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.*
Scouts searching for blue chip defenders with disruptive rush skills should pitch a tent in Chapel Hill, N.C., to take a long look at Quinton Coples and Zach Brown. The two Tar Heels have emerged as the top prospects at their respective positions, and their combination of size, speed and athleticism makes them potential difference makers on the next level.
Coples, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound defensive end with 14.5 career sacks, is regarded as the top pass rusher in the country due to his freakish athleticism and relentless motor. He wins isolated matchups with speed or power, and routinely uses those skills in unison to harass quarterbacks in the pocket. As a run defender, Coples displays the arm length and strength to set the edge against outside runs. He works through the blocker's outside shoulder while maintaining square position, which allows him to quickly shed and disengage when runners bounce or attempt to cut inside blocks.
Coples' ability to excel against the run or pass sets him apart from others at his position. In addition, he has the kind of versatility that makes him an enticing option for any defense. He spent part of 2010 playing inside as a three-technique (defensive tackle aligned on the outside shade of the offensive guard) due to the suspension of Marvin Austin. Although he isn't ideally suited to play the position as a pro, Coples' ability to move inside makes him a possible option for teams utilizing a three-man front or provides defensive coordinators with an option of using him as an interior rusher in passing situations.
Brown, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound outside linebacker, also possesses the versatility defensive coordinators covet in strong-side linebackers. An explosive athlete with 4.4 speed, he has the burst to run with running backs and tight ends in space, while also possessing the strength to maul tight ends at the line of scrimmage. His combination of hand strength and agility makes him difficult to elude, and he also utilizes those skills to set the edge against the run. He routinely creates penetration against reach blocks, which forces runners to bounce or cut back into pursuing defenders for minimal gains.
As a pass defender, Brown can drop into coverage or wreak havoc by rushing off the edge. His first-step quickness and closing burst overwhelms blockers, and the coaching staff has taken advantage of his athleticism by using him as an edge player in their sub-package. Given more opportunities to get after the passer, Brown has responded with 5.5 sacks in nine games and developed into one of the most dynamic defenders in college football.
Against Wake Forest, Brown put on an impressive performance that showcased his exceptional all-around skill set. He finished with nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and an interception. He also forced a fumble and scooped up a loose ball that changed the momentum of the game. With an impressive signature game that will certainly prompt evaluators to view him as a three-down linebacker, Brown has the potential to experience a meteoric rise up the charts.
The next Nnamdi?
At 6-foot-3, 194 pounds, Amerson possesses the length and athleticism to match up with big, physical receivers. His impeccable timing, awareness and length are also apparent in press coverage. He quickly stabs receivers with strong jams, which disrupts the timing of their routes and leads to tighter coverage down the field. Even though he isn't a blazer by pro standards (mid-4.5 40), his ability to aggressively maul receivers at the line and cut off their angles lessens the importance of pure speed.
Amerson is at his best, however, in zone coverage. He displays excellent instincts, awareness and ball skills. He has a knack for reading routes and anticipating throws and shows surprisingly polished footwork for a corner of his size. With a gambler's instinct to match his fundamentally sound game, he has tallied two picks in three separate games, including a two-interception performance against Virginia that included a pick-six.
Although it is still too early to dub Amerson as college football's top corner, he has a skill set that makes him look like an Asomugha clone at this stage of his development.
Word on the street
West Virginia's Bruce Irvin is garnering comparisons to the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul in scouting circles. According to an AFC South executive, Irvin possesses similar athletic traits and is the kind of speed rusher who can blossom as a pro despite limited moves. While the executive pointed out that Pierre-Paul has a bigger frame, which allowed him to grow into being an every-down edge rusher, he believes Irvin could spend the early part of his career making solid contributions as a 250-pound situational pass rusher.
Justin Blackmon*, Oklahoma State, WR: Blackmon is already regarded as one of the top receivers in college football, but his 13-catch, 172-yard performance against Baylor certainly made a compelling argument for his spot at the top of the list. He is indefensible in isolated matchups and is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball in the open field. Although his numbers are slightly off his remarkable pace of 2010 (111 catches for 1,782 yards with 20 touchdowns), he remains the No. 1 option in the Cowboys' high-octane offense.
Jarvis Jones*, Georgia, OLB: He keyed the Bulldogs' win over Florida by tallying four sacks, including three in the first half. Jones' ability to wreak havoc off the edges with his speed and quickness altered the Gators' offensive approach and forced their quarterback (John Brantley) into a dismal performance. With eight sacks and 14 tackles for loss on the season, Jones is starting to generate some buzz as one of the top edge players in college football.
Jemea Thomas*, Georgia Tech, CB: The Yellow Jackets' surprising upset of Clemson was keyed by Thomas' stellar defensive performance. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound cover man picked off two passes, forced a fumble and recorded two pass breakups, while displaying excellent ball skills, awareness and instincts against the Tigers' talented receiving corps.
E.J. Manuel*, Florida State, QB: Manuel continues to create a buzz about his future with his outstanding play the past few weeks. Against N.C. State, he connected on 24 of 34 passes for 321 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. It was his second 300-yard game of the season and marked the sixth time in seven starts that he has completed over 64 percent of his passes.
Kirk Cousins, Michigan State, QB: Only one week after putting on a show against Wisconsin, Cousins delivered a dud against Nebraska. He only connected on 11 of 27 passes for 86 yards with one interception. He was woefully off target and never appeared to find a rhythm against the Cornhuskers' zone-heavy tactics.
A.J. Jenkins, Illinois, WR: After exploding onto the scene with four 100-yard games in the first six weeks, Jenkins was held to fewer than 100 yards receiving for the third straight game. He tallied six catches for 43 yards against Penn State and displayed none of the big-play ability that keyed Illinois' offense during an impressive start.
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