Tennessee WR Justin Hunter is one of the best prospects in the land at his position but has a big test coming Saturday against Mississippi State. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
By Matt Feminis
Special to Stlouisrams.com
Texas vs. Oklahoma at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium (Norman, OK), Saturday 11 a.m. ABC
DE Alex Okafor, Texas & DE-OLB Jackson Jeffcoat*, Texas — Not unlike the Georgia Bulldogs defense, which was embarrassed by South Carolina last Saturday night, the Texas Longhorns defense was shredded by West Virginia despite having several individual talents on the NFL radar, including Okafor and Jeffcoat. Okafor (6-4 1/2, 265), a third-year starter who mans the strong end position (usually the left side), is well-proportioned with NFL size and length that enables him to extend and use his hands/arms like flippers to walk back tackles, play off blocks or string plays to the boundary. He also flashes stack-and-shed potential. As a pass rusher, Okafor lacks elite flexibility to consistently run the arc and is not especially powerful or sophisticated (usually tries to bull or slap and run around). He shows some stiffness in his hips and needs to become stouter at the point of attack, but he generally locates and consistently pursues hard. Okafor’s junior stats were weighed down by open-air or effort-based production, but he was impactful against the Mountaineers, posting two sacks, two forced fumbles, three hurries and a blocked field goal attempt. He could draw interest from 3-4 or 4-3 teams and has the length and motor to play for a long time.
Jeffcoat (6-5, 245), UT’s “Buck” end, has been on the national radar dating back to his high school days when he was a consensus All-American and blue chip recruit at Plano (TX) West High, where he amassed 259 tackles, 56 tackles for loss, 25 1/2 sacks and 42 pressures his final three seasons. He also played four years of varsity basketball. Jeffcoat has NFL bloodlines, as he is the son of 15-year NFL defensive lineman Jim Jeffcoat, who won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys and currently serves as the defensive line coach at San Jose State. Jackson served notice as a sophomore in 2011, piling up 71 tackles, 21 for loss and eight sacks with three pass breakups. He has clear first-round potential based on his combination of size, athleticism, pass-rush ability and production. Jeffcoat rushes from a two- and three-point stance and shows explosive get-off, quick hands and threatening closing speed to harass quarterbacks. He also has excellent lateral agility and is flexible to drop and play in space. A 20-year-old junior, he should only continue ascending and will be sought after by 3-4 teams as a stand-up rusher or 4-3 teams as a right defensive end.
QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma — Okafor and Jeffcoat were able to turn up the heat on Geno Smith, and they’ll be salivating over the chance to rush Jones (6-4, 218), whose inconsistent play is only amplifying the belief that he’s vulnerable to pressure. The heir apparent to
Tennessee vs. Mississippi State at Denis Wade Stadium (Starkville, MS), 8 p.m. Saturday ESPN2
WR Justin Hunter*, Tennessee vs. CB Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State — The best receiver-cornerback matchup in the nation this weekend is Hunter versus Banks, two prospects with first-round potential.
A national caliber high jumper listed at 6-4, 200 pounds, Hunter suffered a season-ending torn ACL injury in Week Three last season, but he’s shown big-time glimpses in his 10 career starts. He’s a willowy target whose ease of movement belies his long levers, as he possesses an intriguing combination of vertical speed, leaping ability (reportedly 40 inches) and fluidity in/out of breaks. He flashes the ability to high-point throws and snatch the ball out of the air, and has potential to develop into playmaker capable of threatening all levels of the defense as well as the red zone. That said, he’s still a pup relatively speaking, as he can do a better job catching with his hands rather than letting throws into his frame and negating his length. He’s also still learning how to use his big frame advantageously to box out defensive backs, and needs to continue bulking up in order to assuage durability concerns.
Some years, the top cornerback prospect is a Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey, Darrelle Revis or Patrick Peterson. And some years, the top cornerback prospect is Alex Molden, Deltha O’Neal or Leodis McKelvin. The 2013 draft will likely fall into the latter category, especially if Alabama junior Dee Milliner doesn’t come out. Johnthan Banks (6-2, 185), regarded as the top-rated senior corner, is a starter-caliber talent who could very well be drafted in the first round, but he is not an elite prospect. Lean, wiry and long-limbed, Banks has excellent length and is fluid for his size despite being a bit high-cut. He’s been a productive thief (15 career interceptions), shows a willingness to stick his nose in run support and even blitzes effectively. However, he is not a shut-down cover man, as he lacks elite top-end speed, twitch and recovery burst. Also concerning is his functional strength as an edge setter and tackler and his selective physicality that could turn off zone teams — occasionally turns down contact (see opening kickoff against Auburn). Oftentimes Banks plays with soft cushion or is deployed in zone technique peering into the backfield, but it will behoove him to prove that he can be trusted in press. Even if we can’t determine that until later in the process, it will be interesting to see how he matches up athletically with Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Stanford vs. Notre Dame at Notre Dame Stadium (South Bend, IN), Saturday 2:30 p.m. NBC
MLB Manti Te’o, Notre Dame — A highly respected, durable, productive four-year starter, Te’o (6-2, 255) is a thickly built, tightly wound, punishing tackler with NFL bulk strength to take on blocks and fill running lanes between the tackles. Generally, Te’o plays on his feet and is able to read hats, diagnose and scrape and flow, though he lacks ideal foot speed and lateral agility and can be a step late to the perimeter. Most worrisome, however, is the fact that missed tackles have been constant throughout Te’o’s ND career. There are just too many times when he’s in position but fails to secure the tackle, particularly in space where his hip tightness shows. Nevertheless, he plays with consistent effort and energy and puts himself in position to make plays or create opportunities for teammates, and there is value in that, especially given Te’o’s desirable intangibles. The Hawaiian-bred linebacker is a heart-and-soul, “foxhole” type with emotional leadership traits. Experienced, competitive and mentally and physically tough (played on a bum ankle as a junior), Te’o loves to play and it shows. For illustration, look no further than his gutty performances against Michigan State and Michigan immediately following the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend. He will likely impress during the interview process and be drafted higher than his tape dictates, but Te’o is a low-risk, high-character, winning player capable of infusing a defense with intensity and stability. Te’o is in a similar mold as Bengals 2009 second-rounder Rey Maualuga, though he has more upside, and embodies a “Mike” ’backer who could probably be broken in as a “Sam” if need be.
OLB-DE Chase Thomas, Stanford — Thomas (6-4, 248) is a durable, productive three-year starter with good movement skills who rushes from a two- and three-point stance and lines up in multiple spots not unlike how Boise State used Bears 2012 first-rounder Shea McClellin. While the Bears, who favor a Tampa 2 scheme, are trying to make McClellin a 4-3, pass-rushing defensive end, Thomas projects better as a stand-up, 3-4 outside linebacker in the pros. Thomas doesn’t possess elite edge burst, athleticism or flexibility for a rush ’backer, but agility, active hands and relentlessness enable him to pressure the quarterback and make plays behind the line. While he lacks ideal bulk and doesn’t bring a power element, Thomas is capable of playing in gaps, flattening and closing down the line in pursuit of ballcarriers. With continued strength development, he should become a solid run defender. His ability to play in reverse is a question mark, but if recent history is an indicator, Thomas’ skill set should draw second-round consideration.
Sleeper of the Week: SS Rontez Miles, California (Pa.) — Miles has faced more adversity than most prospects, and his standing as a student-athlete was tenuous before finding a home at California (Pa.), but he’s putting finishing touches on a standout career that will earn him a pro opportunity. Raised by a mother with drug problems in a dangerous area of Pennsylvania, Miles’ childhood was unstable to put it mildly. He prepped at Woodland Hills High, a powerhouse program which churns out Division-I recruits and NFL players, including Rob Gronkowski, Jason Taylor and Steve Breaston. Though recruited by BCS schools, Miles signed with Kent State in order to play with his stepbrother Vondre Griffin. However, Miles neglected academics and left the program when Griffin was dismissed from the team (also related to grades). He then spent a year working in a freight warehouse and attending Community College of Allegheny County attempting to qualify for California (Pa.), where his cousin, Terrence Johnson (a cornerback currently with the Atlanta Falcons), was playing. After two years off the field, Miles acclimated quickly to the D-2 level, earning Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Freshman of the Year recognition. Fast forward three years, and Miles (6-1, 210) has become a two-year captain, All-American and NFL prospect thanks to his size, athleticism, physicality and impactful play on the small-school level. To date, Miles has recorded 28 career passes defended, including nine interceptions, and his play speed and striking ability stand out on tape. With Johnson as well as Vulcan product Tommie Campbell (Tennessee Titans) holding down NFL roster spots, you can bet Miles will at least be afforded a free-agent opportunity, though scouts will certainly investigate his character and background. Miles, who will be a 24-year-old rookie, will also face questions about his stepbrother, as Griffin is currently jailed without bail and will stand trial for criminal homicide and carrying a firearm without a license — he’s accused of fatally shooting a man outside a McKeesport, Pa. nightclub.