The college football season is winding down, but scouts are just starting to narrow their focus on the top prospects.
With much of the work done on the 2013 class, evaluators will begin to take notes on some of the top underclassmen to get a feel for the next group of impact players. Now, scouts are prohibited from filing comprehensive reports on juniors according to NFL rules, but the growing number of early entrants into the draft makes it imperative that they get a head start on the background work.
Given that premise, below are five players I'll be watching closely on Saturday.
All games are scheduled for Saturday; all times listed are Eastern.
Cornellius "Tank" Carradine and Bjoern Werner*, DE, Florida State
Florida (10-1) at Florida State (10-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC
The Seminoles boast one of college football's top pass-rushing tandems with Carradine and Werner crashing off the edges. The duo has combined for 20 sacks and 26 tackles for loss in 11 games, while displaying an array of skills that has made scouts salivate about the possibility of adding either to their respective squads. Carradine, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior, has earned rave reviews for his ability to replace Brandon Jenkins in the lineup. He is best described as a high-motor player with exceptional strength and power. He excels at using a variety of power moves to defeat blockers at the point of attack before chasing down quarterbacks from the behind. Werner, a 6-4, 256-pound junior, is a freakish athlete with extraordinary first-step quickness. He explodes off the ball with cat-like quickness and routinely uses a "dip and rip" move to turn the corner and hit the quarterback. Against a Florida squad featuring big, physical offensive linemen, this game could serve as a showcase for Carradine and Werner in the minds of evaluators.
Taylor Lewan*, OT, Michigan
Michigan (8-3) at Ohio State (11-0), Noon, ABC
Scouts are always looking for future franchise-caliber offensive tackles. Lewan has all-star written all over him when you consider his enormous size (6-8, 309 pounds) and physical tools. He is a much better athlete than most anticipate, and his ability to kick-slide against speed rushers makes him an ideal candidate to man the left side as a pro. While he still needs to refine his fundamentals, his natural tools are enough to make him a top prospect at the position. With a big game against an Ohio State defensive line that features several NFL prospects (including John Simon and Johnathan Hankins), Lewan could boost his draft value with a strong performance Saturday afternoon.
Khaled Holmes, C, USC
Notre Dame (11-0) at USC (7-4), 8 p.m., ABC
The loss of Matt Barkley to injury will put more on the shoulders of Holmes as the leader of the offensive line. He will likely take over the protection calls and assist replacement QB Max Wittek in getting the Trojans into the proper play call. While scouts will certainly pay close attention to the way Holmes handles the added responsibility, this game is an important one for the senior due to the challenge nose guard Louis Nix poses at the point of attack. The Notre Dame junior is an immovable force off the ball, and scouts will get a chance to see how Holmes deals with strength and physicality in the trenches. Given the importance NFL coaches place on getting push at the line of scrimmage, Holmes' performance in this game is critical to his draft prospects.
DeAndre Hopkins*, WR, Clemson
South Carolina (9-2) at Clemson (10-1), 7 p.m., ESPN
Hopkins is routinely overshadowed by electrifying teammate Sammy Watkins, but scouts certainly have noticed his emergence as one of the top playmakers in college football. Hopkins has amassed 1,171 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns on 68 receptions, displaying the capacity to run every route in the playbook with outstanding precision. Against South Carolina, Hopkins will get a chance to show off his full repertoire. The Gamecocks' defense is one of the top units in college football, and their imposing front line will force Clemson QB Tajh Boyd to get the ball out of his hands in a hurry. If Hopkins can continue to show scouts he has the skills to turn short passes into big gains, he will solidify his reputation as one of the top pass-catching prospects in the country.
Ray Graham, RB, Pittsburgh
Rutgers (9-1) at Pittsburgh (4-6), Noon, ESPN2
Graham has flown under the radar for most of the season, but he is regarded as one of the top running-back prospects in the 2013 draft class. He has rushed for 835 yards on 173 carries, flashing an electric running style built on speed and quickness. Most importantly, Graham looks completely recovered from the anterior cruciate ligament injury that prematurely ended his junior season. With a tough matchup against a Rutgers defense led by linebacker Khaseem Greene, Graham will get plenty of opportunities to show his considerable talents as a runner/receiver in the Panthers' offense. If he can generate production against the toughest defense in the Big East, scouts definitely will take notice and rate him favorably as a potential feature back.
FROM MY NOTEBOOK
» One of the cornerbacks generating buzz in the NFL scouting community is Florida State's Xavier Rhodes. The redshirt-junior cover man has enjoyed a phenomenal 2012 campaign, showing impressive skills in bump-and-run coverage. One AFC South personnel scout called Rhodes "the best cornerback in college football outside of Alabama's Dee Milliner," going on to say Rhodes has all of the physical tools to be a No. 1 corner on the next level. With few corners possessing Rhodes' combination of size (6-2, 217), speed and skills, he is certainly one to watch over the final few games of the season.
» NFL teams in need of a playmaking tight end should spend a lot of time at The Farm checking out Stanford's Zach Ertz. The redshirt junior has been sensational this season with 58 receptions for 747 yards and six touchdowns. While those numbers are certainly indicative of his big-play potential, it has been his play on tape that has impressed scouts the most. One NFC scout told me that Ertz is every bit as good as former Stanford tight end Coby Fleener, and hasn't received enough attention for the well-rounded skills he brings to the table. He went on to say that Ertz is a better blocker than his predecessor and is just as effective as a downfield weapon, despite lacking Fleener's speed and athleticism. Given the expanding role of tight ends in NFL game plans, Ertz should be a hot commodity going forward.