Duke WR Conner Vernon is one of the most productive wideouts in the country and has a chance to make a final impression this week. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
By Matt Feminis
Special to Stlouisrams.com
Beef ‘O’ Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl: Ball State vs. Central Florida at Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg, FL), Friday 6:30 p.m. ESPN
RB Latavius Murray, Central Florida — New York’s Gatorade Player of the Year coming out of high school, Murray’s career was derailed prior to the 2009 season when he tore up his knee playing pickup basketball. He underwent reconstructive surgery, he rehabbed, he considered transferring to Syracuse and he even spent a brief time playing H-back. Ultimately, Murray stuck it out and finished the 2010 season with a flourish, garnering MVP recognition in the Conference USA Championship and Liberty Bowl before being named team MVP in 2011 despite starting just two games. In fact, he’s only started 14 games in his career, but 2012 has been a redemptive season for Murray, a team captain and first-team All-C-USA honoree. He’s has rushed 177 times for 1,035 yards (5.8-yard average) and 14 touchdowns, including 11 gains of 20 yards or more. In comparison, highly regarded backs Montee Ball (Wisconsin) and Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State) each have 12 gains of 20-plus, but needed 332 and 350 carries, respectively. Murray also has 21 receptions for 198 yards (9.4) and two touchdowns in 10 games (hurt his shoulder in the season opener against Akron and missed three games).
When healthy, Murray has been productive — he’s scored 36 touchdowns in 44 career games and has averaged 5.7 yards per carry since 2010. He also flashes big-play capability, as evidenced by a 75-yard score against Marshall and an 83-yarder against Memphis. Listed at 6-3, 222 pounds, he has excellent size and good feet for a bigger back. He shows patience, protects the ball (has not fumbled in last 386 carries) and has third-down ability — catches naturally with soft hands and has potential as a pass blocker.
Murray’s value is tempered by his lack of suddenness or power, however. He lacks elite top-end speed, runs upright, shows some tightness in his hips and doesn’t consistently run behind his pads (not a punisher). Murray shows average initial quickness and stop-and-start quickness, which correlates to his average burst and one-cut explosion. His instincts and competitiveness leave something to be desired, as he too often reacts to holes, rather than anticipating, and doesn’t lower his shoulder to finish runs. Additionally, durability is a concern given his build (more like a receiver) and injury history. His limited special-teams ability could be detrimental, but Murray could find traction as a single-back, one-cut zone runner similar to Packers 2010 sixth-rounder James Starks. However, Murray’s ordinary horsepower means he has to be decisive and efficient with his movement to be effective.
Others to watch: UCF: WR/RS Quincy McDuffie, S Kemal Ishmael
MAACO Las Vegas Bowl: Washington vs. Boise State at Sam Boyd Stadium (Las Vegas, NV), Saturday 2:30 p.m. ESPN
CB Jamar Taylor, Boise State — Taylor hasn’t been ballyhooed to the degree of recent Bronco secondary products, but the first-team All-Mountain West cornerback will likely be drafted higher than Orlando Scandrick (fifth round, 2008), Brandyn Thompson (seventh, 2011) and George Iloka (fifth, 2012). Listed at 5-11, 195 pounds, the Broncos’ boundary corner has tallied 47 tackles, eight pass breakups and three interceptions with 3 1/2 tackles for loss, 2 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles. He has good feet and loose hips — low, patient pedal, mirrors off the line and can turn and run vertical. He’s also quick in short area and has traits to develop as a nickel corner. Additionally, Taylor has solid intangibles — already graduated, has a professional work ethic and is respected by coaches and teammates. He doesn’t have elite length, playmaking ability or tackle strength, nor does he have extensive experience matching up with top-flight receivers, but he’s one of the best athletes on the Broncos roster, is scheme-versatile and figures to test well at the Combine. As it stands, Taylor projects as a third- or fourth-round pick.
CB Desmond Trufant, Washington — From Week 10 College Football Preview: “The younger brother of Marcus (Seahawks 2003 first-round pick) and Isaiah Trufant (Jets), Desmond (6-0, 186) has NFL cornerback bloodlines and physical ability that falls somewhere in between his older brothers’. A four-year starter, Desmond has good height and balance, quick feet and the ability to turn and run vertically. He also shows the ability to make athletic plays on the ball, including game-saving interceptions against Eastern Washington in 2011 and Stanford on Oct. 27. That said, Trufant’s career ball production is just average and he hasn’t exhibited the type of instincts or consistency that made Marcus a first-round selection. Further, Trufant has proven himself to be a high, grab-and-drag tackler who shows intermittent physicality defending the run — reticent to spill, inconsistent setting the edge and leaks yards after contact. Trufant played mostly zone coverage prior to this season, but might be most effective in off-man and projects as a No. 2 or No. 3 corner in the pros.” Note: Trufant was to face a pair of standout receivers in November, but missed California WR Keenan Allen (injury) and Washington State Marquess Wilson (left team).
Others to watch: Boise State: DE/OLB Demarcus Lawrence*, RB D.J. Harper
Sheraton Hawaii Bowl: Fresno State vs. SMU at Aloha Stadium (Honolulu, HI), Monday 7 p.m. ESPN
QB Derek Carr*, Fresno State — For my money, Carr is one of the nation’s most entertaining players and is dripping with potential. His time will come, but he’s already announced he’s returning in 2013, so we’ll hold off on a thorough scouting report. Entering 2012, we tabbed him one of the top draft-eligible prospects: “The younger brother of Houston Texans 2002 first-overall selection David Carr, Derek Carr (6-3, 210) has a relatively low profile given his status as a junior on a west coast, non-BCS team. However, Carr is an athletic, competitive quarterback with impressive arm talent and first-round upside. Carr has a quick arm, fires from the ear and can make all the throws, including when forced to alter his arm slot or throw on the move or off balance. Elected captain as a sophomore, Carr likes to play and it shows, as he has desirable leadership and moxie. Is still rough around the edges (could stand to improve ball placement and his feel and footwork in the pocket), but has the look of a riser. Faces transition from Pat Hill’s pro-style offense to Tim DeRuyter’s spread attack in 2012 and will be without leading playmakers Devon Wylie (drafted fourth round, Kansas City Chiefs) and Jalen Saunders (transferred to Oklahoma).”
Carr posted a strong junior season, leading the Bulldogs to nine wins and a share of the Western Athletic Conference Championship. Statistically, the WAC Offensive Player of the Year was one of the best passers in the country, completing 311-of-457 pass attempts (68.1 percent) for 3,742 yards with 36 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also produced on third down, recording a pass efficiency rating of 161.96. For comparison, that number surpassed USC’s Matt Barkley (158.3), West Virginia’s Geno Smith (143.3) and Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson (121.7).
SS Phillip Thomas, Fresno State — From Week 13 College Football Preview (stats updated): “Thomas was lightly recruited as a California cornerback/running back before redshirting in 2008. He didn't start until 2010 and missed the 2011 season because of a broken leg and dislocated ankle. He's having a breakout season as a senior, however, and in his two seasons as a starter (24 total games), he's compiled 146 tackles, 13 pass breakups and 11 interceptions with 15 1/2 tackles for loss, four sacks and five forced fumbles. His eight INTs this year is a single-season Mountain West Conference record and the 20-yard INT TD against Wyoming on Oct. 20th was the fourth of his career. Thomas, a Thorpe Award finalist who will be a 24-year-old rookie, has good size (6-1, 215) and is instinctive and aggressive. He can drop in the box and fit in the run game and generally maintains field leverage and takes good angles. He's not a hammer, but has functional tackle strength, though he tends to tackle high and occasionally misses tackles in space (see Boise State). In coverage, he has experience lining up over the slot and can mirror tight ends. He drives on plays in front of him and has good ball skills/reactions and hands to intercept (see Colorado and San Diego State). His movement is more smooth and controlled than explosive, as he lacks elite top-end speed and shows average range, burst and closing ability off the hash. Thomas is a team captain being coached by Tim McDonald, who won a Super Bowl with the 49ers and was a six-time Pro Bowler. The Bulldogs play a 3-4 scheme in which Thomas is asked to do a variety of things from his strong safety spot. Fresno hasn't had a safety drafted since Tyrone Culver (sixth round, Packers) in 2006 and James Sanders (fourth round, Patriots) in 2005, but Thomas should end that drought.”
Others to watch: Fresno State: RB Robbie Rouse / SMU: RB/FB Zach Line, DL Margus Hunt, OLB Ja’Gared Davis
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl: Western Kentucky vs. Central Michigan at Ford Field (Detroit, MI), Wednesday 6:30 p.m. ESPN
OT Eric Fisher, Central Michigan — Fisher has a realistic chance of being the first offensive tackle from a non-BCS conference selected in the first round since Ryan Clady in 2008. A team captain, All-Mid-American Conference performer and three-year starter, Fisher (6-8, 305) looks the part with a giant frame, long arms and room for added bulk. He has sturdy base strength and plays with good balance and knee bend for a taller lineman. An effective pass protector, Fisher has an efficient kick slide and exhibits good patience and posture to mirror or fan rushers. He’s also alert to stunts and blitzes and generally plays with awareness. Fisher isn’t an overpowering run blocker, but he can lean and seal or widen the hole to create lanes. Additionally, he’s mobile enough to short pull or combo block and work to the second level.
Fisher isn’t a prototypical “dancing bear” for the blind side in terms of elite athleticism, agility and recovery quickness, and he could stand to play with leverage more consistently — could be stressed by smaller speed rushers and occasionally slides off blocks when he gets too tall. He’s also inconsistent connecting with fast-flowing, moving targets. In terms of sharpening his tools, Fisher’s hand use will be coached up at the next level, as he tends to carry his hands low and expose his frame rather than extending and locking out. In general, he could improve the quickness and violence of his punch.
Fisher passes the eye test and acquitted himself nicely against Big Ten competition, particularly Michigan State, when he handled the size of William Gholston and the quickness of Marcus Rush. Fisher could be the first senior tackle taken, has ability to play either side and should be a solid pro for a long time in a gap-blocking scheme.
SS Jahleel Addae, Central Michigan — Addae is a durable team captain, three-year starter and two-year All-Mid-American Conference first-team selection with athleticism and intangibles to elevate his visibility as the draft approaches. The last two seasons, Addae has totaled 188 tackles, eight pass breakups and eight interceptions with 11 tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. Called a "rat terrier" (in a good way) by his defensive coordinator and the "heart and soul" of the Chippewas by his quarterback, Addae brings energy, competitiveness and leadership to a secondary. In CMU's 4-2-5 scheme, he plays a rover-type role — has experience playing in the box, in deep coverage, over the slot and as a blitzer. Addae shows read-and-react skills, as well as good play speed, balance, flexibility and agility. While he has man-coverage limitations when matched against receivers, he's able to run with tight ends, has awareness in zone and displays nice range and closing speed. He also shows ball reactions and hands to intercept. In run support, he drops downhill with conviction, has short-area quickness to function near the line of scrimmage and spills willingly. Addae stands out for his aggressive on-field temperament. He loves football and the game's contact and it shows — plays with abandon, throws his weight around and is a physical tackler (though he has a tendency to launch himself). Addae’s mixture of strong and free safety skills, smarts and intensity will appeal to teams. He looks like a fourth-round talent who, at worst, should be a No. 3 safety and core special-teams player.
Others to watch: WKU: ILB Andrew Jackson*. Note: WKU Quanterus Smith DE/OLB Quanterus Smith ranked amongst the nation’s leaders in sacks and tackles for loss by registering 38 tackles, 18 1/2 for loss and 12 1/2 for loss with a batted pass and three forced fumbles in 10 games, but he will not be on the field because of a torn ACL injury against Louisiana-Lafayette.
Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman: San Jose State vs. Bowling Green at RFK Stadium (Washington D.C.), Thursday 2 p.m. ESPN
TE Ryan Otten, San Jose — Last week, we talked about one receiving tight end prospect on the West Coast — San Diego State's Gavin Escobar — and this week we profile SJSU's Ryan Otten, a first-team All-Western Athletic Conference performer and Senior Bowl invitee who has recorded 96 receptions for 1,445 yards (15.1-yard average) and nine touchdowns the last two seasons. A team captain, Otten (6-6, 245) looks like an oversized receiver with a narrow-framed, high-cut build and long levers. He's an athletic pass catcher with good hands and body control to secure catches off his body. He’s capable of stretching the seam or mismatching defensive backs like in the regular season finale against Louisiana Tech when motioned across the formation and turned a wheel route into an 18-yard back-shoulder touchdown. Otten splits out and is used inline, but he lacks bulk strength to neutralize NFL defensive ends with his hand on the ground, and likely won't be more than a move blocker in the pros. As a route runner, Otten shows average initial quickness, as well as some hip stiffness. He doesn't have unique speed or playmaking ability to crack the elite group of tight ends, but his length and hands should garner consideration in the fourth round and enable him to become a top-two, pass-catching tight end.
Others to watch: SJSU: DE/OLB Travis Johnson, CB Bene Benwikere*. BGSU: DT Chris Jones.
Belk Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Duke at Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, NC), Thursday 5:30 p.m. ESPN
WR Conner Vernon, Duke — Vernon prepped in a Florida hotbed for talent, but was a late bloomer and chose Duke over offers from Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Troy. The consistently productive Vernon has proven to be a coup for the Blue Devils, as he owns the Atlantic Coast Conference record for career receptions (273). Head coach David Cutcliffe, whose past jobs include Tennessee, Ole Miss and Notre Dame, called Vernon one of the best he's ever coached. On tape, Vernon isn't flashy, but he shows a pro skill set, including good athleticism, short-area quickness and a well-proportioned, 6-1, 200-pound body. He accelerates off the line and runs crisp routes — can sink his hips, is sudden out of breaks and changing direction and understands how to create separation. He has good hands to pluck throws (though he is not immune to drops [see Clemson]). He also concentrates in traffic and shows the ability to haul in contested grabs. Vernon has good play speed, but is not be a vertical burner at the next level, nor is he a go up-and-get it guy. His run strength and creativity after the catch rate as average, and he could improve as a blocker — positions himself, but isn't very physical or tenacious attempting to sustain. Vernon's yards per reception average dropped as a senior and he was contained by Stanford, Florida State and Clemson, but he's a confident, competitive receiver capable of developing into a solid No. 3/slot option in the pros. Also has traits to be tried as a punt returner. If he tests well, Vernon could draw mid-round interest and become the first Blue Devil drafted since 2004.
Others to watch: Duke: QB Sean Renfree. Cincinnati: SS Drew Frey, DE Dan Giordano.