right back after a big hit while showing the downhill patience and vision to follow his blocks. He isn't an explosive athlete with more build-up speed than natural burst, but has quick feet to sidestep defenders and make the first guy miss. Although he lacks “wow” ability to routinely create when the hole isn't there, Burkhead is a an energetic, workhorse runner who takes pride in his craft and runs hard with conviction and determination. He isn't a first round caliber prospect, but could easily sneak into the top-100 picks in the mold of a smaller version of Peyton Hillis.
2. SS Daimion Stafford (6-1, 210)
Although not a household name just yet, Stafford could be the best safety in the Big Ten and one of the most underrated defenders in the country. Although he was forced to play catch-up most of the season, he was a standout defensive back in his first year at the FBS-level in 2011, leading the team in pass break-ups. Stafford was forced to go the JUCO route out of high school and spent two seasons at Chaffey (Calif.) College, combining for 140 tackles and nine interceptions. Turning down a scholarship offer by Southern Cal, he enrolled in Lincoln last year and quickly established himself as a starter in the secondary. Stafford started 12 games at strong safety and finished third on the team in tackles (80) with 2.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble and a team-high 10 pass break-ups, earning Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors. With a full season of experience at Nebraska now under his belt, Huskers' coaches say he is much more advanced mentally and ready to take control of the team's secondary. Stafford is a smooth athlete with the flexibility and foot speed to accelerate in a flash and blow up plays with his aggressive attitude. He uses his eyes well with the football awareness to break down the action and waste little time making accurate reads in both run and pass coverage. Former Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David was another JUCO transfer and became a second round pick after two seasons in Lincoln. Stafford isn't at the same level as David, but will try and follow that same path.
3. MLB Will Compton (6-2, 230)
With Lavonte David now playing on Sundays, the Huskers defense in 2012 will be missing a huge part to their success from the past two seasons. But Compton, who will be a senior this year, appears ready to step up and fill that void as the unquestioned leader of Nebraska's Blackshirt defense. He was a four-star recruit out of Missouri and chose the Huskers over offers from Notre Dame, Illinois and the nearby Missouri Tigers. After redshirting in 2008, Compton was a part-time starter over his first two seasons (12 starts) and struggled to live up to expectations. However he had a breakout season as a junior last year, finishing second on the team in tackles (82), and really came into his own down the stretch. Compton added 6.0 tackles for loss and earned All-Big Ten Honorable Mention honors with three double-digit tackle games. Considered the quarterback of the defense, Compton has become like an extra coach on the field, making all the pre-snap calls, and is the guy the rest of the defense looks up to. According to the Huskers coaching staff, he has improved his preparation habits, watching more film and becoming more “comfortable and confident” on and off the field. He isn't the most fluid athlete, but he flashes natural football instincts with physical hand use and accurate angles to the ballcarrier. Although he will need to pick up where he left off last season to earn a draftable grade, Compton has slowly, but surely improved as a football player and leader.
4. DT Baker Steinkuhler (6-6, 290)
Another talented but underachieving player on the Cornhuskers' defense, Steinkuhler will be entering his third season as a starting defensive tackle for Nebraska in 2012. Born and raised in Lincoln, his brother (Ty) and father (Dean) both starred for Huskers with his father, who was a first round pick (No. 2 overall) in the 1984 NFL Draft, winning the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award. Baker was considered one of the best offensive line recruits out of high school, but moved to the defensive side of the ball during his redshirt year in 2008. After spending his freshman season as a reserve, he started every game the past two seasons, combining for 86 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. He was an All-Conference Honorable Mention pick last season and did a nice job stepping up when Jared Crick went down with an injury. With a 6-6, 290-pound frame, Steinkuhler has a mammoth body with a large wingspan, but tends to play too tall and has obvious struggles with leverage at the point of attack. He is a relentless player and is known as a competitive hustler on every play, but he has a tough time breaking free after getting tied up and has been more of a space-eater than penetrator. Although it will be near-impossible for him to live up to his father's legacy at Nebraska (Dean Steinkuhler scored on the legendary “Fumblerooski” play in the Orange Bowl in 1984), Steinkuhler has the raw measureables that will land him in an NFL camp and possibly earn him a mid-to-late round draft choice.
5. TE Ben Cotton (6-6, 255)
With only 22 career receptions, Cotton doesn't have the college production that gets NFL scouts excited, but his size and physical skills are a different story. Despite having more career starts (25) than catches at Nebraska, he is a big target at 6-6, 255 and has enough short-area quickness to make plays at the next level. A native of Ames, Iowa, Cotton passed up offers from both Iowa and Iowa State to play in Lincoln, redshirting in 2008. He started a combined 14 games as a freshman and sophomore, recording eight catches. Cotton had his best season in 2011 as a junior (11 starts), finishing with 14 catches for 189 yards but didn't find the end zone. He looks the part of a traditional tight end with a large frame, good length and the muscle build to handle his own against linebackers, but his lack of speed is a concern. Cotton has big, reliable hands, but will sometimes let the ball into his body, which will lead to drops. He is a competitive blocker in the run game with the upper body strength to redirect defenders, but needs to clean up his technique to be more consistent and avoid holding penalties. In Nebraska's run-first offense, the passing game has been an afterthought with Taylor Martinez at quarterback, hurting the draft value of a player like Cotton who isn't given many chances to catch the ball. However, the raw skills are there and he might be a better fit at the next level than teammate and fellow tight end Kyler Reed.
QB/WR Taylor Martinez (6-1, 200)*
WR Kenny Bell (6-1, 185)*
TE Kyler Reed (6-3, 230)
OT Jeremiah Sirles (6-6, 320)*
OG Brandon Thompson (6-6, 300)
OG Seung Hoon Choi (6-2, 295)
OG Andrew Rodriguez (6-6, 325)*
OG Spencer Long (6-4, 305)*
DE Cameron Meredith (6-4, 260)
DE Eric Martin (6-2, 255)
OLB Sean Fisher (6-6, 235)
CB Andrew Green (6-0, 190)
CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3, 220)*
FS P.J. Smith (6-2, 210)
K/P Brett Maher (6-1, 185)
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.
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