The beginning of the college bowl season represents a fascinating time for NFL scouts. Evaluators finally get the chance to see the top prospects match up against other elite players in highly competitive games on a big stage. Although these matchups certainly are kept in perspective due to the extended layoff following the end of the regular season, that won't stop scouts from assessing the play of these guys over the next few weeks.
With a full slate of games scheduled over the next seven days, here is a list of prospects I will be watching closely over the holiday break:
* Denotes underclassmen
Poinsettia Bowl: BYU vs. San Diego State
Thursday, Dec. 20, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU: Ansah has been one of the most talked about prospects in the NFL scouting community after a surprisingly impressive senior campaign. In less than three years, the native of Ghana has gone from a track athlete to a standout pass rusher with outstanding skills. Ansah finished the regular season with 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, eight pass breakups and six quarterback hurries. Most impressively, he has displayed remarkable hand skills and rush moves for a player with limited football experience. With another shot to showcase his talent and potential on a big stage, Ansah could continue to boost his status as one of the top prospects in the 2013 draft class.
Gavin Escobar*, TE, San Diego State: Escobar definitely is on scouts' radar after tallying 41 receptions for 519 yards and six scores. Those numbers are not only indicative of his impact as a playmaker in the Aztecs' passing game, but they speak to the outstanding pro potential that he has showcased over the course of his brief career. While he still possesses another year of eligibility, Escobar's tantalizing size, speed and athleticism have NFL evaluators closely monitoring his progress as a future pro.
Leon McFadden, CB, San Diego State: McFadden has dominated the competition in the Mountain West Conference for the past three years as one of the premier cornerbacks in the country. As an instinctive ball hawk with superb technique, McFadden excels at blanketing receivers in loose man-to-man coverage, but also displays the awareness to shine in zone. With few corners matching his overall skills, McFadden has a chance to climb up the charts with a good performance against the Cougars.
MAACO Bowl Las Vegas: Washington vs. Boise State
Saturday, Dec. 22, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
D.J. Harper, RB, Boise State: Harper has a chance to build upon the momentum created by a solid senior campaign that resulted in the first 1,000-yard season of his career. He finished with six 100-yard games and 15 touchdowns in 2012, but scouts would like to see Harper display more explosiveness with the ball in his hands. Facing an aggressive Washington defense with a rugged front seven, Harper could boost his stock with a strong performance in Las Vegas.
Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington: Trufant has developed into one of the top cover corners in college football over his four-year career. He displays outstanding footwork and instincts, and plays with a swagger of a shutdown corner. Although scouts certainly laud his ability to stay close in coverage, Trufant needs to show more physicality on the edge by making solid tackles on ball carriers and receivers in space. Given Boise State's prolific offense, he should have plenty of chances to show evaluators he can develop into a physical corner as a pro.
Sheraton Hawaii Bowl: Fresno State vs. SMU
Monday, Dec. 24, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Phillip Thomas, S, Fresno State: Thomas has quietly enjoyed one of the best seasons of any prospect at the safety position. He led the nation with eight interceptions, including three pick-sixes, while displaying extraordinary ball skills as a deep middle player. Facing an SMU squad that loves to throw the ball all over the field, Thomas will get another opportunity to showcase his instincts, awareness and range on a big stage.
Little Caesars Bowl: Western Kentucky vs. Central Michigan
Wednesday, Dec. 26, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan: Fisher has flown under the radar on the national scope, but the scouting community has been buzzing about his immense talent and potential. He finished the regular season regarded as the top senior offensive tackle prospect on several draft boards across the league. With a strong performance against the Hilltoppers to cap off a stellar senior season, Fisher can cement his status as a potential Day 1 prospect heading into the college all-star game circuit.
Military Bowl: San Jose State vs. Bowling Green
Thursday, Dec. 27, 3:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ryan Otten, TE, San Jose State: The recent trend of athletic tight ends dominating the pro game has NFL scouts scrambling for the next great playmaker at the position. Otten could fill the bill as a 6-foot-5, 245-pound pass catcher with outstanding hands and playmaking ability. He led all tight ends with an average of 16.0 yards per catch in 2012, and displayed the natural receiving skills that routinely lead to success at the next level.
Travis Johnson, DE, San Jose State: The WAC Defensive Player of the Year has been one of the most disruptive defenders in college football, posting 12 sacks and 19 tackles for loss during the regular season. Most impressively, he finished as the WAC's all-time sack leader (31) and sparked a unit that led the league in scoring defense and total defense. While Johnson's spectacular résumé would suggest that he has the goods to be a top pick, scouts still harbor questions about his strength and ability to win against NFL-caliber talent.
Chris Jones, DT, Bowling Green: Jones was named the MAC Defensive Player of the Year after recording 19 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks, which ranked third in the nation. The 6-1, 292-pound defensive tackle lacks ideal size, but his disruptive skills have piqued the interest of scouts looking for interior pass rushers. With another opportunity to showcase his talents in front of evaluators, Jones could make a strong statement to be included in the conversation as a possible mid-to-late-round prospect.
Belk Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Duke
Thursday, Dec. 27, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Sean Renfree, QB, Duke: Renfree has generated quite the buzz in NFL scouting circles following a strong senior campaign that saw him lead the Blue Devils to their first bowl game since 1994. Renfree has not only displayed the leadership qualities that scouts covet, but he has shown a polished game that is ideally suited for the next level. Factoring in his impressive physical dimensions (6-4, 225 pounds) and above-average arm talent, Renfree could climb up the charts with another solid performance in the bowl game.
Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder*, WR, Duke: The Blue Devils' explosive pass-catching tandem torched the ACC, combining for 145 receptions, 1,980 yards and 15 touchdowns. Vernon, who will finish his career as the ACC's all-time leader in receptions, is the crafty possession receiver that NFL offensive coordinators covet as a No. 3 wideout. Crowder, on the other hand, is a big-play specialist capable of impacting the game as a receiver/returner. With the Blue Devils poised to put the ball up 30-plus times against the Bearcats, Vernon and Crowder will get a chance to show off their polished games to scouts in attendance.
Holiday Bowl: Baylor vs. UCLA
Thursday, Dec. 27, 9:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor: Williams has blossomed into one of the top receivers in the country, despite playing with a new quarterback (Nick Florence) following Robert Griffin III's departure to the NFL after last season. Williams has refined his route running, while displaying better consistency as a pass catcher and playmaker. NFL scouts view him as an early-round prospect, but the jury is still out on whether or not he could function as a No. 1 receiver on Sundays. However, a standout performance against a rugged Bruins defense could alter perceptions and solidify his status as a top-40 prospect.
Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA: Franklin was unquestionably one of the most productive runners in college football after gaining exactly 1,700 rushing yards in 2012. In addition, Franklin has shown impressive skills as a receiver out of the backfield, which makes him a hot commodity in the minds of NFL offensive coordinators. Given another opportunity to showcase a game that appears ready-made for the pros, Franklin can show evaluators that he is capable of functioning as a three-down back, despite his diminutive stature.
Anthony Barr*, OLB, UCLA: It has been quite a year for Barr. The former running back has become one of the most feared defenders in college football after only one season on the defensive side of the ball. Scouts are fascinated with his speed, athleticism and natural rush skills, and view him as a potential difference maker at the next level. Although he retains a year of eligibility, Barr already has the attention of NFL evaluators and could boost his stock with a spectacular showing against Baylor's high-octane offense.
Bucky Brooks will provide a list of players to watch in post-Dec. 27 bowl games in a future column.