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Many happy returns: Special teams speedsters have a leg up

Associated Press
Jordan Shipley's big-play ability has put him ahead of the pack among wide receiver prospects for the 2010 draft.


As Steve Smith, Wes Welker and DeSean Jackson continue to light it up on Sundays, a growing number of scouts are trolling college campuses looking for pass catchers that possess the dynamic playmaking ability shared by that trio.

Whereas some receivers in the league are exceptional pass catchers or phenomenal route runners, the common thread that separates this threesome from the rest is that they all entered the league as accomplished return men.

Smith, Welker and Jackson were regarded among the best returners in the college game during their final seasons, and their ability to make plays in the kicking game continued when they reached the NFL. Each earned kudos as rookies for their ability to return punts, and those outstanding running skills have served them well as receivers.

Although possessing exceptional return skills doesn't guarantee a player can emerge as a top receiving threat, it does guarantees that a receiver has a chance to develop into a big-play threat due to his spectacular running ability in the open field. The pro game is slowly being impacted by the influx of spread offense elements such as the bubble screen and fly sweep, and offensive coordinators are increasingly using their most explosive weapons to handle those plays. Therefore, it is becoming a necessity to have at least one receiver with those electrifying skills in the lineup.

In looking at the 2010 draft class, scouts are salivating over the impending arrival of a few top receivers with dynamic return skills.

Clemson's Jacoby Ford, Texas' Jordan Shipley and Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard headline a crew of talented playmakers that have terrorized the college game with their explosive skills as receivers/returners.

Ford, who is the reigning ACC 100-meter sprint champion, has captivated the minds of scouts blinded by his world-class speed. Although the Tigers' speedster has only tallied 39 receptions this season, his 14.1 yards-per-catch average and four receiving scores indicate his big-play potential. Additionally, Ford has tallied two scores on punt returns during his career, including a 61-yard score this season.

Scouts are undoubtedly smitten by Shipley's exceptional all-around game. He ranks fifth in the country in receiving yards (1,096), sixth in receptions (81) and third in punt return yards (303). While those numbers validate his ranking as one of the top all-purpose players in the game, it has been his electrifying running skills and open-field talents - as evidenced in his two punt-return touchdowns this season -- that have scouts singing his praises. Teams can easily envision him duplicating his success on the next level.

Gilyard may not have earned recognition on the national level, but Big East opponents are all too familiar with his game-changing skills. The 2008 Big East Special Teams Player of the Year has continued to torment opponents with his all-around game. Gilyard has hauled in 68 receptions for 930 yards (13.7 avg.) and eight scores while continuing to excel as a kick returner. Though he has yet to register a return score this season, scouts are well aware of his dangerous potential in the kicking game. With his receiving skills starting to catch up to his return game, it is a given that Gilyard ranks as one of the best all-purpose weapons at the position.

As the presence of a dual threat at receiver continues to become the rage in the pro game, you can rest assured that scouts are pushing a handful of multi-purpose players up draft boards across the league.

Must-see college games for NFL scouts this week

Oklahoma at Texas Tech

Scouts are anxious to see Red Raiders G Brandon Carter take on one of college football top interior players, underclassman Gerald McCoy, in battle in the trenches. Carter is viewed by scouts as one of the top interior prospects in the game, and his ability to handle the ultra-active McCoy will give evaluators a great indication of how quickly he will adjust to the pro game. If Carter can hold his own in this much-anticipated matchup, he may fly up the charts as a potential early-round prospect.

LSU at Ole Miss

After Dexter McCluster's big performance last week against Tennessee, scouts are curious to see if the big-play specialist can produce a number of explosive plays against a star-studded LSU defense. McCluster has intrigued scouts with his potential as a runner/receiver, and another stellar performance will only cement his status as one of top game-changers in the 2010 draft class. Additionally, scouts are closely watching junior QB Jevan Snead to see if the struggling signal caller can revive his sagging stock with a big-time performance. For the Tigers, all eyes will be on WR Brandon LaFell as he makes a push to be the top pass catcher taken in the draft. The Tigers' star has been plagued by inconsistency during his senior season, but scouts still covet his phenomenal combination of size and athleticism.

Matt Sayles / Associated Press
Toby Gerhart left the Trojans defense bruised and beaten as Stanford steamrolled USC.

Cal at Stanford

Toby Gerhart has put the Cardinal on his back with his rough and rugged running style. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in eight of the team's 10 games and is coming off a sensational 178-yard rushing day against USC. With few senior backs capable of matching his combination of strength and power, it's not surprising that Gerhart is beginning to enter the conversation as one of the top backs in the 2010 class. For the Bears, the focus is on CB Syd'Quan Thompson. The senior cover man has outstanding skills, and his matchup with Stanford WR Chris Owusu will serve as another test against top competition.

Virginia at Clemson

The Tigers' offense is loaded with explosive playmakers in RB C.J. Spiller and WR Jacoby Ford -- two of the fastest players at their respective positions, who have impressed scouts with their ability to make plays with the ball in their hands. Spiller, in particular, has shot up draft boards across the league, and could solidify his status as the top back among seniors. Defensively, Tigers OLB Ricky Sapp continues to climb up the charts due to his explosive athleticism and pass rush skills. With another spectacular performance in the season's final weeks, he can make a strong push for early-round consideration.

Oregon at Arizona

After tallying back-to-back 100-yard receiving games in midseason, Ducks TE Ed Dickson has been limited to only 179 yards on 15 receptions over the past five games. Although the declining production would normally raise eyebrows in the scouting community, evaluators are still salivating over Dickson's extraordinary athleticism and receiving skills. For the Wildcats, scouts are closely monitoring Devin Ross to see if the savvy cover man can hold his own in coverage against the Ducks' explosive receiving corps.

 
Prospect to watch
Darrell Stuckey

Darrell Stuckey, S, Kansas
The Jayhawks' 5-foot-11, 205-pound star has all the tools that defensive coordinators covet in the back end. Stuckey is a charismatic leader with outstanding intangibles and football awareness. Additionally, he is a teeth-rattling hitter with the athleticism and cover skills to matchup with tight ends and receivers in space. While some scouts will downgrade Stuckey for his lack of prototypical size, others view Stuckey as a Bob Sanders clone with impact potential. With more teams looking for a big-time enforcer in the middle of the field, it is not surprising that Stuckey is quietly creeping into early round consideration.
Bucky Brooks' "Sweet 16"
Bucky Brooks' latest list of the top 16 senior NFL prospects for the 2010 draft class, in order of when they might get drafted:

1. Russell Okung, OT, Oklahoma State: Okung continues to impress scouts with his superior skills as a run or pass blocker, and is undoubtedly a franchise-caliber left tackle prospect.

2. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska: The Husker standout is a dominant interior player with the skills to terrorize opponents as a run stuffer or pass rusher, and his unique skill set makes him the top defensive prospect in the draft.

C.J. Spiller 3. C.J. Spiller, RB, Clemson: The explosive speedster has lived up to his reputation by delivering a host of big plays this season. Spiller has emerged as one of the top multi-purpose threats in college football.

4. Trent Williams, OT, Oklahoma: While his struggles with speed and quickness off the edge lead some to question his ability to play left tackle in the NFL, Williams remains one of the top tackle prospects in the draft.

5. Taylor Mays, FS, USC: An exceptional athlete with outstanding instincts and awareness, Mays is the prototypical enforcer defensive coordinators covet in the middle of the field.

6. Sergio Kindle, LB, Texas: The ultra-athletic pass rusher has one of the quickest first steps in the game, and is an explosive player with immense potential. His stock has taken a bit of a tumble in the eyes of some scouts, however, due to his inconsistent motor and effort.
Complete "Sweet 16" ...


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