It's not often fans can be excited about the talent at a position where they lost a recent Heisman Trophy winner.
Alabama faithful, get excited.
The Crimson Tide are doing less mourning over the loss of running back Mark Ingram than they are pining for the chance to see rising junior Trent Richardson as the featured back.
This isn't a knock on Ingram, a first-round pick of the Saints in April. His tough running earned the respect of admirers in the stands and NFL front offices alike.
But there is a true sense of anticipation building in Tuscaloosa to see 2008 consensus high school All-American and five-star recruit Richardson get a chance to touch the ball 15-25 times a game. He ran for over 2,000 yards as a high school senior but, short of spelling Ingram in spurts and for a few games while Ingram recovered from a knee injury, rarely received more than 10 carries and two receptions per game he averaged last year.
|Trent Richardson has always shown game-breaking ability. With Mark Ingram in the NFL, he's positioned to produce big numbers. (Getty Images)|
Opposing defensive coordinators are complimentary of Richardson's skills. He has the ability to run between the tackles with good pad level, balance and leg strength, finds cutback lanes with vision and jump-steps, and accelerates into the open field with above-average quickness and speed for his thick, compact.
Richardson has aspects of his game on which he needs to work (four fumbles in 2010). He must remain healthy to maximize his production and he relies on a new quarterback -- one who doesn't have playmaking receiver Julio Jones to throw to outside -- to keep the run-pass ratio as close to balanced as possible.
There's much to like about Richardson from an NFL evaluators' standpoint. His talent is undeniable, his offensive line includes multiple future NFL starters, and the team's defense will undoubtedly allow head coach Nick Saban to run the same patient, run-first offense that has helped the Tide succeed over the past few years.
If all goes well for Richardson in 2011, look for him to be selected earlier in the first round than Ingram, the 28th overall selection in 2011.
Top 10 SEC prospects for the 2012 NFL Draft
Underclass denoted with an asterisk
1. *Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina 6-4/230/4.56
If South Carolina reaches lofty heights as predicted by many, the 2010 SEC East champions need Jeffery to have a junior year similar to the one Alabama's Julio Jones had last fall. He possesses the size, strength, foot quickness and leaping ability to dominate smaller corners on short, intermediate and deep routes. But, like Jones, he must also prove his long speed and show more consistent hands before scouts are willing to consider him a top-10 prospect.
2. *Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama 6-3/192/4.49 Not considered an elite-tier prospect on the same level as LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, Kirkpatrick's height, length, tenaciousness and speed certainly fits scouts' prototypes for the position. Learning when to dial back the aggressiveness in coverage and run support as a junior could make him the top cornerback prospect in this class, as well as the top prospect from the conference.
3. *Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama 5-11/224/4.52 Ingram learned a lesson last April, in that running backs are just too likely to be dinged up throughout their NFL careers to earn a draft slot consummate with their production and potential. Richardson's talent might indicate he's one of the top five players in the 2012 draft, but the track record of injuries for running backs at the next level may drop him into the middle of the first round -- even with an outstanding 2011 season and Combine workout.
4. *Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU 6-0/178/4.45 Claiborne worked in the shadow of Peterson last fall, but did not escape the eyes of league coaches -- he joined Kirkpatrick on their all-conference second team -- or NFL scouts. He's a bit slight but has good height and gives no quarter against thicker receivers. The former receiver also has the ball skills to create turnovers instead of merely stopping drives.
5. Cordy Glenn, OT/OG, Georgia 6-5/338/5.28 Glenn is making the move from left guard to left tackle, taking over for oft-injured Trinton Sturdivant. A solid season at that position could push him higher up this list, but even if he does not look agile enough to stay there at the next level, his massive frame, arm length and surprisingly nimble feet could earn him mid-to-late first-round grades from teams utilizing power-blocking schemes.
6. Courtney Upshaw, DE/LB, Alabama 6-2/268/4.76 Saban's aggressive, NFL-style scheme gives Upshaw every chance to show his versatility. Scouts have seen him pressure the quarterback with his hand on the ground, rush off the edge standing up, and play the run between the tackles. Adding strong hands and closing speed to his ability to play most any role should make him a valued commodity by 4-3 and 3-4 teams alike.
7. *Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas 6-0/228/4.43 Once Davis worked his way into the starting lineup (Week 6), he tore up the SEC. He led the conference in total yards with 1,322 yards and scored 13 times (12 in the season's last seven weeks) on the season using a nice blend of size and speed few backs in the class can match. Though Davis tends to run with his pads a bit high and won't have as much success running east-west in the NFL as he does in college, he should only get better as a junior. With another year of similar production, teams will consider drafting him around the same spot where former Arkansas back Felix Jones landed in 2008 (No. 22 overall, Cowboys).
8. *Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama 6-4/258/4.74 If Hightower had not suffered a torn left ACL in 2009, he may already be in the NFL. Physically, the tall, thick Tennessee high school phenom is nearly a clone of former teammate and top-10 pick Rolando McClain. He is an effective blitzer who regularly lines up with his hand on the ground, provides pop between the tackles in the run game, and though not elite in his ability to change directions, works hard to cover a lot of ground in coverage. If healthy, look for Hightower to find himself in the first-round mix.
9. *Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina 6-1/194/4.52 Tall and wiry strong, Gilmore plays with the attitude and short memory required of NFL starting cornerbacks. He uses his length to control receivers off the line of scrimmage when in press, and also breaks on the ball and clamps down on receivers quickly after the catch when in zone. Gilmore will drop some interceptions and has only adequate long speed, but he makes enough plays in coverage to earn a top-40 grade from scouts.
10. *Devin Taylor, DE/OLB, South Carolina 6-7/260/4.76 Even on a SEC defense filled with NFL-quality talent, it's tough to ignore the way the tall and relatively lean Taylor plays the strong side of the line. Even more impressive is the way he moves in space when dropped into coverage. Though Taylor hasn't shown an elite first-step as a pass rusher during his career, his production (13 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks in 2010) should only increase this fall with rising senior Melvin Ingram and stud freshman Jadeveon Clowney bringing attention to the other side of the line.
Five others to watch
1. Josh Chapman, DT, Alabama 6-1/315/5.02 Thick nose tackle prospect who might not fill the stat sheet, but earns scouts' respect by playing low and strong against the run.
2. Greg Childs, WR, Arkansas 6-3/214/4.56 Tall receiver possessing strong hands to win jump balls and bring in wayward throws, if not superior speed. He could be a top-40 pick if he proves he is over the knee injury that ended his 2010 season prematurely.
3. *Kwame Geathers, DT, Georgia 6-5/348/5.33 The NFL is a family affair for the Geathers, as father Jumpy, and brothers Robert and Clifton have all played in the league. This redshirt sophomore tends to play high off the snap, but his size and brute strength give him a chance to eventually be the highest-rated prospect of them all.
4. Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina 6-2/271/4.82 Given a chance to play more regularly (Ingram had nine sacks in 2010 as a rotational player), this thick-but-agile 4-3 end/3-4 linebacker prospect's stock could rise in a similar manner to former Tennessee end Robert Ayers three years ago.
5. Brandon Mosley, OT, Auburn 6-5/305/5.22 The Tigers' lunch-pail right tackle plays with balance, strength and a nasty streak NFL offensive line coaches love. It would not be surprising to see him earn All-SEC honors this year, perform well at the Senior Bowl, and then hold his own athletically at the scouting combine to earn a second-round grade.
Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftSCout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter at @ChadReuter.