|Gerald Herbert / Associated Press|
|Tyrann Mathieu is making a name for himself as part of a strong cornerback tandem at LSU.|
Each Monday throughout the college football season, NFL.com draft expert Bucky Brooks will share his notes and evaluations on potential NFL prospects for the 2012 draft and beyond. An asterisk (*) denotes players who aren't seniors.
LSU has the top cornerback tandem in college football. That might comes as a surprise to some, but you will be hard pressed to find an SEC quarterback who disagrees.
The Tigers' dynamic duo of Tyrann Mathieu* and Morris Claiborne* are fundamentally sound in all aspects of the game, but it is their ability to create turnovers that separates them from the competition. Mathieu and Claiborne have done it every which way with picks, forced fumbles and even a fumble return for a score against Kentucky. Their penchant for getting their hands on the ball has been one of the reasons LSU's defense ranks among the nation's best.
Mathieu, in particular, has shown extraordinary ball skills despite being a sophomore. He has one interception, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in 2011. He also has 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss. His ability to create negative plays has encouraged coaches to use him as a playmaker from his nickel position.
Claiborne is not as physical or aggressive as his counterpart, but is a more polished cover man. He excels at reading routes and trusting his instincts to make plays on the ball. He has seven picks over the past two seasons.
Clemson's underrated defensive line features studs in DT Brandon Thompson and DE Andre Branch. Both players were magnificent in the Tigers' win over Virginia Tech, and scouts are certainly paying attention to their dominating presence.
Thompson, rated as one of the top defensive tackles in the 2012 class, is an athletic run stuffer with exceptional strength and power. At 6-foot-2, 304 pounds, he overwhelms blockers with his explosive first-step quickness and force. His talent was on display against Virginia Tech, with six stops, a tackle for loss and a half sack. While most observers focus on sacks when measuring a defensive lineman's effectiveness, it was Thompson's ability to disrupt the offensive flow up the middle that stood out.
Branch, on the other hand, delivered a handful of plays that showcased his promise as a pass rusher. He finished with three sacks, repeatedly blowing past blockers on an assortment of speed rushes. He also showed an inside counter to get to the quarterback. Although he still needs to be more consistent, his breakout performance will intrigue evaluators looking for a versatile defender with rush skills.
If you're looking for a sleeper with a chance to make an NFL impact, Houston's Case Keenum could be the guy. The sixth-year senior has been sensational directing the spread offense and has put himself firmly on the radar of scouts. Keenum has connected on 69.7 percent of his passes for 2,005 yards, 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions in sparking Houston to a 5-0 start.
While some of that production might be inflated due to the Cougars' pass-heavy nature, it is hard to deny Keenum's physical attributes. He displays zip, touch and ball placement on short-to-intermediate routes, and also shows anticipation while leading receivers into open windows. He is a nimble athlete and can escape trouble in the pocket.
Against UTEP, Keenum completed 30 of 46 passes for 471 yards with two touchdowns and did not throw a pick. He quickly delivered accurate strikes following one- and three-step drops from the shotgun. His rhythm, timing and execution were superb.
Now, Keenum's game is far from flawless. He has been inconsistent with his reads and decisions throughout his career. His durability is also an issue with his extensive injury history as a sixth-year player.
While those concerns will certainly be a factor for evaluators, it shouldn't overshadow his potential as a developmental prospect.
Word on the street
» Hampton's Micah Pellerin is generating a strong buzz in scouting circles as one of the top small-school prospects. The 6-foot, 187-pound corner is big and physical with excellent cover skills. According to an AFC scout who recently paid Hampton a visit, Pellerin is "legitimate" with all of the tools to play corner or possibly safety at the next level. The scout raved about Pellerin's toughness, aggressiveness and hard-hitting approach.
» Russell Wilson, Wisconsin, QB: I heard Brent Musburger make a comparison between Wilson and Drew Brees, and it took me back to an early season conversation I had with an AFC scout. According to the scout, the parallels between the two are dead-on based on their big arms, athleticism and leadership skills. Wilson was impressive during his time at North Carolina State and has continued to showcase his skills at Wisconsin. With more stellar performances, he could dramatically boost his draft stock.
» Tyler Wilson* and Jarius Wright, Arkansas, QB/WR: Coach Bobby Petrino unleashed his explosive passing combination on Texas A&M en route to 581 yards of total offense in a 42-38 win. Wilson connected on 30 of 51 passes for 510 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He directed the Razorbacks' pro-style attack with pinpoint passes at varying distances and showcased his arm strength and touch.
Wright, who finished with 13 receptions for 281 yards and a touchdown, displayed his speed, quickness and burst while running past defenders on deep balls. He also proved his toughness by catching several passes over the middle. Those traits are a big reason why Wright is starting to generate a buzz as an intriguing slot receiver prospect.
» Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, OLB: Upshaw did a little bit of everything against the Florida Gators with three tackles for loss, a sack and an interception return for a touchdown. His performance certainly illustrated his versatility as a 3-4 outside linebacker and provided scouts with a glimpse of his potential.
» Ray Graham*, Pittsburgh, RB: He was the best player on the field against South Florida. Graham rushed for 226 yards on 26 carries with two touchdowns and added four receptions for 42 yards. His vision, speed and quickness led to big plays on the perimeter thanks to a series of cutback runs that took advantage of an overaggressive defense. Given the success of LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis, Graham continues to help his stock.
» Marcus Lattimore*, South Carolina, RB: It's not entirely fair to include Lattimore here because of his production to date, but he failed to deliver against a struggling Auburn defense. He posted just 66 rushing yards on 17 attempts (3.9 per carry) and didn't provide explosive plays. While he didn't receive much help from his supporting cast, Lattimore's second straight game under the century mark was a critical factor in the Gamecocks' first loss.
» Chris Rainey, Florida, RB: Only a few weeks after shining as a multipurpose threat, Rainey found the going tough against Alabama. He was held to four yards on 11 attempts and never found an open crease in the defense. Without the size or strength to effectively grind it out between the tackles, Rainey was a non-factor in the Gators' biggest game to date.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.