As the college football season rapidly approaches, here’s a look at some of the more underrated defensive prospects in the country…
Cameron Meredith Nebraska DE 6’4 265 – Meredith is an effective run defender who doesn’t over-pursue the action or get faked out a lot. He’s strong kid, so while he is capable of crossing the face or using a spin move, his preferred method of applying pressure is a bull rush. As a sophomore, Meredith started every game and finished with 64 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks. In 2011 he totaled five sacks, five tackles for loss and added his first career interception. Meredith is a high effort player with good instincts but he’ll need to show continued improvement if he’s going to be thought of as more than a Day Three pick.
Josh Boyd Mississippi State DT 6’3 300 – Boyd was a four star recruit coming out of high school in 2009 and has been a full time starter since day one of his sophomore season. That season he finished with 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. In 2011, Boyd made 51 total tackles – eight for a loss – and collected 4.5 sacks. After the season he thought about entering the draft, but ultimately decided to return for his senior season. It was a wise decision. With Fletcher Cox gone to the NFL, Boyd becomes the top returning player and has an excellent chance to climb in the rankings.
A.J. Klein Iowa State ILB 6’2 244 – Klein is a tackling machine, who’s topped 110 stops in each of the last two seasons. He’s an aggressive run stuffer who has 15.5 tackles for loss over the past two years. Klein isn’t a fast guy but he has intercepted four passes in his career and returned three of them for touchdowns. He isn’t going to be a sack-master, but Klein is a smart player with good instincts. He’s the type of player who could fall to the middle rounds of the draft and still be a starter early in his career.
Herman Lathers Tennessee OLB 6’0 225 – Lathers has battled adversity for much of his life – he survived a bout with bone cancer he had been diagnosed with at the age of ten. His challenge this year is to return to form after a severely broken ankle wrecked his 2011 season before it got started. Up to that point, Lathers had been an impactful contributor and shown steady improvement. After sitting out his first year on campus, he totaled 51 tackles and two tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman. As a sophomore Lathers had 75 tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks. His medical history will concern NFL teams, but Lathers is a terrific athlete with smarts (two time All-Academic SEC) and mental toughness. A strong comeback season will at least earn Lathers some late round consideration next April.
Dustin Harris Texas A&M CB 6’0 175 – Coryell Judie and Terrence Frederick have moved on to the NFL, leaving Harris as the player to watch in that defensive backfield. He’s already been a dynamic punt return man for the Aggies. In 2011 Harris averaged 18.6 yards per return, and he’s taken two punts back for scores in his career. He’s no slouch on defense. As a sophomore in 2010, Harris picked off four passes, returning one for a touchdown, and was All Big 12 Honorable Mention. In his career, Harris has intercepted six passes and broken up 19 others. He’s even collected three sacks and blocked a pair of field goals. Harris has a skinny build, but he’s a sure tackler and he has speed estimated in the 4.4 second range. His coverage skills are fair and he takes advantage when a quarterback makes mistakes. Harris seems overlooked at this point but he could be a day two pick with a solid overall season.
Dexter McCoil Tulsa FS 6’4 222 – McCoil has premium size for the free safety position, and teams will want to see if he’s a guy who can cover the big receiving tight ends gaining prominence throughout the league. He has the look of a player with 4.6 second speed, though he takes long strides so he may be faster than he appears. McCoil uses his long reach to help recover and defend passes if he happens to lose ground. He’s an opportunistic player, who’s picked of six passes in each of the last two seasons; and who, despite his size, plays a finesse style. He’s not a big hitter. In fact, McCoil often seems hesitant to enter into contact situations and sometimes makes weak tackle attempts. Teams know that McCoil is valuable when he can sit back and play centerfield. But they’ll be watching him this year to see if his tackling improves and how well he can actually cover.
DeVonte Holloman South Carolina SS/OLB 6’2 241 – Holloman will line up in the “spur” in South Carolina’s defensive alignment – a hybrid linebacker/safety position. His size suggests that he will project to linebacker in the pros, and his speed (in the 4.5-4.6 second range in the 40) and experience in coverage (four interceptions and nine pass breakups in his career) will raise the collective antennae of the scouting community. NFL teams and talent evaluators will be looking to see if Holloman can cover consistently and become a weapon to guard against the big tight end mismatches that have emerged in recent years.
Jareed Gaines Stonehill SS 5’11 217 – Though he is listed as a defensive back by his school, Gaines will tell people that he’s one of the three linebackers in the Skyhawks’ base defense – a role his coaches consider to be interchangeable with a safety. At 217 pounds, Gaines understands that he’s not “’big’ enough to play linebacker at the next level” and that he’ll need to show that he can play safety. He is also keenly aware of the challenges and questions he will face as a prospect from a Division II school. Still, his highlight reel is impressive. Gaines is used frequently on blitzes, and he closes quickly and is strong finisher. He’s a wrap up tackler who doesn’t simply try to lower the boom on his opponents – though he is capable of doing so. In his college career, Gaines has racked up nine sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss. He’s shown a knack for getting his hands on the ball as well, with three interceptions, four forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries, nine pass break ups and three defensive touchdowns. On top of that, Gaines has been a demon on special teams with six blocks in his career. From the highlights, he appears to be a disciplined player, who does a good job anticipating where the ball is going, recognizing play fakes, and moving laterally to stay with the ball carrier. However, without full game footage this praise has to be taken with a grain of salt. Gaines is certainly worth keeping an eye on this season, though he’ll have a steep hill to climb in order to get a shot in the NFL.