Defensive linemen, linebackers stand out in college's Week 12
DLs Whitney Mercilus, Dontari Poe should each be first-round selections
Arizona QB Nick Foles has gotten credit for playing well in a tough season
Utah State's Robert Turbin has all the skills to be a featured NFL running back
It was a weekend of upheavel in college football, and the end result is mayhem in the BCS rankings. On the scouting front, however, the weekend left smiles on the faces of most NFL decision-makers. Several defensive line and pass-rushing linebacker propsects are finishing off strong seasons with a final surge. Here's the final installment of players rising up boards during the 2011 college season.
Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois* -- The Fighting Illini are in the midst of a five-game losing streak and have struggled on the offensive side of the ball. On defense, however, Mercilus is the one player who has stood out all season. The junior has totaled 18.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks this season while adding six quarterback hurries and forcing eight fumbles. He's a natural pass rusher reminiscent of former Illinois star Simeon Rice. Mercilus is expected to enter the draft and could be selected as early as the bottom half of the first round.
Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis* -- Poe is another junior on the defensive line whose play has impressed scouts. The 340-pound defender easily moves around the field, collapsing the pocket with his power or chasing the action out to the flanks. He's still rough around the edges, but Poe's size and athleticism more than intrigue scouts. Poe is also expected to enter the draft and, like Mercilus, will end up in the latter part of the first round.
Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia* -- NFL teams are always looking for pass-rushing linebackers, and Jones is a prospect catching their attention. The transfer from USC has posted 18.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks and 26 quarterback hurries this season. He also stands second on the Georgia defense with 58 tackles. Jones is a developing prospect that presently ranks as one of the best 3-4 outside linebacker prospects in the nation.
Nick Foles, QB, Arizona -- The silver lining in what has been a dreadful season for Arizona was victory over arch-rival Arizona State on Saturday, and Foles led the charge. He completed 68.6 percent of his throws for 370 yards and two scores against the Sun Devils. That makes 25 touchdown tosses this season for Foles, who should also break the 4,000-yard passing mark with one game left on the schedule. The senior signal-caller has received high marks from scouts much of the year as he's stayed competitive while the team crumbled around him. Considered a fringe late-round pick entering the campaign, he has moved into the middle rounds with his play this season.
Leonard Johnson, CB, Iowa State -- Johnson entered the season highly rated by NFL scouts, and he's living up to expectations. The cornerback was responsible for two big turnovers during the Cyclones' upset victory over second-ranked Oklahoma State. Johnson's fumble recovery in the third quarter led to an Iowa State field goal, while his interception in the final quarter halted a Cowboys scoring drive. For the season, Johnson has defended six passes despite opposing signal-callers avoiding his side of the field. He'll be a solid pick during the draft's second day.
Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky -- The season has been a struggle for Kentucky with only four wins, yet their senior leader on defense is being recognized by NFL scouts for his determined play. The SEC leader in tackles with 135, Trevathan has posted 17 tackles in each of three of the Wildcats' last four games. In the loss to Georgia on Saturday, he also added three tackles for loss and forced a pair of fumbles. Measuring under 6-foot and weighing 225 pounds, Trevathan lacks classic NFL size but is a hard-nosed football player who will be selected during the final day of the draft.
Sammy Brown, LB, Houston -- Brown was not considered free-agent worthy by most scouts prior to the season but that's changed. The senior leads the nation with 26 tackles for loss and has also totaled 12.5 sacks this season. His size and speed (6-foot-2, 235 pounds with 4.65 seconds in the 40) are more reminiscent of a weakside linebacker. Brown will have to prove he can make plays moving in reverse as well as forward, but has shown enough skill to jump into the late rounds of April's draft.
Jordan White, WR, Western Michigan -- The ultra-productive senior loomed large in helping the Broncos become bowl eligible last week. During the victory over Miami-Ohio, White totaled nine receptions for 106 yards and two scores. This comes on the heels of a performance against Toledo in which White registered 16 catches and 238 yards. For the season, he has 108 receptions and 14 touchdowns with another game left on the schedule. The big-bodied possession wideout was considered a late-round pick entering the season, but his play this year could push White into the middle rounds.
DeOn'tae Pannell, G, Penn State -- Pannell was an afterthought in the scouting community three months ago, but the thinking has changed 11 games into the 2011 season. The versatile lineman possesses next-level size, athleticism and movement skills. He's effective blocking in motion and will only get better as he receives more playing time and physically matures. It would not be a surprise if the little-mentioned senior squeezes into the late rounds next April.
*Sleeper* Robert Turbin/RB/Utah State -- The Aggies moved one game away from being bowl eligible for the first time in a decade and have done it largely on the shoulders of Turbin. The dominant ball carrier has totaled 1,257 rushing yards and 19 scores in 10 games this season. During Saturday's double overtime win against Idaho, Turbin ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. Turbin is a big-bodied runner with the skillset necessary to be a featured runner in the NFL. Scouts have pegged the junior as a top 45 choice if he enters the draft, which seems very likely at this point in time.