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2015 NFL DRAFT

Weekly Rewind: Lights shine brightest on conference championship stars

By Rob Rang | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com

For proponents of a true playoff series in FBS football, it doesn't get any better than conference championship weekend. NFLDraftScout.com tracked all of the action and highlights the players who best took advantage of the big stage to boost their NFL stock.

Hard-hitting Brown, Vaccaro Impress in physical Big 12 Championship

Vaccaro looks likely to follow a long tradition of stellar Texas defensive backs into the NFL. (US Presswire)

Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein made one final push for Heisman votes as he teamed with a ball-hawking defense to run away from the Texas Longhorns Saturday night to send the Wildcats to the Fiesta Bowl.

As important as Klein was to the Wildcats' offense, middle linebacker Arthur Brown played every bit as critical a role in Kansas State turning a 10-7 half-time deficit into a 42-24 laugher.

While the Wildcats obviously scored a great deal of their points in the second half, Brown supplied the monster hit of Texas running back Malcolm Brown (no relation) late in the second quarter that seemed to change the momentum of this contest.

Leading 10-7, Texas quarterback Case McCoy hit his sophomore running back across the middle for what looked like an easy first down with approximately three minutes to go in the quarter. Rather than allow a single extra yard with the Longhorns entering field goal range, Brown closed explosively, making it second and short on the Kansas State 34-yard line.

Brown's Kansas State teammates seemed to feed off of the big hit, knocking the Longhorns back on second and third down before giving up a tough three yards to Texas' 6-1, 230 pound hammer Joe Bergeron to extend the drive. While Texas won the fourth down battle, they lost time and momentum, taking a sack/intentional grounding penalty just three snaps later that forced them into a desperation fake field goal rather than in position to extend their lead.

Brown, 6-1 and 228 pounds, lacks the bulk teams are looking for at inside linebacker in the NFL but demonstrated the agility, speed and physicality to move to the weakside position in the 4-3. He is currently rated by NFLDraftScout.com as a second round prospect and the No. 6 outside linebacker prospect for the 2013 NFL Draft. Interestingly enough, while not related to his Texas opponent with the same last name, Brown is the half-brother of Philadelphia Eagles' rookie running back Bryce Brown, who enjoyed quite a breakout performance of his own on Monday Night Football.

Brown had the advantage of playing on the winning team but, frankly, but he wasn't the only senior defender to enjoy a strong game. Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro (pictured above) was seemingly everywhere, recording a team-high 12 tackles and forcing another fumble, his third in the past six games.

With Kansas State running the ball (45 attempts) three times more often than they threw it (14 attempts), Vaccaro and the Texas defenders knew they could crash the line of scrimmage. For the physical, aggressive Vaccaro that meant a lot of big hits and impressive open-field tackles that feature his strengths as a downhill defender. Vaccaro also showed quick feet, fluid hips and the speed to consistently force Klein to look elsewhere when passing the ball.

If there is a knock on the 6-1, 218 pound Vaccaro it is that he isn't been much of a playmaker over his career. In 50 career games (including 31 starts), he'd recorded just five interceptions. In today's NFL, most safeties have to possess top-notch ball-skills to warrant first round consideration. Vaccaro, however, could join a few of his former Texas teammates Aaron Williams (Buffalo Bills, 2011), Curtis Brown (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2011) as a second day selection in next April's draft.

Fluker and his linemates deserve a great deal of credit for Alabama's return to the BCS Title game. (US Presswire)

Alabama's Offensive Line Paves Road to BCS

Great American poet Robert Frost may have been referring to an anti-social neighbor with his poem "Mending Wall," but his opening phrase -- "Something there is that doesn't love a wall..." may have just as well captured the public and media's feelings about offensive linemen.

How else to explain the fact that virtually everyone but the Crimson Tide offensive line is getting the credit following an SEC Championship Game in which Alabama rushed for 350 yards against a normally stout and very talented Georgia defense?

Junior Eddie Lacy and freshman sensation T.J. Yeldon each clearly deserve a great deal of credit for the success. Both backs made Georgia defenders miss and, when necessary, carried them for additional yardage on multiple occasions.

Often, however, the offensive line of (left to right) of sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio, senior Chance Warmack, senior Barrett Jones, junior Anthony Steen and junior D.J. Fluker simply drove the Georgia defense back clearing lanes for Alabama to average a gaudy 6.9 yards on 51 attempts in this contest.

As seniors, Warmack and and Jones have received plenty of attention and they proved in this contest that it is well deserved. The majority of the damage Alabama did in this game came running right up the middle.

Fluker, however, hasn't generated the attention of his interior linemates but he too could generate first round consideration if he were to leave for the NFL after this season, as some close to the program anticipate. The 6-6, 335 pounder was beaten on occasion during pass situations by Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (6-2, 242) but held up surprisingly well even when operating in reverse. When given the opportunity to run block, Fluker's mass and strength made it easy for him to turn Georgia defenders (including, but not limited to Jones) and easily pin them inside, opening up gigantic lanes on the right side.

Most scoffed at the idea when South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier claimed Alabama could compete in the NFL. Frankly, I have my doubts about this year's version of the Crimson Tide defense being able to hold up to an NFL-caliber passing attack. Having watched this offensive line dominate every defense they've faced this season -- including this Georgia unit that features three front seven defenders ranked in my top 50 overall NFL prospects -- I do believe the Tide boasts the blockers up front to compete at the next level.

Despite Score, One Cowboy Defender Fared Well

The Oklahoma State-Baylor game played Saturday wasn't for the conference championship but for NFL scouts the Big 12 showdown of two highly explosive offenses still featured a matchup well worth paying close attention.

In large part due to the stellar play this season of two seniors -- quarterback Nick Florence and wide receiver Terrance Williams -- Baylor has averaged 44.36 points a game, good for fifth in the country. For those keeping notes at home, the Bears ranked fourth a season ago, scoring 45.31 points a game... and that was with Heisman winner Robert Griffin III and fellow first rounder Kendall Wright (Tennessee Titans) leading the charge.

The consistency of Baylor's point production is certainly a testament to its players' talent. It is also a product of head coach Art Briles' well-designed offense that spreads the field horizontally, forcing defenses to often line up in risky man to man coverage that most teams simply cannot handle. The 6-2, 205 pound Williams may have played second fiddle to Wright a year ago, but this season he's been Baylor's unquestioned star. He entered today's game leading the country with an average of 153.91 receiving yards in each game and averaging 19.02 yards per catch. In doing so, he's battled West Virginia's Tavon Austin as NFLDraftScout.com's top senior wideout all year long.

Williams may have entered the game as the headliner and certainly can take solace in the fact that his team emerged victorious, but in a one on one showdown against Cowboys' junior cornerback Justin Gilbert, the potential All-American was held to his lowest output all season long. Shadowing Williams throughout the game, Williams caught "just" six passes Saturday for 71 yards (11.8 yard average) despite being targeted 12 times.

This is one of the few receptions Gilbert (No. 4) allowed to Williams (No. 2) Saturday. (US Presswire)

Of Williams six receptions, only one -- his first -- occurred due to a poor play by Gilbert. The Oklahoma State corner was turned around on by a nice route from Williams and, after getting back into position, had his tackle attempt broken by the Baylor wideout. After this play, however (Baylor's second from scrimmage), Gilbert locked onto Williams, providing blanket coverage and nearly intercepting a second quarter pass.

Blessed with quick feet, fluid hips and good size (6-0, 195 pounds), Gilbert quietly ranks as one of the nation's better cornerbacks. Considering his experience in the wide-open Big 12, Gilbert certainly wouldn't be shocked with the adjustment to the increasingly pass-happy NFL.

Gilbert is highly regarded in the scouting community and entered today's contest ranked as NFLDraftScout.com's No. 9 cornerback for the 2014 class. Considering that two other underclassmen -- Tyrann Mathieu and David Amerson (reportedly) -- have recently elected to make the NFL jump, don't be surprised if Gilbert considers taking his talents to the next level, as well.

Franklin Stars in Pac-12 Championship Loss

As a life-long resident of the state of Washington, I've seen an awful lot of Pac-10 (and now Pac-12) football. There have been times over the years in which the conference boasted more high-end running backs. I don't recall a year, however, in which the position was as deep with NFL prospects as this season.

Two of the conference's best were on display Friday night in the Pac-12 Championship game in Stanford's Stepfan Taylor and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin.

Franklin passed some huge names in UCLA history with his performance against Stanford Friday night. (US Presswire)

The 5-11, 215 pound Taylor is highly regarded by talent evaluators. Possessing a classic combination of burst, agility and power, Taylor rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown against the Bruins, setting the Stanford career record with 4,212 rushing yards in the victory. He currently ranks third on NFLDraftScout.com's list of senior running backs for the 2013 NFL draft.

Taylor was steady in the Cardinal's victory, but it was Franklin who dominated this contest, rushing for 194 yards in the game and two go-ahead touchdowns. Put simply, for as impressive as Stanford freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan was in this game, Franklin was this game's Most Valuable Player, though the Cardinal quarterback was not surprisingly given the actual award.

Franklin was dynamic, demonstrating the vision, patience, burst and lateral agility that has made him a standout runner throughout his career. He broke free for a 51-yard scamper to give the Bruins a 7-0 lead early in the first quarter and gave the team another touchdown lead heading into the final quarter with a 20-yard cut-and-go score.

Along the way, he broke school records previously held by former standouts Maurice Jones-Drew, Freeman McNeil, Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Terrence Austin (among others) for the most rushing yards in a season (1,700) most 100-yard games in a season (this was his ninth). With 216 all-purpose yards against Stanford, Franklin also took over the UCLA single-season (2,024) and career (4,697) marks in all-purpose yardage, as well.

Franklin, who currently ranks 10th on NFLDraftScout.com's list of running backs (seventh among seniors) does not possess elite size (5-10, 198 pounds) or straight-line speed (estimated at 4.55). While his production is impressive, he could be fighting an upfill battle to earn anything higher than a Day Three grade from scouts. He took a big step in doing so, however, by playing as well as he did in the final conference game of his illustrious career.

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