From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!
First up for me is Oklahoma. They are a popular pick to win the Big-12, but I am not so sure. I don’t trust Landry Jones at quarterback even though he accumulates attractive stats. Not only that, but the Sooners return ONE receiver with any starting experience what-so-ever in college football. They will be completely reliant on young freshman receivers to take the pressure off of him, and we all saw how Jones did when his #1 target Ryan Broyles went down at the end of the 2011 season. They have talent at RB and their offensive line is good, but they lost their top two pass rushers in Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis and they don’t return a single defender with 6 or more sacks (their leaders have 5.5, 4.5 and 3.5). They have a very good secondary highlighted by Tony Jefferson and Demontre Hurst, and Tom Wort anchors the defense at middle linebacker, but I am concerned that the Sooners won’t be able to generate a pass rush without blitzing. That will make things more difficult for their secondary, and I don’t know how their run defense will be. Overall, there are a lot of question marks with this Oklahoma team, but they are still being picked to win the Big-12. I can’t go out on that limb, and I think they will end up with 9 or 10 wins. So, without further adieu, here is their prospect preview:
Landry Jones, QB- Jones has NFL size at 6’4”, 229 pounds and has 37 career starts which is a phenomenal amount of experience for a college quarterback. Last year he was on his way to another statistically impressive season with four games remaining, having totaled 3,349 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. However, after his top target Ryan Broyles went down with an injury missing the final four games Jones’ production dropped off significantly. He only threw for 1,114 yards in the final four games (after averaging 372 passing yards per game in the first nine, he only averaged 278.5 per game in the final four). On top of that, he threw only ONE touchdown against a less talented Iowa team in Oklahoma’s bowl game and NINE interceptions over that same span. This is as good evidence as any that Jones is a product of the talent around him, not a franchise quarterback that elevates the play of those around him. That four game stretch likely played a huge role in him coming back for his senior season to try to rebuild his draft stock which had tumbled into the 3rd or 4th round. Many draft analysts had him pegged in that area before that, but that four game stretch made it popular to grade him in that mid-round area. Now that he is returning for his senior season he has a realistic chance to leave for the NFL with an incredible 50 career starts, which is just about ideal for a college quarterback prospect. He has the size, and has enough arm talent to play in the NFL. He has good arm strength, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it watching his ball velocity on intermediate throws. He has pretty good accuracy, but the offense he plays in as well as the ability of his receivers help mask some of his accuracy issues. He certainly isn’t as gifted as a pure passer as Sam Bradford was. On top of that, Jones has trouble making plays when his team needs it most, much like I believed Bradford did. He also doesn’t have a lot of pocket poise and makes mistakes when pressured, when good and great quarterbacks make defenses pay in the face of pressure and blitzes from defenses. Jones has an uphill battle to prove to draftniks and scouts alike that he is a better quarterback than he showed in the last four games last season, and to prove that he warrants legitimate top 96 consideration. Gaudy stats won’t be enough, he will need to lead his team to wins with key plays late, make decisive reads and throws under pressure, and work the pocket better and stand tall to deliver throws instead of throwing off his back foot and fading away from pressure. It remains to be seen if he can make the necessary adjustments to force his name back into top 5-10 quarterback conversations, but as of today I am very skeptical.
Dominique Whaley, RB- Whaley is a former walk-on but he burst onto the scene when he surprisingly emerged as the starter for Oklahoma last season. He produced 627 yards and 9 touchdowns in 7 games as well as 15 receptions for 153 yards before his season was cut short due to an ankle injury. He returns for his senior season as the likely starter but will split time with the undersized but explosive Roy Finch and will likely have his goal-line carries stolen by 6’6”, 245 pound quarterback Blake Bell. Whaley’s 40 yard dash time is around 4.55, so not blazing, but if he can overcome injury issues he has the potential to get drafted. He’s no stranger to hard work since he earned his way onto Oklahoma as a walk-on, and that kind of hard work always translates to the next level even if he doesn’t have ideal timed speed.
Roy Finch, RB*- Finch is only a junior and it would be surprising if he declared early, but he is the most explosive back that I am aware of on Oklahoma’s roster so I think he warrants mention. He is only listed at 5’7”, 166 pounds so he is very small and doesn’t have the size or bulk to be a feature back in college or the NFL, but he has an approximate 40 yard dash time of 4.45 and has been productive despite his size. As a sophomore he produced 605 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on only 111 attempts, plus he totaled 34 receptions for 296 yards as a receiver. He also returned 11 kickoffs for 223 yards. He definitely offers versatility, and his ability to accelerate quickly, stop on a dime, make sharp cuts and make defenders miss in the open field reminds me of Darren Sproles. Sproles’ emergence as one of the most versatile players in the NFL despite his lack of size should only help Finch’s perception if he can demonstrate similar athleticism and versatility. If Trey Franks isn’t brought back (he was suspended indefinitely and Bob Stoops was quoted as saying “we aren’t counting on any of them” referring to Jaz Reynolds, Trey Franks, and Quentin Hayes. When asked if they could be reinstated Stoops only said “we’ll see.”) then Finch could be the primary return man for Oklahoma.
Kenny Stills, WR*- Stills is the top returning receiver for Landry Jones to throw to this season. The 6’1”, 189 pound receiver was productive last season as he totaled 61 receptions for 849 yards (13.9 ypc) and 8 touchdowns. However, he didn’t total a single touchdown in the last four games when he didn’t have Ryan Broyles opposite him, and I have some questions about his hands, his true explosiveness as a WR as well as his physicality. He has an estimated 40 yard dash time of 4.49 but he just doesn’t look like a burner to me, and he doesn’t look extremely quick in short areas as well. I kind of think he is a product of the offense that he plays in, though he is on the Maxwell watch list, the award given to the best WR in the country. I definitely have some questions about Stills’ ability to translate to the NFL, so I will be interested to see how he does without a #1 target drawing attention away from him, and he won’t have Jaz Reynolds or Trey Franks around to help take pressure off of him.
Trey Millard, FB*- Millard has been touted as the “best fullback I’ve ever had” by OU head coach Bob Stoops, even though he isn’t often on the field as a traditional fullback. He showed up as a reliable blocker for Oklahoma throughout the season and has shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield when he is targeted. He’s not a star, but he’s a reliable player. It will be interesting to see if he is involved more in the passing game now that James Hanna has gone on to the NFL.
Lane Johnson, LT- Johnson is a former tight end prospect who is now a senior starting at left tackle for the first time at Oklahoma. He didn’t play in 2010 but started 12 games at right tackle in 2011. He has the size you want in a left tackle at 6’6”, 296 pounds and converted tight end prospects traditionally do pretty well at left tackle thanks to the athleticism it requires to play tight end, so it will be interesting to see how he does at left tackle this year. He looks skinny on film, and could definitely stand to add weight to his frame and it shows when he is bullrushed in pass protection. Shoots off the ball at times, seems to have impressive short area quickness. Shows that he can get out of his stance pretty quickly and get into his kick slide. Doesn’t look like a great drive blocker, but plays with pretty good pad level and seems to mirror well. I don’t see a lot of nastiness and doesn’t always finish blocks, and is a little raw with his technique and footwork but he definitely has the athleticism and foot speed to be a quality blind side protector for Jones this season in my opinion. It will be interesting to see how he does on the left side and if he shows improved technique this year.
Ben Habern, C- Habern enters his senior season with 30 career starts despite missing 6 starts last season due to injury. He is listed at 6’4”, 292 pounds but looks more like 6’3” on film to me. When I have watched him I have never recorded a bad snap, even when I watched his first game back from a forearm injury with a cast on the arm that he snaps with. Shows an ability to anchor and seems to be mobile for a center his size, but can be pushed back when strong defensive lineman gets him on skates. Definitely needs to watch his hand placement when he’s blocking to make sure he doesn’t let his hands wander outside the numbers and draw holding penalties. He doesn’t look like he has very long arms, but he is smart, makes correct blitz pick-ups in pass pro. Seems to be more of a wall-off blocker than a drive blocker. He strikes me as a solid but unspectacular center, and right now is a fringe draftable prospect.
Jamarkus McFarland, DT- McFarland is one of two returning starters on the defensive line for Oklahoma and will need to step up as both Ronnell Lewis and Frank Alexander are gone and they were their best pass rushers. McFarland was solid last season as he started 7 games and totaled 21 tackles, 3 tackles for loss and half a sack. He’s listed at 6’1”, 296 pounds and is currently a fringe draftable prospect. His performance without two proven pass rushers on the outside will be telling for his NFL Draft prospects.
Tom Wort, MLB*- Wort may not be a big linebacker (listed at 6’0”, 229 pounds) but he is tough and seems to be a good leader. He wore Austin Box’s #12 in Oklahoma’s season opener last year and was crying as he came onto the field. He already has 21 career starts in his young career and produced 71 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions as a sophomore last year. He’s a reliable tackler who is improving in pass coverage, and he’s tough. He’s not big, but he’s effective.
Demontre Hurst, CB- Hurst may not be big, he’s only listed at 5’9”, 182 pounds, but he impressed me last season with his ball skills. He enters his senior season with 27 career starts at cornerback and has had 11 pass break-ups and 1 interception each of the last two years while also forcing 4 fumbles over those same two seasons. He has shown me that he is a reliable tackler, has impressive ball skills, is athletic and closes well and can support the run from the cornerback position. He doesn’t have elite height, but he’s a really nice sleeper prospect at corner. Hurst can definitely play.
Aaron Colvin, CB*- Colvin actually finished the season tied for the lead in tackles with Travis Lewis, and as a result is Oklahoma’s leading returning tackler. He also had 6 pass break-ups this season, and figures to move in to the starting position opposite Hurst now that Jamell Fleming has moved on to the NFL. Colvin is taller than Hurst as he is listed at 6’0”, but only weighs 176 pounds. I haven’t seen Colvin play as much as Hurst, so I don’t know as much about his playing style, but I do know he has 9 pass break-ups the past two years, 8 total tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He’s got ability and a surprising amount of experience, having started 13 games in his first two seasons despite quality NFL talent in Jamell Fleming and Hurst above him on the depth chart.
Tony Jefferson, FS*- Jefferson is a player I’ve been high on since I watched him as a freshman and I actually had him on my list of potential break-out players before his sophomore season. He’s versatile as he can line up at safety or at nickel back, he can play man or zone coverage and despite lacking elite size for the safety position (5’10”, 199 pounds) he loves to get involved in run support, he blitzes effectively and he does a great job dropping into coverage. He’s a fluid athlete with good speed, acceleration and ability to close, and one of my favorite draft eligible safeties for the 2013 NFL Draft.
Tress Way, P- I have had my eye on Tress Way since I watched him as a freshman and was blown away by his leg. He’s got a NFL leg without a doubt and it was obvious to me when I saw him two years ago. He is listed at 6’1”, 218 pounds but size and weight aren’t critical measurables for punters. Their hangtime is their key stat, and I was taught that you can hear if a punter has a NFL leg. If he does, the ball will “pop” off his foot like a gun shot. I believe Way has that caliber leg, and not only does he have the leg for distance he had an insane 34 punts downed inside the 20 yard line last season. I can’t find an official ranking list for this stat, but I would have a hard time believing that isn’t near the top which is especially impressive since he only punted 63 times. That means more than half of his punts were downed inside the 20! Punters don’t often get a lot of NFL Draft love, but I think Way has a chance to get drafted if he continues to demonstrate a strong and accurate leg.