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.*
During my time as a scout, I was taught to pay close attention to prime-time games with several high-profile prospects because those contests provide a glimpse of how those players will perform as pros.
From their ability to handle a big-game atmosphere to their performance against other elite players, top prospects can separate from the pack in these games.
In looking at the much-anticipated LSU-Alabama tilt Saturday, there were several players who made strong cases about their future NFL potential. Here are some of my observations from the game:
» Alabama'sTrent Richardson* is the most complete running back in college football. He finished with 169 yards from scrimmage on 28 touches, and displayed the versatility offensive coordinators love in a feature back. His rugged running style allows him to pick up tough yardage between the tackles, but he also has the agility and elusiveness to create in the open field. Richardson is also a dangerous receiver, coming up with five receptions for 80 yards.
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»Alabama's defense is loaded at every level. Linebackers Dont'a Hightower* and Courtney Upshaw are versatile talents capable of thriving in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. Hightower, who registered seven tackles and two quarterback hurries, is a stout Mike linebacker with the size, strength and instincts to dominate the tackle-to-tackle box. He pummels lead blockers in the hole and has a knack for corralling runners near the line of scrimmage. Upshaw is an edge player with the ability to play upright or with his hand in the dirt. A dynamic rusher, Upshaw is capable of wearing down blockers with his energy and simply outworks opponents to get after the quarterback.
» Alabama DBsMark BarronandDre Kirkpatrick* have aggressive games ideally suited to play at the next level. Barron, a strong safety with 12 career interceptions, displayed his versatility by recording six tackles and an interception. He plays with vision on the quarterback and gets excellent jumps on throws by anticipating routes in his area. Kirkpatrick didn't deliver big numbers, but his coverage was exceptional. At 6-foot-3, 192 pounds, he is an aggressive corner with the size and strength to challenge receivers at the line. He disrupts their releases with strong jams and has the speed to maintain hip-pocket positioning throughout the down.
» With another stellar performance in a big game, LSU'sMorris Claiborne* continues to build his case as the top corner prospect. He's a lockdown corner with the all-around game scouts covet. At 6-1, 185 pounds, Claiborne has the length to aggressively attack receivers in bump-and-run coverage. He complements his physical style with sound technique. He never appears flustered in coverage, and his composure allows him to recover if he initially loses leverage on a receiver. Claiborne's instincts and awareness shine in zone coverage. He has a feel for reading routes and his vision on quarterbacks allows him to get quick breaks on throws. Case in point: His pivotal interception of Alabama QB A.J. McCarron, which set up a field goal in the second half.
Word on the street
» A high-ranking NFC West personnel man believes there could be as many as eight quarterbacks carrying second-round or higher grades heading into the 2012 draft. That number is certainly enhanced by a number of juniors -- Oklahoma's Landry Jones, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, USC's Matt Barkley and Stanford's Andrew Luck -- that could join Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and Arizona's Nick Foles among the top 64 prospects.
Although the personnel man didn't believe each of these prospects was worthy of being taken early, the lack of quarterbacks on a number of bad teams will drive up the value of this class and lead to some surprises early.
» Prior to Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles suffering a season-ending knee injury Saturday, an AFC South scout expressed reservations about his pro potential. Although the scout raved about Broyles' overall game and production, he was concerned about the lack of NFL success Oklahoma receivers have enjoyed in recent years. The disappointing showings by Mark Clayton, Mark Bradley and Juaquin Iglesias raise questions about production being a byproduct of their offensive system rather than talent.
While the scout wasn't ready to completely dismiss Broyles' collegiate success, he did say the struggles of other Oklahoma receivers would force him to spend more time studying Broyles at the NFL Scouting Combine and in workouts this spring.
» Montee Ball*, Wisconsin, RB: He topped the 100-yard mark for the fifth time this season with a season-high 223 yards on 20 carries against Purdue. With three more touchdowns, he now has 24 on the season. Although Ball's performance has been overshadowed by the Badgers' offensive line and quarterback Russell Wilson, the back is an up-and-comer in scouting circles.
» Marcus Coker*, Iowa, RB: He keyed the Hawkeyes' upset of Michigan, rushing for 132 yards on 29 carries. He now has four straight games with 100-plus rushing yards and is quietly the Big Ten's leading rusher with 1,101 yards. Coker also sports a robust average of 5.2 yards per carry.
» Danny Trevathan, Kentucky, OLB: The SEC's leading tackler continues to rack up numbers. He had 17 stops with 1.5 tackles for loss and an interception in a 30-13 win over Ole Miss. Although scouts will not play close attention to his tackle totals due to the Wildcats struggling, his instincts and effort will endear him to coaches.
» Rodney McLeod, Virginia, S: He spearheaded an impressive defensive effort for the Cavaliers with three interceptions in a 31-13 win over Maryland. Two of his picks came with the game still in the balance in the fourth quarter.
» Robert Griffin III*, Baylor, QB: After losing three of four games, Baylor outlasted Missouri thanks to Griffin. He completed 27 of 41 for 406 yards and three touchdowns. He has passed for 400-plus yards in three consecutive games and completed 74 percent of his attempts this season.
» Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M, RB: He entered the season as the top senior running back prospect, but has been maddeningly inconsistent. His nine-carry, 29-yard effort in a loss to Oklahoma marked the fourth time he has been held under 58 yards in nine games.
» Keith Price*, Washington, QB: The young quarterback has been impressive for most of the season, but didn't deliver when it mattered most against Oregon. Price was held to 143 yards passing and tossed two critical interceptions. He was also sacked six times while spending most of the night running for his life in the pocket.