In preparation for the 2013 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: 11
2012 NFL Draft picks: 1 - DE Greg Scruggs (7th round, 232 overall)
Unlike some fans throughout the football landscape, most supporters of the University of Louisville Cardinals look back fondly on Bobby Petrino. Under his guidance, the Cardinals featured legitimate NFL talent like pass rusher Elvis Dumervil and running back Michael Bush and with the help of quarterback Brian Brohm emerged from the Big East as a legitimate BCS threat.
While the Cardinals have yet to enjoy the same kind of success on the field or on draft day since Petrino left, there is quiet optimism that with head coach Charlie Strong and sophomore sensation Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, good times are here again for Louisville.
Whereas under Petrino the Cardinals were known for their offensive firepower, this team has taken on the aggression and resiliency that were staples of Strong's defenses while serving as the coordinator under Ron Zook and Urban Meyer while at the University of Florida as well as while heading up the defense under first Lou Holtz and then Steve Spurrier while at the University of South Carolina.
Having led the Cardinals to bowl games following each of his first two seasons at the helm, Strong appears to have his young team in contention for the Big East crown. With many of their best players young (the team lists only 12 seniors on their entire roster) and hungry, Louisville may be on the verge of big things -- both on the field and in the NFL draft.
Top-five prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft
1. OC Mario Benavides (6-4, 302)
Toughness and reliability are two of the most important attributes NFL teams look for in interior offensive linemen prospects and in Benavides (pictured above) they'll find both. A highly regarded prep prospect, Benavides elected to sign with Louisville despite playing his prep ball in Texas and has proven a star since, earning Freshman All-American honors in 2009 and All-Big East recognition after each of the past two seasons. Benavides' ultimate pro grade could be determined by his medical, as he's played through some tough injuries over his career, including a knee injury last year that sidelined him for the first three games of the season. I'd like to see Benavides play with a little more power this season but he has enough athleticism to make an NFL roster as an interior lineman and uses his hands well. He enters the year as NFLDraftScout.com's No. 5 rated center for the 2013 draft.
2. S Hakeem Smith (6-1, 185)*
Based on his impactful play over the first two starting seasons of his career, one could make the argument that Smith deserved to lead this list. After redshirting in 2009, Smith simply led the Cardinals with 88 tackles, including six tackles for loss and in doing so earned the Big East's Defensive "Rookie of the Year." While Smith's tackle numbers slipped slightly (84 tackles) in 2011, he developed into much more of a reliable defender in coverage, seeing his number of passes broken up jump from one in 2010 to nine last season. He also notched his second career interception and continued the reliable, physical tackling that has already helped him notch four forced fumbles over his career, resulting in his earning First Team All Big East accolades in 2011. Smith looks stouter on tape than his listed size and appears capable of following the lead of former Louisville standouts Kerry Rhodes and William Gay as productive NFL defensive backs.
One of the primary reasons why some project Louisville to rise to the top of the Big East this season is the talent they possess in the secondary. While this unit was plagued by injuries and inconsistency a year ago, there is no denying that in Smith and Bushell, the Cardinals boast legitimate NFL-caliber athleticism. Bushell, who originally signed and played with the University of Florida after being a very highly regarded prep prospect, didn't even join the Cardinals until after the team's training camp a year ago but quickly ascended to the top of the depth chart. While only playing in nine games, he registered 50 tackles, three passes broken up, an interception and proved a standout special teams performer, returning the opening kickoff against Connecticut for a 100-yard touchdown and blocking a field goal against West Virginia that was also returned for a score. For his efforts, Bushell was recognized with First Team All Big East honors and there is no doubt that he has the talent to do more in 2012. Scouts, however, will have to do their homework on Bushell as he could serve as a tour guide should his football career not pan out. Prior to playing with Louisville, he'd played high school football in the states of Florida and Texas, spent two years with the Gators (redshirted in 2008, 14 tackles, one interception as a reserve in 2009) and was enrolled at Cedar Valley Community College. Consistent struggles with off-field issues, including academics, has played a role in his travels.
4. OG Alex Kupper (6-3, 285)
As a former walk-on, Kupper lacks the pedigree scouts are looking for but he's quietly developed into one of Louisville's most reliable offensive linemen. Last season served as a perfect example of this as Kupper started the first three games of the season at center while Benavides was injured and made the switch over to left tackle when further injuries depleted the line. At his size, Kupper was overmatched at times, but he improved as the season went on and is slated to keep this role in 2012 despite the fact a sprained MCL suffered during the annual Red and White Game in April has hampered his development. Lacking the athleticism and arm length to remain outside at tackle in the NFL, Kupper could get a shot as a developmental interior lineman due to his versatility, selflessness and grit.
Though Brown lacks the wiggle, acceleration and vision that made Bush special while with the Cardinals, there are similaries between the two. Like Bush, Brown signed with Louisville hoping to play quarterback and served as the team's Wildcat option early in his career. He made the full-time switch to running back just last season and led the team with 140 rushing attempts for 533 yards and four touchdowns as Strong kept up a rotation of backs. Strong has said that he'd prefer for one back to develop into a bell-cow and by playing well down the stretch last season Brown could be in position to be that guy. Blessed with great size, power and surprisingly soft hands (like the 6-2, 243 pound Bush), Brown could serve as an effective battering ram complement to the mobile Bridgewater.
LB Preston Brown (6-2, 258)
LB Daniel Brown (6-1, 221)
TE Nate Ford (6-5, 230)
RB Jeremy Wright (5-10, 200)
WR Andrell Smith (6-3, 210)
For more 2012 college football draft previews click here.
Photo credit: US Presswire