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Watch out for these underclassman breakout candidates

by | NFLDraftScout.com
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The top senior prospects for the 2012 NFL Draft have been identified by National Football Scouting. But the offseason prep work has only begun for the league's talent evaluators.

At this time last season, few scouts would've registered a pulse at the mention of underclassmen such as Cameron Newton, Corey Liuget and Nick Fairley. Much can change in the matter of four months. All three were first-round picks in April.

Juniors and redshirt sophomores dominate the top of the draft. In the 2011 draft, 12 of the top 14 overall selections were underclassmen. At this rate, teams have no choice but to be searching for the next breakout underclassmen and project who might declare to round out the draft class of 2012.

Not all underclassmen come out of nowhere -- Landry Jones has been starting at Oklahoma since he was a freshman. (Getty Images)  
Not all underclassmen come out of nowhere -- Landry Jones has been starting at Oklahoma since he was a freshman. (Getty Images)  
Even as scouts are not allowed to speak with, or ask coaches about, non-seniors during their campus visits, this process isn't entirely guess-work.

For the most part, the top underclassmen make their presence known during their freshman and sophomore campaigns. The top three quarterbacks in the 2012 draft will likely be juniors Andrew Luck (Stanford), Matt Barkley (Southern Cal) and Landry Jones (Oklahoma). They're known commodities with NFL-level skills, and all three are heading into their third year as starters.

There are 50 other juniors and redshirt sophomores across the country already with legitimate chances to be top-100 picks if they choose to declare for the 2012 draft. Luck's blindside protector at Stanford, left tackle Jonathan Martin, is one of the West Coast's top prospects.

Alabama running back Trent Richardson could lead the South's contingent of underclassmen and Boston College's instinctive, ultra-productive middle linebacker Luke Kuechly -- the nation's leading tackler in 2010 -- already greatly intrigues Northeast region scouts.

The trick is identifying and evaluating the players most average fans don't yet know.

Heading into the 2010 season, Auburn was expected to be looking up at Alabama in the SEC West. But two breakout performers, Cam Newton -- he won the Heisman Trophy after barely making the team's preseason media guide -- and defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who went from rotation player in 2009 to Lombardi Award winner in 2010, surprisingly skyrocketed to All-American and early first-round prospect status.

Illinois' season was less successful than Auburn's, but defensive tackle Corey Liuget and running back Mikel Leshoure went from key contributors in 2009 to stars for the 7-6 Texas Bowl victors in 2010. Their story is more typical of the underclassman prospect; they don't make a lot of preseason mock drafts or gain hype among analysts in August or September, but eventually ease into the college football consciousness as they get their chance to excel as regular starters or increasingly productive players.

Draft board jumps are not limited to prospects from major programs. Two or three talented players from non-BCS conference enter the draft early each year. Temple defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson put up big numbers as a sophomore (13 TFL, 9½ sacks), but wasn't a target for most scouts -- or fans and media -- until he proved his talent again last season.

Luck's choice to return to school as a redshirt junior, despite likely being a slam dunk No. 1 overall pick had he elected to leave, shows that teams can't make any assumptions about whether players will leave their school behind for the NFL. But they will certainly keep their eyes out for the next Fairley, Newton, Luiget or Leshoure.

We identify a handful of 2011 underclass breakout candidates below:

Arthur and Bryce Brown, ILB/RB, Kansas State
Both Brown brothers were among the top prospects in the country in their recruiting class out of Wichita East High School -- Arthur as a linebacker in 2008 and Bryce at running back in 2009. After originally signing with Miami (Fla.) and Tennessee, respectively, they find themselves together again in Manhattan, much closer to home. Scouts took note of their performances in the Wildcats' spring game, as redshirt junior Arthur posted 14 stops (nearly matching the 17 stops he had for Miami in 2008-2009) and redshirt sophomore Brown gained 73 yards and scored twice. Though Arthur is undersized at 6-feet-1, 225 pounds, his speed and explosive tackling could earn him a high grade with a strong junior year. Bryce will be compared to former KSU back and Miami Dolphins second-round pick Daniel Thomas, but his size (6-0, 220), speed and running style might be closer to Oklahoma Sooners star and future Dallas Cowboy DeMarco Murray.

Kwame Geathers, DT, Georgia
A redshirt sophomore, Geathers has NFL lineage to go with his 6-6, 326-pound frame. His brothers Robert and Clifton followed their uncle "Jumpy" to the NFL. Geathers made the coaches All-SEC Freshman team despite only seven tackles in eight games last season, but really excelled in the spring, winning the team's Defensive MVP award. His height, strength and ability to clog running lanes and push the pocket from the middle might remind scouts of former SEC underclass first-rounders like John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth.

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Gerald Hodges, OLB, Penn State
The Nittany Lions will be "Linebacker U" again if Hodges can blossom into the playmaker the team needs next to steady performers Michael Mauti and Nathan Stupar. The former safety had 31 tackles, 2½ for loss, in eight games last year but now has a chance to star as the weak-side starter. His tape in the team's Outback Bowl loss to Florida offered glimpses of the force he could become as a chase 'backer attacking run plays behind the line. He can quickly cover his third of the field with sub-4.6 speed. Coaches say he has made progress in understanding his role on defense during the offseason.

Jonathan Massaquoi, DE/OLB, Troy
The next Troy pass rusher went Fairley's route, attending Butler County Community College out of high school and racking up 11½ sacks in his only season there. After redshirting in 2009, he busted out with an All-Sun Belt season (20½ tackles for loss, 13½ sacks) by using a strong first step and low center of gravity to turn the corner as a pass rusher. Before the Liberia native joins cousins Visanthe Shiancoe (Minnesota Vikings tight end) and Mohamed Massaquoi (Cleveland Browns wide receiver) in the NFL, he'll need to use his hands to disengage from blockers more consistently. But like last year, when defensive tackle Mohammed Wilkerson really made his name as Temple took on Penn State early in the season, Massaquoi has two chances to impress scouts in September road games at Clemson and Arkansas. Big performances in one or both contests against ACC and SEC competition will get him on the top-50 radar.

Brandon McGee, CB, Miami (Fla.)
McGee couldn't get on the field regularly with junior All-ACC pick Brandon Harris and seniors Demarcus Van Dyke and Ryan Hill in front of him on the depth chart last season. He has only 17 career tackles and two pass breakups, which is miniscule production considering McGee played in 21 games his first two years on campus and has the size/speed combination (6-0/190/4.32) scouts expect to find when they arrive in Coral Gables each fall. With junior safeties Ray-Ray Armstrong and Vaughn Telemaque playing behind him and defensive-minded head coach Al Golden now in the fold, McGee has the license to play aggressively on the outside.

Alex Okafor, DE, Texas
Somewhat hidden inside in Texas' hybrid defensive scheme, Okafor moves outside to take over for Sam Acho. In this spot, Okafor should unleash his power and quickness off the edge to harass opposing quarterbacks. He actually started his assault early, racking up four sacks in the team's spring game. Okafor won't be the only breakout performer on the Longhorns' defense, but he'll be the one monitored closely by NFL observers. True sophomores Jackson Jeffcoat (defensive end) and Ashton Dorsey (defensive tackle) must wait until after at least the 2012 season before they can declare for the draft.

Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
Last season was supposed to be Sanu's breakout campaign, a follow-up to the great potential he showed as a rushing/receiving/Wildcat quarterback as a freshman. Hamstring and leg injuries limited him, however, in the second half of 2010 so he managed only 418 yards and two touchdowns on 44 receptions. Even with the transfer of Tom Savage, Sanu should still be a main target for Chas Dodd and the Scarlet Knights offense. A productive, healthy 2011 displaying his strong hands and tough running after the catch will put him in the conversation for a late first- or early second-round draft slot.

Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State
While all of the talk in the Evergreen State surrounded Huskies quarterback Jake Locker in recent seasons, Tuel quietly had a pretty good sophomore season in 2010. He completed 59.8 percent of his passes for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns -- better marks than his hyped in-state rival. Tuel's mobility and touch on fades and deep passes are impressive, as is his competitive nature on the field; like Locker, he'll need to take better care of his body when scrambling. He has gotten stronger this offseason, so more consistency driving the ball downfield and eliminating the interceptions (12 in 2010) as he matures will earn him top grades from NFL scouts in the 2012 or 2013 draft.

David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech
Despite Wilson being stuck in a rotation with Darren Evans and Ryan Williams, and thus getting less than nine carries a game, he flashed a burst indicative of his 4.3 speed and some toughness to bounce off tackles and even carry a defender over the first-down marker. His two kickoff returns for touchdowns also showed scouts how difficult it is to get the angle on him in the open field. Head coach Frank Beamer will split carries between Wilson and senior Josh Oglesby this year, but an increased workload and steady improvement in his cut decisiveness could boost him into the top 40 (where Williams was drafted by Arizona in April).

Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter at @ChadReuter.

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