Big- and small-name college defenders make waves in Week 6
Potential first-rounder Devon Still's performance this season has delivered on hype
Against Ball State, Bernard Pierce continued to prove he can be a top NFL back
Robert Griffin's smarts are impressive, but he's not a lock for the draft yet
In a week that saw college football's top teams affirm their national rankings, including LSU's win over Florida and Oklahoma's defeat of Texas, several defensive prospects took center stage. The eclectic mix ranged from potential first-round prospects to less known names. But some skill position players got in the mix, too, and a big-name quarterback is mulling whether to enter the draft this year.
Devon Still, DT, Penn State -- Highly thought of by NFL scouts entering the season, Still has done nothing to disappoint so far. A force in the middle of the Penn State defensive line, the tackle's play on Saturday helped keep the Iowa Hawkeyes out of the end zone (Still's 6 tackles were the second-most of any Nittany Lion defender during the victory). When he wasn't making tackles, Still's ability to occupy Iowa blockers allowed teammates an unimpeded path to the ball-handler. Still has moved into the draft's initial 40 selections and several within the scouting community grade the senior as a top 25 selection.
Brandon Taylor, S, LSU -- In a secondary loaded with dynamic NFL prospects, Taylor is a reliable defender who plays assignment football and does the little things well. During the Tigers' lopsided victory over Florida, the senior safety led LSU with 7 tackles, intercepted one pass and broke up 2 more. Taylor stands at, or near, the top of every statistical category in the Tigers secondary. He lacks classic size/speed and was rated a free agent prospect entering the season, but Taylor has moved into the mid to late frames with his performance this season.
Bernard Pierce, RB, Temple* -- The freshman sensation in 2009 has continued to improve his game and impress NFL scouts. Carrying the ball 30 times against Ball State, the junior totaled 120 yards and three scores. Pierce is averaging 23 carries per game this season, 4.9 yards per carry and has totaled 15 touchdowns. He is a big-time NFL talent and a first-round prospect with the ability to be a feature runner at the next level.
Rueben Randall, WR, LSU* -- The door was open for Randall to be the Tigers' No. 1 target after consensus favorite Russell Shepard was sidelined and he has not let the opportunity slip by. Randall has been dominant in every aspect of the game, as the Gators found out this weekend. He posted a team-leading 4 receptions for 127 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown grab to give LSU an early lead they never relinquished. Randall is tall, smooth and sure-handed. He's displayed surprising speed this season and has put himself on the map as an underclassman receiver who could impact the 2012 draft.
Andre Branch, DE-OLB, Clemson -- The Tigers have sent a number of highly-skilled pass rushers into the NFL draft, and Branch is set to keep the tradition moving forward. He leads the undefeated Clemson squad in tackles (34), tackles for loss (8) and sacks (5). Scouts questioned his intensity and attitude coming into the season, but Branch has displayed complete game as a senior. His arrow is pointing north.
Frank Alexander, DE-OLB, Oklahoma -- Lowly rated by NFL scouts entering the season, Alexander is another senior putting the pieces together this year. The athletic defender leads the Sooners in sacks (5.5), tackles for loss (7.5) and quarterback hurries (5), and has also broken up four passes. The versatility to produce in so many areas has endeared Alexander to NFL decision-makers, and he has secured a place in the later rounds of the draft.
Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor -- Wright, in the midst of a career season, is the favorite target of Heisman hopeful Robert Griffin and one of the steadiest pass-catchers in the nation. He's terrific running underneath routes, shows the ability to stretch the defense and always finds a way to make himself an available target. His had 8 receptions for 69 yards with one touchdown against Iowa State, the only time this season Wright did not break the century mark in receiving yards. Wright offers the skills necessary to be a productive third receiver at the next level and has jumped into the draft's first 90 choices.
Joe Looney, G, Wake Forest -- The Demon Deacons have started the season 4-1 and are coming off a statement victory against Florida State. The offense is rolling over opponents in large part due to the offensive line, which is led by Looney. The athletic blocker is a powerful force with the strength necessary to open running lanes as well as the footwork required to protect the passer and stop oncoming blitzers dead in their tracks. Looney is a hard-working lineman who can play in a variety of offensive systems in the NFL. His play this season has moved the senior into the middle rounds of next April's draft.
Tavon Wilson, DB, Illinois -- Wilson leads one of the top defensive units in the Big Ten and comes off a career game as the Fighting Illini defeated Indiana. He posted a team-leading 11 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, added a sack and recovered a fumble which he returned 66 yards for a touchdown. He's the overall leader in tackles on the Illinois defense this season with 41 in six games. Wilson was graded as a free agent prospect entering the season primarily due to average size/speed and no true defined position in the secondary. But all the senior has done is make play after play the past three seasons, attributes that will help him get selected somewhere in the draft's seven rounds.
Tyler Urban, TE, West Virginia -- Urban, who was not on the scouting radar after struggling through his 2010 junior campaign with a knee injury, is starting to build a buzz. The athletic tight end is built like a basketball player and proficient as a blocker and pass-catcher. Urban is still developing his game but could fit into the late rounds of the draft for a team needing a third tight end who can be productive in a variety of schemes.
Notes: Robert Griffin of Baylor continues to impress NFL scouts this season and is proving to be a complete quarterback. His physical skills are impressive, yet those in the scouting community have confided to me that Griffin's football intellect is what's setting him apart. A book-smart student, Griffin brings his classroom intelligence onto the field and consistently makes the right choice behind center. His 18-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio is one of the best in the nation, as is Griffin's 82 percent completion rate. Will he enter the draft? Sources have said those close to Griffin are researching his options, but the chances he opts for the NFL after the season are 50-50 at present time.