Ohio State DE John Simon has one more chance to make an impression Saturday against hated Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
By Matt Feminis
Special to Stlouisrams.com
This weekend is the last opportunity to see prospects on teams who will not qualify for bowl games or are ineligible for a bowl, like Ohio State. Accordingly, here’s a handful of players on losing teams with Sunday talent.
Michigan vs. Ohio State at Ohio Stadium (Columbus, OH), Saturday 11 a.m. ABC
Ohio State DE John Simon — Even though Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer was fairly new to the job this past spring, he was more than comfortable raving publicly about Simon's makeup: "He's revealed himself around here for many years," Meyer said. "This didn't just surface. I'm putting him in a category that, I've only coached one or two like him...He's elite, elite." Simon's intangibles rate off the charts, and thanks to an exceptional weight-room work ethic, his tangibles are desirable, too. Simon is a rare breed: a workout warrior, a leader (two-time captain) and a character player whose tape and production only bolster his appeal. Rocked up and sawed off, Simon (6-2, 263) is built more like a linebacker than the 4-3 defensive end position he plays for the Buckeyes. In fact, his physical dimensions are among his only "negatives" — Simon has tweener traits, including average arm length. He exhibits average athleticism, speed and closing burst and is tightly wound — shows some stiffness in his hips and lateral agility is average. Additionally, he can be overpowered at the point of attack. However, he more than compensates with disruptive ability and pass-rush skill predicated on a good get-off, quick, active hands coordinated with his feet and a non-stop motor — can slap-and-swim or spin, fights to disengage and is relentless in pursuit of the quarterback. Simon's intensity, competitiveness, professional approach and passion for the game hold universal appeal and will provide comfort to the team which drafts him knowing exactly what they're getting — not unlike former OSU LB
Underclassman of note: Also keep any eye out (though he will likely catch your eye) for Michigan’s third-year sophomore pass rusher Jake Ryan, an emerging prospect who brings tenacity and a revved up motor of his own.
Kentucky vs. Tennessee at Neyland Stadium (Knoxville, TN), Saturday 11:21 a.m. SEC Network
WR Cordarrelle Patterson*, Tennessee — Patterson did not qualify academically out of high school, but he’s made up for lost time in a big way. He did not play football in 2009 while attending North Carolina Tech, then headed to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, where he dominated junior-college competition, garnered All-American recognition and racked up 12 school records. With the Vols, Patterson made an immediate impact (on national TV no less) when he toasted highly touted North Carolina State cornerback David Amerson on a 41-yard, out-and-up touchdown in the season opener. He followed that up with an eye-opening 67-yard end-around score, punctuating his arrival on the national scene.
Listed at 6-3, 205 pounds, Patterson has good length on a narrow, lean, slightly high-cut body. He’s still fairly raw, as he needs to refine his route running and eliminate concentration drops, but he’s an instinctive playmaker — as a receiver and returner — with first-round ability and big-time potential. Boasting a reported 39-inch vertical, Patterson took up sprinting at Hutchinson and blazed 10.33 seconds in the 100 meters. The speed and athleticism translate on the football field. Smooth and sudden off the line, he shows the ability to track throws and the body control and hands to adjust and snatch. Patterson distinguishes himself with the ball in his hands, as he is capable of creating magic by turning a short pass into a long gain (see Troy). He is one of the most exciting players in the country thanks to his electric open-field ability. He possesses the agility and elusiveness of much smaller receiver, displaying shiftiness and an innate feel for cutting against the grain to daylight. As a returner, he shows vision, burst, high-speed cuts and an extra gear to go the distance — averages over 29 yards per kickoff return, including a 98-yard TD against Mississippi State, and returned a punt 81 yards for a score against Vanderbilt.
There is no doubt Patterson could use more seasoning at the college level, but it would not be a surprise if he made the jump given the Vols’ dreadful season which cost head coach Derek Dooley his job. Whenever he turns pro, Patterson’s athleticism, playmaking and run-after-catch ability will be coveted. While he might require some patience to develop as a receiver, his versatility could allow for him to be used in similar fashion as Percy Harvin.
WR Zach Rogers, Tennessee — The Dooley era in Knoxville was marked by underachieving, but Rogers is one player who cannot be confused as an underachiever. Under the radar, perhaps, but he's taken advantage of his limited opportunities and shown enough to warrant draftable consideration. Entering the season, Tennessee's offensive storylines abounded: Tyler Bray's big arm and bigger off-field concerns; Da'Rick Rogers' drug issues and subsequent transfer; Justin Hunter's return from injury; and Patterson's arrival, to name a few. The complementary slot receiver with 31 career receptions in three years was overshadowed...until the Nashville native struck for a 72-yard score in the season opener against NC State. Since, as a tertiary receiving option, he's flashed playmaking ability and savvy, averaging 15.4 yards per reception and hauling in touchdowns on six of his 30 grabs. Rogers has slot experience, good speed, clean movement and soft, reliable hands. A good route runner, he knows how to set up DBs and sell patterns and is quick and fluid into cuts. He also shows tracking ability and body control. Rogers isn't a prototype, as he's slightly undersized, needs to bulk up and durability could be an issue. He can be bumped off course and is an underpowered blocker whose special-teams utility is a question mark. However, he's talented, aware and football-smart and maintains practice habits comparable to Wes Welker, according to Dooley. Rogers has tools to stick as a slot receiver in the pros and could prove to be a value selection, as he has better upside than receivers drafted in rounds three and four in recent years.
Illinois vs. Northwestern at Ryan Field (Evanston, IL), Saturday 11 a.m. Big Ten Network
OL Hugh Thornton, Illinois — Thornton's background is unique and tragic, having spent part of his childhood in Jamaica and endured the horrific murders of his mother and younger sister. Further, a tumultuous relationship with his father caused Thornton to abandon his high school life in Idaho, where he won a pair of state wrestling championships and emerged as a Division-I prospect. He finished his prep career in Ohio (where he lived with an aunt, his legal guardian) before signing with then-head coach Ron Zook and the Illini. Now, Thornton is on the verge of an NFL career. At 6-5, 310 pounds, he has good strength in his base and upper body to latch onto and control defenders. He also bends well and is light on his feet for a big body. He shuffles well enough to push rushers wide and can work his hips and seal running lanes. He's also able to step to the second level and pull and lead through the hole. He isn't a finished product, as he tends to overset and catch contact instead of punching — more often he butts defenders rather than exploding through contact, indicating his game could go to another level if he’s able to tap into his power potential in the coming years. He also could stand to refine his hand use and avoid bending at the waist, which causes him to slip off some blocks. A four-year starter, Thornton has played tackle and guard, where he projects best in the pros. His size, strength and energetic temperament will appeal to teams, as he possesses starter-caliber ability and possible swing value.
Rutgers vs. Pittsburgh at Heinz Field (Pittsburgh, PA), Saturday 11 a.m. ESPN2
RB Ray Graham, Pittsburgh — Graham's 2011 season was cut short by a torn ACL injury, but he toted 24 times for 172 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame on Nov. 3, showing that he's regained his pre-injury form. Graham (5-9, 190) is a smaller back, but shows good vision, patience and acceleration. He's able to sidestep penetration and make quick, lateral cuts — can jump-cut and bounce runs outside. He's instinctive, elusive and slippery, as he's able to make tacklers miss in space, string moves together and create something out of nothing. At times, he makes eye-popping cuts to dance out of tackles, displaying excellent stop-and-start quickness. He will spin off contact, but runs with limited power and is just an average tackle breaker. He also does not possess elite speed for his size and is a weak blocker. He projects as a change-of-pace back in a zone scheme with the ability to contribute as a receiver out of the backfield — lets some throws into his body, but is competent in this area (see one-handed catch against South Florida 2011) and can create off swing passes, screens, swings, etc. Interestingly, Graham’s final college game will be against Rutgers and his half-brother Khaseem Greene, the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
Underclassmen of note: While we generally avoid “pumping the tires” of players not eligible for the upcoming draft, Saturday’s South Carolina vs. Clemson matchup is noteworthy because two elite sophomores will be on display: Gamecocks freakish defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who could very well be the top overall selection in 2014, and Tigers explosive receiver Sammy Watkins.
Sleeper of the week: SS Phillip Thomas, Fresno State — Thomas was lightly recruited as a California cornerback/running back before redshirting in 2008. He didn't start until 2010 and missed the 2011 season because of a broken leg and dislocated ankle. He's having a breakout season as a senior, however, and in his two seasons as a starter (23 total games), he's compiled 137 tackles, 13 pass breakups and 11 interceptions with 14 tackles for loss, three sacks and five forced fumbles. His eight INTs this year is a single-season Mountain West Conference record and the 20-yard INT TD against Wyoming on Oct. 20th was the fourth of his career. Thomas, a Thorpe Award finalist who will be a 24-year-old rookie, has good size (6-1, 215) and is instinctive and aggressive. He can drop in the box and fit in the run game and generally maintains field leverage and takes good angles. He's not a hammer, but has functional tackle strength, though he tends to tackle high and occasionally misses tackles in space (see Boise State). In coverage, he has experience lining up over the slot and can mirror tight ends. He drives on plays in front of him and has good ball skills/reactions and hands to intercept (see Colorado and San Diego State). His movement is more smooth and controlled than explosive, as he lacks elite top-end speed and shows average range, burst and closing ability off the hash. Thomas is a team captain being coached by Tim McDonald, who won a Super Bowl with the 49ers and was a six-time Pro Bowler. The Bulldogs play a 3-4 scheme in which Thomas is asked to do a variety of things from his strong safety spot. Fresno hasn't had a safety drafted since Tyrone Culver (sixth round, Packers) in 2006 and James Sanders (fourth round, Patriots) in 2005, but Thomas should end that drought.