No. 5 Ohio State at No. 1 USC
Prediction: USC 32 – Ohio State 17
What a great match-up and one that can’t help but get the juices flowing even if you don’t have a rooting interest in the game. Both teams have loads of future NFL talent, so read on to see who could end up becoming a top draft choice and possibly end up on Seattle’s roster.
With RB Chris Wells doubtful for the game, Ohio State will struggle to get the ball moving on a consistent basis and USC always plays well in front of the Trojan Faithful at the Coliseum.
USC LB Rey Maualuga – Had he come out last year, he likely would have been battling to be the top middle linebacker taken in the draft. He loves college football though and he loves playing for Pete Carroll. Maualuga is one of the most physically imposing linebackers to play the game. He’s got impressive size (6-2, 255) and outstanding speed (4.55) and both are complemented nicely by his instincts. Maualuga is an explosive and devastating tackler who is very physical at the point of attack and he uses his hands like a 10-year NFL veteran. If he has any sort of a weakness, it’s that he’s a bit stiff in coverage, but even so, he still gets into his drops quickly and he covers his zoen adequately. He also has a tendency to over-pursue, allowing backs to cut back on him at times. He’s projected as a sure-fire top 10 selection in next year’s NFL Draft.
USC LB Brian Cushing – He and Maualuga have played together for four years and there isn’t a better pair of linebackers in the country. Cushing is the prototypical outside linebacker, who could move inside if needed. He’s 6-4, 255 pounds of pure athleticism and he’s very physical for a player with his skills and athleticism. His only negative is that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy, missing three games last year due to a high ankle sprain, while missing five games with a shoulder separation in 2005. He has also endured two surgeries (shoulder and knee) after spring practices in 2006 and 2007. Cushing projects as a strongside linebacker and will probably go off the board late in the first round with good offseason workouts.
USC S Taylor Mays – He’s only three years removed from high school, but Mays could have left last year and been drafted in the top 15 selections. He’s huge (6-4, 225) and he’s got amazing speed and instincts. After watching Mays play in high school, I was shocked to see how physical he became once he arrived at USC. He was generally known as a soft player with tons of athleticism, but he’s shaken off that stigma to become one of the more feared safeties in the country as well as a ballhawk in the Trojan secondary. He may end up staying for his senior season, but if he leaves early, I have no doubt he’ll end up being drafted in the top 15 selections next April.
USC DT Fili Moala – Some of projected Moala as a top five draft choice in 2009, but I don’t think his production has warranted going that high. As far as physical abilities are concerned, he’s right up there though. Moala is very strong and he uses his size (6-3, 300) and bulk to be a force inside. His only issue is consistency and maintaining that intensity to reach his potential. He’s got slow feet and he isn’t much of a pass-rusher, so that is probably why he won’t be drafted very high. Still, he’s a run-stuffer and teams are always looking to find someone to clog the middle of the line. He’s likely a late first-rounder, but he could slip into the second round because he’s one dimensional.
Ohio State LB James Laurinaitis – Like Maualuga, Laurinaitis could have left early last year and easily could have been drafted in the top 10 selections. He’s very instinctive and he’s got the ideal size (6-2, 240) and athleticism to be a mainstay in the middle of a pro defense. Laurinaitis has outstanding speed and he reads plays so well, more often than not he gets to the point of attack before blockers are able to get their hands on him. While he’s got adequate strength, Laurinaitis relies on his technique and speed to defeat blockers and he doesn’t shed very well. Where Maualuga is a physical playmaker, Laurinaitis is more of a technician who rarely seems to be out of position. Compares favorably to Seattle MLB Lofa Tatupu, but with better size and speed. Will be drafted very early next April.
Ohio State CB Malcolm Jenkins – When you’re looking for a prototypical corner prospect, Jenkins fits that mold to a tee. He’s 6-0, 200 and he runs a 4.4 forty. He’s physical with receivers at the line and he doesn’t lack for confidence. Sometimes he takes too many gambles in coverage and that will cost him early on. The problem with Jenkins is he hasn’t been thrown at very often in his college career, so when he gets to the pros and gets picked on constantly, how will he hold up mentally? Either way, Jenkins will most likely be the top corner prospect taken next spring and the team that gets him will be very happy they selected him.
Ohio State WR Brian Robiskie – For a long while, the Buckeyes have produced NFL ready wideouts on a yearly basis. Recently Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez have carried on that tradition and Robiskie is the next in line. He’s got good size (6-2, 205), long arms and strong hands. He does a good job of keeping the ball off his body and he makes catches in traffic. Robiskie isn’t a great blocker down field, but he’s adequate in this area. Where he may struggle is getting separation from corners and safeties out of his cuts because he lacks top end speed. He’s likely to end up a late first round selection.
Other players to watch: USC QB Mark Sanchez; USC S Kevin Ellison; USC TE Anthony McCoy; OSU OT Alex Boone; OSU C Jim Cordle; OSU LB Marcus Freeman; OSU DE Lawrence Wilson; OSU QB Todd Boeckman.
Florida Atlantic at Michigan State
Prediction: Michigan State 32 – Florida Atlantic 27
Michigan State head coach Mark D’Antonio has been hard at work stocking the Spartan roster with talent, but he’s still working with some of the prior regime’s players and tops on that list is RB Javon Ringer.
Ringer burst on the scene in 2007 by rushing for 1,447 yards and six touchdowns while only starting nine games and sharing time with Jehuu Caulcrick. This year, the stout runner, who goes 5-9, 200, will see a bulk of the carries and he seems ready for the workload.
QB Brian Hoyer has impressive size (6-3, 220) and enough athleticism to keep teams honest, but he makes some questionable throws at times, relying on his above-average arm-strength to fit the ball into tight spots. He’ll be a late-round option for someone just because of his potential, but he has some work to do mechanically before he will be ready to play pro ball.
On defense the Spartans have a solid safety prospect in Otis Wiley who is the leader in the secondary. Wiley has prototypical size and speed for a free safety prospect and he’s a big-hitter as well.
Also, keep an eye on junior K Brett Swenson who won’t be coming out this year, but as a freshman he was named a First Team Freshman All-American and was honorable mention All-Big 10 after hitting 15 of his 19 field goal attempts and last season he hit on 15 of 22 attempts including a career-long from 46 yards out.
Swenson has an accurate leg and he’s working on his kickoffs which need more height, but there’s no denying he’s one of the solid young kickers in the country right now.
Florida Atlantic has one of the top offenses in the country with junior QB Rusty Smith at the controls. Smith has an excellent arm and he’s very smart. He’s also got prototypical size for a west coast quarterback. He doesn’t have the quickest delivery, but it’s good enough and he’s tough.
If he chooses to come out this year, which is unlikely, he’d probably end up being a mid-round choice and a steal if he ends up with the right team. However, it’s very probable that he will return for his senior year hoping to boost his stock into the second round or even into the late firs round.
Just so people can know some of his stats, Smith completed 59% of his passes last year for 3,688 with 32 touchdowns and only nine interceptions and this year he’s already off to a fast start hitting on 55% of his passes for 574 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
Head coach Howard Schnellenberger has a knack for developing some great pro quarterbacks (Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar both tutored under him while at the University of Miami) and Smith is the next in that line.
WR Cortez Gent is the other big name on the FAU roster. He combined with Smith last year to hook up 64 times for 1,082 yards (a 16.9 yard average) and nine touchdowns and in two games he’s already hauled in 11 receptions for 205 yards and one touchdown this year.
Gent uses his impressive size (6-2, 192) and adequate speed (4.55) to his advantage on smaller DBs, but he needs to work harder on his route-running. He’s got strong hands and, while sometimes he lacks ideal concentration, he makes the tough catches look easy. He isn’t the best blocker, but he works hard and when you have someone with his physical skills with his work ethic, you can bet he’ll do what’s necessary to be successful.
Other players to watch: MSU C Joel Nitchman; MSU WR Mark Dell; MSU WR B.J. Cunningham; MSU LB Eric Gordon; S Dan Fortener; FAU LB Frantz Joseph; FAU FB William Rose; FAU DT Jervonte Jackson; FAU RB Charles Pierre.
No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 21 Fresno State
Prediction: Fresno State 22 – Wisconsin 17
This game sets up perfectly for an upset.
Wisconsin heads west to a tough place to play while Fresno State has one of their deepest and best teams in years.
At the helm of the FSU attack is QB Tom Brandstater who opened eyes last year with his solid performance in leading the Bulldogs to a 9-4 record and a win over Georgia Tech in the Humanitarian Bowl. He’s got a strong, accurate arm and he doesn’t make bad decisions. Last year he had a 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio while throwing for 2,654 yards.
Brandstater has excellent size (6-5, 220), good mechanics and he’s smart. He recognizes defenses well and he makes good decisions, keeping his mistakes to a minimum.
One of Brandstater’s top targets is TE Bear Pasco, a big and physical tight end prospect with just enough athleticism to be a threat in the short and medium zones. His size (6-6, 260) also means he’s a nice big target in the red zone. He’s actually a better blocker than a receiver at this point, so that means he should easily find playing time early and often at the next level.
Last year, Pasco put up solid numbers – 45 catches for 553 yards and four touchdowns – so 2008 will mean a lot as to where he ends up going in the draft. Right now he’s a late second or early third rounder.
CB A.J. Jefferson is a stud on returns. He’s also becoming better at defending the pass. He led the nation in kick returns last year with a 35.8 yard average and he returned two for touchdowns. He has a chance to move up draft boards with a solid junior season this year.
Wisconsin doesn’t lack for talented players either.
TE Travis Beckum is this year’s Dustin Keller, except he’s more well-rounded than the New York Jets first round selection.
Since Beckum is undersized for a true tight end, he will need to play H-Back at the next level, but he runs good routes, he’s a heck of an athlete and he’s got sticky hands. Last year in a run-oriented offense, Beckum still notched 75 receptions for 982 yards and six touchdowns and was generally double and sometimes triple teamed by opposing defenses.
He’s a better blocker than people give him credit for, but Beckum will struggle holding the edge against pro defensive ends.
DE Matt Shaughnessy has started since his freshman season and he’s an ideal pass-rusher with his speed, quickness and long arms. He needs to add a little more weight to be able to hold up against pro offensive tackles, but there’s no doubting his athleticism and intensity.
Wisconsin always has talented offensive linemen and Kraig Urbik is a three year starter with experience at both right tackle and right guard. With his size (6-7, 332), Urbik can just maul people, but he’s better at drive-blocking because he doesn’t have the most nimble feet.
RB P.J. Hill is probably better suited as a short-yardage back in the NFL. He isn’t very quick and he’s only got 4.6 speed. However, he’s tough and he runs well inside the tackles. He’s also got relatively soft hands, so he could be an ideal fullback prospect who can be a feature back at times much like Seattle’s Leonard Weaver.
Other players to watch: FSU S Marvin Haynes; FSU DE Wilson Ramos; FSU WR Chastin West; UW LB Jonathan Casillas; UW S Shane Carter; LB Elijah Hodge; UW OG Andy Kemp.
Some other games to keep an eye on: North Carolina State at Clemson; Iowa State at Iowa; Michigan at Notre Dame; No. 2 Georgia at South Carolina; No. 16 Oregon at Purdue.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.