NFL Prospects who HELPED themselves this weekend:
DE Michael Sam, Missouri
Overshadowed by Tigers defensive end Kony Ealy entering the season, Sam has certainly made a name for himself as a senior in 2013. Through eight games, he leads the SEC with 16.0 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, eight more sacks than the more ballyhooed Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina. And despite losing to the Gamecocks in double overtime Saturday night, Sam again showed why he's been the most productive pass rusher in the SEC, finishing with 3.0 tackles for loss and a sack. Listed at 6-3 and 255 pounds, he is compactly built with a strong upper and lower body, but shows enough bend to stay low and win with leverage. Sam has a quick first step to penetrate gaps with a physical inside move and is relentless in pursuit to make noise in the backfield. The term “bull in a china shop” was created for players like him due to his determination and nonstop motor to finish at the ball. Although he does have some limitations, Sam has some Melvin Ingram to him as an NFL prospect, but regardless, he has definitely put himself on the NFL radar with double-digit sacks thus far in 2013.
OT Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
A prospect entering his fourth year as a starter in the SEC, Johnson was around for Vanderbilt's two win season in 2010, but has been a big part of the revamped Commodores the past few seasons. His 46th career start came in College Station on Saturday and he put together another solid performance. Generously listed at 6-5 and 295 pounds, Johnson's bulk, strength and overall length aren't strengths, but he has easy movement skills and does an excellent job getting to the second level with above average lower body control to mirror in space. He is smart with astute awareness to pick up defenders and is a clinic for combination blocks. Johnson does need to flash more nastiness at the point of attack to control rushers in the run game, but he excels with body positioning and has a brilliant understanding of angles and utilizes his entire frame to shield defenders from the protection zone. While his lack of elite size/length might limit his NFL potential, Johnson is a name to watch in the middle rounds.
CB Deion Belue, Alabama
Sticking with the SEC theme, Alabama lost one of its defensive leaders in the secondary last season with Dee Milliner bolting Tuscaloosa for the top-10 of the 2013 NFL Draft. But Belue, who started all 14 games opposite Milliner last season, returned for the Tide and has quietly put together a strong season as Alabama's top cover man. He doesn't have elite NFL size (5-11, 183) and can be overwhelmed with bigger wide receivers, but he does a nice job utilizing his strengths and playing heady football. Belue is able to be successful because of his desire to win body positioning during the route and at the catch point to make a play on the ball. He can get his hips turned with his aggressive demeanor, but has the footwork to quickly recover and collect himself. Belue does need to clean up his tackling technique, but he isn't shy to attack the run with his competitive presence on the outside. Against Tennessee on Saturday, he recorded his first interception of the season and also showed off good return skills with a 28-yard runback. Although he doesn't have any distinguishing characteristics, Belue projects as a solid day three prospect.
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State
As tough as I've been on him this season, Miller had his best performance of the season Saturday as the Buckeyes easily handled Penn State in Columbus. It took 28 starts at Ohio State, but he finally eclipsed 250-yards passing in a game, finishing Saturday night 18-for-24 for 252 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Miller showed improved pocket mobility to climb and keep his eyes downfield with active feet to dance around the noise and hang tough. He throws too many fastballs and needs to develop better touch, but he displays outstanding velocity to make snap throws to all levels of the field. Miller also forces defenses to respect his mobility because when he does run, he follows his blocks and has the agile feet to make defenders miss in space. He is still very much a work-in-progress as a passer with his base and mechanics still extremely inconsistent, but his performance against Penn State was a step in the right direction for a very talented athlete with a strong arm.
Prospects who HURT themselves this weekend:
C James Stone, Tennessee
Tennessee is extremely young at the offensive skill positions, but the offensive line is a veteran group, led by Stone in the middle. In his fourth year as a starter, he is in the conversation to be one of the first players drafted at his position, but his performance against Alabama's stout front was underwhelming. Stone has good vision and keeps his head on a swivel, but he needs to be more assertive at the point of attack. He engages, but is simply content with getting in the way and not controlling the contact point of the defender. Stone is quick off the ball, but also has a bad habit of popping upright, allowing rushers to get lower and win with leverage. He looks tight when attempting to change directions and struggles to recover after a false step, something that was very evident against the Tide defenders. While Stone is highly thought of by some, his game tape against Alabama won't do him any favors.
CB Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
In my prospect preview last week, I highlighted Hal vs. Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans as one of the top matchups to watch this past weekend. And while it wasn't all negative for the Vanderbilt corner, Evans got the most of the senior defensive back and two first quarter plays stand out. The first play was a 10-yard in route that Evans snatched out of the air and then used his powerfully-built frame to shrug off Hal attempting to make the tackle. A few plays later, Evans burned Hal for a 43-yard touchdown down the sideline. The Aggies wide receiver showed some hesitation before turning on the jets and using his long strides to create separation from Hal on the stop-and-go for an easy catch and score. Those two plays bring up two crucial questions when it comes to Hal's NFL future: how strong is he? And how fast is he? Those two answers will come during the pre-draft process, which could ultimately determine his grade.
FS Nickoe Whitley, Mississippi State
For a team expected to finish in the bottom third of the SEC, Mississippi State has a half dozen senior prospects with draftable grades, including Whitley. He leads the Bulldogs in interceptions (three), but his performance against Kentucky last Thursday wasn't a positive showing for scouts. In the second quarter, Whitley attracted two personal foul penalties within a four-play span that resulted in a lot of yardage for the Wildcats and an ejection for the senior safety. The first personal foul was a weak call as Whitley got into a PG-rated shoving match with a Kentucky receiver. But the second personal foul a few plays later warranted his disqualification as he was caught throwing punches at the bottom of a pile-up. As he left the field, Whitley got into a one-sided shouting match with head coach Dan Mullen, who made sure to share his disappointment with his senior safety.
Other draft notes:
• Despite the win Saturday over previously unbeaten Texas Tech, Oklahoma received a crushing blow, losing senior FB Trey Millard to a season-ending knee injury. He tore two ligaments in his knee, including his ACL, and will have surgery that will keep him sidelined for the foreseeable future.
A Swiss army knife for the Sooners offense, Millard is a versatile offensive weapon with his ability as a receiver, ballcarrier and blocker. The injury will likely keep him from working out before the 2014 NFL Draft, which unfortunately will severely damage his draft stock. Millard was considered a borderline top-100 prospect before the injury, but this setback will likely push him to day three, if he is drafted at all.
• The Washington Huskies also suffered a tough blow this weekend, losing junior WR Kasen Williams to a broken bone in his left foot. He is expected to miss the rest of the season.
"We know there's a break and a dislocation in his foot, so he's going to be out quite some time," head coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Obviously, our thoughts and prayers are with Kasen. He's a great kid."
The junior pass-catcher was third on the team in receiving with 29 catches for 421 yards (14.5 average) and one touchdown. He suffered the injury in the second quarter when he landed awkwardly on his foot after trying to make a catch. A dynamic athlete, Williams is currently ranked as the No. 12 draft-eligible wide receiver for the 2014 NFL Draft by NFLDraftScout.com, but this injury will likely change his draft outlook.