There is nothing better than watching top prospects square off in big games in the month of October. Scouts love to see how elite players perform in a festive atmosphere with conference and/or national-title implications.
As a young scout with the Seattle Seahawks, I was encouraged by Ted Thompson and John Schneider to see top prospects perform against NFL-caliber competition in big games to determine their readiness for the next level. I continue to use that premise when evaluating players today, and this weekend offers several of these showcase matchups.
Here are five prospects I will have my eye on in Week 9 of the college football season:
All games are scheduled for Saturday; all times listed are Eastern.
* Denotes underclassmen
Aaron Murray*, QB, Georgia
Georgia (6-1) vs. Florida (7-0), 3:30 p.m., CBS
Murray has flown under the radar for most of the season, despite throwing for 1,914 yards with 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He has accomplished those numbers by showing impressive accuracy, touch and awareness in six of the Bulldogs' seven games. With a poor performance against South Carolina still lingering in the minds of NFL evaluators, Murray needs a solid performance against Florida to alleviate concerns about his clutch factor in big games. That's a difficult task with Florida's Matt Elam roaming the middle of the field. The junior safety displays outstanding athleticism, range and ball skills, and he will attempt to steal a pick by reading Murray's eyes. Given the cat-and-mouse game that will ensue between Elam and Murray, scouts will closely monitor this pivotal SEC battle in Jacksonville.
Jesse Williams, NT, Alabama
Mississippi State (7-0) at Alabama (7-0), 8:30 p.m., ESPN
The proliferation of the 3-4 defense in the NFL has led scouts to focus intently on nose tackle prospects with size, strength and athleticism. Williams certainly fits the bill as a 6-foot-4, 320-pound disruptive force in the middle. A native of Brisbane, Australia, Williams is an immovable object against double teams and has the capacity to overwhelm blockers in isolated matchups on the interior. However, Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson presents a huge challenge with his extraordinary size (6-foot-4, 320 pounds), strength and tenacity. The redshirt junior has emerged as one of college football's top offensive guard prospects. Jackson will certainly give Williams a battle, providing scouts with a preview of each player's potential at the NFL level.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
Notre Dame (7-0) at Oklahoma (5-1), 8 p.m., ABC
After being hailed as one of the top quarterback prospects entering last season, Jones has seen his stock plummet following several inconsistent performances since the middle of 2011. While he has started to show signs of regaining form in recent weeks, Jones needs a strong showing against undefeated Notre Dame to show his growth and development as a passer and playmaker. If Jones can find a way to string together completions against a Manti Te'o-led defense that has played at an elite level, Jones can change the opinions of NFL evaluators questioning the senior's ability to step up in big games.
Corey Lemonier*, DE, Auburn
Texas A&M (5-2) at Auburn (1-6), 7 p.m., ESPNU
Lemonier has created a buzz in the scouting community with flashes of dominance off the edge. He has recorded five sacks and five tackles for loss this season, playing well in big games against Clemson and LSU. At 6-4, 246 pounds, Lemonier shows exceptional first-step quickness and agility. He is the kind of athletic edge rusher who routinely wreaks havoc on quarterbacks at the next level. Against Texas A&M, Lemonier squares off against two of the top offensive tackles in the country in Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Both present a significant challenge to Lemonier with their size, length and lateral quickness. Joeckel, in particular, will test Lemonier with his sound footwork and technical skills. A strong performance against a pair of NFL-caliber offensive tackles would go a long way in proving Lemonier is one of the top defensive end prospects in the college game.
Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
Oregon State (6-0) at Washington (3-4), 10:15 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Trufant has emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the country, blanketing the opposition's top receiver on a weekly basis in the ultra-competitive Pac-12. Trufant shows outstanding movement skills and quickness. He could be the best slot corner in college football. While some scouts question Trufant's capacity to play against big, physical receivers, he is an intriguing prospect due to his size (6-0, 186), ball skills and versatility. Against Oregon State, he will face an explosive playmaker in wide receiver Markus Wheaton. The Beavers star is a vertical threat with the speed to get deep, but is also a nifty route runner capable of working the intermediate areas of the field. With NFL scouts curious about Trufant's ability to fulfill a role as a No. 1 corner, this matchup against Wheaton will certainly provide a lot of answers about his overall potential.
FROM MY NOTEBOOK
» I had an NFC South executive tell me that N.C. State senior Mike Glennon could be the second quarterback taken in the 2013 NFL Draft when all is said and done. (At the moment, West Virginia's Geno Smith is considered top dog at the position.) The scout spoke glowingly about Glennon's impressive physical tools and cited his "A-plus" arm talent in explaining why the signal-caller could shoot up draft boards across the league during the pre-draft evaluation process. Although the scout pointed out "suspect decision making" under pressure as a major concern, he believes Glennon has the kind of ability that coaches covet in a potential franchise quarterback.
» One of the players creating the biggest buzz in the scouting community is Fresno State's Phillip Thomas. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound free safety has been outstanding this season after missing most of 2011 with a broken leg and dislocated ankle. Thomas leads the nation with seven interceptions, including three pick-sixes, and possesses the skill set scouts covet in deep-middle defenders. Most impressively, Thomas displays the cover skills and athleticism to defend slot receivers and tight ends in space. I spoke with an NFC scout familiar with Thomas and he raved about his ball skills, toughness and physicality. With few safeties providing the ability to thrive as a run or pass defender, Thomas could attract a lot of attention from teams looking for a playmaker in the middle of the field.
» The No. 1 corner in the draft is Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks, according to several scouts I've spoken with over the past few weeks. The 6-2, 185-pound senior was viewed as a potential first-round pick when he considered entering the 2012 draft as an underclassman and continues to receive high marks from evaluators who have seen him play this season. An AFC personnel man raved about his "toughness" and "versatility," while I had an NFC scout cite his combination of size, length and technical skills as why he should be the top choice at the position. Both evaluators expressed concerns about his speed, but neither saw it as the kind of limitation that would keep him from developing into an elite player at the next level.