The college football season is past the midway point, but scouts are just beginning to form strong opinions on NFL hopefuls based on their performances in big games against conference rivals. When I was scouting for the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks, I loved attending conference showdowns in person to get a feel for how top prospects perform on big stages. While the atmosphere still falls short of the big-game environment at the NFL level, it still provides evaluators with clues to poise and confidence of top prospects under pressure.
Given that premise, I will have my eye on five particular prospects Saturday, as detailed below.
All games are scheduled for Saturday; all times listed are Eastern.
* Denotes underclassmen
Jesse Williams, NT, Alabama
Texas A&M (7-2) at Alabama (9-0), 3:30 p.m., CBS
Williams is one of the top defensive tackles in college football with a combination of size, strength and power that makes it nearly impossible to move him off the ball. Although he rarely racks up gaudy statistics from his interior position, Williams' ability to occupy multiple blockers at the point of attack allows linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley to make plays in the box. Against a Texas A&M squad that features an explosive improvisational playmaker in quarterback Johnny Manziel, Williams must be a factor in the middle to clog available running lanes and force the freshman signal-caller to make plays from the pocket. If Williams can show some diversity in his game as a potential run stuffer/pass rusher, he will enhance his overall draft value.
Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
Oregon State (7-1) at Stanford (7-2), 3 p.m., FOX
Taylor has been on the rise in scouting circles following standout performances against USC, Arizona, Notre Dame and Cal. He impresses evaluators with his quickness, body control and balance, and is on the verge of a third straight 1,000-yard season. Although he has posted a pair of sub-par showings in his last two games (21 rushes for 58 yards against Washington and 10 for 43 at Colorado), the insertion of freshman QB Kevin Hogan guarantees Taylor a heavy workload on Saturday. Given Oregon State's stingy defense, Taylor's performance will say a lot about whether or not he has the goods to develop into a feature back in the NFL.
Anthony Barr*, OLB, UCLA
UCLA (7-2) at Washington State (2-7), 10:30 p.m., ESPN2
One of the big factors in the resurgence of UCLA football has been the rebirth of a championship-caliber defense in Westwood. Barr has been one of the catalysts of change after settling into his linebacker position following two seasons as a running back/H-back. Barr's game remains a work in progress, but he has impressed observers with his speed, athleticism and quickness as a pass rusher. With 8.5 sacks in nine games and a host of splash plays off the edge, Barr is drawing comparisons to former Jim Mora pupil Julian Peterson in the scouting community. Saturday presents Barr with an opportunity to get after a pass-happy Washington State squad, giving scouts across the league an opportunity to see if the Barr has the game to match the hype.
Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor
Baylor (4-4) at Oklahoma (6-2), 3:30 p.m., Fox Sports Network
Williams spent most of 2011 overshadowed by eventual first-round draft pick Kendall Wright, but he has stepped into the spotlight this season with a game that is polished in all aspects. Williams enters the weekend with 71 receptions for 1,340 yards and 10 touchdowns in just eight games. Most impressively, he has posted 10-plus receptions in four of the past five games and boasts seven 100-yard efforts on the season. Oklahoma, however, presents a tremendous challenge for Williams. Aaron Colvin and Demontre Hurst are poised to cover Williams on the outside, with Gabe Lynn and Julian Wilson taking over duties in the slot. With steady production, this game alone could serve as a résumé tape for the Baylor star.
Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse
Louisville (9-0) at Syracuse (4-5), Noon, ABC
Nassib caught the attention of scouts when he went toe-to-toe with USC's Matt Barkley in an early-season battle. In that contest, Nassib posted a 300-yard game with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He has continued to build on that strong performance with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions over his past four games. Studying Nassib on tape, I give him solid marks for his arm strength, zip and velocity on short and intermediate throws. While most of Nassib's throws consist of quick-rhythm tosses within the 10-yard box, he has shown anticipation and awareness when pushing the ball down the field. However, most of his production is still a byproduct of Syracuse's no-huddle system. He must prove to evaluators that he has the talent to play in any system at the next level. Given Louisville's perfect record and athletic defense, a strong performance this weekend could boost his draft chances.
FROM MY NOTEBOOK
» Oregon RB Kenjon Barner has been the talk of the scouting community this week following his 38-carry, 321-yard performance against USC. While most of the media chatter following the game inserted Barner squarely into the thick of the Heisman Trophy race, the vast majority of scouts were surprised to see him display such toughness and physicality. An NFC South scout told me that Barner has been "allergic to contact" for most of his career, and he couldn't believe his eyes when he watched the Ducks' star runner go big against the Trojans. An NFC North scout agreed with his colleague, adding that he doesn't believe Barner's production is sustainable in the NFL. He pointed to LaMichael James' inability to get on the field in San Francisco as one of the reasons he remained skeptical about Barner's pro potential: "If James was as good as his numbers indicated at Oregon, why can't he get a jersey on Sundays?" He went on to tell me that he had a higher grade on James than Barner, and he would be reluctant to take the Oregon senior prior to Day 3 of the 2013 NFL Draft.
» One of the sleepers in this year's draft class is Utah State CB Will Davis. According to an NFC scout, Davis has big-time talent and could emerge as one of the top cornerback prospects when all is said and done. When I quizzed the scout on what he liked about Davis' game, he raved about his size (6-foot, 186 pounds), athleticism and speed. He believes Davis' best football is ahead of him, based on his minimal football experience. (Davis only played one year of high school football and bounced around between multiple schools before emerging as a two-year starter at Utah State.) That scout thinks Davis could be a surprising Day 2 pick when scouts finish all of the background work.