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Underclassmen watch: Who's going, who's staying?

by | The Sports Xchange/

In the 2010 NFL Draft, underclassmen dominated the field. Starting with quarterback Sam Bradford and throughout the first round, evaluators went with younger prospects at almost every position.

Whether there is another Gerald McCoy (third overall, Tampa Bay), Joe Haden (seventh overall, Cleveland) or Maurkice Pouncey (18th overall, Pittsburgh) in the field will be a mystery until draft day, but at least the names of the available underclassmen will be set in the next two weeks. outlines the top five underclassmen at each position and will provide instant analysis as decisions become official before the Jan. 15 deadline to enter the 2011 draft.


Ryan Mallett's stock is up after Andrew Luck's decision to stay in college. (US Presswire)  
Ryan Mallett's stock is up after Andrew Luck's decision to stay in college. (US Presswire)  
1. Andrew Luck, Stanford, (Soph./redshirt), 6-feet-4, 235
Luck has the prototype skills set to one day be the first overall pick and a franchise-caliber quarterback. He's opted to return to school for his redshirt junior season but easily tops the rankings for the draft class of 2012.

2. Cam Newton, Auburn, (Jr.), 6-6 250
The official deadline to enter the draft is four days after the national championship game. With off-field distractions prevalent, Newton more than made a case that he's the most dynamic player available to the NFL in 2011, compiling 49 total touchdowns for undefeated Auburn entering the BCS title game.

3. Blaine Gabbert, Missouri, (Jr.), 6-5 235
Gabbert could become the No. 1 quarterback in this class. He threw two interceptions in the Tigers' bowl loss to Iowa, but his junior season was otherwise spectacular. How he transitions from a spread offense to a pro system will be the biggest question mark in his pro evaluation.

4. Ryan Mallett, Arkansas, (Jr.), 6-6 238
Not having to compete with Luck could push Mallett higher on some draft boards. He has the pocket-passer style and build, plus the trademark arm strength, of Drew Bledsoe, a former No. 1 overall pick. His leadership has been questioned and scouts will closely study game film from the loss against Alabama's attacking 3-4 defense.

5. Landry Jones, Oklahoma, (Soph./redshirt), 6-4, 220
Jones has opted to stay at OU for his junior season, but he might not have star junior receiver Ryan Broyles around to catch passes.

Running back

1. Mark Ingram, Alabama, (Jr.), 5-10, 215
The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner failed to deliver an encore worthy of the award. His season began with a knee injury but he finished strong, capped in the Tide's bowl rout of Michigan State with a two-touchdown effort that included a highlight-reel, tackle-breaking run showcasing his incredible vision, balance and lower-body power.

2. Mikel LeShoure, Illinois, (Jr.), 6-0, 230
LeShoure rushed for 1,697 yards this season, including 181 yards on 29 carries in the bowl win over Baylor and 330 yards on 33 carries against Northwestern in the victory that made the Illini bowl-eligible. At 230 pounds, he has the ability to play every down. LeShoure had 120 rushing yards or better in each of Illinois' final five games. Given the workload he had as a junior, he might consider leaving while his stock is sky-high.

3. Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech, (Soph./redshirt), 5-10, 205

It would be no surprise to see Williams end his career as the gem of this RB class. The knock is durability, and in particular, scouts will prod about the hamstring injury that bothered him for almost four months in 2010. Williams compares to Clinton Portis and Cadillac Williams in that he runs with a purpose, seeks contact and can slash through the hole and into the second levels of a defense quickly and with very good vision.

Ryan Williams has the same running style as Clinton Portis and Cadillac Williams. (US Presswire)  
Ryan Williams has the same running style as Clinton Portis and Cadillac Williams. (US Presswire)  
4. Chris Polk, Washington, (Soph./redshirt), 5-11 214
A résumé film from the Apple Cup win over Washington State could be sent to scouts who didn't get to see much of UW the past two seasons. Polk finished second in the Pac-10 in rushing (behind Oregon's LaMichael James) and had 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons with the Huskies.

5. Jordan Todman, Connecticut, (Jr.), 5-9, 195
Todman plans to enter the draft. He might not have the name value of other backs in the class, but he'll be an intriguing second-tier option because of his durability and versatility.

Tight end

1. Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame, (Jr.), 6-6, 265
Considered a complete tight end, Rudolph announced he'll be in the draft, and he could be on the top prospects available at the position -- but he has some things to prove. His season ended early because of a hamstring injury -- and surgery described as "major." His recovery timetable should be a big factor in the stay-or-go debate.

2. Michael Egnew, Missouri, (Jr.), 6-6, 235
A Walter Camp first-team All-American, Egnew led all tight ends nationally with 83 catches in the regular season. He has height and speed, a combination that will get attention from NFL evaluators.

3. David Paulson, Oregon, (Jr.), 6-4, 242
The first-year starter made a big impact for the Ducks. He's not stopwatch fast or a quick-twitch athlete, but he's solid in all phases and could be a find for a team that doesn't want him to be a No. 1 option.

4. Dwayne Allen, Clemson, (Soph./redshirt), 6-4, 255
One of six underclassmen on Clemson's roster to file exploratory paperwork with the NFL, Allen, who has 43 career receptions, is still developing. He might decide another quarterback change at Clemson isn't in his best interest.

5. George Bryan, North Carolina State, (Jr.), 6-5, 265
An All-ACC tight end who can catch but also has an offensive lineman's mentality. Must strongly consider all options with QB Russell Wilson in limbo -- Wilson also is a touted middle-infield prospect with the Colorado Rockies.

Wide receiver

In the Michael Irvin mold, Julio Jones needs to show scouts his speed in workouts. (AP)  
In the Michael Irvin mold, Julio Jones needs to show scouts his speed in workouts. (AP)  
1. A.J. Green, Georgia, (Jr.), 6-4, 212

Let the Randy Moss comparisons begin. Green could be a dominant receiver very early in his career and his measurables help guarantee he's selected at the top of the first round. The Bulldogs were a different team with Green, who was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season for selling his Liberty Bowl jersey to a man whom Green said he later learned was an agent.

2. Julio Jones, Alabama (Jr.), 6-4, 220

Recruiting analysts once labeled him the second coming of Michael Irvin. Whether he is or isn't, he has an NFL-ready frame and the game to go with it even if his production was minimal in Alabama's run-heavy, pro-style offense. His draft stock might be made or broken with his 40-yard dash time.

3. Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State, (Soph./redshirt), 6-1, 208
He dominated Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara on Oct. 23 -- five catches, 157 yards, two touchdowns, whopping 31.4-yard average -- and Amukamara could be a top 10 pick. Scouts aren't concerned about the on-field product. His DUI arrest (and driving 92 mph in a 60 mph zone) will be a question, as will his stopwatch speed.

4. Torrey Smith, Maryland, (Jr.), 6-1, 205
Smith has announced he will forgo his senior season. The All-ACC pick is a dynamic returner who could rise quickly with a 40 time that will create buzz at the scouting combine.

5. Michael Floyd, Notre Dame, (Jr.), 6-3, 228
Often looks to be a man among boys. Floyd isn't a burner but he's a competitor who willingly blocks with the intent to punish and wins jump balls in the red zone.


1. Mike Brewster, Ohio State, (Jr.), 6-5, 293
He has lined up in front of Terrelle Pryor for three straight years and the second-team All-Big Ten pick is the heady engine to a solid offense.

2. Ben Jones, Georgia, (Jr.), 6-3, 300
Jones said he will be back in Athens next season, but two key starters -- guards Cordy Glenn and Trinton Sturdivant -- could leave, a move that would make life difficult for Jones to begin 2011.

3. David Molk, Michigan, (Jr.), 6-2, 287
Easily the most consistent performer on a solid offensive line that includes guard Steve Schilling, Molk might only be a middle-round pick but he's the type of heady player that will stick around when he reaches the NFL.

4. Peter Konz, Wisconsin, (Soph./redshirt), 6-5, 313
A very good athlete who unexpectedly became a starter as a redshirt freshman in 2009, Konz has grown into a dominant force. Teams are likely to take a close look at his medical workup at the combine. He missed the end of the 2009 season with blood clots in his lungs.

5. Ben Habern, Oklahoma, (Soph./redshirt), 6-3, 292
With QB Landry Jones coming back, Habern was thought to be leaning the same direction.

Offensive guard

1. David DeCastro, Stanford, (Soph./redshirt), 6-5, 312
A top interior line prospect coming out of high school, DeCastro has matured quickly and dominates in the running game.

2. Barrett Jones, Alabama, (Soph./redshirt), 6-5, 301
A starter in every game during the team's national title run in 2009, Jones missed five weeks with a high ankle injury in 2010. He was still an All-SEC pick.

3. Ryan Miller, Colorado, (Jr.), 6-8, 312
Miller has committed to return to Boulder next season. He has started and played every offensive snap the past two seasons.

4. Rokevious Watkins, South Carolina, (Jr.), 6-4, 325
Coach Steve Spurrier expects Watkins back unless the NFL advises him that he could be a first- or second-round pick.

5. Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina, (Soph./redshirt), 6-3, 295
Moved from center to right guard at the start of 2010 but likely lacks the sand in his pants to be an NFL guard. Coaches describe him as a high-energy player, which is rare for up-front blockers.

Offensive tackle

1. Tyron Smith, Southern Cal, (Jr.), 6-5, 285
Pac-10 opponents voted Smith the Morris Trophy winner, awarded to the top lineman (offense and defense) in the conference. He played on the right side for the Trojans but has the feet and body type to play left tackle in the NFL.

2. Jonathan Martin, Stanford, (Soph./redshirt), 6-6, 305
A rising prospect who was a first-team All-Pac-10 pick in his second season as a starter.

3. Matt Reynolds, BYU, (Jr.), 6-6, 322
Playing left tackle in the Mountain West is no breeze, not with TCU and Utah on the schedule, but it's doubtful Reynolds has the bend to be on the blind side in the NFL.

4. Nate Potter, Boise State, (Jr.), 6-6, 295
He has the versatility to pique scouts' interest, but Potter seems likely to stick around for another shot at a fairy tale finish in Boise.

5. Mike Adams, Ohio State, (Jr.), 6-8, 305
Adams plans to return to school for his senior season.

Defensive end

1. Da'Quan Bowers, Clemson, (Jr.), 6-4, 275
The new No. 1 with Andrew Luck sticking with Stanford? He'd answer many problems for Carolina. Bowers is a pass-rushing machine, but he also has the size and plays with enough leverage to be a power end at the next level. He had 15.5 sacks and might be a better prospect than his late friend Gaines Adams.

2. Robert Quinn, North Carolina, (Jr.), 6-5, 268
Quinn, suspended for accepting travel and jewelry from agents worth a reported $5,600, is motivated to prove his worth on the football field. He's a first-round lock if teams accept positive referrals from UNC coaches.

3. J.J. Watt, Wisconsin, (Jr.), 6-6, 292
A natural five-technique in the mold of Steelers DE Aaron Smith, Watt plays with power and determination. Watt said via Twitter that his announcement would come "sometime mid-week" but is expected to be a first-round pick.

4. Aldon Smith, Missouri, (Soph./redshirt), 6-4, 258
Smith battled through a leg injury this year, but the rush end is an intriguing prospect. Some project Smith as a second- or third-round pick, which would probably be enough for him to bolt for the NFL. He's undersized for a defensive end right now, but could be used in a 3-4 defense as a rush linebacker.

5. Quinton Coples, North Carolina, (Jr.), 6-6, 272
Moved from defensive end, Coples thrived in the interior, registering 14 tackles for loss (8½ sacks). According to reports, Coples is undecided about returning for his senior year or entering the draft. If he returns to campus, he will join Tydreke Powell to give the Heels an intimidating pair of frontline defenders.

Defensive tackle

Marcell Dareus can play both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense. (US Presswire)  
Marcell Dareus can play both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense. (US Presswire)  
1. Nick Fairley, Auburn, (Jr.), 6-4, 298
In a word: tenacious. Fairley draws two -- many times even three -- blockers. It hasn't been enough, as Fairley finished with 12 sacks and even more tackles for loss. It would be a surprise if he doesn't throw his hat into the NFL ring -- and a bigger surprise if he's not a top 10 pick.

2. Marcell Dareus, Alabama, (Jr.), 6-3, 309

Versatility to slide along the line in any defense -- he could be a defensive end in the 3-4 or play inside for 4-3 teams -- makes Dareus highly attractive to almost every team, and it's doubtful he'll sneak past the numerous 3-4 defense teams in the top 10 of the '11 draft.

3. Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple, (Jr.), 6-5 305
Wilkerson, a first-team All-MAC performer, was a dominant force for Temple in 2010, playing his way onto the radar of NFL scouts. Wilkerson has an NFL frame and lives in enemy backfields (70 tackles, 9½ sacks).

4. Corey Liuget, Illinois, (Jr.), 6-3, 300
The Illini defense's breakout star, he required consistent double teams and still found ways to dominate the interior line. The second-team all-Big Ten pick led Illinois with 12½ tackles for loss, 4½ sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. He told the Chicago Tribune he's a "50-50" bet to turn pro, but rumors persist that he'll make the jump.

5. Jurrell Casey, Southern Cal, (Jr.), 6-1, 305
He's entering the draft. An active interior defensive lineman, Casey led the team in tackles for loss (11) and sacks (4½).

Inside linebacker

1. Dont'a Hightower, Alabama, (Soph./redshirt), 6-4, 258
Back playing at a high level after an arduous recovery from a serious knee injury. If he returns to Alabama for a final season, he'll be one of the nation's best defensive players.

2. Martez Wilson, Illinois, (Jr.), 6-4, 250
The fourth-year junior recovered from a lost 2009, when he suffered a herniated disk in his neck in the opener, to become a first-team all-Big Ten pick by the media and a second-time pick by the coaches.

3. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, (Jr.), 6-2, 263
Upshaw doesn't mind a potential crowd at linebacker on the Tide roster. He has committed to play at Alabama as a senior.

4. Jerry Franklin, Arkansas, (Jr.), 6-1, 241
Extremely durable and productive, Franklin has led the Razorbacks in tackles three straight years. A likely weak-side fit in the NFL, Franklin came to Arkansas as a wide receiver/safety and he's smooth in pass coverage.

5. Chris Galippo, Southern Cal, (Jr.), 6-2, 250
He closed out his junior season strong after recovering from a concussion -- forced fumble, interception and six tackles against Notre Dame.

Outside linebacker

UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers projects as a top-15 talent. (US Presswire)  
UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers projects as a top-15 talent. (US Presswire)  
1. Akeem Ayers, UCLA, (Jr.), 6-4, 255

Big and fast and strong, Ayers can also play as a defensive end in pass-rushing situations. He's a rising prospect with top-15 talent. He has explosive athleticism, coming up with 68 tackles, including 10 for loss, as a junior, when he was the only returning starter among UCLA's front seven.

2. Justin Houston, Georgia (Jr.), 6-3, 258
Houston thrived in new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme as a pass-rushing linebacker, finishing second in the SEC with 10 sacks. Houston also wound up with 18½ tackles for loss and has 20 sacks in his three-year Georgia career.

3. Zach Brown, North Carolina, (Jr.), 6-2, 225
Lost in the shadow of headliners Bruce Carter and Quan Strudivant, Brown and sophomore Kevin Reddick ensure that Chapel Hill will be home to quality linebackers next season if they stick around as expected.

4. Travis Lewis, Oklahoma, (Jr.), 6-2, 232
A middle linebacker in the Sooners' scheme, he has been OU's most prolific tackler since stepping into the lineup three years ago. He finished this season with 99 tackles, five for loss, and amassed 359 tackles in three seasons.

5. Tank Carder, TCU, (Jr.), 6-2, 237
Don't judge Carder by his stats. He was the glue of the Horned Frogs' defense. It wasn't any big surprise to TCU fans that it was Carder who stepped up and made the Rose Bowl's game-saving play, batting down a 2-point conversion attempt with two minutes left in the game to earn defensive MVP honors in arguably the biggest game in program history.


1. Patrick Peterson, LSU, (Jr.), 6-1, 222

A dynamic talent in the mold of Charles Woodson who could start and return punts for any team in the NFL this Sunday. The knocks on Peterson are few, and we're not convinced they're legit -- some argue he's over-muscled and will be too stiff to flip his hips against elite quickness and speed in the NFL. If he dispels the nit-pickers in pre-draft workouts, he's a top-five pick.

2. Brandon Harris, Miami (Fla.), (Jr.), 5-11, 195
He didn't have a great showing in the Hurricanes' bowl game -- who did? -- but despite early thoughts that he would return to Miami for his senior season, Harris announced his intentions to declare for the draft.

3. Janoris Jenkins, Florida, (Jr.), 5-11, 186
He's not blazing fast or explosive, but Jenkins is solid in almost every facet of the game.

4. Chase Minnifield, Virginia, (Jr.), 6-0, 185
The junior was spectacular at times this season. Minnifield led the Cavaliers with six interceptions and he helped hold together a secondary that was depleted by injuries.

5. Aaron Williams, Texas, (Jr.), 6-1, 195
Williams and coach Mack Brown discussed his options, and then decided he couldn't pass up the NFL. Williams said the NFL advised him he would be no worse than a second-round pick.

Free safety

1. Rahim Moore, UCLA, (Jr.), 6-1 196

The NFL is ready for this ballhawk. The nation's leader with 10 interceptions as a sophomore, Moore had a more quiet 2010, picking off only one pass. He broke up four passes and finished with 77 tackles.

2. Kenny Tate, Maryland, (Jr.), 6-4, 220
Tate emerged as a top safety in his junior season and could play his way into an earlier round of the draft if he stays and has a strong senior year. The former wideout has great hands, is one of the best tacklers on the team and always seems to be around the ball and making big plays.

3. Robert Sands, West Virginia, (Jr.), 6-4, 221
A physical freak, Sands is a large safety who hits like a linebacker. His speed is somewhat in question but his big-play ability gives him an intangible that is hard to overlook.

4. Eddie Whitley, Virginia Tech, (Jr.), 6-1, 195
He has had nagging injuries, including a foot injury that kept him out against Duke this season, but Whitley is a ballhawk and centerfielder type who could excel in the Cover-2.

5. Lance Mitchell, Oregon State, (Jr.), 6-2, 208
He had knee surgery after last season but started 2010 with a bang -- 18 tackles vs. TCU -- and has the type of speed NFL coaches will covet in a "big nickel" package.

Strong safety

1. Mark Barron, Alabama, (Jr.), 6-2, 210
His health -- Barron missed the Tide's bowl win with a reported torn pectoral muscle after first trying to play through it -- will be evaluated. The lone returning starter in the secondary for Alabama entering this season, Barron has excellent range. The two-time first-team All-SEC pick was warned by coach Nick Saban that leaving is a risk in the face of a possible NFL lockout.

2. Tyler Sash, Iowa, (Jr.), 6-1, 210
The All-Big Ten safety recovered from a shoulder injury to have an incredibly productive season. He's an intelligent defensive signal-caller and all-around athlete who received multiple Division I basketball scholarship offers.

3. Delano Howell, Stanford, (Jr.), 5-11, 198
A big hitter who plays the position like a linebacker but isn't a liability in coverage (four interceptions in 2010 regular season).

4. Sean Cattouse, California, (Jr.), 6-2, 216
Maybe best known for being trucked by Stanford QB Andrew Luck, he also had 15 tackles in that game and is a big-play defender.

5. Tony Dye, UCLA, (Jr.), 5-11, 205
He has been used as a nickel cornerback and strong safety and has benefitted from being surrounded by top-tier talent. He had 96 tackles and a team-leading nine passes defended in 2010.


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