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Notable prospects to watch as college season opens

Steve Mitchell/US Presswire
Stanford's Andrew Luck widely is considered to be the most NFL-ready quarterback in college right now.


The first weekend of the college season sends NFL scouts across the country to evaluate the top prospects in the next few draft classes.

While the players eligible for the 2012 NFL Draft rank as the priority in search for impact players, scouts can't help but look at some of the future stars set to enter the league in 2013 and beyond.


» Season predictions: Our experts make their picks
» Team-by-team season previews

Monday:
» XLVI things to look forward to this NFL season
» Must-see TV: Most-anticipated game of 2011 season
» Let's not inscribe Super Bowl rings for Eagles just yet
» For Patriots, Ochocinco, Haynesworth are risks worth taking

Tuesday:
» Who will be next 'elite' QB to join list of Super Bowl winners?
» Cowboys, Colts could be left out of the mix come playoff time
» Proliferation of spread offense has NFL defenses on the run
» Cutler's game, not attitude, must improve to take Super step

Wednesday:
» These five players have potential for breakout seasons
» Surprise stars from 2010 appear to have staying power
» Can Vick repeat success of 2010? Don't bet against it
» Star search: Who will rise from obscurity this season?

Thursday:
» NFL division power rankings: NFC North tops list
» Three reasons why things are again bleak in NFC West
» More than shtick, winning is what Jets' Ryan does best
» Five in, five out: Will NFL playoff parity party continue?

Friday:
» Who will pick first in the 2012 NFL Draft?
» Some rookie QBs could find themselves on the field soon
» Newton's special but he has a whole lot to learn
» Dominating Steelers defense won't fall off in 2011

Let's look at some of the notable college players who could potentially make an impact in the NFL in 2012 and beyond:

(*Denotes underclassmen)

Offense

Andrew Luck, Stanford, QB: Luck was considered a strong candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick had he entered the 2011 draft, but he opted to stay in school. His game has very few noticeable flaws. At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, he is an accurate drop-back passer with excellent arm strength and touch. He has invaluable experience directing a pro-style system and is the most pro-ready quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning.

Matt Barkley, USC, QB*: Barkley is living up to the hype after arriving as a highly decorated recruit. He has thrived as a two-year starter, showcasing a game ideally suited for the pros. His arm strength rates slightly above average, and he possesses pinpoint accuracy and a high football IQ.

Landry Jones, Oklahoma, QB*: Jones has been one of the most prolific passers in college over the past two seasons directing the Sooners' spread attack. As a classic drop-back passer with outstanding arm strength, he is capable of making all of the requisite throws with velocity. His ball placement is exceptional, and he shows the ability to lead receivers into open windows with his throws. While he must continue to hone the finer parts of his game, Jones is certainly an intriguing prospect worth monitoring throughout his junior campaign.

Trent Richardson, Alabama, RB*: After serving as the complement to Mark Ingram in the Crimson Tide backfield, Richardson finally gets to display his remarkable skills as a featured back. He is a shifty power runner with excellent balance, body control and vision. He has shown the toughness to grind between the tackles but also possesses the acceleration and burst to get to the corner. All Richardson has to do now is show he can handle the load as a full-time rusher.

LaMichael James, Oregon, RB*: The diminutive playmaker (5-9, 195) is one of the most electrifying runners in college football. His combination of speed, quickness and agility is breathtaking, and his ability to find open creases will certainly pique the interest of scouts. If he can follow up his strong sophomore season with another productive year, he will be worthy of high first-round consideration whenever he enters the draft.

Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State, WR*: Blackmon exploded onto the scene last season with an extraordinary combination of size, speed and athleticism that allowed him to dominate defenders on the outside. At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, he is a Terrell Owens-like playmaker with the explosiveness to win on vertical routes and produce big gains on catch-and-runs off short throws.

Jeff Fuller, Texas A&M, WR: Fuller quietly has become one of the better receivers in college football. He is a big, physical pass-catcher with outstanding hands and ball skills. He excels at winning contested balls in traffic, while also showing excellent concentration and athleticism adjusting to errant throws. Fuller isn't polished or refined as a route runner, but he has a knack for creating separation from defenders. Fuller enters the season viewed as an intriguing prospect with the potential to blossom into a No. 1 receiver at the next level.

Michael Floyd, Notre Dame, WR: Floyd toyed with the idea of entering the 2011 draft but decided to return to the Irish. Floyd makes the acrobatic catch appear routine and playmaking rates as his best quality. His off-the-field issues -- three alcohol-related incidents in his past -- could affect his draft status, but his superior talent and production warrants a high grade heading into the season.

Alshon Jeffrey, South Carolina, WR*: Jeffrey dominates defenders in jump-ball situations but is more than just an alley-oop option on the perimeter. He is a fearless competitor willing to make the difficult grab over the middle. His combination of size and strength overwhelms defenders and leads to big gains after the catch. If he can continue to sharpen some of the finer points of his game in 2011, Jeffrey will make a strong case for being the top receiver in the 2013 class.

Matt Kalil, USC, OT: Kalil is the prototypical left tackle prospect with excellent size, athleticism and technical skills. He displays balance and body control in pass protection. His lateral movement skills are impressive, and he also displays the strength to anchor against aggressive rushers. Kalil is just as effective in the ground game. His ability to uproot defenders on the edges creates soft corners for runners, which eventually leads to big gains. Kalil enters the regular season regarded as one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the draft.

Jonathan Martin, Stanford, OT*: At 6-foot-6, 305 pounds, Martin also is a prototypical left tackle. He easily mirrors finesse rushers in pass protection and can engulf defenders once he engages them early in downs. In spite of his exceptional athleticism, he struggles anchoring against power. He occasionally is walked back to the quarterback and fails to provide a secure pocket. Regardless, his raw talent and potential make him intriguing.

Cordy Glenn, Georgia, G: Glenn is a massive interior blocker with the versatility to play right tackle as a pro. His size and strength allow him to dominate in the run game, while his surprising balance and body control help him excel in pass protection. He has held his own in matchups against elite defenders in the past, and his experience (36 career starts) could help him make a quick transition to the pro game. With another solid season as a Bulldog, Glenn could emerge as the top interior prospect in the 2012 draft.

Defense

Quinton Coples, North Carolina, DE: Coples is a big, athletic defensive lineman with the skills to play anywhere along the line. As a tackle or end, he is a disruptive force who routinely creates negative plays due to his extra effort. He shows explosive first-step quickness and has developed a wide array of rush moves despite only having one full season of experience as a starter. With more experience and repetitions to refine his overall game, Coples could wind up as the top overall prospect with a strong senior season.

Alameda Ta'amu, Washington, DT: A massive, 6-3, 337-pound nose tackle, Ta'amu has the size and strength to control the point. He excels at stacking and stuffing the run, but is only marginally effective as a pass rusher. He lacks the quickness and athleticism to win isolated matchups and has little sack production. While a one-dimensional game isn't a fit in all systems, he can certainly solidify his status as an upper echelon interior defender with a strong showing this season.

Jared Crick, Nebraska, DE: Crick is a versatile playmaker with skills ideally suited to play as a five-technique as a pro. He has experience playing defensive end in a three-man front but is capable of playing as an edge player in a 4-3 scheme. He displays excellent first-step quickness and flashes an explosive closing burst. As a run defender, he shows decent hand skills and is capable of occupying double teams at the point of attack. Crick can enhance his stock with a strong showing against rugged offenses in the Big 10 this fall.

Brandon Thompson, Clemson, DT: A dominant three-technique, Thompson overwhelms blockers at the point of attack and flashes a strong nose for the ball. His ability to play in the opponent's backfield is impressive, and scouts will covet his disruptive skills as an interior player. Thompson needs to refine his technique as a rusher, but his quickness and athleticism give him a chance to develop into an effective pass rusher in the right system.

Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State, ILB*: Burfict is an instinctive playmaker with outstanding athleticism and physical tools. He aggressively attacks the line of scrimmage against the run and is a big hitter in the hole. His punishing hits stop runners in their tracks. While his aggressive demeanor can lead to some recklessness, Burfict is an intimidating force with a game that is solid for a true junior. If he continues to progress at this rate, he has a chance to finish the season as the top inside linebacker in the 2013 class.

Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama, CB: The troubled cover corner was forced to take his game to North Alabama after being dismissed at Florida for repeated off-field issues. Jenkins' character concerns overshadow a game that is elite from a physical and tactical standpoint. As a corner capable of playing press coverage or shadowing from distance, he plays in a style that is reminiscent of Asante Samuel. He excels at keying the quarterback with vision, and his combination of instincts, awareness and ball skills frequently produces big plays. Jenkins' gambling needs to be curtailed at times, but his big-play ability makes him a top choice at the position in the 2012 draft.

Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska, CB: Dennard is an aggressive corner with excellent instincts and awareness. He excels at reading routes and anticipating throws while shadowing receivers in off coverage. He shows great instincts and awareness, and has the ball skills to come down with errant throws in his area. In press coverage, he is patient at the line and disrupts receivers with strong jams. While he lacks elite speed, his disciplined technique allows him to maintain good position against elite receivers down the field. If he can continue to hone his skills in coverage, while improving his ability to get off blocks on the perimeter, Dennard could emerge as the top corner in the 2012 draft.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks

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