Our analysts are constantly talking to their NFL and college sources about players in the college game. In this space each week, Daniel Jeremiah, Bucky Brooks and Charles Davis share some of what NFL folks are discussing in their circles.
The scoop: There is a consensus building on who the top running back is in college football, and some don't believe it's even close. "(Alabama's) T.J. Yeldon is a really good back," said an AFC personnel executive. "He's a tall back that runs a little too high but he has a good feel running between the tackles and he does a nice job of making guys miss. As much as a I like him, the Georgia back is in a different league."
The skinny: The Georgia back, of course, is Todd Gurley, who was a beast against Clemson in Georgia's opener two weeks ago (the Bulldogs had a bye in Week 2). His coach believes this will probably be the junior running back's final year at Georgia, and one Pro Football Hall of Famer compared him recently to the great Jim Brown. Perhaps a bit of hyperbole on the latter, but there's no doubt Gurley has already established himself as the top running back prospect in college football.
The scoop: A veteran NFC scout described USC DL Leonard Williams as "a special player" with unique physical traits. He raved about Williams' exceptional frame and lauded his strength, power and athleticism. The evaluator discussed the difficulties of finding a big guy who is light on his feet, yet displays the brute strength and power to overwhelm blockers at the point of attack. The scout also pointed to Williams' age (20) as an enticing factor in his evaluation.
The skinny: The hype surrounding Williams is definitely building in NFL circles. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior was touted as a future first-rounder by the Trojans' former interim head coach Ed Orgeron; scouts are in agreement after watching Williams dominate the first few weeks of the season. Given the physical gains and football development that lie ahead for Williams, there will be significant interest from several teams eager to work with a malleable player with tremendous upside and potential.
The scoop: An NFC scout has seen some good things from an "intriguing defensive tackle" from Clemson. "Grady Jarrett is undersized but he's very disruptive and has a big motor," the scout said. "He reminds me a little of (former Pitt DT) Aaron Donald but he's not as dynamic of a pass rusher."
The skinny: At 6-1 and 295 pounds, Jarrett is smaller than most defensive tackles at the next level, but is built similarly to Donald, who was drafted with the 13th overall pick by the St. Louis Rams in May. He gets overshadowed on his own Clemson defense by DE Vic Beasley, but he knows how to play the game at a high level. He has good NFL bloodlines and has been mentored by two All-Pro defenders; he's the son of former Atlanta Falcons All-Pro LB Jessie Tuggle, and Ray Lewis has been involved in his life since he was 5.
The scoop: UCLA has been a mild disappointment this season, but that hasn't stopped NFL scouts from raving about the job Jim Mora has done to change the culture in Westwood. Mora has done a fantastic job raising expectations on both sides of the ball, particularly with the defense. An NFC scout said the Bruins' defenders have a collective nastiness that jumps off the screen. The Bruins have a superstar in sophomore LB Myles Jack, but buzz is also building for senior LB Eric Kendricks and senior DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa in NFL circles.
The skinny: Mora has assembled a talented collection of young, athletic defenders with the speed, quickness and energy to wreak havoc all over the field. Three UCLA defenders were drafted in May, including OLB Anthony Barr, who was taken by the Minnesota Vikings with the ninth overall pick. Westwood is suddenly becoming a destination for NFL teams searching for blue-chip defenders.
The scoop: The quarterback generating the most buzz with NFL scouts is Penn State's sophomore signal-caller Christian Hackenberg. He's not eligible to come out for another year but his combination of size, arm strength and competitiveness led one veteran AFC scout to say Hackenberg is "the top QB in college football."
The skinny: Hackenberg was a pretty good quarterback as a freshman last season playing on an average team. He put in work in the offseason, bulking up and adding strength, and it has shown in his improved game. He has thrown for more than 300 yards in Penn State's first two games, including 454 in the team's Dublin opener. There hasn't been a Big Ten quarterback drafted in the first round since Kerry Collins was taken by the Carolina Panthers in 1995. Still far from a polished product, Hackenberg looks the part and could end the drought once he decides to go pro.
The scoop: After speaking to several NFL scouts that are familiar with the South Carolina program, it's not a surprise the Gamecocks came out sluggish this season. Evaluators were miffed at the lack of urgency and intensity during the Gamecocks' preseason workouts; the lethargy has permeated their play on game days. While Steve Spurrier made a concerted effort to toughen up practices following the team's blowout loss to Texas A&M, the general consensus from NFL scouts is that Gamecocks are playing catch up after lounging in a country club atmosphere under the Ol' Ball Coach.
The skinny: This is certainly not news to NFL executives familiar with Spurrier and his practices during his time with the Washington Redskins. He didn't put his players through the grinder on the practice field; his desire to keep banker's hours prevented him from gaining a significant edge in the film room. Now, Spurrier has certainly won a ton of games on the collegiate level and sent a number of players to the pros, but his overall success is a byproduct of recruiting elite players on both sides of the ball and finding a way to put them in a position to succeed. Given the number of Gamecocks (and Gators) who've dotted NFL rosters in recent years, it doesn't seem like his practices are negatively impacting their chances of playing at the next level.
The scoop: Pitt running back James Conner is just a true sophomore and won't be eligible for the draft until 2016, but he's already turning heads within the scouting community. An AFC scout said Conner has his attention and he'll be watching to see if his initial comparison to Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy holds up throughout the season.
The skinny: At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, Conner is a run-and-scatter-the-bodies type of player. He's second in the FBS in rushing yards (367) and is tied for the FBS lead with five rushing touchdowns. He averages 7.3 yards per carry. He certainly has the size to withstand the rigors of the season. If Conner keeps it up, he'll find his way into the Heisman conversation.
The scoop: An NFC scout said the improvement in Michigan State wide receiver Tony Lippett has been dramatic in less than a year's time. He said the redshirt senior carries himself differently and that he embraces the role of being a No. 1 wide receiver on a top team.
The skinny: Lippett went long stretches without getting the ball in Saturday's loss to Oregon, but he never became discouraged and continued to block downfield. When the Spartans did go to him, he used his body well and showed good hands. Lippett, who has the third-most receiving yards (300) among FBS receivers, is tough to bring down after the catch, too. He deserves to be on the radar of NFL scouts.
The scoop: In the offseason, a sitting athletic director in the Big Ten said that when Penn State gets back to being whole again and has a couple recruiting classes to recharge and be fully operational, then the Nittany Lions and Ohio State will be the two teams to chase year in and year out in the Big Ten. On Monday, the NCAA announced it would restore Penn State's full allotment of scholarships for the 2015 season. The NCAA also lifted the bowl ban against the school.
The skinny: That's a strong statement given the way Michigan State has positioned itself as a Big Ten powerhouse and how Wisconsin seems to always be in the mix, but we could see things playing out the way the source foresees. Ohio and Pennsylvania are two very high-powered states for football, which pays off in recruiting for those state schools. They both have great bases to build from, and great recruiters at head coach in Urban Meyer and James Franklin.