The final college football season for top NFL prospects is a roller coaster ride. The preseason hype surrounding a player's potential is routinely followed by harsh criticism that seemingly sends his stock tumbling down the charts.
Part of the tumultuous ride can be attributed to NFL scouts finally taking a hard look at senior prospects after giving them a casual observation during their junior season. (As a rule, NFL scouts are prohibited from placing grades on underclassmen until they declare for the draft, so most evaluators don't complete a full write-up on redshirt sophomores or juniors.) This routinely leads to preseason speculation that fails to match the final evaluation, resulting in wild swings over the course of the season.
In the 2013 NFL Draft class, USC quarterback Matt Barkley is the prospect currently riding the roller coaster. He was widely touted as the No. 1 prospect in the class entering this season, but the tide seemingly has turned in NFL scouting circles. When I chatted with Barkley earlier this week on the NFL Draft Tracker podcast, he talked about keeping criticism in perspective and relishing the opportunity to showcase his pro potential by performing well in big games down the stretch.
Given the significance placed on these games in the minds of evaluators, Barkley and a few other top prospects have a lot to prove this weekend. I will have my eye on five particular prospects in Week 10 of the college football season, as detailed below.
All games are scheduled for Saturday; all times listed are Eastern.
* Denotes underclassmen
Sam Montgomery* and Barkevious Mingo*, DE, LSU
Alabama (8-0) at LSU (7-1), 8 p.m., CBS
The Tigers have two of the top pass rushers in college football in Montgomery and Mingo. The duo has totaled seven sacks and a dozen quarterback pressures in eight games. While those raw numbers might be underwhelming, both players have displayed the kind of explosiveness that keeps offensive coordinators up at night. Montgomery, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound junior, excels at defeating blockers with his strength and power. He routinely butt-and-jerks offensive tackles during initial engagement, before casting them to the side to pursue the quarterback. Although Montgomery still needs to refine his technique and approach, there is no denying his natural talent and potential as an edge rusher. Mingo, a 6-5, 245-pound junior, is an athletic freak with extraordinary first-step quickness. He blows by offensive tackles with his cat-like burst and relentlessly chases down quarterbacks from the blind side. Much like his counterpart, Mingo still needs to master the nuances of the pass rush, but he showcases the speed and explosiveness that are typically the hallmark of elite rushers at the next level. Against a Crimson Tide offensive line that features three future pros (Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker), the Tigers' talented tandem will get an opportunity to showcase its skills against quality competition in an enormous SEC West showdown.
Dion Jordan, DE, Oregon
Oregon (8-0) at USC (6-2), 7 p.m., FOX
The Ducks' high-powered offense routinely overshadows a stout defense loaded with athletic playmakers. Jordan is the most explosive athlete in the bunch, and scouts are fascinated by his raw ability. At 6-7, 243 pounds, Jordan is a freakish athlete with unique movement skills and agility. He glides gracefully around the corner, but displays uncanny balance and body control while changing directions. This is not a surprise, considering Jordan spent time at tight end during his first two seasons at Oregon (before switching to defensive end in 2010). While Jordan is far from a polished prospect at this point, NFL scouts are already pegging him as a potential first-round selection in the 2013 draft. With plenty of opportunities to get after Barkley on Saturday, Jordan can make a strong statement about his NFL potential with a big performance at the Coliseum.
Damontre Moore*, DE, Texas A&M
Texas A&M (6-2) at Mississippi State (7-1), Noon, ESPN
If not for the spectacular season of Georgia's Jarvis Jones, Moore could be considered the top defender in the SEC. The junior defensive end has collected 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, while displaying an NFL-ready game that is built on speed, quickness and effort. Most impressively, Moore has played well in the Aggies' biggest games (Florida and LSU), routinely dominating vaunted offensive tackles as a pass rusher. Against Mississippi State, however, Moore will get an opportunity to show scouts that he is also a stout run defender, capable of setting the edge against a talented runner in LaDarius Perkins. Given the difficulty of finding defensive ends with solid all-around games, Moore can earn significant points in the minds of evaluators with a strong showing against a run-heavy squad.
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
Texas (6-2) at Texas Tech (6-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2
Vaccaro is viewed as one of the top safeties in the country by NFL scouts due to his versatility and cover skills. He is one of the few prospects at his position capable of playing in the box against the run, while also possessing the speed, quickness and agility to match up with receivers and tight ends in the slot. Against a Red Raiders offense that will put the ball up at will, Vaccaro will have a chance to showcase his cover skills, taking on several elusive playmakers in the slot. As the Longhorns' nickel corner, he will be on the island in this game, and how he fares could have a significant impact on his draft position in April.
Joseph Randle*, RB, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State (5-2) at Kansas State (8-0), 8 p.m., ABC
The devastating injury to South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore has forced scouts to look all over the country for a new top running back in college football. Randle has raised eyebrows with his impressive play since the beginning of 2011. He has rushed for 2,007 yards on 368 attempts during this span, and shown a diverse game that is ideally suited for the NFL. Against Kansas State, Randle will have a chance to show that he can avoid rugged linebackers in the hole like Arthur Brown, and post big numbers against a stifling defense. He has topped the 100-yard mark in six of the Cowboys' seven games, but doing it against the Wildcats would earn him particularly high marks in the minds of NFL scouts.
FROM MY NOTEBOOK
» Butch Davis might have left North Carolina in shambles due to egregious NCAA violations, but he certainly brought a ton of NFL-caliber talent to Chapel Hill, N.C. The Tar Heels have three senior prospects (OG Jonathan Cooper, LB Kevin Reddick and DT Sylvester Williams) who could come off the board within the first 50 picks in April. In fact, I've been told by several scouts that Cooper might be the best offensive guard in the country, and his complete game could make him the first or second interior offensive lineman taken in the 2013 draft. I've been told by multiple scouts that RB Giovani Bernard, QB Bryn Renner, OT James Hurst and TE Eric Ebron could be intriguing players to watch down the road, as well. With each of those players viewed in high regard, North Carolina remains a must-visit for NFL evaluators around the league.
» The prospect generating the biggest buzz in the NFL scouting community is Brigham Young senior pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah. The 6-foot-6, 270-pounder has been the fastest riser on draft boards across the league due to his remarkable combination of size, speed and athleticism. As a former 200-meter sprinter, Ansah displays unbelievable quickness and burst for a defensive end. He combines those exceptional athletic traits with a natural pass-rush ability that is uncommon for a player with only three years of experience in organized football. When I reached out to an NFC scout familiar with prospects on the West Coast, he told me that Ansah is the "most improved player" in the area and could wind up as the top defensive prospect in the region when all is said and done. He went on to compare Ansah to Jason Pierre-Paul as an athlete and playmaker, and believes he could make a similar impact as a pro.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.