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Kentucky vs. Missouri at Memorial Stadium/Faurot Field (Columbia, MO), Saturday 11 a.m. ESPNU
DT Sheldon Richardson*, Missouri vs. OG Larry Warford, Kentucky
Missouri has experienced a rude awakening, as its foray into SEC competition has them winless in four conference games. Richardson has been a bright spot, however, as the 6-4 295-pounder has emerged as an interior force. After recording 37 tackles, eight for loss and two sacks with a forced fumble in 2011 (a season removed from junior college), Richardson has already notched 52-7 1/2-4 with a forced fumble through seven games this season. In an otherwise “blah” matchup, the potential for Richardson and Warford to lock horns is reason to watch.
Active, athletic and disruptive, Richardson gets off the ball with quickness and leverage and can play in gaps or stack and shed. He also has good hip flex to work the edges or redirect and chase. He shows terrific bend, balance and body control for a big man, exhibiting solid instincts and eyes to locate, as well. For an example of his movement skill, look no further than the 14:25 mark of the fourth quarter against Arizona State. Defending a 3rd-and-10 inside the red zone, Richardson lined up at left defensive tackle, looped around the nose tackle, spun off his blocker, spotted the quarterback flushing right, flowed with the running back leaking down the field as a safety valve, dove headlong and came within inches of breaking up the pass eight yards downfield. You just don’t see that kind of athleticism from near 300-pounders. What’s more, Richardson plays with consistent motor and pursuit effort, as he chases plays outside the box and downfield. Inline, he’s difficult to engage — uses quick, strong hands to tug, rip or swim himself free, and shows excellent lateral agility.
Keeping Richardson from elite status is a missing power element, as he features just an average bull rush at this stage and needs to continue developing pass-rush moves, though he keeps working to the quarterback and his second-effort production is encouraging. In terms of other areas of improvement, he could stand to better his conditioning and blocking recognition, but Richardson is an ascending, first-round talent. While he lacks ideal point-of-attack strength for two-gap duty, he will be coveted by teams who value flexibility to employ multiple looks, as he fits in a 4-3 or possibly as a five-technique in a one-gapping, 3-4 front. Richardson would be ideal alongside a nose tackle who demands a double team.
Florida vs. Georgia at EverBank Field (Jacksonville, FL), Saturday 2:30 p.m. CBS
LB Alec Ogletree*, Georgia — A fast, flexible high school safety, Ogletree (6-3, 232) has morphed into a rangy, loose-hipped, inside ’backer for the Dawgs, as his size and outstanding athletic ability stand out on a defensive unit packed with NFL prospects. As a run defender, he’s agile to beat linemen or slip/run around blocks, and roams sideline to sideline. Against the pass, he runs the deep middle effortlessly, is able to man up backs and tight ends and shows good ball reactions (had three PBUs against Tennessee and should’ve had two more). He’s also an outstanding leaper. Further, he shows potential as a blitzer given his length, speed and agility. However, not unlike other Georgia prospects, Ogletree leaves you wanting more despite his intriguing physical gifts. At this stage, Ogletree is a see-and-go reactor with an average trigger, as he doesn’t show elite eyes/instincts to play downhill as often as he should. He also needs to get stronger and become a more explosive tackler — catches too much contact, is soft-shouldered inside and doesn’t play with pop or power in his hands. In general, you’d like to see Ogletree bring more intensity and violence to his game. He leaves some production on the field and did not offer much resistance in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss to South Carolina. If/when Ogletree puts it all together, he has undeniable upside as a “Will” linebacker or Tampa-2 middle linebacker with nickel linebacker utility, but he needs to play with more consistency and physicality to elevate his status. After missing six games last season (broken foot) and four games this season (suspension), Ogletree will be on the big stage in the “World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”
OLB Jelani Jenkins*, Florida — Like Ogletree, Jenkins was highly recruited out of high school, though the Gators' linebacker does not have ideal NFL dimensions and projects as an undersized, run-around "Will" linebacker who would be most effective covered up. Listed at 6-foot, Jenkins is not built to handle the inside run, as he has limited take-on strength and can be blocked out by larger linemen. Accordingly, most of his tackles come downfield. He compensates with athleticism that enables him to slip blocks, flow laterally and close on ballcarriers. He shows good closing speed and flashes ability to uncoil on contact when he has a free path. He's also able to drop into zone coverage or keep pace with backs and tight ends, meaning he could provide added value as a nickel linebacker and special-teams player. A smart, vocal on-field leader, Jenkins managed four tackles and a sack last week against South Carolina after returning (in a cast) from a four-game absence because of a hamstring injury and broken right thumb.
Michigan State vs. Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium (Madison, WI), Saturday 2:30 p.m., ABC
RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin — Ball finished fourth in the Heisman voting last year after leading the country with 1,923 yards and 39 touchdowns, which tied Barry Sanders’ single-season record. He continues adding numbers to his outstanding, record-setting career production, including 68 career rushing touchdowns, a conference record. Compactly built with very good balance, Ball has solid instincts, vision and patience to read blocks and has a feel for when to duck in and bounce outside. He’s able to make quick, subtle cuts and burst into the secondary. He also shows the ability to run through arm tackles and bounce off defenders when his center of gravity is low. He’s a competitive runner who has proven capable of handling a heavy workload. Ball isn’t a special, elite back — gears down to cut, shows average elusiveness beyond the line of scrimmage and cannot be counted on to move the pile in short yardage — but he’s improved as a blocker and is more than capable of being an effective tandem runner in a gap-blocking system. After a tumultuous offseason and a frustrating September which included inconsistent blocking in front of him, a 61-yard performance against Oregon State’s stellar run defense and a concussion against UTEP, Ball looked inspired against Purdue on Oct. 13 when he totaled 247 yards and three scores. He looks primed for a big finish and could warrant a second-round selection.
RB Le’Veon Bell*, Michigan State — With a struggling first-year quarterback and the prospect of Bell forgoing his senior season it’s not surprising the Spartans are riding Bell for all he’s worth. Counting receptions, he’s on pace for nearly 400 touches this season. A competitive, fullback-sized runner with strong hips, Bell is able to break tackles and churn out yards after contact. He also brandishes a mean stiff-arm. But Bell distinguishes himself with surprising agility and elusiveness, as he’s able to spin off contact, evade tacklers or even hurdle defenders downfield. Additionally, the 20-year-old junior has only fumbled three times in nearly 600 career touches. Bell’s game-by-game stats have been up and down thanks to stacked boxes and a mediocre offensive line — totaled just 113 yards on 43 carries in losses to Ohio State and Michigan — but he possesses terrific combination of size, run strength, speed and quickness supplemented with good receiving skills out of the backfield. Capable of running inside or outside and catching effectively out of the backfield, Bell has the skill set to be a legitimate No. 1, three-down back in the NFL.
Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma at Memorial Stadium (Norman, OK), Saturday 7 p.m. ABC
OLT Lane Johnson, Oklahoma vs. Stephon Tuitt*, Notre Dame — In high school, Johnson was a lightly recruited 210-pound quarterback/safety. Since, he’s spent a year in junior college, bulked up approximately 90 pounds and tried tight end and defensive end in an effort to get on the field. His transformation finally began to have purpose last season when he started 12 games at right tackle. This season, Johnson has flipped to left tackle, replacing Chiefs third-rounder Donald Stephenson, and performed admirably while showing developmental value. Johnson has a big, projectable frame, is athletic in pass protection, offers versatility and is showing take-notice improvement for a player making such a difficult conversion, especially at a premium position for a premier program. He’s quick out of his stance, has good feet to slide and fan rushers wide and his athleticism also shows in his ability to get on top of linebackers. Johnson needs to continue getting stronger, shore up his technique and improve his run blocking, but his performance against Texas solidified his standing as a bona fide prospect. Notre Dame offers Johnson a unique test in that he’ll face the powerful Stephon Tuitt, who looks like a potential first-rounder down the road, and a smaller rusher in Prince Shembo.
Sleeper of the Week: OL Alex Kupper, Louisville — Center Mario Benavides might be the most well-known player on the UL offensive line, but Kupper is the Cardinals' most consistent blocker. Kupper won three state championships as a Louisville prep before walking onto his hometown team. It took two years before he saw the field, but he's developed into a dependable starter at left tackle (also has played center). While he lacks ideal length and athletic ability to project there in the pros, Kupper understands leverage, positioning and angles, and is a heady, assignment-sound player who is rarely beat. In pass protection, he shows good balance to sit in his stance, as well as hand placement and the ability shuffle and slide. That said, he's short-armed when it comes to locking up inside counter moves off the initial outside rush by quicker defensive ends. He's not a mauler or nasty finisher, as he's limited on explosive body power and could stand to play with heavier hands. Additionally, his contact balance and sustain deteriorate on the second level. A try-hard overachiever, Kupper compensates for average size and physical ability with technique and outstanding football intelligence — has good eyes and awareness in the trenches is reported to have coach-like conceptual understanding of the game. Kupper doesn't have a high profile, but has traits to stick as a positional, short-area, bump-and-steer zone blocker, perhaps in the mold of a poor man's Andy Levitre. Kupper and the Cardinals take on Cincinnati — minus defensive end Walter Stewart — Friday night on ESPN.