Arkansas RB Knile Davis looks to bounce back against a stout Alabama defense. (Getty Images)
By Matt Feminis
Special to Stlouisrams.com
Alabama vs. Arkansas at Razorback Stadium (Fayetteville, Ark.), Saturday 2:30 p.m. CBS
Arkansas’ surprising loss to Louisiana-Monroe and the head injury sustained by senior QB Tyler Wilson tempered anticipation for this Saturday’s SEC West showdown in Fayetteville, but several draft prospects will be on display.
Few teams have fielded the sheer number of NFL-caliber offensive players the last few seasons than the Arkansas Razorbacks. Their 2011 receiving corps produced three fourth-round NFL draft picks — Joe Adams (Panthers), Jarius Wright and Greg Childs (both Vikings) — and the offense remains stocked with prospects.
RB Knile Davis*, Arkansas — Despite opening with lightweights Jacksonville State UL-Monroe, Davis (6-0, 226) is off to a relatively pedestrian start — 34 carries for 132 yards (3.9-yard average) with two touchdowns —and his job doesn’t get any easier against Alabama’s stingy run defense, which stifled running backs on a weekly basis last season. Seeing Davis’ ability to grind out tough yards and react to an odd front in pass protection should help crystallize his projection.
C Travis Swanson* & OG Alvin Bailey*, Arkansas — The Hogs’ talented interior blocking duo will have its hands full with the Crimson Tide front, most notably nose tackle Jesse Williams. A third-year starter, Swanson (6-5, 305) has terrific size and is athletic for a big man. He has a good base in pass protection and is able to work his hips and seal running lanes, though he could stand to play with better balance. Bailey (6-5, 312), another third-year starter, is a big, thick-bodied blocker with potential to develop into a balanced, long-term starter in the pros. He could elevate his game with improved hip snap and extension.
WR Cobi Hamilton & TE/H-back Chris Gragg, Arkansas —After averaging nearly 16 yards per catch as the team’s fourth-leading receiver a year ago, Hamilton (6-3, 209) steps into the spotlight this fall and could have a higher ceiling than his former receiving mates. Hamilton’s length, deceptive vertical speed and competitiveness after the catch project well to the next level, as well as his development in a pro-style offense. Evaluators are anticipating him matching up with Alabama junior CB Dee Milliner, who stood out in the Tide’s impressive season-opening win over Michigan. Meanwhile, Gragg (6-3, 242) is another “new-age” tight end — built like an oversized receiver, he offers versatility as a “move” player capable of lining up inline, split out or in the backfield because of his competency as a receiver and blocker. Such players provide flexibility from a personnel and formations standpoint, and Gragg has potential to develop into a multidimensional mismatch piece for a creative offensive coordinator.
ILB Nico Johnson, Alabama — Johnson (6-3, 245) isn’t one of the flashiest players on the defense, but he’s an effective run stopper inside the Tide’s 3-4 scheme. He is a quiet, controlled mover with good balance who fends off blocks and keeps himself alive in plays. Johnson has good eyes inside, enabling him to find the football, scrape and flow — takes good angles and is a solid tackler. He’s also physical when asked to take on iso blocks or spill plays and should contribute on special teams. In terms of weaknesses, Johnson comes off the field in sub packages (man-coverage limitations), looks a tick slow diagnosing pass and is a better run blitzer than pass rusher. He projects as a two-down, 3-4 inside linebacker.
SS Robert Lester, Alabama — A competitive, third-year starter who has earned his place as Alabama’s secondary leader, Lester (6-2, 210) isn’t as physically gifted as 2011 running mate Mark Barron (seventh overall, Buccaneers). Lacking elite speed, range and transitional quickness, Lester has man-coverage limitations. However, he is effective in zone coverage and has very good ball skills (10 career interceptions). He is also respected by teammates and coaches for his professional approach to the game, having developed in a championship-caliber environment. Lester could stand to improve his functional strength as a box defender, but has starter potential. He could help himself with a strong performance against a balanced Arkansas attack.
USC vs. Stanford at Stanford Stadium (Stanford, CA), Saturday 6:30 p.m. Fox
Not unlike the Alabama-Arkansas matchup, there will be future pros all over the field when the USC-Stanford rivalry is renewed this Saturday. Aside from USC QB Matt Barkley and junior WR Robert Woods (both profiled in this blog’s preseason top 25 prospects), the Trojans’ other draft-eligible prospects include junior RB Silas Redd, C Khaled Holmes and DE Wes Horton. Meanwhile, Stanford has a pair of promising senior linebackers in Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas. Three more to watch:
FS T.J. McDonald, USC — The son of USC All-American and 49ers Pro Bowl safety Tim McDonald (currently coaching defensive backs at Fresno State), T.J. looks the part with a rangy, athletic, 6-3, 205-poundn physique and shows intriguing movement skills and physicality, particularly when he drops downhill. He's an NFL starter in the making, but remains rough around the edges, as he's still developing positional instincts and zone awareness. McDonald also can do a better job of arriving under control to tackle. This weekend, McDonald faces a physical, pro-style Stanford offense featuring two talented tight ends.
TE Zach Ertz and TE Levine Toilolo, Stanford — Currently, there are seven NFL tight ends — not counting fullbacks Owen Marecic (Browns) and Erik Lorig (Buccaneers) — who played at Stanford, including Colts 2012 second-rounder Coby Fleener. With him and Andrew Luck now connecting in Indianapolis, Ertz (6-6, 252) and Toilolo (6-8, 265), a pair of redshirt juniors, have an opportunity to create higher profiles. At a time when the college game is chock-full of “F” tight ends (undersized, hybrid pass catchers) in spread offenses, pro scouts will value Ertz and Toilolo for their prototypical size and potential to contribute inline or split out and as a receiver or blocker. Ertz is not as athletic as Fleener, but is a reliable catcher, while Toilolo possesses imposing stature and surprising movement/receiving skills — he’s a big target over the middle and in the red zone, though he could stand to exert power more consistently in the run game.
Sleeper of the Week: DE-ROLB Trevardo Wilson, UCONN — A Jamaican-born college defensive end, Wilson (6-2, 233) came on strong the final five games last season, finishing with 12 1/2 sacks. In 2012, he's off to a quick start with 3 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble in two games, including his latest effort against North Carolina State when he harassed the blind side of QB Mike Glennon. Growing up in Jamaica, Wilson had no familiarity with football when he moved to Connecticut in grade school, but the three-time all-state sprinter (100-meter runner-up) soon realized his potential on the gridiron and is now an ascending talent with an NFL future. Wilson is miscast at end, as he lacks ideal length and is too easily knocked out of the hole and overpowered by larger tackles. However, as a stand-up linebacker projection, he has edge burst, leverage, balance and closing speed to pique the interest of 3-4 teams. Wilson can be disruptive, as he's able cross the face of tackles or turn the corner when he gets a step. Given his background, he is not a finished product — still learning to convert speed to power, still cultivating pass-rush moves and still developing positional instincts and feel for the game — but he possesses clear upside. He faces another ACC opponent this weekend when the Huskies travel to Maryland.