Top 20 prospects playing on championship weekend


This is it: college football's conference championship weekend.

Plays will be made. Hearts will be broken. Trophies will be kissed. And ... NFL teams will be looking to see how top prospects perform in the spotlight.

One game does not make or break a general manager's feeling about a player (at least it shouldn't), but NFL teams do want to see potential early round picks excel when taking on their toughest competition, or maybe facing adversity that they hadn't all season.

Here are the top 20 prospects playing under the microscope Saturday night in the four major conference championship tilts.

1. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Hargreaves isn't challenged as much as he used to be -- and for good reason. The junior has proven himself an elite athlete who will burn quarterbacks testing his side of the field (four interceptions in 2015). If he and speedy Alabama freshman receiver Calvin Ridley are matched up, however, it will be an epic battle.

2. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State: Opinions are split about Cook's accuracy, so his ranking this high will earn groans from some scouts and draftniks. But if I were starting a team built on a sturdy defense, strong running game and a gutsy signal-caller, I'd give Cook a shot. His statistics in the game versus Iowa won't be as important to scouts as his decision-making against a tough Hawkeyes squad featuring very good cornerback prospects in juniors Desmond King and Greg Mabin.

3. Jonathan Bullard, DE, Florida: No knee injury could make Bullard miss out on his Senior Day. The Gators couldn't mount any offense against Florida State, but scouts took notice of Bullard's performance on basically one leg (two tackles for loss, giving him 15.5 for the year). He needs to be ready to hold the point against the run and attack the quarterback with his power and quick first step if he and fellow senior linebacker Antonio Morrison can hold the Tide to less than 20 points (which they'll likely need to do to win).

4. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Henry's stock has risen over the course of the year, as even those doubting his vision and cutback ability had to be impressed with his production. The Heisman favorite is only 203 yards from the 2,000-yard barrier ... if the junior can pound his way through Florida's front seven and explode through the secondary, scouts will be comparing him to annual Pro Bowler Eddie George, not former Tide star and current Green Bay Packers starter Eddie Lacy.

5. Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State: The Spartans' offensive line includes stout pro-caliber players like center Jack Allen and guard/tackle Donavon Clark, but Conklin is the star of the group. He's an old-school tackle prospect in that he's more of a bull than a ballerina with his footwork ... but good luck trying to beat him off the edge. The junior has been a big reason for Michigan State's offensive success, and must continue to anchor the line if Iowa's defense is to be held in check.

6. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama:The top receiver recruit in this year's freshman class has shown his skills early on. Don't pay attention to the rather pedestrian 11.8 yards per reception (67 catches for 791 yards, five scores) -- Ridley is electric with the ball in his hands with elite speed, quickness and vision that will only improve with age. Even Hargreaves will be challenged if Ridley meets him one-on-one in the open field.

7. Juju Smith-Schuster, WR, USC: Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler has one of the best targets in the country, even though the sophomore has battled hand and ankle injuries in the final month of the season. Smith-Schuster is a well-built receiver who uses physicality, strong hands and very good downfield speed; despite his injuries, Smith-Schuster's 74 catches this season have covered 1,302 yards and gained the end zone 10 times. Stanford had better get a pass rush on Kessler, or else Smith-Schuster will run amok.

8. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson: Watson is firmly in the Heisman discussion with his ability to make plays through the air (70.4 completion percentage, 3,223 yards, 27 touchdowns) and with his feet (756 rushing yards, nine scores). But scouts have the same questions about Watson as they do any quarterback: can he move within a pocket while keeping his eyes downfield and can he be accurate enough to throw passes into tight windows? If he can show those traits this weekend and the rest of his time at Clemson, and stay healthy (he missed games with hand and knee injuries in 2014), Watson will jump up draft boards.

9. Adoree' Jackson, CB/WR/RS, USC: He's caught passes (24-382, two scores), returned punts (10.9 per, two scores), returned kicks (23.1 per), made 29 tackles, intercepted one pass and broken up four others this year. What else do you want? Jackson has instant acceleration after the catch and sprinter's speed, enough physicality to play corner and run through arm tackles as a receiver or returner. A strong finish to this season, both against Stanford and in the bowl game, makes Jackson a Charles Woodson-like Heisman Trophy candidate for 2016.

10. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson:The Tar Heels have one of the most balanced offenses in the country (230 rushing, 266 passing yards a game), but passing against Alexander is not advised. He has already garnered praise as one of the best cover men in the country despite only being a redshirt sophomore, as he's a fantastic athlete with enough size to battle any receiver. Oh, and if UNC tries running the ball at the Tigers, junior safety Jayron Kearse (the 6-foot-5 nephew of former NFL All-Pro defensive end Jevon Kearse) will be filling those lanes.

11. Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson: Looks like Dabo Swinney's defense is also dominating this list, as "Defensive End U" has another top pass-rush prospect in Lawson. The junior's ability to get under the pads of left tackles to bull them into the quarterback or turn the corner is a sight to see. The nation's leader in tackles for loss per game (1.7, 20.5 total for the year) will be a thorn in UNC's side Saturday ... as well as his teammate on the other side of the line, junior Kevin Dodd.

12. Su'a Cravens, S/OLB, USC: This junior stat sheet-stuffer makes plays in any way possible. He's a tackling machine (second on team with 73 stops), rules the backfield (first with 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks), forces fumbles (first with two), and makes plays in coverage (tied for second with two interceptions, second with six pass breakups). Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan and head coach David Shaw might be seeing Cravens in their dreams (or nightmares.) The Troy Polamalu comparisons might be a bit heady, but I'd want the 6-1, 225-pound defender on my team.

13. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State: Calhoun earned his third straight first-team All-Big Ten selection this year, already racking up a career-high 8.5 sacks (he had 7.5 and 8.0 the past two years). If he can get off blocks and hustle down the quarterback in the Big Ten Championship Game that he had against rival Michigan (3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks) earlier in the year, and athletic end/tackle Lawrence Thomas does his job, then the Hawkeyes will find it difficult to consistently move the ball.

14. Alabama's defensive line: Nick Saban's defense is full of future NFL prospects, but it really starts up front with athletic and strong junior defensive ends A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen, and stout senior nose tackle Jarran Reed. All three will be starters, probably for teams utilizing multiple fronts like Saban. Florida's offensive line will be under siege throughout the game Saturday afternoon.

15. Reggie Ragland, ILB, Alabama: Because those athletic bigs are likely to do their jobs eating blocks up front against the Gators, Ragland can attack ball carriers in the hole and come downhill hard on blitzes. He leads the Tide in tackles with 90, 6.5 coming behind the line of scrimmage. Ragland is not simply a run-stuffer, being quick and instinctive enough to handle running backs and tight ends in coverage. He'll be quite active Saturday, earning even more respect from the scouting community.

16. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford: McCaffrey is the straw that stirs Stanford's drink. Yes, Hogan is playing well, but even his success relies heavily on the running of the son of former NFL receiver "Easy" Ed McCaffrey (1,640 rush yards, 5.7 yards per carry) and receiving skills of the team's leading pass-catcher (37-435, three scores). A tough runner with excellent quickness in the hole, I find myself holding my breath every time the sophomore gets the ball in his hands.

17. Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida: The son of former NFL Pro Bowl back Fred Taylor (and breaker of Emmitt Smith's Florida state high school rush yardage mark) has had three consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, making his papa proud. The 5-10, 205-pound junior has an innate ability to change directions without downshifting, making it very difficult for defensive backs to stop him if he's built a head of steam. If Taylor can match production carry-for-carry with Henry, his former high school rival, against a strong Tide -- scouts will take notice.

18. Jordan Leggett, TE, Clemson: Leggett (31-418, six scores) deserves to be mentioned on this list because of his size (6-5, 255), excellent receiving skills and pure athleticism. NFL offensive coordinators will fall in love with his quickness off the line and ability to quickly sit down in zones. UNC can't be so worried about receiving threats Artavis Scott and Charone Peake that it leaves the middle open for Leggett. Alabama tight end O.J. Howard should be noted here, as he could be just as productive as Leggett if in a more wide-open offense (30-335, no touchdowns so far in 2015).

19. Devon Cajuste, WR/TE, Stanford: Call him a wideout or a tight end, it doesn't matter ... just get the ball to him. He finally received sufficient targets to show off his ability to use his 6-4, 227-pound frame to win down the seam and in the red zone against Notre Dame last weekend, catching five passes for 125 yards and one score. They'll need another big effort to beat the Trojans to pull off the win. Much like 2015 second round draft pick Devin Funchess, Cajuste can play multiple roles on an NFL offense, giving him a real chance to make an instant impact.

20. Joshua Garnett, OG, Stanford: Garnett possesses a nice blend of intelligence, strength and mobility for the Cardinal offensive line that allows him to excel in the power running game, move into space to take out second-level defenders, and protect his passer well. He and senior Kyle Murphy are one of the best left tackle-guard partners in the country, and they'll need to play well against USC defenders Delvon Simmons and Antwaun Woods to control the line of scrimmage. Garnett beats out North Carolina guard Landon Turner for a spot on the list, who is also a future NFL starter but lacks Garnett's mobility.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @chad_reuter.

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